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.

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

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