Knitters don't give stash away easily. If you are offered something, be it wool, angora, or alpaca, take it.
That knitter knows you'll need it someday. (This, of course, doesn't apply to acrylic. Run from acrylic.)
~Rachael Herron, How to Knit a Love Song (also appearing in How to Knit a Heart Back Home)
A haughty disdain for man-made fibers is, sadly, not uncommon among the knitterati. I read snippets like this and cast a glance at the Vanna's Choice and Wool-Ease hats adorning my coat-rack, issuing a silent apology to Lion Brand for momentarily thinking any less of their workhorse acrylics and acrylic blends.
Would I love to never knit from anything but 100% natural fibers ever again? Sure! I'm an Oregonian - sustainability is practically a religion out here, as is supporting small, local businesses. I'm well aware that acrylic yarns are probably not very biodegradable. I'm also aware that shopping at stores like JoAnn and Michael's undermines the local yarn stores. I once had a dream of being an LYS owner myself, even took a business class, until I quickly and rather depressingly realized that boutique retail just can't compete, and most, if not all of these stores are struggling desperately to stay open.
And this is because, #1 on my list in defense of acrylic, WOOL IS EXPENSIVE. And that's just basic sheep's wool. Once you get into the gourmet wools - merino, alpaca, cashmere, and non-wool animal fibers like angora and silk - the prices get prohibitive to anyone but the most sporadic knitter with oodles of disposable income. For someone like me, someone raising a family on one income, someone who knits almost every day, the thought of shelling out $25 a skein is just alarming and impossible.
What about the non-animal natural fibers? Cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo? These can be somewhat less expensive than animal fibers (not always), but at a serious cost to texture, stretch, and drape. Cotton is heavy. Linen and hemp are stiff. Bamboo is lovely but often has to be blended with something else to keep it strong. None of them are ideal choices for sweaters, scarves, winter hats, or baby blankets. They are mostly relegated to washcloths and other housewares, or spring and summer tank-top and tee-shirt type projects.
The major advantage of plant fibers over wool, it seems, is that they can be worn by pretty much anyone without any skin irritation. Which brings me to #2 on my list: WOOL IS ITCHY. Not for everyone, not even the majority of people, I think, but there are plenty of people who simply cannot have wool touching their skin. It ranges from actual wool allergy (which must suck) to a merely mild sensitivity. My mom, while not allergic, has a severe sensitivity. Even the softest superwash merino or alpaca will make her itch like crazy. Her one exception is cashmere, but can we say, hello, thousand dollar sweater?
Now, not all acrylics are created equal. I understand that when they first flooded the market in the 70's or thereabouts, they were pretty hideous. They were plasticky, even squeaky. If you have ever worked with squeaky yarn, you know what I'm talking about. It's shudder-inducing. Some major acrylic yarn purveyors have never really improved. Red Heart, I'm looking at you. Red Heart Supersaver is pretty much the cheapest and the most horrible non-novelty yarn you can find. I only recommend Supersaver as yarn you don't mind wasting when you are first learning how to knit.
But these days, there are countless beautiful, soft, springy acrylics and acrylic blends in a wide range of gorgeous colors. They are machine washable. True, they don't block - even with aggressive steaming, you may never get your pieces to lie perfectly flat, but there are things you can look for in a pattern that indicate less of a need for blocking. They are affordable, breathable, warm, versatile, and best of all, they can be worn by almost anyone. I know it's possible to be allergic to pretty much anything, but in my experience, a sensitivity to synthetic fibers is way less common than one to wool, so it's a much safer bet for gift-giving. Lion Brand, widely available at any big box craft store, makes most of my favorites, and I carefully ignore their less desirable offerings - the cascades of abominably tacky novelty yarns. Knit Picks is another great supplier, and although their synthetic pickings are limited to Comfy and Brava, their yarns are consistently high quality and low price, in my experience. Also, they wouldn't touch novelty yarn with a ten foot needle.
Synthetic yarn is not evil. Sometimes, it's your best choice when you consider the project type and recipient. A machine washable baby blanket, a warm cardigan for someone with wool allergies. Just don't make them out of Fun Fur. Please. And if you can, when you can, support your local yarn store!
Oh and by the way, even though the above Rachael Herron quote makes me sad, her books are adorable. She writes cute romances with lots of knitting between the steamy sex scenes. I advise you to check out her works, if you're into that kind of thing. ;)