Ethical Knitwear: I am preoccupied with the necessity for ethical fashion and the way in which my work can affect three core areas: people, animals, and planet, positively, not negatively.
You can read more below about my practices within my three core ethical and sustainability areas below.
Handmade in Britain; I make my products by hand at my home studio in Cardiff, South Wales, using a hand operated domestic knitting machine and hand knit techniques. I have also worked with digital knit at a family run studio in Devon who I worked with in person. UK and in-house manufacture ensures that I avoid unethical practice within my knitting production.
I am also passionate about affecting change within supply chains in developing countries, and about working for a fashion revolution. In a rural area of Peru named Antauta, 'The Antauta Knitters' are a skilled women's group of spinners and knitters who farm alpaca in their mountain town and I hope to make another drop in the ocean by working there. If you would like to know more about this, you can read about it here
I am also currently working with the Puskariy Tika hand spinning cooperative who are based an hour or so from Ollantaytambo in Peru. The cooperative are one of the ‘Awamaki’ cooperatives, and produce Fair Trade Federation certified hand spun yarns, which I use to make my ‘Ollantaytambo’ hats.
Above from right to left, some of the people included in the stories behind my products:
The Puskariy Tika cooperative of hand spinners of FTF yarn
Keith Newland, organic dyer based in Liversedge, Yorkshire
Myself and Ernest, the shepherd of a ‘living yarn’ flock from which I source my slaughter free, single farm, traceable Wensleydale and Shetland yarns
Read more about the people and process behind my products in my recent blog post and sign up to my scarf story here, to receive the first edition of my ‘Scarf Story’ photobooks featuring my ‘living yarn’ supplier and organic dyer, coming soon. I’ve traced my supply chain myself, and wanted to share it with you.
Photography by Chloe Grayson.
2 +3: Animal Welfare + Our Planet:
A huge part of the way in which I concentrate on the ethics of my products is in the quality of my raw materials. This means that I take great care sourcing materials of the highest ethical standards when it comes to the animals or environments they come from, and these two issues come hand in hand.
Yarns I use have to match up to ethical criteria which includes:
Within the UK, I am delighted that from 2018 onwards, I have been able to trace back all of the yarns I use to individual herds of sheep or alpaca, depending on the yarn in question. This process is slow and long, due to the processing quantities required by most spinning mills, many small farms have to have their yarn blended with others in order to meet minimum order quantities and therefore have their wool processed and spun into yarn. Fortunately, there are now a couple of mills that are able to process fibre in small enough quantities that I'm able to keep track of. I have actually been able to go directly to individual farms which means that I can get to know the people and animals behind the cones of yarn sitting in my studio. All of my British yarns are from single farm, traceable, slaughter free smallholdings.
Country of origin:
UK Yarns: British Wool means that I avoid the numerous unethical practices associated with animal welfare overseas, whether this is live transportation, mulesing or the many issues that come with wools such as Australian or New Zealand merino. For this reason I do not work with Merino Wool. Merino sheep are not native to the UK, and therefore importing this yarn comes with a host of issues and it is not possible to trace this yarn or therefore, find out sufficient information about it. Currently, you could count the number of herds of merino sheep in the UK on the fingers of one hand and these herds are a bit busy with some larger ethical companies doing good stuff. This is why I have opted solely for other sheep breeds and alpaca yarns. This year I have continued to work with Wensleydale and Shetland, whose yarn has numerous overlooked qualities, such as a silky lustre, soft handle and durability . There is more information on this to come within my ‘Scarf Story’ project.
Peruvian Alpaca: As merino is to New Zealand, Alpaca is to Peru. These animals have buckets of personality, and come in their hundreds dotted across the Andes. Their fibre, 'La Lana De Los Dioses' (Fibre of the Gods) was considered more valuable than silver and gold in ancient Incan society, hypoallergenic, thermoregulating and as soft as cashmere, it's a superfibre that I was always drawn to. However, just as the numerous issues associated with mass produced yarns such as New Zealand merino, Alpaca falls prey to unethical practices over all 3 core areas, people, animals and planet. If you had a look at the project I'm a part of in Peru, you will know that I visited Peru in 2017 to get a look at this myself. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life and it felt many times that this problem would take a lifetime and an army of ethical fashion pioneers to solve. However, I am now the proud supporter of Awamaki in Ollantaytambo, a non-profit Fairtrade Federation Organisation who have connected a network of women's cooperatives who hand spin, knit and weave with Alpaca yarns from their local community. Awamaki was founded by the amazing Kennedy Leavens and now has a team working with 9 artisan cooperatives, working to empower women and girls with education and financial independence. It has been an honour to talk to Kennedy and to be working with their yarns since 2018. Click on the link above to find out more about their work.
As for standardised Peruvian Alpaca that is suitable for industrial machine knitting, we will have to wait and work and see. Watch this space for future trips to Peru to continue this journey.
British Alpaca: As I am in need of yarns suitable for machine knitting I also source British Alpaca. This is affected by the same issues as sheeps wool with spinning mill minimum quantities, but there are two mills that I have found within the UK who work with small producers and I will be sourcing directly from these again in the future. For my 2017 products I worked with an Alpaca smallholding in Devon whose fibre was spun into yarn that is 100% their own single farm alpaca yarn, using one of the aforementioned mills, Two Rivers. In 2018, I sourced alpaca wool from North Wales, where the owners of an alpaca smallholding and ‘mini mill’ have supplied me with their own charcoal and natural white alpaca yarns. This yarn is again, single farm, high welfare and slaughter free. This mini mill has unfortunately come to a close, but is being re-started under new care in Shropshire, and I hope to be working with their yarns for 2019.
Cruelty Free ‘Living Yarn’:
As a vegetarian since childhood, it became an issue to me personally that the welfare of many animals in the wool industry was a secondary concern to the quality of the fibre, and this has now become a huge ethical concern, with an increasing community rejecting wool altogether in the name of ethical fashion, and turning to synthetic fibres such as acrylic, whose microplastics are a major player in devastating environmental issues, shedding each time a fabric is washed. I think there's a way of doing wool without cruelty, slaughter and knock-on environmental effects, and I think the wool industry should be mended, not thrown away. This is why I personally, have chosen to source slaughter free ‘living yarn’ that comes from sheep or alpaca who are not affiliated with the meat industries and live our their natural lives, being sheared each year. These sources are hard to come by, as struggling farms sadly cannot survive on wool prices alone, but I am really happy to support those people who have been able to make the decision to make that happen. I understand not everybody can do that, but I really love to support those that do . My ‘living yarn’ sheeps wool comes from a single farm source in Yorkshire where Isobel Davies and Ernest, her shepherd, farm an eclectic mix of breeds including Wensleydale and Shetland sheep.
My yarns are dyed either organically or naturally, or used in their natural colour. I purchase all of my yarns in their undyed natural colours and work with organic or natural dye companies on my colours. In 2017, I worked with Paintbox Textiles in the textiles hub of Yorkshire who dyed my yarns organically to GOTS standards. In 2018, in order to achieve smaller quantities of yarn and work with natural dye, it was really exciting to work with Moel View Yarn in North Wales. Paula at Moel View is an incredibly talented natural dyer, she works with foraged and botanical extracts and we share our focus on ethics and sustainability. Paula sells her naturally dyed yarns in smaller quantities intended for hand knitting over on her website which you really should go and look at. It’s beautiful.
Within my process of sourcing these raw materials I have to be scrupulous, and thanks to this I work primarily with small producers, where traceability can be simpler and a realistic aim, I aim to provide all of the contact details that I can at any given time, the sourcing of my yarns is an ever changing process of working with small suppliers and is dependent on demand and available resources. Information about my suppliers does change according to which yarns I am able to work with at any given time. Supplier information for each collection is included in my 'Scarf Story' journal, available on request. Your ‘Suzanna James Knitwear product’ will always come with an exact breakdown of the yarns included, so that if anything is new or differs from the information here, you know about it. The fundamentals here will never change, and my yarns will always be ethically sourced, with the three core areas of people, animals and planet as the highest priorities.
My yarns have already gone through this highly involved bespoke process from field, to spinning mill and dye lab before they begin to be knitted, and are an art in themselves; when it comes to my part, I can work with them and admire them in the knowledge that I have made my supply chain as short as possible and I have the facts for every part of it.
I believe that we can make ethical mainstream. The fashion and textiles industry employs 1 in 6 people worldwide, making it the most labour intensive industry worldwide, and is the second highest polluter in the world, with only the oil industry beating it. Millions of people, animals and environments are being negatively affected by that industry and that makes it an issue that needs solving right now. If you would like more information regarding issues of ethics in the fashion industry and why it's essential to affect change now, I highly recommend 'The True Cost' documentary, which you can see here and read more about here.
My work is a tiny part of this necessary revolution, but I can see that whether the industry changes 1 person, animal or environment at a time or by the thousand, that change is happening. Thank you for reading and for your interest in Suzanna James Knitwear and ethical fashion.
To receive more information about the story of my products you can sign up to my ‘Scarf Story’, interviews and photographs from shepherds, spinning mills, dyeing companies, and farmers will be available from Autumn 2018, you can also follow me on Instagram by heading to my profile using any of the pictures below.