not a onesie?


I purchased this boiler suit from LHD Marine supplies in Lerwick a while ago and have been wearing it pretty much constantly for the past three weeks. We have not had a washing machine; I have been spending most of my time decorating, and for both reasons it has formed a useful uniform. For some reason I feel very happy wearing it. Perhaps this is because the boiler suit makes me feel as if I am getting things done, and indeed, I actually AM. Last time I was in Shetland I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about these garments, which, given the amount of serious sea and land work that goes on there, are pretty ubiquitous. I was told that many Shetland men have boiler suits of ascending value, and keep one for “best”. I am seriously considering doing the same.


My “thing” for boiler suits is of some long standing, as I recall that, for my twelfth birthday I asked my Mum to sew me one, which she kindly did. This stupendous 1980s garment was pale pink, and featured turn ups and giant batwing sleeves. I have no photographs of me wearing it, but given that I also had a terrible perm at the time, I fear that I must have looked like a small, pastel-clad circus entertainer. I proudly wore the pink boiler suit for the first party I was allowed to hold without the presence of my parents. My only recollection of this momentous event is that Christopher Hodgkinson played frisbee with some mini tacos, firing them into next door’s yard, where, after the effects of evening rain, they expanded to form a soggy snack-based crazy paving. There were words, but not of the serious kind.

My affection for my boiler suit leads me to question my horrified reaction to the animal-print onesies that are the evening-wear of choice of many Edinburgh youths, as well as to the fleecy “leisure” suits that are sold for festering on the sofa. All these garments say to me is “fire hazard” and “adult baby”, neither of which are positive associations. Or perhaps I am merely late to the boiler-suit party as onesies of all kinds were certainly the thing a couple of seasons ago. I recall I saw an entirely functional-looking navy boiler suit on sale for £350 last year at YMC. All I can say is that you can get a boy’s age 9-10 32″ boiler suit from LHD Marine supplies for £15 and it will do you just fine. Do you have a boiler suit? Or do you, as I, arbitrarily divide different kinds of all-in-ones into categories of acceptability? I am interested to hear about your relationship to these garments.

This digression comes to you from upstairs, where I have finished the woodwork and am about to start painting the walls. Below me, the kitchen is actually IN, with its (gulp) oak surfaces and exciting appliances (including a dishwasher, which I have never previously possessed – the novelty!). But the plaster is still wet, and the walls have yet to be painted and tiled. This will happen in a couple of weeks and then I promise there will be pictures. In any case, I hope to have my studio painted and completed over the next couple of days and be back at my desk by Friday, so if you’ve been waiting for an email response from me I’ll be beginning to catch up then.


(Delaunay in an outfit of her own design)

Do you remember a little while ago I was having a Sonia Delaunay moment?

(‘Simultaneous’ dress & car upholstery)

Around this time, I was knitting the the Puffin Sweater, and shortly afterward, I wrote a piece about Delaunay which has just been published in Rowan 53.


The brief for my feature was to write something to accompany this Rowan design story . . .



. . . and I felt that the influence of Delaunay was startlingly evident in mod-inspired knitwear collections.

(Delaunay, 1923 / Céline, Autumn / Winter 2010-11)

Delaunay’s proud, modernist vision of garments as wearable art was the starting point of my thinking . . .

(Delaunay celebrated by Vogue in 1925)

. . . but I ended up somewhere rather different.

(Jean Shrimpton in Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian Dress, 1964)

(Lisa Perry & Phillip Lim’s appropriations of Lichtenstein)

You can read more in the magazine!

on the move

Sonia Delaunay, Driving Caps, Silk and Wool, 1924-28. Included in the Cooper-Hewitt Color Moves exhibition, 2011.

I am taking a break from my collection today, and researching a feature which somehow keeps bringing me back to the work of Sonia Delaunay. I came across these amazing wool and silk ‘driving caps’ that she designed, and was so blown away by them that I just had to show you. In their interplay of colour and rhythm, they capture so much of what I love about Delaunay’s work. They are hats for use as much as ornament, garments intended, like most of Delaunay’s clothes, to be worn with ease by what she regarded as ‘modern’ women — women on the move. Like Delaunay’s famous ‘simultaneous’ coats and dresses, the bold, undulating and interlocking rectangles that create the structure of these these caps are the effect of dense, woollen embroidery rather than knitted stitches . . . still, as you can imagine, they have got me thinking. But today I am not supposed to be thinking about knitting. I am supposed to be thinking about 1920s Paris and New York, of the grid of the city, of wheels in motion, sleek architectural lines, bobbed hair, sportswear, dancers and swimmers, runners and cyclists, chevrons and stripes, blocks and spirals. I suppose it does all come back to the knitting, after all.

Delaunay and her matching decorated Citroen B12, 1925

Delaunay, cars and clothes, 1925

George Lepape, cover image for Vogue’s ‘Winter Touring’ issue, January 1925, depicting Sonia Delaunay driving outfit with matching vehicle.

For anyone interested in Delaunay, I highly recommend the catalogue and accompanying essays of the Cooper-Hewitt Color Moves exhibition (2011).

Pleats now and then

I’ve been thinking about pleats for a little while now.

The heat-set pleats that have been a familiar feature of Issey Miyake’s “Pleats Please” brand . . .

(Issy Miyake, “Pleats, Please” in Dazed & Confused June 2012, image via Style Bubble)

. . . now seem, in attenuated form, to be everywhere on the high street.

(pleats at Maxmara, Jaeger, Cos, Paul & Joe, Hobbs / NW3)

I find myself ambivalent about contemporary pleats, largely because all of these examples (including Issey Miyake’s) are heat-set on 100% polyester fabrics. Frankly, the mere words “polyester heat-set pleats” are enough to make me feel a wee bit sweaty, but then you know I am all about the natural fibres . . .

The first name that springs to mind in association with modern methods of pleat-setting is probably that of Mariano Fortuny.

In 1907, Fortuny developed an innovative (and closely-guarded) pleating process for fine silks. He showcased this process, and the beautiful form-fitting fabric it created, on his famous “Delphos” dresses.

(Film star Lillian Gish in a Fortuny “Delphos”)

Worn uncorseted, and echoing the lines of the ancient chiton, Fortuny’s gowns had a forward-thinking, body-freeing simplicity. But the craft processes used to create them – pleating, cutting, cording, weighting with tiny glass beads – were of course incredibly elaborate.

In a way, however simple the lines of a garment, heavily pleated textiles immediately carry the suggestion of excess because of the sheer quantities of fabric they require. Thirty years after Fortuny’s silk gowns, another designer took a fabric with much more homespun connotations, and, through innovative pleat-setting, turned it into the height of fashionable luxury.

(Flax flower)

In the early 1950s, the combined linen industry of the North and Republic of Ireland employed more than fifty thousand people. Yet, like other traditional textile manufactures, the industry was threatened by the rise of man-made fibres. Linen, of course, has a propensity to crease and stay creased, which rather limited its range of uses as a modern dressmaking fabric. But together, Belfast handkerchief manufacturer, Spence-Bryson and Dublin designer, Sybil Connolly were attempting to turn what many regarded as the negative attributes of traditional Irish linens to their advantage. Connolly recalled the process thus:

“A challenge invariably makes one creative; after pondering the question for some time and in conjunction with the workroom staff, it was decided to experiment to see if we could develop a process that would permanently crush or pleat the linen and so make a feature of the problem rather than an insurmountable setback. It took eight months, during which time we put many theories to the test, before we came up with the correct solution. The process we decided on still remains our secret.”

Here is the beautiful fabric Connolly developed with Spence-Bryson.

Sybil Connolly Day Dress. Victoria and Albert Museum T.174-1973. Gift of Mrs V. Laski

Through Connolly’s pleat-setting process, nine yards of fine handkerchief linen were transformed into a single yard of dress fabric. Like Fortuny, Connolly used cords and smocking for structure, but her pleats were set in the garment horizontally rather than vertically, lending her full, floor-length skirts an airy, textured quality remiscent of the underside of a mushroom. In these dresses, as in many other of her designs, Connolly’s explicit aim was to promote and support ‘traditional’ Irish textiles. Yet her dresses perhaps proved so successful because they were also regarded as uniquely meeting the demands of the modern 1950s woman. “Crumple it into a suitcase,” enthused Vogue of one of Connolly’s dresses in 1957, “and it will emerge, uncrushed, uncrushable, to sweep grandly through a season of gaiety.”

(Sybil Connolly with Robert Briscoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin and Patti Curran wearing one of Connolly’s signature Irish linen dresses in Life Magazine, May 20th, 1957)

Like other mid-century designers and entrepreneurs, Connolly had a clear sense of the value of the idea of Irishness. She frequently launched her work across the Atlantic, and her designs were perhaps most popular in the United States and Canada. When Jackie Kennedy chose to wear one of Connolly’s gowns for her official White House portrait, there was a clear statement being made about national presidential connections.

(“Irish invade Fashion World” Look Magazine, August 10th, 1953)

When promoting her work, Connolly consistently lauded Irish skills and craftsmanship, and often developed styles in direct reference to those ‘traditionally’ worn in rural Ireland. For example, the striking cloak that appeared on the cover of Life in 1953 was meant to suggest red flannel petticoats.

But as the 1960s rolled on, the diasporic romance that Connolly’s work spoke to began to seem rather anti-modern.

Sybil Connolly didn’t move with the times. She professed a profound dislike for the mini skirt, and instead turned her hand to ceramics, producing some beautiful work for Tiffany, inspired by Mary Delany’s eighteenth-century floral paper cuttings.

Until her death in 1998, Sybil Connolly continued celebrating and promoting Irish craft and design, producing several publications on the subject. I have a copy of her last book Irish Hands, which is not only really interesting and informative, but also a damn good read.

At this year’s BAFTAs, Gillian Anderson’s attire spoke to current trends . . . in a heavily pleated linen dress designed in 1957 by Sybil Connolly.

Perhaps the time is now ripe for a revival of pleated Irish handkerchief linen? I suppose one can dream. . . and continue to feel ambivalent about heat-set pleated 100% polyester.

Further reading:
Sybill Connolly, Irish Hands, The Tradition of Beautiful Crafts (Hearst Books, 1994)
Alexandra Palmer, Couture & Commerce: the Transatlantic Fashion Trade in the 1950s (UBC press, 2001)
Claire Wilcox, Modern Fashion in Detail (V&A reissued edition, 1997)

(You can see examples of Connolly’s pleated linen dresses at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Dublin (I had the pleasure of seeing these gorgeous garments last year); at the Hunt Museum in Limerick; at the V&A and the FIDM in Los Angeles)


I have a downstairs neighbour (also a knitter) who, in the course of her work, often comes across interesting objects. She sometimes brings these up to show me, and together we will enthuse over a gorgeous set of art-deco buttons or an ancient pair of butter-pats. The other day she brought up a very special object, which I thought you’d like to see.

It resembles a small bible, but it isn’t.

One clasp is broken, but the other is in fine shape. The pages are heavy, gilt-edged.

Shall we look inside?

On the first leaf is a print of a young and grieving Queen Victoria.

It is a photograph album. A typically Victorian repository of memory.

The style of the clasped book, and the particular settings of the cartes-de-visites dates it, I’d say, to the late 1860s.

But there are many types of studio portrait in here, from the 1850s to the 1890s.

This fragile-looking woman has a face that seems to recede from the camera. Her shawl is simple and heavy – perhaps the property of a photographer who requires some drapery to set this pale and light-boned figure off against the studio background.

I love the drape of the mantle over the crinoline; the detail around the skirt; the combination of the mantle’s internal pockets with the rather elaborate corded bag.

You can almost hear the rustle of her dark, heavy silks.

His beard-quiff combo is really quite extraordinary.

And I love the jewelery and piled hair of this woman of later era, who appears in the album several times.

To whose memories do these faces, long dead, belong?

Woolly thinking: part 1

Wool snood at French Connection containing 0% wool and 100% Acrylic.

We’ve had some WOVEMBER feedback suggesting that we are being overly dogmatic in our insistence that the word wool should pertain to sheep’s wool only. These comments are useful to read, and very interesting since they suggest how wide the application and understanding of the word wool is today. The word wool is, it seems, itself rather woolly in definition. And, in fact, it is wool’s very breadth of meaning, diversity of application, and generic connotations that have produced a situation in which pretty much anything in the world of online retail can be described as wool, such as the 100% Acrylic snood from French Connection shown above, or this 100% cotton shirt from Urban Outfitters below.

Paul Smith flannel wool shirt at Urban Outfitters, 0% wool, 100% cotton.

Whatever our particular understanding is of the the word wool, I’m sure we’d all agree that these two products –one of which is manufactured entirely from plant, and the other from man-made fibres — do not contain any. And though, as we will see, the meanings of wool can be quite broad, the irony is that both of these completely non-wool items are drawing on the very specific associations of the word wool with what is cosy and Wintery in order to sell themselves.

These associations seem to carry particular weight in the marketing of children’s clothes. While UK family retailers such as Debenhams and BHS do reasonably well at describing the fabric content of adult garments accurately, their children’s department contain numerous examples of wool products that contain no wool at all.

British Home Stores 0% Wool girl’s “wool coat”

Debenhams 0% wool girl’s “wool coat”

The reason for this is obvious: for the parent-consumer, wool has powerful associations with what is warm and natural, and the idea that you should dress your child in a “wool coat” during the Winter months remains incredibly persuasive.

A similar situation exists in the world of women’s hosiery — which includes some of the worst examples I have found of 0% wool products adding value to themselves with misleading use of the word wool.

Manoush at ASOS: 0% wool tights

Miss Selfridge 0% wool tights

Orla Kiely 0% wool tights, described as ‘wool blend.’

The word wool when attached to the word tights, immediately suggests warmth, thickness, and quality: at least they do so to this consumer — and I freely confess to being misled myself by the final example. Since I know that the clothes in Orla Kiely’s ready-made collections use top-notch pure wool fabrics, I expected similar quality standards in her hosiery. I bought a pair of these ‘wool blend’ tights online, without examining the fabric composition, only to discover when they arrived that they contained no wool at all. (Orla, how could you? I think something inside of me died . . .) Anyway if I — whose obsession with what-is-wool and what-is-not approaches the pathological — can be hoodwinked by the words “wool blend tights”, then surely anybody can.

So if we are all agreed that acrylic, viscose, polyester, cotton, nylon, polyamide and elastane products are NOT wool and have nothing to do with wool, then what do we actually understand wool to be?

I’ve spent some time exploring the historical meanings and associations of wool this past week. It has made for interesting reading. The first definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary is as follows (the image will become readable if you click on it)

According to this definition, wool is the fleece of the sheep or other domesticated animals . But interestingly, the 20 instances of British usage from 725 to 1871 given by the OED in support of this definition, only refer to sheep.

As if to bear out the sheepy exclusivity suggested by the instances of given usage in the first definition, the OED’s second definition limits the application of the wool to sheep only.

While the third definition extends the meaning beyond fleece, to refer to the hair or pelts of other animals.

The dictionary goes on to illustrate how the word wool has later been applied to other materials that resemble the fleece of the sheep: cotton-wool, glass-wool, and so on. This may seem very confusing, but there is actually a simple rule of thumb at work here: the word wool when used on its own refers to the fleece of the sheep only but when used in a compound (camel-wool, cotton-wool) etc in can refer to the fibre produced by other animals, or indeed, to other fibrous substances not produced by animals at all.

Alpaca-wool? Or simply Alpaca?

But if wool is a word that clearly requires qualification with the use of a compound, why does the phrase “sheep-wool” or “sheep’s-wool” hardly ever appear in English usage from (according to my research) the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries? If the fleece of an alpaca or a rabbit can equally be referred to as “alpaca”, or “alpaca-wool” or “angora” or “angora-wool”, why is the sheep the only animal to whom this does not apply? Because — through centuries of common usage which themselves suggest the massive cultural and economic importance of this fibre — wool has principally meant sheep. In Western Europe at least, domesticated sheep were the first, and for a long time, the only wool-producing animals.

Do we refer to the fibre produced by this animal as Sheep-alpaca? Sheep-wool? Or is it just WOOL?

From a Western European perspective, and particularly in terms of the history of the English language, wool – the fibre of sheep – really is the UR TEXTILE. Over the thousand years prior to 1800 wool accounted for 70% or more of global textile production. From my own experience, this incredible figure is borne out by the swiftest of glances through any early modern trade sample book. The 1600s and 1700s saw a dizzying proliferation of different fabrics and fabric names, (most of which are completely lost to us today) and by far the majority of these fabrics are woollens and worsteds — cloths spun and woven from the fleece of sheep.

(A sheep waving the St George’s flag — suggesting the importance of wool to the national economy — appears on the gate of Halifax’s piece hall – the heart of Yorkshire’s West-Riding wool trade).

The rush to name different manufacturing processes and cloth-types during the rapidly industrialising 18th- and 19th centuries can make the understanding of historical textiles confusing for the layperson. My sense of things is that this proliferation of woolly names in itself accounts for some of the present-day confusion surrounding the sheepy associations of the word wool. (This will form the subject of another post). In any case, wool’s historic status over several centuries as the UR TEXTILE – the fibre to which all others were secondary – did not last much beyond 1800: by the mid 19th century, cotton was king, and accounted for more than 70% of global textile production.

(Lancashire cotton mill)

And by the early decades of the 20th century, wool again found itself under threat — this time from the new man-made fibres that sought not just to displace, but to imitate it.

So, to summarise: before 1800, wool so dominated world fabric production that it was the UR TEXTILE. While all other fibres required description with a qualifying compound that suggested their secondary status or likeness to the fleece of sheep (alpaca-wool, camel-wool, cotton-wool and so on) WOOL WAS WOOL and as such needed no explanation. But as different fibres came to dominate the increasingly complex world of global textile production; as fabric types and names proliferated; and as wool became increasingly marginalised, so its exclusive association with SHEEP was gradually lost. The general understanding of what wool really is is now so woolly that contemporary attempts at promotional branding have to reinforce the fibre’s sheepy connections.

In a world in which the fashion industry is so heavily focussed on the production of cheap, unsustainable fabrics ( viscose, modal, and Gok Wan’s favourite textile – pleather (shudder)), there is no doubt that wool is a marginal fibre. But the properties of real wool are so unique, and its reputation so very powerful, that products that that have no connection to sheep at all market themselves through purported – and entirely false – woolly connections.

(Dorothy Perkins wool dress composed of 0% wool and 100% polyester.)

The paradox of wool is that, precisely because of its historical dominance, it now lacks a definitive identity. While all other fibres once had to be defined in terms of their secondary status to wool, we now find ourselves in a world where fibres called alpaca or alpaca-wool could only come from one kind of animal, but wool – ie the wool-of-the-sheep – could apparently come from multiple different sources – some of which have nothing to do with animals at all.

Boohoo polyester coat, described with the mysterious and euphemistic term ‘poly wool’.

As we approach the middle of WOVEMBER, it strikes us that wool is at a crossroads. The word WOOL has to be properly reclaimed to suggest — as it once did — the fibre of sheep only. Otherwise wool production will be further damaged by its appropriation by, and association with, textiles to which it has no connection at all. And this is why a key claim of the WOVEMBER PETITION, is that “The word WOOL should refer to sheep’s wool only, and there should be a clarification of trading standards to distinguish between different animal fibres (angora, alpaca, cashmere, and so on) which also possess their own unique properties, qualities and cachet.”

More woolly thinking tomorrow.

Have you seen the WOVEMBER gallery recently? We think that the competition entries provide a beautiful woolly corrective to the 0% wool products in the HALL OF SHAME.

Christie Johnstone

This sweater is all about colour and pattern. I have already mentioned the unconscious influence of a blanket, but, in a conscious way at least, what I was inspired by were the shor’ goons (short gowns / blouses) that were worn by Newhaven fishwives. I’ve seen a couple of surviving late nineteenth-century examples, which are made of strippit (striped) or stamp-patterned linen, in soft pinks and greens (the colours of these garments would have been much more vibrant a century ago, of course). I’ve also seen some more recent examples, which, until a few decades ago, were worn as part of the gala costume of the women of Newhaven. These similarly feature stripes, sprigs, chevrons, or polka dots in a vertical arrangement, but are made of lighter, more delicate cottons (as would befit something worn for ‘best’ rather than work). In many different visual depictions of fishwives, the fabric of the shor’ goons is generally shown as cream or yellow, while pinks and greens predominate in the patterning. Here are a couple of examples.

(detail of J M McGhie’s portrait of Jessie Hughes, “The Fisher Lass” (c.1900))

I did not, in any sense, set out to make a shor’ goon, but rather wanted to design something that was suggestive of the pleasing colours and patterns I’d seen used on those garments. After a while with my Jamieson and Smith shade card, I settled on a faded, feminine palette, that I built around shades 2008 and 72.

I wanted to use a very simple repeat that had, like the patterned shor’ goons, a bit of vitality and movement. I settled on a frequently used peerie that I’d tried previously on this hat. I find this a particularly fun peerie to work because of the way it does a lot with very little. It is a multiple of five stitches, and each round is the same, basic 3×2 multiple, arranged in different ways. Essentially, all you have to remember is one round and where to place it.

I set myself a couple of other simple design-tasks, too. The first was to keep the pattern as continuous as possible through the shaping. You may remember my conundrum with the side-shaping of the Tortoise and Hare sweater. Here there are also convenient blank rounds in which to add the shaping, but, unlike the Tortoise and Hare with its long repeats, one can keep the pattern entirely continuous simply by increasing in multiples of five. Unlike many other Fairisle sweater designs, the incorporated shaping used here is very flexible, as one can adjust it to meet many different kinds of body measurements. There are some small losses in the sweater’s vertical arrangement (which the eagle-eyed will note is slightly different between the waist and bust because of the way the increases affect pattern placement) but this is, I think, offset by the considerable gains one makes in horizontal continuity. There is a six inch difference between waist and bust measurements, but no ugly pattern breaks at the side ‘seams’!

(I know you like to see how the sweater is shaped, so please excuse the shot of my armpit and its grafted stitches. Some stretching is inevitable there. )

My other task was to get the pattern to line up perfectly. This can be tricky with a multi-coloured allover pattern worked from bottom-up: one must knit exactly the same number of repeats for both sleeves and body before joining them together. My arms and body are reasonably proportionate, but this is not the case with everyone. One does not want a sweater whose patterns match up nicely, but which is finished off with half-mast sleeves, or a too-short waist. This sweater solves potential problems with proportion by casting body and sleeves on provisionally, then working the corrugated ribbing downward to the required length(s) when the rest of the garment is complete. See how the peeries match up on arms and body? I am all about small knitterly pleasures. . .

The neckline is square-ish, and formed with a steek, while the sleeves (sitting somewhere between raglan and set-in) are shaped to the yoke with lines of centred double decreases. By this point, I was so obsessed with keeping the peerie colours continuous, that I decided to work them across the decreases. This is a fudge which keeps (to an extent at least) the illusion of horizontal visual continuity, but I’m not sure about the final effect. It is possible and perhaps preferable to work the decreases as a sort of faux ‘seam’ in the background colour. It will probably look neater, and so I am considering it for when I write up the pattern. What do you think?

These pictures were taken at Cellardyke during our walk on Saturday. Despite the photographer’s quips about the shor’ goon in the shor’ goon, I love the colours and patterns of this sweater, and am really rather pleased with the design.

I shall shortly enter full on pattern-writing mode: first of all, Deco waits to be completed, and then I shall refine the design of this sweater, which will be called Christie Johnstone. This comes from Charles Reade’s 1853 book of the same name: a rather dodgy novel, but an incredibly interesting and influential publication. Christie Johnstone was Reade’s representation of a Newhaven fishwife who, in many ways, set the bar for the curious way in which these working women featured in Victorian popular culture. Tourists flocked to Newhaven in search of Christie Johnstone; men fell for the very idea of her, and women copied her distinctive ‘costume’ in their fashionable attire. I’ll hold fire on the rest of my thoughts about Christie Johnstone, as I intend to write a short piece about her and her peculiar place in the history of fishing and fashion – the sort of thing I’ve recently been producing for Rowan or The Knitter – which will accompany the pattern when it is published. More of this anon. In the meantime, you can find the sweater’s specs over on Ravelry.

golden fleece?

Warning: long and ranty post.

(view across the water from Shilasdair)

While we were on Skye last weekend, I (of course) found time to visit Shilasdair. I was last at this naturally-dyed-yarn-mecca in 2007, when I bought Shetland aran in two wonderful muted shades, and made this sweater (rav link), a garment of which I am inordinately fond. The yarn knit up like a dream and then bloomed and softened beautifully. The marvellous dusky colours have stayed true and softly luminous. The sweater is tough and hard-wearing, and yet cosy and warm. I love the sweater and the yarn of which it is fashioned. And so I went to Shilasdair to get me some more. Now, Eva Lambert is a brilliant and inspirational craftswoman, and none of what follows is meant as a direct criticism either of her or her business. . . but. . . I was very disappointed to discover that Shilasdair is in the process of discontinuing the glorious shetland (with which I am clearly obsessed), replacing it with a range of “luxury” yarns: merino, angora — and, of course, cashmere. Only sad bin-ends of the shetland remained, so I bought some of the luxury DK (20% cashmere, 20% angora, 40% merino) with a small degree of regret, and a much larger one of ambivalence. And I’ve spent much of the past few days thinking about about ‘luxury’ yarns, their history, their meaning as commodities, and my attitude to them.

(Shilasdair ‘luxury’ DK. Skye tansy overdyed with indigo).

Cashmere is, of course, deliciously soft and takes colour beautifully. It is wildly popular both with the discerning knitter who enjoys feeding its gorgeous buttery-ness through her hands, as well as with the general consumer, who snaps up cashmere bargains of dubious ethics and standards at Tesco or Primark, or lives for Locharron and Johnston’s famous annual sales. In Scotland particularly, the market for cashmere — both as yarn and finished garment — is buoyant and lucrative. And, as with much of the rest of the country, Skye receives an awful lot of visitors who associate cashmere with Scotland, and expect to be able to buy it here. Many visitors, I suspect, would regard cashmere as Scotland’s second national product (after whisky). So this new Shilasdair range is clearly speaking to a market through a commodity with which Scotland’s national identity is inextricably bound up. To give another example, here in Edinburgh, there is a yarn store (of which I am a good friend and patron) that is conveniently situated off the cashmere-and-visitor lined Royal Mile. In response to market demand, the store has developed a yarn-line of incredible expense and (to my mind) rather questionable quality, containing a small percentage of cashmere.

(“not all cashmere is created equal”. Images and tagline from the Scottish Cashmere Club)

Like other commodities, Scottish cashmere has its own nationalist discourse. Central to this discourse are the familiar refrains of national quality, exclusivity, and luxury under threat. By the British and Scottish governments, as well as by its various agencies and trade associations, Scottish cashmere is represented as perpetually threatened by the inferior products and processing techniques that emerged in China after economic liberalisation. During the 1990s, the Scottish cashmere industry was certainly significantly affected by limited supplies of quality base materials as Chinese manufacturers rushed to cash in on a lucrative market with their cheap alternatives to the luxe sweaters of Bonnie Scotland. Scottish cashmere — our national textile that is raised on the undersides of Mongolian goats and shipped half way across the world before being processed, and shipped out to global markets from our quality Scottish mills — must be protected from the competition of the country that raises the animals who provide most of the industry’s base materials. Of course, the different stages of processing involved in the production of any modern textile mean that, to one extent or another, it will always be an international rather than a national commodity, but the different ways in which textiles are claimed as national are always very interesting — and in cashmere’s case, particularly so. You may remember, for example, that the so-called banana wars that disrupted EU / US trade relations in 1999 and 2000 turned on Scottish cashmere. How so? Well, the inclusion of cashmere on a list of commodities earmarked for punitive US import duties prompted an intriguing personal exchange between Blair and Clinton, in which the former agreed to use his influence to sort out the EU’s banana subsidy dispute in return for the latter lifting the impending cashmere tariff. (Clinton was later attacked in both US houses for removing Scottish cashmere from the tariff schedule). Ironically, the threat that the banana wars posed to Scottish cashmere raised market awareness, and apparently boosted the industry.


I am pleased that the Scottish cashmere industry is buoyant, not least for the thousand or so Scots it employs. But as the labour of this workforce remains largely hidden in cashmere’s nationalist discourse, so too does the question of the impact and ethics of increased production of this ‘luxury’ product. Concerns about the fibre’s environmental impact never feature in the discourse of Scottish national protection. Knitters, spinners, and raisers of wool-producing animals will know that cashmere goats produce just a few ounces of quality down per year, but are, like all goats, voracious consumers. They will also have heard about how, in response to Western market demand for more and cheaper cashmere, goat numbers have increased dramatically during the last decade, resulting in the deforestation and desertification of some grazing lands in the far east.


And the ultimate irony about Scottish cashmere — an exclusive, luxury product reputedly threatened by mass-market demand and mass-market production — is that it was itself first developed in response to the mass market. (Warning: I’m putting my historian’s hat on now). Cashmere first rose to prominence in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. In 1798, there was no more desirable, expensive, or exclusive garment for the fashionable women of Paris than a hand-made cashmere shawl sent home by their male relatives who were then fighting in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. The original Kashmir shawls (which often took their peasant artisans several years to make) were sold in pairs, were handwoven, and were of incredible fineness, softness — and, of course, cost. In the portrait you see below, Josephine, empress of France, drapes one cashmere shawl about her shoulders, and in the ultimate fashionable-imperialist swagger, has incorporated a second into the lower panel of her dress.

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Josephine, Empress of France (c.1808) (Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Palais Massena, Nice).

In her extraordinarily pricey and exotic drapery, Josephine is a sort of exotic commodity herself: the feminine objective of the empire; an emblem of the gigantic imperial ambitions of the nation at whose helm she stood. If one is not aware of the cachet of these first handwoven cashmere shawls, it is perhaps hard to see what Josephine is wearing here in terms of its truly outlandish luxuriance. And perhaps the design of such shawls is also so familiar to us now that we no longer read them — as they would have been read in the early nineteenth century — as signs of the exclusive, the oriental, and the exotic. In fact, the first word that springs to our minds when we look at Josephine’s gorgeous cashmere could well be Paisley (of which more in a moment)

(Cashmere shawls in fashion plates from Costumes Parisiennes, 1801-1811).

In the first convolute of his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin writes of the “cashmere fever” that gripped France during the Nineteenth Century: “it began to spread during the Consulate, grew greater under the Empire, became gigantic during the Restoration, reached colossal size under the July Monarchy, and has finally assumed Sphinx-like dimensions since the February Revolution of 1848.” Cashmere shawls appear on a number of occasions in this early convolute, and Benjamin’s fascination with them is clearly about the way they typify the transition from exclusivity and luxury to the mass-market (there are several remarks about their depreciating value over the course of the century). The same process that Benjamin found interesting in France was happening across the channel too: Britain was experiencing its own “cashmere fever” and demand for quality shawls far outstripped supply. After an innovative method of spinning cashmere yarn was pioneered at Barège in France, a premium was offered by the Board for the for Encouragement of Manufactures to introduce similar techniques to Scotland, in order to produce cashmere yarn and cloth of a quality that was deemed to surpass that of the French. In 1833, Houldsworth and Sons of Glasgow were awarded the premium and then the looms of nearby Paisley — a manufacturing centre already well-known for its fine silks and muslins — began to reproduce (and, indeed, to creatively transform) the textile patterns and effects formerly achieved in the earlier, Kashmir hand-woven shawls.

(Kashmir / Paisley motifs)

Spun and woven cashmere was certainly big business in Britain by the mid nineteenth century. The Catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition features an incredible number of cashmere shawls, as well as the fibre of the cashmere goats that Prince Albert was then attempting to raise at Windsor Palace. And I must say that what first sprung to my mind when I started thinking about cashmere a few days ago, was the striking and handsome figure cut by Margaret Hale in the opening pages of Gaskell’s North and South (1855). With her tall frame and (convenient) mourning dress, Margaret forms the ideal draping-model to set off “the long beautiful folds” of the soft, colourful cashmere shawls acquired by her uncle in India, which were to form the luxuriant centrepiece of spoilt cousin Edith’s marital trousseau.


I have come a long way from where I began, but my point is that the nineteenth century origin of Scottish cashmere is precisely as a mass-market product, that was developed in order to compete with the exclusive hand-woven shawls of the peasant crafstmen and women of the east. Yet now the Scottish cashmere industry has lent itself a certain kind of artisanal status (or at least claims a national(ist) heritage that overlaps with the artisanal), and is threatened by eastern responses to the demands of the mass market. So where does this leave me and my skeins of 20% cashmere Shilasdair yarn? Well, I’m still pondering the significance and symbolism of Scottish cashmere (an historical matter of a particular method of yarn-processing), and I will confess to a certain amount of Benjamin-like distaste about the contemporary fashionable rhetoric of cashmere as an Affordable Luxury to which Every Woman Deserves to Treat Herself. According to Jennifer Sanders in the closing paragraphs of an utterly pointless piece of self-help froth entitled Buy More Cashmere (2005):

“Cashmere is a wonderful metaphor for whatever it is that we seem to deny ourselves. “Oh no” you say, as someone offers you a treat, “I really shouldn’t . . .” Yes, you really should. Why pour yourself and your energies into others on an endless basis? Please, save some of you for you. And I’ll see you at the cashmere counter!”

This consumerist rubbish — in which the purchase of a mass-produced woollen product somehow compensates for the deficiencies of a self-abnegating femininity — really makes me lose the will to live. I’d like to say to Jennifer — and to my yarn-consuming self as well: don’t buy more cashmere. Those whose business it is to reflect critically on the economics of global textile production have raised serious concerns about the environmental impact of producing and processing the fibre.* And at a moment when a British sheep can be bought for under ten pounds, when British wool is being burnt rather than spun, and when a quality fleece can cost less than the price of the shearing, there are probably better ways in which to spend your money. I’m of course aware that my knitting is in itself a luxury, and that, in pursuit of it, I deploy many of my own ideological / national delusions — perhaps particularly in relation to my love of Shetland wool. I’m also aware that there are many great small cashmere producers, spinning gorgeous yarn, with a careful eye to the ethics and impact of what they are doing. The same can be said of the many wonderful independent dyers, on Skye, or elsewhere, who produce beautiful cashmere yarns. But I still wish I could have bought that Shetland.

As always, your thoughts and comments on this issue will be much appreciated.

* “The challenge to supply the markets with cashmere wool serves as a significant economic struggle to meet increasing demand and maximise profits. One must look beyond [the] fashion and luxury of cashmere garments to the possible detrimental effects on the environment.” Robert Franck, Silk, Mohair, Cashmere and Other Luxury Fibres (Textile Institute of Manchester, 2001), 223.

Further reading:
Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project (Eiland and McLaughlin, trans) (Belknap Presss, 1999), Convolute A: Arcades, Magasins de Nouveates, Sales Clerks, 32-61.
Linda Cortwright, “The Cashmere Complex“, Wild Fibers Magazine, Spring 2007, vol. 4, issue 2
John Irwin, The Kashmir Shawl (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973).
Valerie Reilly, The Paisley Pattern (Richard Drew, 1987)


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