Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // Knitting can happen to anyone, at any time — with needles, yarn and lessons or tutorials readily available online, in local yarn stores, or even stashed away forgotten in a closet. Animal husbandry, agricultural science and managing a working farm, on the other hand, are huge undertakings, yet it seems like new shepherds and wool farmers are emerging every year, taking hobby flocks’ wool to the market under their own label, or selling to other small businesses. This small-to-small model is what makes a large farm like Cestari (est. 1946) — run by Francis Chester, whose extended family had been farmers in Italy — all the more exceptional. Cestari has become one of the largest and strongest wool producers in the US, and it’s pretty unbelievable to think that it all started in Brooklyn with a boy whose dream was to own livestock. He began with a small farm stand, selling goat-milk products and home-grown vegetables at ten years old. He used the money to put himself through law school — not a passion project, but a backup plan that would prove fruitful later in life. He has since put the law degree to use helping small farms retain their holdings in the face of big businesses seeking to take advantage of tough times.

Chester and his wife relocated to Virginia in 1968, where they fulfilled his life-long dream of owning a larger farm. Augusta County, just outside Lynchburg, is idyllic countryside, complete with the type of rocky soil that sheep tend to love. Chester has also made room on his farm for a less mobile fiber: cotton. Cotton comes with a wide variety of challenges and concerns. Soil depletion is a major impact of the industry as cotton pulls nitrates out of soil at an alarming rate, and has to be rotated to avoid stripping farmland entirely. (You can read more about cotton production and challenges in this wonderful article from Seamwork.)

Luckily, Virginia soil is ideal for a nutrient-rich, underground product that has proven to be the perfect pairing for cotton: peanuts. Cestari Farms work to crop rotate every acre of land dedicated to their cotton product with peanuts in order to keep the soil in good condition and avoid the pitfalls often associated with its production. The resulting lightweight, soft cottons in their 100% Cotton Old Dominion Collection are grown, processed, spun and dyed in their own mill facilities, which means the family is comfortable and familiar with the process and can answer questions and concerns from their customer base with confidence.

Perhaps better known than their cottons are Cestari’s wools. Having started with his own small flock of Targhee and Columbia sheep, Chester felt that the processing of the wool was just as integral to its quality as the growing. In 1969, he and his wife added a mill business to their farm business. They wanted to preserve their wool’s hard-wearing softness over time by not removing too much of the lanolin — a natural oil that sheep produce, which is often removed from wool and sold as a side product to the cosmetic industry. Wools processed at their mill are all scoured gently, not carbonized (an acid burning process that is used frequently in wool production). While Cestari’s Traditional yarn lines tend to have a bit more vegetable matter in the wool, they have a higher lanolin content and the wool retains more of its natural crimp, softness and spirit. When I met Mr. Chester during his recent visit to Nashville, I was impressed by a sweater he was wearing and asked if it was new. He laughed, and said that it was almost two decades old — the lanolin in Cestari wools protects the fibers and increases their longevity, which results in better-looking finished garments over time. Cestari garments can truly be the heirloom pieces that so many knitters intend to make.

As the demand for Cestari wools grew, so did Chester’s network of farmers and farms. He began carefully sourcing wool from other US producers, allowing them to keep doing what they loved, raising high-quality sheep and fleeces. His faith in the domestic textile industry is contagious — listening to him speak about his projects infects you with a desire to cast on and begin knitting something exceptional.

What I find most special about Cestari is not just that they are domestic producers who care about the wool industry, but that they have been able to expand in such a big way and still retain the intrinsic values of their company. In fact, Mr. Chester told me during his visit that they are intending to expand into textile industry education, with a new project on the horizon: a museum on their Virginia property that will show the history of American textile production to the modern day, which is sure to inspire countless future knitters.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative and 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

Origin Stories: Cestari Yarns

PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm

Francis Chester/family photos © Cestari; used with permission / yarn photo Hannah Thiessen for Fringe Association

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Katrina and I were first discussing this column and comparing notes, one of the people we both had on our shortlist was Sonya Philip, who was a big influence on me when I began knitting and sewing again a few years ago. Not surprisingly, Sonya was apparently also on the radar of my friends over at Mason-Dixon Knitting, where she was recently announced as their newest columnist. Go, Sonya!
—Karen

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // It’s a pleasure to introduce friend, artist, maker and homemade-wardrobe icon Sonya Philip of 100 Acts of Sewing. I’ve known Sonya for several years, and her work and personhood are true examples of the intertwining of one’s passions with their values, lifestyle and work. Sonya’s homemade wardrobe is inspiration for so many of us who sew, stitch, knit, crochet or otherwise make clothing, but this inspiration was also always present in our San Francisco Bay Area outings and adventures. Whether we were meeting for lunch, walking our kids and dogs around the neighborhood, gathering with other artists for meals or backyard dye parties, I always felt inspired by Sonya’s aesthetic but also by her outlook, opinion, influences and the way she generally shows up with open arms to make this world a more beautiful and encouraging space.

There’s a depth to her work as an artist and maker that stems from her very center as a human — her work, her home, her writing, her inspirations and her very being all seem to align towards an intentional and thoughtful compass that guides her forward. The 100 Acts of Sewing project retains its authenticity and influence as the outcomes shift from Sonya’s personal wardrobe to her classes, patterns and public offerings. On a practical note, Sonya’s dress patterns are some of my personal favorites. They are simultaneously stylish and simple, and yet they allow for an assortment of design choices that shift the entire garment — bright pockets on the Dress No.1 and a contrasting binding make for a very different dress than sticking to just one fabric for bodice, pockets and neckline. These choices, of course, are left to the individual maker.

It’s a great honor to share Sonya’s story and her wisdom in this series: Her steadfast commitment to honoring our bodies, our wardrobes and our journey as creatives is a testament to what slow fashion can achieve inside and outside of our wardrobes. Sonya’s version is grounded, inspired, authentic, and her wholehearted vision feels like a balm to the messages we typically receive from the fashion world. In Sonya’s version there is not just a beautiful homemade dress and a coordinating shawl but there’s a healthier, happier and more confident human underneath.

. . .

Hello, my friend. Taking your 100 Acts of Sewing workshop was such a pivotal moment early in my slow-fashion journey. Even though I’d made garments in high school and college, your gentle approach to sewing and discerning patterns was such welcomed encouragement. I get the feeling I’m not your only student who feels this way. Can you give us a brief overview of the 100 Acts of Sewing project? When did it start and how did it shift from a yearlong project to an ongoing endeavor including teaching and design?

I learned to use a sewing machine in middle school and it seemed as if each sewing project from that point on resulted in an unwearable botch job of cloth and tangled thread. My love for textiles found an outlet when I learned how to knit in my early twenties. Then in 2007, I joined a Flickr group called wardrobe_remix. It was started up by Tricia Royal as a place for people from around the world to share what they were wearing, from handmade, ready-to-wear, to upcycled or thrifted pieces. Taking photos of myself and sharing them made me think about what I was wearing and what I liked to wear in a way I really hadn’t up until that point.

Even though I failed at many attempts to sew garments, I had some success at refashioning some long linen thrift store dresses. Finally, at the urging of Kristine Vejar, I took a pattern-drafting class with Cal Patch at A Verb for Keeping Warm. A week later, I had drafted a pattern and made three dresses. That was late January 2012. After it became clear sewing dresses was all I wanted to do, I decided to turn it into a project — making dresses for myself and others, and documenting the process by posting photos online.

What I wanted, because I was making dresses for all different women of all different sizes, was a basic template. For me, the pleasure wasn’t so much in the construction but in combining the patterns and colors. I approached each dress like a fabric collage. I started teaching classes and, because of the response from people seeing my dresses, released my first pattern in the spring of 2013.

I love your approach to garments. I love your sewing patterns and simple lines but also your personal aesthetic, use of fabrics, and that your garments can really be layered to create an entire wardrobe. On your website you say, “The pattern consists of just four seams and a hem. The simplicity of the design makes it accessible, meaning people leave [workshops] with an identifiable end-product and an important sense of accomplishment.” Do you draft all your patterns with this guiding principle of four seams and a hem? Do you consciously take this firm minimalist approach when designing so the patterns remain accessible?

What I strive to do in all of my patterns is really distill a garment to its most basic form. I do this very purposefully, making a pattern appropriate for a complete beginner, but then someone with a little more experience can modify it to make it their own. Before I started 100 Acts of Sewing, I would periodically wrestle with my sewing machine, fabric and a commercial pattern. Those patterns always seemed to have about two dozen different pieces and one would invariably get lost or put in upside down.

I bring all those memories of frustration to the way I design patterns. I make a garment over and over again until I’ve made all the mistakes and I’m confident I can clearly walk a person through the construction. While seams and darts are wonderful for shaping, they also add a level of complexity that a lot of people aren’t ready for, especially when they are just getting used to operating a sewing machine.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

You and I have talked quite a bit about perfectionism — about how it works as a roadblock in so many creative pursuits. And yet, we’ve both shared our appreciation and admiration for incredible craftsmanship. But I think there’s something to overcoming fear of making a mistake that you address beautifully in your workshops and your work. Can you talk about perfectionism?

I think there’s an ingrained rigidity which appears to take over once we leave school. It’s as if children spend all these years being receptive to learning and then the tolerance to being a beginner declines sharply. Much of sewing is about rote learning, getting better at doing something incrementally by doing the same thing over and over again.

Our collective patience grows more and more thin as each new app and device makes waiting for things obsolete. It’s as if the involvement of a machine increases this expectation for instant results. While the mechanization does produce faster results, it is still a tool. We tend to see mistakes as personal failings, rather than necessary steps on the path towards proficiency. I tell my students to laugh at their mistakes.

What started out as a personal project to teach yourself to sew has become something of a political statement against fast fashion and against the underlying messaging in mainstream fashion or overconsumption. Your project encourages us to make our clothes, love our bodies, and define our own personal style. You write, “When we know how to sew with our own hands, we can make and remake and make well. We become more discerning of our goods and create the possibility of rejecting mass produced items.” Did you intend the project to have this political message when you first began?

100 Acts of Sewing started out with just so much joy, I was doing something I had convinced myself I could not do, and then to find out otherwise was thrilling and I couldn’t stop. So in the beginning it was really just a giddy rush of creativity, and that started to fold into my worldview — one of supporting indie makers and small businesses. But in actuality, it was pretty easy for me to step off the fast-fashion train, because it really wasn’t something that I was on in the first place. Having a larger body size most of the clothes in stores didn’t fit me, so most of my shopping was already done in thrift stores. I was coming from a place where my needs were already under-served.

You write so beautifully, “Alternately encouraged by and excoriated by the media, women in the US forge a deep discontentment with their bodies that leads many on a constant search for clothes that alter appearance.” Can you talk about this media effect? And how your work is something of an antidote or balm?

This is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. It’s not just the media — I feel that the media just amplifies a lot of the messages. Women are judged by how they look and what is considered beautiful at this given moment. Oftentimes the value is based upon someone else’s judgment. It takes individual thought and desire out of the picture and discounts them. Consequently the quest for external validation is incredibly insidious. It makes getting dressed a very fraught experience, filled with the anxiety of not being enough, whether thin enough, young enough or any number of harmful self-judgments.

Dressing for your true self is in effect creating agency with the pleasure derived from how the clothes make a person feel, be it by the cut of the garment, the color or material. All of these choices are in the hands of the maker rather than handed over wholesale to another, unknown person.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

We tend to put such an emphasis on formal education but sometimes we forget that informal education is just as important if not more influential. Although you’re self-taught as an artist and designer I believe your father was an architect and your mother was an interior designer. Do you think this access to arts and design at home influenced your thinking as a child and even as an adult? Meaning, do you think this informal training acted as a form of early arts education for your current design work?

I travelled a lot with my family, and every trip would involve stops into museums, churches or castles. I think it absolutely taught me to look and notice things. I find myself always pointing things out to my kids and in turn they show me things. That act of noticing and describing is really important to me, that way we interact and process the physical world around us. Observing what we find pleasing is a way of developing our own tastes.

You and I also have this other random connection that we went to the same MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College, although we graduated in different years. Do you think this parallel study of writing and poetry somehow influenced your work in fashion and craft? I sometimes think that training in any creative medium allows for a certain exploration, deepening of engagement, attainment to details, and ultimately creating a toolset of inquiry, critical thinking, observation and experimentation that can be adapted to other art forms. While you didn’t formally study design you formally studied poetry — do you think there’s a link between the two?

What I learned with poetry was the importance of developing a practice, as well as using a series as a means to construct a larger body of work. My poems, like my artwork, are very small, and grouping them together to create a larger and more sustained piece was a big Eureka moment. From my education as a whole, I loved being an undergraduate — each new course catalog was a packed full of possibility. I am thankful that I was able to take so many classes in many different subjects and really feel there was opportunity for a cross-pollination of ideas among them.

Your work sits at this intersection between fine art, traditional craft, fashion, social practice and contemporary design, but it also sits in the larger community of Slow Fashion. Can you name 3-5 leaders in the movement that you find the most inspiring right now?

For me, Cal Patch is the godmother of 100 Acts of Sewing — without her gentle guidance I would still be convinced I couldn’t sew. Another person I gain lots of inspiration from is Tom van Deijnen and his Visible Mending Programme. His care and attention to detail just blows me away. Lastly, if you haven’t looked through the photos of Kate Fletcher’s Craft of Use project, you need to set aside a few hours to look through this incredible site.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Sonya Philip

Looking outside of Slow Fashion at your earlier and ongoing work in fine arts, fiber arts and poetry, can you name 3-5 artists, authors or poets who continuously inspire your work in Slow Fashion?

I am enjoying both the fiction and nonfiction work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — she writes so eloquently about feminism as well as the experiences of immigrants. Another person is the artist David Ireland, after visiting his house at 500 Capp Street, I was in complete awe of his work, this embodiment of social practice. Lastly Ruth Asawa is inspiring to me as a hometown artist, but also as someone who worked to create an arts program in local public schools when the budgets were cut. I greatly admire balancing those roles of artist, activist and mother.

And lastly, three creative tools you could not live without?

I could not live without a notebook and a pen — I am always writing lists or jotting down thoughts. Also I would be pretty lost without a sewing machine!

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

Photos © Sonya Philip, used with permission

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Army Green + Elsewhere

Army Green Porter Bin! + Elsewhere links

So the big news of the day is that the much anticipated army-green Porter Bin is finally in the shop this morning! To everyone who snatched them up at Squam last week, thank you for your enthusiasm! To everyone who’s been emailing and asking and pleading to preorder, thank you for your patience! This is a limited batch but we do expect to have more in the not-too-distant future. I don’t have any more specifics than that at the moment, but for now what we do have is there for the ordering — further news when I have it!

UPDATE: It was a quick feeding frenzy on the army green stash but they’re NOT GONE! Remember our shopping cart expires after 10 minutes, so as long as there’s still an Army Green option in the dropdown, it’s not sold out and there’s a chance it will exprire out of some of those carts. So if you get the message that they’re all in somebody else’s cart, just check back after 10 minutes. They’re not gone as long as it’s still an option in the dropdown.

And with that, a bit of long-overdue Elsewhere

– I failed to note that last Saturday was Knit in Public Day — you were doing it anyway, right?

Knitting as wartime esionage tool (thx Leigh and Jess!)

I love Felicia’s check-in on how Stash Less has changed her

Colorwork meets street art

And tilework begging to be colorwork

The Sewbots are coming! (so many mixed feelings about this)

“Reknitting” gives me a lot to think about

For anyone considering sewing their own bras

– Has anyone tried the Good On You app?

Or pondered the deeper meaning of Mr. Rogers’ cardigan colors?

Love this history of Rowan (and hence of the knitting world of today)

Kate Davies’ open letter to the Shetland Islands Council makes me sad (Signed, future Heritage Tourist)

A spot of craft-room organization inspiration

Yes to crochet appliqué logowear

Yes to one-of-a-kind dresses from scraps (and also to bespoke leftover quilts)

– AND … #growyourownmarl is my new favorite hashtag

Have an amazing weekend! Hope to see you on the #summerofbasics feed.

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PREVIOUSLY: New Field Bag + Elsewhere

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Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // There is so much to love about the clothing label Elizabeth Suzann it’s dizzying to know where to begin. The obvious entry point might be the beautiful lines and subtle geometric shapes of her garments that push these classic designs into cutting-edge contemporary minimalism but somehow beckon to the studio artist and the professional urbanite simultaneously. (Just look at that oversized diagonal pocket on the beloved Harper Tunic for solid proof.) Or maybe it’s the beautiful natural fibers, ranging from linen to silk to wool in the most delicious neutral colors, and how they effortlessly combine with other garments in her collections to make the dream wardrobe for linen-loving minimalists everywhere.

But if the designs and fibers didn’t immediately win you over, just scratch the surface of designer and owner Liz Pape’s ethical fashion philosophy — why she offers a living wage to all of her employees; how she’s kept her operations under one Nashville TN roof; that she sources beautiful biodegradable fibers, refuses to follow the traditional seasonal collections of the fashion world and instead makes three collections for all months and seasons (Signature, Warm Weather, Cold Weather). Then start reading her blog. Just start with any post. Just dive in with any question about why she creates clothing the way she does — and, yes, why she needs to charge the prices she charges — and I promise even the toughest critics among you will feel a quiver of light and hope in your Slow Fashion-leaning heart.

If you still aren’t convinced, take four more minutes to watch the video for the Diversity Campaign because it’s the best thing I’ve seen in fashion videos, maybe ever. What designers go this far to connect with their customers and to let their brand be defined by the actual community of humans supporting this important work? So much love. So much celebration. So much connection, all through clothes that are made with intention and worn with pride. Swoon.

I’ve loved Elizabeth Suzann for a few years but sharing her story in this series made me an official Fan Girl. If I could give Liz Pape the Gold Star of Contemporary Ethical Designers, I’d hand it over in two seconds flat. I can’t think of another fashion label that I’d rather support in all their efforts to create a more ethical and ecological fashion future. Liz Pape is the real deal and she’s raising the standards for designers and consumers alike.

. . .

Welcome, Liz. I admire your designs and your work ethos so much, and it’s truly an honor to be able to share your story. To get started can you just tell us about the beginnings of Elizabeth Suzann? When did you launch? What was your impetus for creating an ethical clothing brand?

I launched Elizabeth Suzann in late 2013. It was a very organic thing – I didn’t have this big concept or pitch or business plan. My husband and I moved to Nashville right after I finished undergrad so he could attend law school, and I was in a kind of limbo for a year. I was planning on pursuing grad school (studying art history), so I was taking some time to look at schools and make a game plan. I had sewn in college and made money on the side that way. I reevaluated what I was making, really simplified things aesthetically and thought hard about what I wanted to make, worked on my pattern drafting skills, and experimented with different textile techniques. I took a very small selection of pieces to a local craft fair – Porter Flea – and everything did really well there. After that weekend I realized there was some actual potential here, and I started taking things seriously.

I got a business license, did all of that jazz, and started selling online in addition to traveling to craft shows in cities like Brooklyn, Chicago and Austin. Customers I met at craft fairs would come back and order from my Etsy shop, and shortly after I had enough online business that I stopped doing the shows. I moved off Etsy to a standalone site, and we just kept rolling from there. I think it was a few months between that first craft show and moving into my first studio, in the back of a gym downtown. I was doing everything myself (design, drafting, sourcing, cutting/sewing, packing/shipping, support, web design, photography — all of it) in the beginning, but I brought on an intern, then hired a part-time seamstress, and another — it just kind of happened one step at a time.

In regards to starting an ethical clothing brand, I don’t really look at it that way. I started Elizabeth Suzann because I was making things I loved; things that I thought had value. The way that I made those things was just the way that made sense to me. There wasn’t a decision point where I chose to “launch an ethical brand.” I try to do the right thing whenever I have the opportunity to make a decision, and the result of many decisions like that is a responsible business. In the beginning I did think really hard about the choice to add physical products to the world. I knew that to feel comfortable bringing consumable things into existence, they would need to be damn good, and they would need to be made in a way that I feel good about. I have no interest in being one of many, in producing products you can buy elsewhere. I have no interest in being ordinary or adding detritus to an already detritus-filled world.

Your designs are timeless and classic, and yet they have this compelling contemporary edge. Your website says, “We seek classic silhouettes that are still modern, with style that transcends time and place.” Was this minimalist approach at the center of your brand from the beginning? Meaning, did you set out to create clothing that was somehow both classic and contemporary?

I think the seeds of it were there in the beginning. When I first started selling clothing in college, it was ridiculous. It was all incredibly kitsch, bright, printed – lots of vintage inspired things, lots of lace and trim and excess. It was popular with the college crowd, and it was what I was wearing at the time. But I never felt like myself in garments like that – I always felt like I was wearing a costume. That’s still how I feel about a lot of color, or anything too “of a style.” So when we moved to Nashville and I started working on that first little collection for Porter Flea, I tried really hard to get to the root of why I never felt comfortable in my clothes. I found that the images that really resonated with me as a person and the things I felt most comfortable in were the simplest ones. Denim, white cotton, blacks and creams. Basic button downs, well-fitting pants.

This kind of light bulb went off, and I realized that I was trying so hard to express myself with all of this color and noise and complicated shape, but in reality I was drowning my identity. I began to appreciate the challenge of communicating more with less. I think the first year of ES I was still figuring this out and navigating my relationship with color and shape. (I am naturally drawn to exciting, loud things and still love this in others’ work – I just knew it wouldn’t be my highest point of contribution.) I think I really hit my stride aesthetically at about year two, in 2015. The sustainability of simplicity is huge to me as well – you will get exponentially more wear out of a garment that feels timeless and can pair with anything than you’ll get out of that beautiful but highly particular printed blouse.

I admit, I first fell in love with your silhouettes, but I was really sold on your use of natural materials. Since beginning my Slow Fashion project in 2013, I’ve become very interested in the fibers used to make my clothing. Your designs use the most beautiful natural fibers like linens, silks and wools. How do you go about choosing your fibers and fabrics? Which one is your personal favorite?

Natural fibers are so divine. Sometimes it’s hard to describe to someone who isn’t familiar with textiles why natural fibers are so wonderful, but it’s one of those things you can’t ever go back on once you’ve fallen in love with them. As a teenager and early twentysomething, I couldn’t tell the difference between polyester and silk. But I did know that all of those poly-chiffon tops I wore made me incredibly sweaty, and they looked great on the hanger but always fell flat when I put them on. I somehow ended up with a silk blouse in my closet from a thrift store, and it just felt so different. It felt alive; it felt luminous. It was comfortable and soft, and complemented my skin. Now I can’t unsee the difference — I can spot polyester, nylon and viscose from a mile away. Silk and linen have been my favorite fabrics from the beginning. Silk for it’s luxurious and unbridled beauty (the subtle sheen, unbelievable movement) and linen for it’s durability, rustic but elegant aesthetic, and complete comfort. I added in cottons and wools where we needed them for pants, coats, etc., but linen and silk will always be our core. I really love fabric and enjoy getting to the bottom of the source to make sure we’re using the best product possible. Last year we developed a new wool supply chain with an incredible ranch in Oregon, and I’d like to go that far down the supply chain with each fiber, one by one. When designing products now, I always start with fabric first. I review swatches, order sample yardage and test wash a few yards. Then I can start looking at silhouettes and get a feel for where the fabric will serve best.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

So your designs are incredible, your fibers are beautiful, but your work ethos really melted my heart. When I read the post about your transparent budget — when you shared your costs on the Artist Smock and showed blog readers your actual profit — I was hooked. I so appreciated this cost breakdown and your thoughtful approach. Were you nervous to show these figures? Did you think it might dissuade costumers in some way? Sharing finances can seem so private.

Thank you! That was definitely a scary piece to write. As I’m sure so many of you are familiar with, the price of high quality, ethically produced clothing made with good materials is a sensitive subject. Some shoppers feel that prices are astronomically high, some think they are fair, others are willing to pay it but think that companies like ours must be rolling in cash. I felt a need to kind of clear the air and get our story out in the open. I am really proud of our business, the unique way we manufacture things, the opportunities we’re able to provide for our staff, and the products we make. I don’t ever want there to be any confusion or doubt surrounding the way we run our business. I was really nervous to share real numbers, primarily because private companies almost never publish that kind of information. I was bracing myself for a lot of negative feedback, but it never came. It was our most popular piece of content ever, and customers really appreciated the concrete, no-frills information. I think brands can get so caught up dancing around the truth, trying to present things in a way that customers will understand. That is exhausting, and customers are smart. Telling the truth in a non-watered down, non-salesy way resonates really well with our audience.

I imagine there are plenty of hurdles in running a sustainable fashion brand but could you tell us about one of your biggest challenges to date? I imagine sometimes just finding time to sleep might be the week’s biggest hurdle, no?

Ha — I think you are right on. We’ve certainly had our fair share of unexpected challenges, and every day is an exercise in fire-fighting and rapid problem solving. But I think the longest, hardest hurdle I’ve encountered is figuring out how to not always be working. The growth and never-ending pace is exhilarating, but also a recipe for burnout. Our team is incredible though, and this year we’ve seen staff really step up, which has brought a bit more balance to my life.

Slow Fashion Citizen: Liz Pape of Elizabeth Suzann

And then, what’s been the biggest reward in running a Slow Fashion company? Because I think your work is SO important, but I wonder what you think is the most satisfying aspect.

I think the biggest reward has been seeing and hearing our customers and staff articulate our vision in their own words. That feeling that others are really understanding and believing in what you’re doing — and also feel invested in it on their own — is incredibly fulfilling. It’s like our mission has a life of its own, and it resonates a bit differently with everyone, which is magical.

In my opinion, your work is some of the most exciting work in fashion design right now. But I’d love to know what you think: Who do you think are the most exciting Slow Fashion designers creating work today? Could you name a few of the folks you think are truly at the forefront?

Han Starnes is a local favorite. She has such impressive aesthetic discipline — she never puts out any work that doesn’t perfectly align with her vision and perspective. I admire that so much, and wish I had a bit more restraint. She uses absolutely divine fibers, and manufactures things in a very careful and intentional way.

Alabama Chanin is one of the icons here — they have taken slow fashion to the next level. Their hand-stitched pieces are literal works of art, made by a team of artisans in Florence, Alabama. All organic cottons, all beautiful silhouettes from the mind of Natalie Chanin. She’s also created such a strong community around the brand — I love the whole ecosystem there.

Your Diversity Campaign made me love your work even more. I watched the video of the selected customer-models visiting for the photo shoot and I was actually teary by the end. There was so much joy and connection in that room! Did you expect it to be so moving?

We absolutely did not expect it to be so moving. I was incredibly excited about the project, and of course had high hopes for it, but man I was totally unprepared for the emotion and strength in that room. Meeting the women who embody the spirit of the brand, hearing how our clothing has impacted their lives, watching them be both vulnerable and strong in front of each other and the camera — it was incredible. It felt like summer camp, and we all left with a group of friends for life. It was so powerful and meaningful both for our customers to get this immersive, personal experience with the brand, and for our team to get this immersive, personal experience with the women we serve. Epic.

Okay, top three creative tools you couldn’t live without?

1 – My iPhone. I know that’s probably awful! But seriously, I take notes all day long (I send myself emails with thoughts all day long — by the end of the day my inbox is a mess), screenshot images that inspire me, and use it to stay connected with our customers. Our business would be very different without this device!

2 – A good, fresh pen.

3 – A blank bulletin board. I just can’t get that into Pinterest, I need to see things physically, on a large scale. Old school mood boards all the way.

Lastly, advice you’d offer to emerging fashion designers interested in sustainable and ethical fashion? Any tips or encouraging words you might lend to someone who is just starting out?

Don’t be afraid to take risks, but more importantly don’t be afraid to work your ass off. This isn’t the exciting, magic trick advice most people hope for, but I truly believe that what separates most successful businesses from those that never get off the ground is sheer effort. The product must be great, the process must be great, but those two things alone won’t cut it. You have to be willing to put everything into it. The encouraging flip-side is that, if you’re willing to put in the effort, I’m pretty confident you can do just about anything. Focus on filling a need, find an original way to contribute to the conversation, find your unique perspective — that is where you’ll add value. Don’t try to cash in on an idea that’s already saturating the market — you’ll just be playing perpetual catch-up. Trust your instincts, do the right thing, and you’ll be fine.

. . .

Thank you so much for joining us, Liz. It really is an honor to share your story in this series. Your commitment to Slow Fashion — or more simply to people and the planet — is so exciting and inspiring. I can’t wait to see what you do next. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.

See also: How much can we know about where our clothes come from?

Katrina Rodabaugh is an author, artist and slow-fashion advocate. Visit her website www.katrinarodabaugh.com or follow her on Instagram at @katrinarodabaugh

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PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizens: Tom of Holland

Photos © Elizabeth Suzann, used with permission

Elsewhere

Elsewhere: Yarny links for your clicking pleasure

Thanks for all the great feedback on the Sloper posts this week — I’m glad some of you found it worthwhile! I’m enjoying seeing the swatches and cast-ons starting to appear on the #sloperKAL feed. And holy wow, there’s already a finished sweater! (I told you it’s fast!) I cast on in the car on Wednesday and am hoping to get in a bunch of rows this weekend.

Meanwhile, here’s Elsewhere for you—

A movie I’ll be seeing for the sweaters (thx, DG)

So happy to see TN’s Stony Creek Colors in Fast Company’s fantastic feature, The United States of Innovation

What do knitting and heart surgery have to do with each other? (Thx, Jess)

I love Jess Daniels’ Me Made May concept and her little hand-drawn infographic (image above, bottom)

A brief history of denim

– “The transitioning of half a million farmers across southern India to sustainable, organic methods has enabled [Project Pico] to bring their product back to the UK with a supply chain that is entirely traceable to the very seeds that grow the cotton.”

28 home sewers on why they do it

Crochet tank inspiration

– … and as if I weren’t already obsessed with knitting Dalur (top)

SHOP NEWS: The fabulous Helga Isager book The Artisan is back in stock. And a heads-up for you: We’ve got a new neutral coming to the Field Bag lineup in a couple of weeks, and in conjunction with that we’re putting Toffee on hiatus. We’ve got enough in stock to last a little bit, but I wanted to give you fair warning in case you’ve had your heart set on it.

Have an amazing weekend!

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PREVIOUSLY: Elsewhere

Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang

Origin Stories: Wool and the Gang

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.

Origin Stories: Wool and the Gang

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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PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

Photos © Wool and the Gang; used with permission

Q for You: What makes a garment “slow fashion”?

Q for You: What makes a garment "slow fashion"?
Q for You: What makes a garment "slow fashion"?
Q for You: What makes a garment "slow fashion"?
Q for You: What makes a garment "slow fashion"?

Hopefully you’ve all seen the piece I wrote for the current issue of KnitWit about my weird life spent thinking publicly about my clothes, and about how I came to be pursuing a “slow fashion” wardrobe in the first place. For the photos, I was asked to put together outfits that demonstrate the point — what I mean by slow fashion — and unfortunately the descriptions of those outfits didn’t make it into print. I’ve been wanting to share them for that reason (they’re at the bottom of this post), but they also feed into a larger conversation I’m always having in my head and would like to have with you. So here at the start of Fashion Revolution Week, I’m putting the question into Q for You form, the question being: What makes a garment “slow fashion”?

I feel like I can make a case that my wardrobe is slow fashion at this point because I say so, in a sense. Hear me out: I think if you’ve educated yourself about the issues (The True Cost is a great place to start), made a conscious and genuine vow not to acquire clothes indiscriminately henceforth, and you take full responsibility for the contents of your closet, then that is a slow-fashion closet. By take responsibility, I mean commit to wearing each item (whatever it is, wherever it came from) for as long as it lasts, extending the lives of things through care and mending, and re-homing anything that doesn’t work for you. (Hopefully not just dropping it into a charity bin — remember no one wants your old clothes — but literally finding it a new home.) So perhaps I can say “my clothes are slow fashion because they’re my clothes” and because I’m committed to these principles, but when it comes to adding anything, I’m constantly asking myself what I’m ok with — where do I draw lines?

There are three underlying considerations or motivations to slow fashion, in my view:

1. The environmental cost — seeking clothes that don’t contribute to the inordinate damage the fashion industry is doing to rivers, village(r)s and the planet; and generally opting out of the escalating fashion churn cycle
2. The human cost — seeking clothes that aren’t made by slave labor or child labor or in unsafe conditions
3. The actual monetary price — seeking to get the most out of whatever money we spend on our clothes; better quality/value and longevity

And then there’s also simply seeking to support companies that are making goods or materials in laudable ways. Grainline recently included this definition of slow fashion in a blog post, and it’s pretty good — “the practice of creating and buying garments for quality and longevity, ideally minimizing waste and supporting fair labor” — except if your concern is the environment, the only truly responsible approach is to not make or buy anything new in the first place, but rather to use what already exists. So first and foremost, there’s simply wearing what you already own or get second-hand. When adding new clothes, the surest way to avoid anything made by slave labor is to make it yourself, but then of course there’s still the question of the fabric or yarn. With store-bought or manufactured clothes, there are all the questions: both about where and how the garment was made, and where the materials came from.

I feel like there should be some kind of slow-fashion credentials scorecard, but even that gets complicated. Still, here’s one way we might put it:

“This item before me …”

IS NOT NEW
[ ] I’ve owned it for years and will wear it for years
[ ] it was a hand-me-down
[ ] it was bought secondhand (thrift store, consignment, eBay, whatever)
[ ] it was acquired through a clothing swap

IS HOMEMADE (no factory labor involved)
[ ] I made it myself
[ ] someone I know (or hired) made it for me
[ ] it’s made from 100% natural fibers
[ ] the fabric/yarn is of known, reputable, transparent origins
[ ] the fabric/yarn has upcycled or recycled content
[ ] the fiber was organically grown and/or processed
[ ] the fiber/fabric/yarn is undyed and/or minimally processed
[ ] environmentally safe dyes and dyeing processes were used

IS NEW, BUT
[ ] it was made locally to me
[ ] i bought it directly from the designer-maker
[ ] it was produced in-house (or at a company-owned facility) with full transparency
[ ] it was produced in conjunction with acknowledged artisans/craftspeople in their endemic location
[ ] it was produced in a country that has meaningful labor laws, and I believe they were adhered to
[ ] the company has a central mission or founding policy of only working with reputable factories
[ ] the company has environmentally friendly business and manufacturing practices
[ ] the company has socially beneficial business practices
[ ] it’s made from 100% natural fibers
[ ] the fabric/yarn is of known, reputable, transparent origins
[ ] the fabric/yarn has upcycled or recycled content
[ ] the fabric/yarn has organic content
[ ] environmentally safe dyes and dyeing processes were used

That’s arguably hierarchical: wearing what already exists is better than making something new, is better than buying something new — very broadly speaking. But within all of that, the checkboxes aren’t necessarily of equal weight, and how many need to be checked for a garment to really rank?

I make a lot of my clothes, and almost entirely from new fabric or newly spun, virgin yarn. I’ve challenged myself to work harder on that aspect. The only fast-fashion garments that have moved into my closet in the past year or so are jeans and a button-down shirt that I rescued from my husband’s Goodwill pile, so they’re basically secondhand and I’ll see to it they get worn instead of dumped. But then there are conundrums. I’m apparently content to buy a garment from someone like Elizabeth Suzann, feeling good about knowing exactly where and how it was made (and supporting a company with deeply felt principles) but without knowing anything about the fabric’s origins. So what about a case like this J.Crew shirt, which is the opposite: it’s Baird McNutt Irish linen, pure of origin, but I don’t know anything about who/how/where it was sewn into this garment. Are those cases equal? (Can I bring myself to buy the linen shirt??) If a thing is made in this country, so it at least didn’t get shipped across the Atlantic, is that inherently one tiny notch better than made in Bangladesh? There’s no guarantee the US factory is abiding by labor laws just because the laws exist, so how much weight do I give whatever increase in good odds that represents? I trust that Imogene+Willie is working very closely with their LA factory and can be trusted; can I say the same for J.Crew’s made-in-LA goods? What about a company like Everlane that says they only work with the good factories? Isn’t that what every brand says if you ask them? How do we know who’s telling the truth (or not being deceived by their factory)?

Ultimately, everyone’s definitions and comfort levels are different, and everyone has to follow their own gut. I want a garment to check more than one box if I’m going to have it in my closet, but how many, and which do I give the most weight to?

What about you? And what would you add to the checklist?

See also: Why I make my own clothes

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THE KNITWIT OUTFITS (pictured top to bottom)

  1. Elizabeth Suzann wool cocoon coat (made locally, no longer available); handknit grey vest in Hole & Sons farm yarn; homemade plaid top in French cotton (never blogged); J.Crew Point Sur made-in-LA jeans
  2. Handknit black cardigan and beloved 10-year-old t-shirt (with I+W jeans, below)
  3. Handknit turtleneck sweater in US wool; embroidered cotton Katayone Adeli skirt c.1998
  4. Handknit Cowichan-style vest in US wool; homemade black muscle tee in organic hemp jersey; Imogene+Willie jeans in undyed Japanese cotton denim (made in LA)

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PREVIOUSLY: Why I make my own clothes

Photos by Zachary Gray for KnitWit/Fringe Association