Svenska Folkdräkter

cover

Thank you all so much for the wealth of information you provided in your comments on the last post. I am now happily at the trip-planning stage, and am really looking forward to visiting Sweden in the early Summer. And as if to provide a colourful antidote to this January’s rather relentless grey, today this book arrived, which I have spent the morning enjoying. It is a 1949 English translation of a book published by the Nordiska Museet, documenting traditional working-class Swedish “costume” by district and parish. Ingemar Tunander’s illustrations are really beautiful, and one must be circumspect about the effect such illustrations have of fixing “costume” in time, as if it were somehow static and unchanging, but the book’s commentary is interesting in acknowledging this, and in its remarks about the influence of modern economic and fashionable changes on what was regarded “traditional” dress. The book has certainly given me lots to think about. Some of the knitwear is spectacular, even in illustration, and I’m particularly interested in the over-apron reticules which closely resemble British women’s pockets. Ah, roll on Summer, and a visit to the Nordiska Museet.

Details:
Anna Maja Nylen, Swedish Peasant Costumes, illst. Ingemar Tunander; trans. William Cameron (Nordiska Museet, 1949)

narke

halsingland

smaland

dalarna

sodermanland

halland

Firth o’ Forth

cramond

Ahoy from the Firth o’ Forth! This cardigan is the second in my series of my Edinburgh-inspired designs, and it is named after the important estuary that marks the city’s northern boundary.

The Firth was a major feature of the decade we spent in Edinburgh: we lived in sight of it – just up the road from the fishing village of Newhaven – and its mists and breezes very much defined our weather. I think that one of the great things (of the many great things) about Edinburgh is that it is a city with a shoreline: as well as hills, and closes, and castles it is a place of beaches and seabirds and Sunday strolling. We spent many happy weekends on foot around the Firth, and, from Cramond in the West through to North Berwick in the East, it is a stretch of coast I know very well indeed. I find the North-Easterly prospect of the Firth lends the light a very distinctive quality and, at all seasons of the year, it is a wonderful place to be.

cramond2

This design was inspired by the creature for which the Firth was once world-renowned: the oyster. Firth o’ Forth oysters were, in fact, Edinburgh’s original street food – and in the booklet I’ve produced to accompany the design, you can find out more about their history.

oyster

This very oyster-y stitch pattern is one I’ve had a thing about for many years – it appears in Martha Waterman’s shawl book under the name of ‘Cocoon Stitch,’ and I knit myself this stole using it back in 2007. Like many of my favourite openwork patterns, it is a relatively simple stitch to memorise (‘action’ occurs only on two out of twelve rows) and yet its effect is quite dramatic. It creates a textured, structured fabric, yet, because of the yarnovers, it also feels wonderfully light and airy. I suppose some people may find it odd to create a cardigan inspired by a bivalve, but to me this is not odd at all.

cramondback

The yarn I used is Yomper laceweight – this is spun by John Arbon for Great British Yarns ‘Union’ range, and is a blend of 70% Falkland Islands Merino and 30% UK alpaca. It has an incredibly light and luxurious hand. While the majority-wool content gives it a pleasing spring and creamy-coloured undertones, the grey alpaca lends the yarn strength and smoothness and a mercurial silvery sheen. All I can say is that from the first moment I felt it in the skein I just wanted to wrap myself up in it.

cramondwrapped

My thinking behind this design was to create a sort of cardigan-equivalent of a shawl or wrap . . .

adjustedschematic
(schematic illustration by Felicity Ford)

. . . therefore the garment construction and shaping are relatively simple. The cardigan is worked back and forth, all in one piece to the underarms, then divided for fronts and back. A little shaping is worked around the neckline; the shoulders are joined and then sleeves are picked up and worked in the round down to the cuffs. There are no seams. Mel (who always has a knitterly trick to add to my designs) came up with the nifty idea of working the sleeves inside-out, which minimises purling.

cramondsleeve
(Sleeve join. Very nifty.)

If you like knitting lace, you’ll enjoy making this garment.

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The fronts can be worn open . . .

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Or drawn about the body.

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And in all ways, this is a garment that is very easy-to-wear.

cramondblurry

There’s a perhaps surprising amount of ease factored into this garment: I’m modelling it here with 7 ins positive ease, and I don’t recommend making it with less than 4 ins ease.

cramond8

. . . because it is meant to be loose and drapey and cosy and shawl-like.

cramondback2

These photographs were taken down by the Firth at Cramond on a very windy day.

cramondbreezy

But I was surprisingly warm in my Fith o’ Forth cardigan.

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The design booklet includes a short essay (exploring the history of the Edinburgh oyster and the Firth), pattern, charts & schematics, photographic lookbook, and the best eighteenth-century poem about oysters you will ever read.

The design booklet is now available digitally via Ravelry, and in print from my Magcloud store.

cramond7

Happy knitting! x

images of knitting #1

I have a small (but ever growing) collection of prints and postcard in which knitters, and the activity of knitting, are represented. Some of these are really very interesting, and I thought I’d occasionally share them with you here.

postcardfront

This card, which was posted with an Austrian stamp in 1916, depicts a ‘continental’ knitter working on a long stocking, whilst literally being haunted by thoughts of war. It is undoubtedly a sentimental image: like equivalent representations of industrious female knitters in Britain and America during the First World War, the needles seem to be there to enable this woman to be ‘doing something useful’ for the war effort, producing functional objects that also serve as testimony of her affection. The woman’s face is the very image of serene meditation — her surroundings are quietly and comfortably domestic; but the ghost of the war hangs over her pleasant home in the shape of the uniformed figure by the window. Is this half-present soldier conjured up by the act of knitting itself, as the repetitive action of the needles frees the knitter’s mind to wander among her thoughts and memories? Is knitting, therefore, a soothing activity that allows this woman to be comforted in her solitude by the idea that she is creating something equally comforting for her absent beloved? Or is the transparent figure an actual ghost — the soldier who has returned after death to haunt his faithful partner? If so, then knitting is an activity that transforms the woman into a tragic figure: an image of steadfast affection and domestic industry, steadily turning out socks for a man already dead.

I find this image interesting because it is troubling and because it disturbs those gung-ho ‘knit your bit’ stereotypes that are generally associated with the 1914-18 war effort. The way that the solider’s ghostly presence brings the war into the woman’s domestic environment is deeply suggestive, and the whole image is, in its own way, as unhinged as the narrator of Philadelphia Robertson’s poem, A Woman’s Prayer (1916), who knits on the edge of sanity:

“I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit;

Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need,

Sometimes the newsboys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly

And when the house has grown quite still
I lean out on my window sill —

And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit”

I’ve scanned the reverse of the postcard, just in case any of you can decipher it.

postcardback

thinking time

lerwick

Well, I had a fantastic time in Shetland. As I was on my own, I stayed in Lerwick. I really enjoyed meeting up with Shetland friends old and new, and pottering about toon.

commercialst

shutters

lodberrie

stoneandwater

But I was there to work — I have a couple of writing commissions in the pipeline, one of which involves producing a short history of Fair Isle knitting for a new (and very exciting) book about Shetland textiles. So I examined a lot of Fair Isle pieces, and I thought a lot about them.

fairislefromfairisle

I saw some truly incredible textiles . . .

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. . . so many of which defied any idea of the ‘traditional’ in Fair Isle knitting.

silkandwool

(This striking allover features 4 shades of Shetland wool and 3 shades of artificial silk)

motifs
(Fair Isle motifs, but not Fair Isle knitting)

plaid
(Fair Isle or . . .Tartan?)

So much to think about.

me

The Sixareen Kep

Hello from Shetland, everybody! Wool Week is in full swing, and it has got off to a great start.
I thought you’d like to see the pattern we produced yesterday at the Shetland Museum — named and photographed by the workshop participants, and modeled here by the lovely Tania — the Sixareen Kep.

In the workshop I talked a bit about the way I tend to build up ideas and inspiration for a project, and I thought I’d share with you a little of the background to the design of this kep (cap). This was my starting point:


Stanley Cursiter, The Fair Isle Jumper (1923) Edinburgh City Arts Centre.

Some of you may remember this amazing portrait from the front cover of A Shetland Knitter’s Notebook, and I’ve also mentioned my fascination with it before here. What the sitter is wearing on her head is is a sort of fancy seafarer’s kep. I just love this hat – perhaps apart from the pompoms – and thought it would be an ideal use of Jamieson and Smith’s Shetland Heritage yarn, of which I conveniently had six balls – one in each shade.


(mmmm . . .tasty Shetland Heritage . . . )

The shape of Cursiter’s sitter’s kep also reminded me strongly of the Phrygian or Liberty cap — a symbol of freedom that’s perhaps most most familiarly associated with the French Revolution.


I thought I would like to make the main body of my kep red, rather than white, recalling the Phrygian cap.

Then I started thinking about the different kinds of head-covering worn by fishermen around the coasts of Britain.

These noble chaps were photographed by Hill and Adamson in 1847, just down the road from where I live, in Newhaven. The one on the left is wearing what I think of as a kep — the kind of tall ‘wursit’ hat that would have been familiarly worn by Scottish and English fishermen throughout the Nineteenth Century. While the Newhaven fisherman’s head-covering is evidently fashioned in a single colour, in Shetland, such hats would have been knitted in several bright shades:

In the words of Samuel Hibert, in his Description of the Shetland Islands (1822):

“The boat dress of the fishermen is in many respects striking. A worsted covering for the head, similar in form to the common English or Scotch nightcap, is dyed with so many colours that its bold tints are recognized at a considerable distance, like the stripes of a signal flag.”

The collections of the Shetland Museum abound with beautiful examples of such hats. These keps are knitted at typically tight gauges, and feature internal linings which would have made them incredibly cosy and windproof. With a little further poking around the Shetland Museum online archives, I found this description of some wonderfully elaborate examples, that were knitted up to an old design in the 1950s:

“Haaf hats were the type of hats worn by the crew of a sixareen at the haaf (deep sea) fishing, and were typically patterned with small geometric designs . . .The skipper of the boat wore a bright red cap, while the rest of the crew wore darker ones. This differentiated him from the rest of the crew.”

So with these resonances in mind — the hat in the Cursiter portrait; the red Phyrigian cap; the brightly patterned keps described in nineteenth-century accounts of Shetland; and the sixareen skipper’s red “haaf” hat — I knitted this:

My kep begins with a knitted-in lining, and the colourwork brim is knitted on 2.75mm needles. After joining the lining to the top of the brim, I went up a couple of needle sizes, knitting the main body of the kep at a looser gauge to make it drapey (as well as having great stitch definition for colourwork, because of the way it is spun, the Heritage yarn also drapes well). After knitting and shaping the body of the kep, I finished it off with a braid, made from 3 different coloured i-cords, which I plaited and joined together. Here’s the end result:

The workshop participants had a great discussion about what to name the hat — associations were made with Burra’s famous Papil Cross, the distinctive red geology of Ronas Hill as well as different aspects of Shetland seafaring. A vote was taken, and the name that won out was the Sixareen Kep.

So, the pattern for the Sixareen Kep is now available from Ravelry!

Many thanks to all who participated in the workshop: Victoria Wickham, Shelly Kocan, Tania Ashton Jones, Susan Freeman, Evelyn Mackenzie, Emily Poleson, Mandy Moore, Mary Pirie, Aileen Ryder, Outi Kater, Joyce James, Tori Seirestad, Charlotte Monckton, Ann Leibert, Mary Henderson, Monique Boonstra, Joyce Ward, Lesley Smith, Melanie Ireland and Jen Arnall Culliford.

60 North

Just dropping in quickly to say that the new issue of 60 North is out! What? You’ve never heard of 60 North? The name refers, of course, to Shetland’s line of latitude, and is a really well-produced magazine put out by my friends at Promote Shetland. Features in the magazine explore many different aspects of Shetland’s landscape, archeology, wildlife, and culture – including (of particular interest to me) – a piece on Shetland Wool Week, and a great article exploring the fine local tradition of Sunday Tea. Also, you may remember that last Summer I published a feature exploring the history of Shetland Lace with Rowan. I know that those of you who are not in the UK sometimes find it difficult to get hold of the Rowan Magazine, so we have now re-published this piece in 60 North, where everyone can see it. Yes, that’s right: 60 North is available online and it is completely free! Stick the kettle on and and download yourself a copy!


(Image © Mirrie Dancers Project / Roxanne Permar)

Textisles is out!

WHOOT! I am exceedingly happy to report that Textisles Issue 2 is now available!

In this issue you receive:
Two patterns (for the Betty Mouat sweater and the BMC)
and four feature articles (three by me, and one by Susan Crawford). There is also a “meet the maker” interview with Griseldis Schmitthuber, who, with a little knitterly-know how and a few skeins of Lana Grosa sock yarn, whipped up a truly fabulous swimsuit.

And there’s more!

Thanks to the unstoppable Melanie Ireland, there are 3 video tutorials available to help those of you who want to knit the Betty Mouat patterns, but are unfamiliar with the techniques that they involve. The videos look at: 1) no-purl garter stitch; 2) working with several colours; and 3) cockleshell lace. You can view the tutorials here.

Both patterns were test knitted by Melanie Ireland and tech-edited by Jen Arnall-Culliford. I love working with Jen and Mel. I love my work! Seriously, I have had a blast putting this whole thing together.

So what are you waiting for?

Download your very own copy of Textisles Issue 2 today!

woolly thinking: part 2


(Mid- eighteenth-century glazed Norwich worsted wools: Bruxelles, Belles Illes, Martiniques, Blondines.)

As we’ve seen throughout WOVEMBER, the way that textiles are named and sold can be misleading and difficult to understand. In a rush to make a chemical innovations integral to a brand, or to lay corporate claim to a particular spinning or weaving process, manufacturers are constantly in the business of re-naming and re-marketing the fabric they produce. While these fabric-product-names have an important function in selling textiles on to garment manufacturers, their significance seems to gradually get lost as the newly-named fabric travels down its chain of production. When it finally ends up as a finished garment, it is of course rebranded, renamed, and remarketed anew. The result of this is that the consumer has little sense of what the words on the label really mean. Did you know, for example, that lycra is the same thing as spandex or elastane or that tencel is simply a brand name of lyocel, which is itself a sub-category of rayon, which is made of wood? Really, it is no wonder that we are bewildered by what is wool and what is not.


(Samples of eighteenth century tobines. These examples are glazed worsted wools, but tobines could be made of silk and cotton as well as wool)

But such confusion over the meaning of the names of commodities is really nothing new. Canny branding and re-branding, naming and re-naming is, of course, one of capitalism’s distinctive hallmarks. And, in a sense contemporary textile manufacturers are merely drawing on a marketing tradition that was already well-established in the early-modern British wool trade.


(eighteenth-century moreens, woven in Yorkshire. Moreens were furnishing-weight worsted wools, with a waved or stamped finish achieved by ‘watering’)

The swatches at the top of this post are taken from a mid-eighteenth century trade sample book. They are all dress-weight glazed worsteds, and were all woven in Norwich. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, following the successful development of long-wool sheep breeds in East Anglia; innovations in the processing of combing-wool; and a large community of Hugenot refugees (who were skilled designers and weavers); Norwich was the heart of Britain’s trade in worsted cloth (‘Worsted’ takes its name from a village North of Norwich). But as the seventeenth century progressed, Norwich found itself under competition from the burgeoning new woollen and worsted trades developing in the English North. In response, the East Anglian worsted manufacture successfully re-branded itself as the “new draperies”. But “new draperies,” needed new names, to distinguish themselves from the old, and such names also needed to appeal to the fashionable consumer’s sense of the modern, the novel, the exotic: hence Bruxelles, Belles Illes, Martiniques, Blondines in the top example. The newly-named glazed worsteds were extremely popular with the public, but some other English weavers, (in terms typically coloured by xenophobia) complained heartily about the Norwich Hugenots’ “outlandish inventions”. There was nothing new about the “new draperies” but their names, and these, the weavers complained, were mere ciphers to make the Hugenots’ textiles “more vendible”.

“In demonstration, thereof, a buffyn, a catalowne and the pearl of beauty are all one cloth; a peropus and a paragon all one; a say and pyramides all one; the same cloths bearing other names in times past. The paragon, peropus and philiselles may be affirmed to be double chambletts; the difference being only the one was doubled in the warp, the other in the weft. Buffyn, catalowne and pearl of beauty etc, may be affirmed single chambletts, differing only in their breadth. The say and pyramides may be affirmed to be that ancient cloth called a bed; the difference only consisting in the breadth and fineness.”*

For these weavers, the new draperies were little more than words, and simply illustrated the public’s propensity to be hoodwinked by fashion’s meaningless novelty.

Another impediment to understanding textile names (from a historian’s perspective, as well as a consumer’s) is that their significance is apt to change radically over time.

These rather beautiful scraps of cloth are eighteenth-century tabourets. These examples are fine Norwich worsted wools, frequently exported to colonial America, where, among fashionable circles, they achieved popularity in the manufacture of clothing. In mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia, you might well be wearing tabouret but, half a century later, during the early years of the early republic, tabourets of heavier weight were being imported from London to furnish the homes of Philadelphia’s new federalist elite. By the 1860s, and by now in exclusive use as a luxury upholstery fabric, taboratt was being manufactured in the USA, and was no longer woven from worsted wool, but from heavy cotton, or silk, or a blend of both. Apart from their names, what connects this series of quite different cloths all in popular use in North America over a century or more is their appearance: tabourets or taboratts all tend to be shaded and / or striped.


( eighteenth-century camlet. Another worsted wool cloth, camlets were also woven from silk, linen, or mohair. Camlets of different weights and finishes later became known as grograms, and groginettes, chinas and cheneys, harateens and moreens)

I have two points to make here. The first is an obvious Marxist one about the way in which finished commodities always disguise the stages of their own production. Whether it is a wool-flannel shirt sold by Urban Outfitters that is actually entirely made of cotton, or a bolt of glazed worsted pyramides that was once simply known by the homely and far less exotic name of a bed, textiles are in the business of constantly being renamed, redescribed, and rebranded in order to sell themselves. The second is that the meanings of commodities – as well as the commodities themselves — are subject to change, not just through canny marketing, but, like tamouret or tamoratt, through their contexts and the way in which they are used. To my mind there is no reason why we can’t wrest the word wool back from meaning all yarn, or all warm and fuzzy cloth (as it clearly does for some UK retailers) to its correct application to cloth spun, knitted and woven from the fleece-of-the-sheep.

And we purportedly wool-aware folk in the UK are very much at fault here as well. Among UK knitters, there is a curious and totally intractable attachment to the phrase “wool shop” (for yarn shop) and “wool” as a generic term for whatever yarn they happen to be knitting with at the time. The words yarn and yarn store are the focus of weird resistance by some British knitters, who regard these terms as a terrible Americanisation of language amounting, in their eyes, to a sort of imperialistic imposition. (Bizarre, I know, but all too true) But, dear countrymen and women, it is nothing of the sort: with the word ‘yarn’, North Americans are simply using the English language correctly, while you, who stubbornly continue to refer to all yarn as wool “because it is British” are completely incorrect. In fact, I would argue that this incorrect, generic application of the word WOOL to all yarn is actually perpetuating the very problem that the WOVEMBER hall of shame exemplifies. If we want retailers and manufacturers to use the word wool correctly, then we have to make sure our own usage is correct as well.

In short, British knitters, please start saying YARN.

* See Robin D Gwynn, Hugenot Heritage: The History and Contribtion of the Hugenots in Britain (1985; reissued 2001).

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.

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