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Wovember post-script #1: The Slow Wardrobe

One of the things which I thought about most during Wovember was the relationship between WOOL and TIME. Wool evidences the life of the sheep on whom it grows, and is influenced by time-based factors such as weather and seasons. Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep. You can’t hurry wool.

Rachael Matthews’ Relics of an Awesome Picnic, feat. amazing knitted egg-timer in Herdwick wool from the Lake District, photographed by Felicity Ford, work © Rachael Matthews

Rachael wrote beautifully about the relationship between knitting and time when she wrote about knitting her incredible piece, Relics of an Awesome Picnic for Love is Awesome, in 2009, referencing both the time of the knitting, and the ancient nature of the Cumbrian landscape from which her hand-knitting yarns hail;

Knitting for me is about time. It takes time, it defines a time, it is used as a meditation to process what is going on at the time. When I look at my knitting, I can usually remember, which train I was on, who was driving the car, what film I was watching, why I was ill, or what opportunities were on the horizon at the time the piece was made.

I started knitting relics, in Herdwick, which is my favourite yarn from the Lake district. It is has friendly roughness and looks like the local stone the glaciers pushed around there thousands of years ago.

I remembered this quote when I dug up my Madder roots a few weeks ago. There in the dirt on my knees, I delighted in the slowness of a project that had taken years to come to fruition. I found myself recalling all the stages of process which had been involved in growing this precious dyestuff. The first planting; the nurturing of the young shoots; the house-move in which the Madder was wrapped in Newspaper in its pots and driven to Reading from Oxford; the summer days spent in successive years trying to train the straggling plant up some twigs… and, more recently, the beetroot-like smell in the house as the roots (very slowly) dried in the oven. There is more time to add to the story of the Madder; dyeing days not yet spent and knitting projects not yet commenced. Like wool, you can’t hurry plants.

I thought about time again when I read Diane’s wonderful Wovember post, and noted the dates associated with each stage of her sheep-to-shoulders process. The ‘twinkle in the Ram’s eye,’ as Diane so charmingly put it; the birth of the lambs sired by him; the shearing of those lambs; the washing and carding of their fleeces; the spinning of their wool; and eventually the knitting and wearing of it. I thought about time, too, when I read Kate’s post about her well-worn fairisle sweater. I felt that the salvaging and mending of that amazing sweater honoured the time involved in originally producing it, and that the lasting qualities of the sweater were largely connected with its 100% WOOL composition.

Wovember made me consider these timely aspects of wool in relation to High Street fashion.

I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For if I have learned anything during Wovember, it is that sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; that wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; that the 4-season calendar cannot be expedited to meet the contrary demands of the Fashion Industry; and that in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.

However much a window is decorated to resemble the charts of a fairisle garment, and however cosy those mannequins look garbed in their 20% Nylon/80% Wool “fairisle” scarves, (marked down now to a price of £19.56) this window display is intrinsically out of time with the thing that wool is. Anyone who has knitted a scarf or mended a sweater will tell you the same thing.

How do the items in this window – marked down in price now due to the 3 for 2 offer – make any economic sense in the real world of wool? How do their price-tags match up with reality by the time the sheep’s food is bought; by the time the shearer and the spinner and the dyer are paid; by the time the yarn is machine-knitted into garments; and by the time the petrol and aeroplane fuel are bought to cover the cost of bringing items here? Either someone didn’t get paid, everyone involved in bringing the wool to the shelves got paid less than minimum wage, and/or the percentage of actual wool featured in this window display is far less than the enticing fairisle chart decals on the window would suggest.

In contrasting news, Lesley at Devon Fine Fibres has been documenting the development of garments made from her own Bowmont Merino flock and one of the happiest things for me during Wovember was seeing 100% British Wool products making it to Market on the 11th of Wovember. Anyone who follows Lesley’s blog will have seen the long journey it has taken – also documented in beautiful photographs on the Finisterre UK website – to get this hat and scarf developed from sheep to shelf. These are not BOGOF items, or things so cheaply produced that they can be sold on a 3 for the price of 2 offer; these are a £45 hat and an £85 scarf, the production of which have involved no airmiles and no cheap foreign labour, and the price-tags on which bear perceptible relationships to stud fees; the price of sheep feed; the cost of labour; the spinning and machine-knitting of wool, etc.

This is a hat in a shop in the UK that I can understand, having considered the issue of time and labour in relation to wool.

I also understand Colleen’s thrifted skirts – found in charity shops and reworked – because thrifting and reworking are in time with wool, recognising the longevity of the material and its value as something worthy of mending, and keeping, and repairing, and reworking.

…But I am baffled by the overwhelming walls of knits on the High Street this winter, and I resent the mimicry of knitwear traditions that were born in wool by production processes which are totally out of time with that incredible material. I do not know what the actual percentage of wool is in this wall of knits, but how many of these items will end up in landfills once the festive season is over and once the manufactured desire for INSTANT KNITS and STOCKING FILLERS has been satisfied? And who will darn these hats if we know that there will be an equally massive and cheap selection of further hats at this time next year?

I panic at the thought of squandered resources, but I get properly angry at the thought of farmer struggling to make ends meet at one end of the production chain, and clothes-rails heaving with fake ‘woollen’ goods at the end. The hall of shame which Kate established during Wovember shows some very explicit examples of misuses of the word ‘wool’ but I feel there are some more elusive problems evident in the marketing on the High Street itself, which are more subtle and difficult to pinpoint. For instance none of the retailers I have photographed or documented in this post are prominently describing their knitwear as ‘wool,’ and yet everything about these mass-produced, low-wool-content knits draws on the rich heritage of the wool industry in its design, marketing and appearance whilst simultaneously trashing that industry here in the UK, where 70% of wool grown does not end up becoming garments. I am grappling to understand something here, and am still thinking these big issues through…

…However of one thing I am certain; I want to propose the establishment of The Slow Wardrobe as a way of honouring what wool is. The Fast Wardrobe and BOGOF prices of the High Street are out of kilter with the timings of animals and of the Earth, and with the value and production costs associated with processing real wool. From now on, I intend to clothe myself as much as possible with wool that has been:

produced in a traceable and sustainable way
repurposed/salvaged from ebay or the local charity shops
made by me
grown on a sheep I have personally met

I also want to introduce some practices into my life associated with the development of the Slow Wardrobe which shall include:

passing on good quality woollen items which I have and cannot use in some way to others, so that they can continue their useful life
promoting 100% wool through the production of creative objects and items which celebrate and highlight what wool is
writing about wool and seeking to document the stories of the clothes that I wear

I estimate that it will take me approximately 10 years to accumulate all the clothes I will need for the rest of my life, and that these items shall – as much as possible – be entirely comprised of wool.

Thus I hope to look more like this:

Fairisle hat made in Hebridean 2-ply from Virtual Yarns
Harris Tweed jacket generously given me by Colleen
Handknit sweater made in 1940s 100% wool utility yarn, purchased from Etsy

…and less like this:

High Street ‘knits’

And although my fully woollen look will take far longer to collect than a 25-minute discount super-saver BOGOF rush on the High Street, I believe it will be worth the wait. I want to adopt a Slow Wardrobe approach to dressing myself because I want to wear more per cent wool for the rest of my life. And what do we know about wool?

You can’t hurry wool.

22 Responses to Wovember post-script #1: The Slow Wardrobe

  1. tomofholland says:

    The Slow Wardrobe is an inspiration for all. I’m toying with a similar idea, but it hasn’t quite crystallised yet. As a result, I have not bought any clothes at all for myself for at least half a year. Looking at your last two pictures one can’t fail but notice how much more individual you look in the I-want-to-look-like-this picture, than you would if you wore the clothes on the mannequin. If you build a Slow Wardrobe, you will put more thought into what you will wear and this will result in your own style, something immediately identifiable as ‘Felix’.

    The Slow Wardrobe: goodbye fashion, hello style.

  2. Lara says:

    hear hear. This post had me very excited in agreement- the slow wardrobe is a thing to behold. I remember a post you did before about a slow wardrobe which I re-read recently and I think it is really interesting. I’ve been thinking about my relationship with clothes and find so much about the clothing industry very difficult that I think SLOW is the way forward.

  3. Rosalind says:

    Thank you for a great post. I currently own very few clothes because whenever I go clothes shopping I am overcome with environmental and social guilt – who suffered in the making of these throw-away clothes? Your post, however, reassures me that I don’t have to dress myself that way – and there’s no hurry to ‘have a wardrobe’ anyway.
    I would, though, extend the Slow Wardrobe from more than wool – cotton has such a large impact, both in its growth, production and distribution – maybe we need a blogger on the plant part of the Slow Wardrobe!

  4. Anon says:

    I understand your point and it’s all very well if you can afford to buy 100% wool handknitted items; it’s not such a realistic idea if you’re a single mother with three children to clothe this winter and who actually like wearing things that can be called current trend. Charity shops only occasionally produce something suitable, and time to trawl round shop after shop in search of your approved 100% Slow Wool is another luxury many are not fortunate enough to have.

    I assume this post is aimed at single young professionals with disposable income burning a hole in their pocket and with time on their hands? In which case, by all means, buy your vintage/handmade knits and tweeds from Etsy and knit jumpers with 1940s wool but please don’t look down on those people who must make what little money they have go further using the High Street’s prices and offers. It’s not just farmers that are struggling to make ends meet.

  5. Thank you for your comments. It is a shame that “Anon” has not supplied a valid email address to which I might reply, and I feel compelled to respond here, because you raise some important points.

    Dear “Anon,”

    This post was not meant to personally criticise people who buy clothes from the High Street; this is a personal account defining my own relationship to buying clothes, and identifying an approach to dressing myself which I myself feel comfortable with. It’s up to everyone to work out what this will be for themselves, and to prioritise according to their own circumstances and beliefs.

    When it comes to fashion, I am really trying to understand how the production chain works from sheep to shelf and where I fit into that system as a buyer and wearer of clothes. We all make individual choices about what our lives are going to be like; about how we will spend and use our time; about what we will do with our money; and about how we want to live. These choices are personal and I am not going to give a detailed break down here re: the whys and wherefores of having/not having kids; the nature of my own work and how/what I get paid for it; and how I use my time, but the assumptions which you make about my being “a single young professional with disposable income burning a hole in my pocket” are wrong, and as offensive to me as the criticisms of you which you somehow inferred from my post.

    Just as you request for me not to “look down” on folk who buy on the High St, please don’t make assumptions about my own income or relationship status based on this post.

    I was actually in the bottom earnings-bracket last year, so I understand the lure of cheap clothes and the need to make ends meet within the household. However, I want to use the money I DO have for positive good, and to see my purchases as investments not only in clothes for myself, but in farming and industry practices which I believe in supporting and sustaining.

    And I have a real question about what “cheap” means, and for me the sweater I knit which lasts 20 years is worth every penny of its expensive initial outlay, because it is serviceable for years to come. If the sweater lasts for 20 years and cost me £80 in yarn to begin with, then I have paid £4 per year to have something amazing and meaningful and warming each winter. I consider £4 per year to be an affordable annual amount of money to spend on that sweater, and that is how I rationalise my own budget.

    I do not have children so am extremely open to more information you might supply regarding how The Slow Wardrobe concept could work in relation to being a Mum. I imagine I have much to learn in this regard, and that fashion is important for survival in the playground. Also, I recognise that because children grow year on year, the idea of a sweater that lasts for 20 years is less useful to a 7 year old than it is to a woman in her 30s.

    The issues concerning the economics of clothes are complex – as I point out here – but I do not think that just because issues are difficult, we shouldn’t try to explore them.

    Thank you for your input into my ideas regarding The Slow Wardrobe.

  6. Joanna says:

    This is a great post, Felix, and raises several issues I have been thinking about during Wovember. I have realised that if I want to have clothes that are ethically produced and of a decent quality, I am going to have to budget properly for them. Or for the material to make them, which is also a big initial outlay for many of us, and I have set up a savings account especially for this. It may take me a year to save for a decent wool sweater but I will love it far more than a cheap one.

    I have some sympathy with Anon, having raised three children, including one extremely fashion-conscious daughter, but I think we have to find another way forward. I have tried to explain to my children about the realities of living within a budget and perhaps having to wait for a cherished item. We have also been through periods where we have bought stuff from Primark because frankly you have to balance the developing child’s need to fit in with a peer group against your own principles. But I have tried to point out to them gently where the clothes are badly made and helped them to see the difference in craftmanship on better quality stuff. In 2010 the fashion-conscious daughter (then 18) decided off her own back to have a year of not buying any clothes unless they were fairly traded or vintage (apart from knickers!). I am really proud of the way she managed this and I think she learned a huge amount on the way. She also dresses in a way that is extremely stylish and completely unique and has learned a range of useful skills such as sewing and fabric drawing. I wonder whether she would have done this if she hadn’t had to think hard about spending choices earlier in her life.

    Finally, one tip for Anon – see if your local church has any children’s clothes sales. Ours has a totally brilliant one where you can get excellent second hand stuff for all ages at extremely low prices. All profits are shared between a charity and the church playgroup. Or get a group of fellow parents together and organise a sale or a swap yourselves. Relationships can be built that way, too.

  7. Kate says:

    Great post, Felix – and interesting debate. I would say that my own sense of “style” and love of clothes has a direct relation to my childhood in which, due to my family’s financial circumstances, everything was handmade or cheaply bought at jumble sales. Through making my own clothes and being creative with the second-hand items, I learned to appreciate textiles and grew to love fashion and design. I also developed a proud sense of individuality which was at least partly about what I wore. I remember very clearly being told by mum, when I had the piss taken out of me for what I wore, that our family motto was “dare to be different”. I applaud Joanna’s daughter and would politely suggest that “anon” might be a little less judgmental, and a little more creative.

  8. Tess says:

    I love the temporal nature of this post and the way your ideas connect past, present and future along with an underlying commitment to understanding processes of production.

    I set myself the challenge of not buying any new clothes this year, a reaction against the disposable nature of fashion and so much clothes production, and it’s just occurred to me that it’s December and perhaps time to evaluate how it’s gone.

    I have bought ‘new’ clothes including a wonderful Liberty print wool dress from Oxfam, a great wool jacket from the Flying Ambulance Shop, a Vintage dress and coat suit from a vintage fair and assorted skirts and wool sweaters from a couple of jumble sales in aid of the local Woman’s Centre. I also spent some time this autumn sewing buttons back on to a selection of winter coats which I’ve had for ages, and spent a bit on having shoes and boots reheeled and soled. And today I’m sat in front of the computer wearing a dress I bought in Edinburgh in the early 1990s which has lasted remarkably well and makes me feel connected to my younger self and a city I love and miss terribly.

    I guess I’ve spent about £60 on clothes this year, within even my budget. I’ll not think about what I’ve spent on wool to knit things though…

    If our wardrobes are a reflection of ourselves, and the self is an onging project, then why shouldn’t they both come together over time to reflect our lives, experiences and aspirations?

  9. Dawn says:

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your posts for a while now and haven’t commented before.

    I enjoyed this piece and your thoughts on the origins of clothes. I also have three children and a low income, and I have clothed them with very little recourse to Primark et al. We do have to buy some new stuff every year, but in the main we rely heavily on hand-me-downs (from and to friends and between my own children), charity shops and jumble sales and sometimes eBay if one of them fervently wants a very particular thing. My kids love hand-me-downs, both the link with an older child that comes with them and seeing them on a younger child when they are out-grown. My daughter has a very nice relationship with the regular recipient of her old clothes. We repair and patch and we make clothes last for as long as possible.

    I knit, pull back old sweaters and re-knit them, and this year thought of the excellent idea of knitting on to cuffs and hems to lengthen them. I’ve had enough lovely yarn from generous free-cyclers to make children’s jumpers.

    I think my children are fine about all of this partly because my wardrobe is no different, they don’t see me going into shops and buying lots of new things. But also because if they do really want something they know I’ll go out of my way to find it for them. I think they actively like having clothes that I’ve made them and patched for them – it’s part of what I do for them. One of my best parenting moments was having my then five year old explain to me that if I cut off the top of her much loved out-grown dress and added a waistband it would make a fine skirt. It did.

    I can’t say we are a 100% wool family, but I think we are pretty low-impact, and I don’t think we look that odd!

    I actively enjoy sewing and knitting, I also feel that I do these things out of necessity, as an affordable way to clothe my family. Primark or Asda are not the only options, and I don’t feel that having children absolves me from interrogating the choices I make in clothing them.

  10. Susan says:

    Felix, this post spoke to me in a deep and personal way. When I see windows and catalogs full of woolen sweaters marked down to get them out of the store, my heart breaks into a million pieces for the farmer who grew that wool.

    The worst part is that the retailers, in the current economy, know that the majority of their products will have to be marked down, and they build that into the price. Which of course means that they are unwilling to spend much on materials, thus driving the price, and the value, of wool even downward, (the current artificial shortage notwithstanding.)

    As a wool farmer I can tell you that we are constantly striving to grow wool we can be proud of while taking the best possible care of the animals in our charge. It is hard, dirty work, and no one is getting rich raising sheep. It’s the utter lack of respect for wool that gets me down.

    I love your Slow Wardrobe. In recent years, I have stopped buying synthetic “fleece” jackets and such, and have focused the non-handmade part of my own wardrobe of well-made wool garments. They are more expensive, but I like to think of the shepherd at the end of the supply chain.

    In my head, he is smiling.

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  12. Mikal Mast says:

    Slow clothes – I love it! I myself buy a lot fewer clothes now that I can make them myself. Handmade things are generally of better quality so they last longer, on top of which you are more motivated to keep wearing them. I grew up wearing clothes my mother made, which I always recognised as being superior to anything you could get in a store – besides which I had the pleasure of picking out the fabric and pattern myself.

    I’m trying to only buy things I can’t make myself. I’m not always successful, but it’s nice to have goals.

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  14. colleen says:

    I’m coming to this post late (sorry!), and agree with much of what has been said already, so let me offer something that John has just read out to me because I think it might appeal to you. It’s taken from Mysterious Wisdom, The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by Rachel Campbell Johnston (p107):

    ” ‘Learn thou the goodness of thy clothes to prize/ By their own use and not another’s eyes’. Palmer would chant aphoristically. He came increasingly to detest the affectations of fashion preferring clothes made with a rigorously practical regard for comfort, hard wear and, of course, pocket capacity.”

    Palmer was surely a man who understood sheep and wool. How else would he have been able to paint the Magic Apple Tree, one of my very favourite paintings – http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/opacdirect/12193.html#1.

    And I am absolutely thrilled to see you in the lovely jacket (for the record from a church jumble sale) and happy to know that it has gone to a most worthy home.

  15. Chantelle says:

    Slow Wardrobe, Slow Food, Slow Life…….sounds heavenly, count me in!

  16. Liz Evans says:

    Wonderful post! I am feeling so inspired by the whole premise of a Slow Wardrobe, and one that includes plenty handknits. I recently discovered Izzy Lane, an ethical fashion label that produces beautiful woollen designs from the company’s own flock of rescued rare breed sheep. I used to know Isobel Davies in London years ago, and only found out about her recent venture after reading Lucy Siegle’s To Die For (a MUST-read for anyone who wears clothes….). Izzy Lane and Eloise Grey are both fantastic examples of slow fashion, and offer us the chance to really consider what we wear, why we wear it, and how we should approach clothing. Sure, their items are very expensive, but at what real cost does all of that cheap high street stuff come at? I like the idea of saving up for something beautiful and ethical that I will wear for decades. And mixing those pieces with vintage and handmade. Thanks Felix for your thought-provoking thoughts! x

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  18. Lizzi says:

    Sorry i have come to this so late – i just found your post. My thoughts. The softness and style of your ‘wool’ picture in comparison to the ‘fashion bogoff’ just screams. The wool speaks of quality style and class – the other says gaudy, cheap and tacky. I can almost feel the acrylic squeaking through my fingers. The comparison between the two pictures is so marked I actually ‘wowwed’ when I saw them.

    I am all for your Slow Wardrobe. I don’t always manage to stick to my principles (I work on the 80/20 rule for most things) but i cannnot bear the waste that is created by ‘instant’ and ‘now’. I am currently working on a piece made from my husband’s trousers and my old summer frock and various other old clothes – and yes, it is slow – but so what? I hope whatever happens to it – the recipient will treasure the time that was spent making it.

    I have made other items and given them to people as gifts and they were thrilled to recognise fabric that they had been wearing previously.

    I think your post was thought provoking and has also proved that the slow wardrobe can be fun.

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  21. Lesley says:

    a very late response…

    advice? I try to keep the fabrics of my clothes natural and primarily wool. Then disaster struck. We have very persistent clothes moths which have come back three years in a row. I’ve tried freezing / washing / ironing / sprays / hoovering. Any help or experience?

    • I’m afraid I buy specifically anti-moth pesticide sachets and hang them up in my wardrobe. I have found that they really keep the moths away. I haven’t had much luck with the more environmentally-friendly approaches; airing the clothes frequently, hanging them up in the sun etc. are also supposed to be good but I used anti-moth products because I can’t bear the thought of all the hours of work and time spent repairing things being destroyed by a moth attack! Others might have further advice…

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