BY HANNAH THIESSEN // I truly believe that most people have a passion for the environment. Regardless of how you feel about climate change or the politics of going green, I would wager that most humans around the world have had at least one outdoor experience they found enjoyable. Whether this means long hikes and biking on deserted trails, a car trip through the mountains, a summer camp memory in your childhood or a long day at the beach, people find intrinsic value in beautiful landscapes. We find solace in the reality of ever-present nature around us: We look for homes nestled in greenery, are delighted at the appearance of a rare, bright bird each Spring, and dream of vacations that often feature unknown-to-us plants and locations. If you have ever experienced the loss of a place you’ve loved (perhaps through a tourism boom, construction or natural disaster), you know all too well the importance of preservation: In your own way, your heart has urged you towards making small changes in your own life in order to affect larger changes in the lives of others.
One of the ways that Karen discusses preservation here on the Fringe Association blog is through sustainable garment choices. There are endless ways to apply preservation principles: mending, thrifting, upcycling, hand-making and sharing are just a few. As a knitter, one of my favorite ways to support sustainable garment making is through buying traceable fibers. While I have fallen in love (madly, madly in love) with many beautiful yarns in my decades of knitting, I have recently committed to the idea that if the maker of these yarns will not (or cannot) tell me where they come from, I should not keep buying them. My dollars instead will go to companies willing to be transparent about their supply chain and how their products are impacting the environment — knowledge is power in the hands of knitters.
This doesn’t mean that I knit exclusively with “farm yarns.” While I adore a wonderfully rustic, sheepy wool, I also often find myself craving the sleek and fashionable, comfortable and soft. When a company can combine fashion with transparency, I feel that they’ve hit the “sweet spot.” Such is the case with Wool and the Gang, a fashion knitting company that supports uncomplicated, accessible making, and has made a splash, bringing new knitters into the fold with fun, fast projects and a variety of squishy yarns. Packed in trendy, branded kits and wrapped with recycled paper labels, their goods are the gateway drug of knitting. I cannot count how many kits walk out the door of our local shop in hands that eagerly return, ready to try a new project a few weeks later. While bulky yarns and quick projects have overtones of fast fashion, the reality of Wool and the Gang’s yarn line is based on the idea that by understanding how things are made, we can see more intrinsic value in those made by others.
Jade Harwood, one of the co-founders of Wool in the Gang, is the perfect example of this idea. She learned to knit as many other knitters do, from a relative at a young age. In making miniature outfits for her toys, she embraced her love of making, specifically garment-making, and set herself on the path towards becoming a fashion designer. At 14, inspired by fellow British designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, she focused her attention on the dream of someday attending Central St. Martins, a London-based college with a world-renowned fashion program. While in attendance years later, she met Aurelie Popper working for a summer at Balmain. (Yes, the Balmain!) After finishing school, they combined efforts with Lisa Sabrier. The three shared a mutual love for building a fashion brand with a soul, a message that could make knitting accessible for a new generation.
The kit concept developed out of breaking down what was hard about learning: super simple introductions, chunky wool and large stitches, paired with online video tutorials. By slowing down and making your basics, they worked to counteract fast fashion by helping people learn new skills. They created a community, the ‘Gang’ part of their name, to support, encourage and connect knitters of all skill levels and ages. They believed that the first step to sustainable fashion was helping people identify with the person behind their garments: in this case, themselves. By pulling back the glossy, magazine layers of fashion, they revealed the truth below — people make things, and it’s possible for all people to make things.
Of course, sustainable goes so far beyond just the act of making. It is about materials. Since day one, the team of Wool and the Gang worked to be conscientious of the environmental issues being caused by mass-produced fashion. While wool is intrinsically considered a sustainable fiber, they wanted to break the mold and introduced yarns that could make even more of an impact on consumer waste.
Heal the Wool expands upon the sustainability of wool by utilizing the leftovers from their existing yarn mill in Peru. 100% recycled wool, it began with the process of gathering six tons of waste fiber that would otherwise have gone into a landfill. Through careful blending and sorting to create colors, they avoided the use of dyes, saving 48,000 liters of water and giving these leftovers a second life. Billie Jean, a denim yarn, is made using upcycled, pre-consumer denim waste — leftovers from denim production in the fashion industry. The waste is ground into fiber and woven into yarn without chemicals or dyes, saving 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material. Wool and the Gang will also introduce a new sustainable yarn this summer, using eucalyptus tree fibers.
One of the toughest questions I ask of any yarn company is about outsourcing. A delicate subject in this industry, outsourcing is often about cost, and comes with a variety of concerning environmental impacts all its own: shipping, exports and questionable mill standards for workers. Often, our views of international fiber production are colored by the horror stories of sweatshop factories and child labor in developing countries. I was worried that this British based company was making a sustainable product, but at the cost of their own domestic wool production (in case you aren’t aware, the UK is having a seriously exciting moment right now with native wools — more on that in a future column!) I was pleasantly surprised by Jade’s answer to my questions about why they’ve chosen to take their production overseas: It is more environmentally sound to have a yarn milled where it is grown.
Peru is the source of the highland wool and alpaca used in Wool and the Gang’s yarns. With ample farming land and a mill partner who is actively involved in the sourcing and invested in the success of Peruvian farmers, it was not a stretch to work within the country to create yarns that embraced the history and tradition of South American wools. Beyond this, the mill they work with can handle the scale of their production, but is also passionate about offering innovative choices, as evidenced by the unique yarns Wool and the Gang is able to commission. That said, Jade and her partners are exploring the possibilities of adding a ‘Brit Wool’ to the pack, and are already dreaming up pun-based names!
In the spirit of this fresh-faced, exciting company, I asked how Wool and the Gang encourages knitters to make a start on the path of sustainable making. Jade suggests recycling yarns that you have, and points towards a recent blog post for the Gang’s top tips on how to help the environment – I am particularly interested in The Uniform Project.
As for my own thoughts on the subject? I’m going to continue on my mission to share sustainable, accessible, interesting and affordable yarns with you here. In the same way that preserved nature is available to all, I believe that it’s possible to find knit-worthy yarns at all price points and preferences, from the hands of farmers or behind the sleek label of a fashion brand.
Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits
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Photos © Wool and the Gang; used with permission