Sue James on Working with Organic Wool
Good evening! We continue on from yesterday this evening, as we are joined for a Q&A by Sue James, who works with the wool produced by Juliet Morris, the shepherd we heard from yesterday! Sue is the Knitwear designer for Llynfi and brings fascinating insights on how to utilise what is produced locally, as a fashion designer. All content and photos © Sue James and used here with kind permission.
WOVEMBER: Where is Llynfi based, and to what extent is the place where you work an influence on the designs which you produce?
Our main base is in Talgarth, at the foot of the Black Mountains between Brecon and Hay on Wye in beautiful Mid Wales; Emily designs and makes the woven clothing in a small studio here. I live and work further west, near Lampeter, renovating and restoring an old water mill and, most exciting! – getting my new knit studio up and running.
Llynfi is the name of a little river that runs from Llangorse Lake to the River Wye, past Talgarth and through the hamlet we used to live in when I started out with Angora bunnies as Llynfi Angora. It’s an SSSI, noted for otters and kingfishers and crayfish – and represents much of what is dear to us I guess. Taken literally it could mean ‘My Lake’. (Llyn = lake, fy = my)
Our surroundings are not so much a direct influence on our design, but living in such a rural area and away from urban centres perhaps gives a certain freedom from the constant pressure of trends, and allows us to explore our own ideas. We do have days out in Cardiff or Swansea, to the Big Shops, just in case we’re missing anything… but we’re always relieved to get back to the rural idyll!
WOVEMBER: I have spent some time going through the Shear Waste Report; it is a compelling case study of the untapped potential of Organic woollen textile production in Wales, and has some really fantastic ideas in it which will benefit both the shepherd (who will earn more for the wool) and fashion designers primarily concerned with traceability, provenance and sustainability (who cannot currently access easily locally produced organic woollen textiles to work with). This latter point is where, I guess, you fit in! Would you mind first of all unravelling for WOVEMBER readers the relationships between your own company – Llynfi – and Organic Wool Wales? How are those two entities related, and how has “Llynfi” come about, as a fashion business operated by you and your daughter?
Sue: Well, to start at the beginning, a fashion business as such was never really the aim – it’s just about making good clothes. It’s evolved over a lifetime: my mum taught me dressmaking, my grandmother taught me to knit and we made our own clothes. My mum got a spinning wheel when I was about 15, in the mid 70’s. I’ve been in love with our British wool ever since those early days of unrolling fleeces on the back lawn, with books by the likes of Mabel Ross close by to enlighten us in the mysteries of sorting. And so it continued, encouraging my own daughters to sew and knit, knitting and sewing a bit for other people, becoming ever more interested in the origins of whatever I was using. My middle daughter, Emily, continued with textiles and design and began her own work with natural dyes while she was studying Surface Pattern Design at Uni. She joined with me part-time when she graduated, continuing with screen printing using natural dyes on wool fabrics, and I gained a Soil Association licence for dyeing and knit in 2007. About 3 years ago we decided to stop selling hand-dyed yarns and cushions etc and concentrate on our first love, making clothes – best decision ever!
From the start, everything we were doing led back to making the most of wool and, where possible, certified organic British wool. Unless you personally know your supply chain, organic certification gives best assurance of production and processing to highest environmental standards. Knitting yarns weren’t such a problem – Chris King at Garthenor Organic Pure Wool, here in Wales, was one of the early pioneers and produces a wide range of beautiful British breed yarns. Around 2008, I met Juliet Morris of Ystrad Farm who had decided to breed her sheep for quality of wool, again to Soil Association standards, and we began using her yarns too.
Working with Juliet, we all felt that more needed to be done to make the most of wool from organic Welsh farms and, in particular, certified organic wool fabric as this is currently only really available by special commission from one weaver. There seemed to be a gap where fabric was concerned. Was it a case of demand/supply? Lack of awareness? The costs? The ‘right’ wool? Organic Centre Wales run a scheme called Better Organic Business Links (BOBL) aimed at developing supply chains from primary producers to market. The Organic Wool Wales project was born; Juliet organised the weaving of fabric and wrote a report to investigate the current position, and Emily and I curated a collection of pieces to be made from the fabric to create a showcase and a talking point, all with BOBL support. We set out to find some answers!
WOVEMBER: Central to the report and also to establishing Organic Wool Wales was the production of two big lengths of Organic Welsh Wool, produced to demonstrate that it can be done! If I have understood correctly, over twenty-five designer-makers from across the UK and overseas applied to join the project and, for no remuneration, designed and made works using some of that fabric. Eighteen designs were selected to form part of an Organic Welsh Wool Fabric Collection, launched at Wonderwool Wales 2013, showcasing the designers’ range of original pieces including accessories, footwear, clothing and furniture, all from the organic wool fabric… could you tell WOVEMBER readers a little bit about your own role in that part of the project?
Sue: Emily and I had the job of finding people to work with the fabric. We sat and scratched our heads and drew up a list, but in the end it was the power of social networking that produced the response. We were really encouraged by the enthusiasm for the idea. What we had forgotten of course, it that these Twitter, Facebook and Linked-in are global – we had to turn down quite a few overseas enquiries.
Applications were sent out to all who asked, and the three of us made the final selection of 18. There was a tight deadline of 6 weeks which made for a good buzz. Emily had the work of cutting up and sending out all the fabric and I set up a Facebook page, which worked brilliantly as a way for the participants to share their progress and feel part of what was happening. It was like Christmas when the completed work started arriving, the standard was amazing!
Chrissie Menzies at Wonderwool was enthusiastic about the whole idea and reserved us an exhibition space, having a rope barrier specially made and getting PR. Staging the whole thing was a challenge as we had our own stand too, but Tony Little of Organic Centre Wales manned the exhibition – and learned a huge amount about wool in the process! It all gained a great amount of interest, and made an inspiring collection – just what we’d had in mind.
After Wonderwool, we staged the collection at Kate Humble’s Wool Weekend, Welsh Smallholders Show, Royal Welsh Show, British Wool Weekend at Harrogate, and Llandovery Sheep Festival. It was also on display for the final Project event, the Farm Day, where it all started. Now the pieces will all be sent back to their makers.
We’ve also tried to maximise publicity for the contributors too, and one participant is going on to stage her own exhibition of Organic wool interior products next year.
Designed by Lorraine Pocklington and Camille Jacquemart using Organic Welsh Wool
Designed by Lorraine Pocklington using Organic Welsh Wool
Designed by Mick Sheridan using Organic Welsh Wool
WOVEMBER: I took a look at your collection online and was impressed by the textiles that you use; there is a strong emphasis in your collection on natural and renewable textiles. Could you say something about your ethos in terms of sourcing fabric and yarn to work with?
Sue: Researching and sourcing materials led us on a difficult journey: dyeing and its issues made us think about the use of colour, how ‘eco’ is bamboo, and what is ‘Peace Silk’ really all about? What was the problem with using British wool? Many of the answers were difficult to pin down, were surprising, enlightening… and often depressing. We realised it was a case of doing the best we could, accepting that compromises had to be made sometimes; that we need to wear clothes, and that good clothes that women would want to keep would be best use of resources. As makers, it is up to us to do the thinking. Wool is our fibre of choice and wool produced as close to home as possible could be a challenge – but then, there’s nothing like a challenge is there?
The main difficulty for a micro business is cost of materials. Maintaining a provenance for your wool tends to mean small quantities, small quantity equals high costs. Buying direct from the farm allows the shepherd to add value to the wool – quite rightly. We could obtain beautiful wool yarns from, say, Italy, and they would be a fraction of the price. But we didn’t want to do that – Britain does wool, and Wales in particular has many sheep! – it must be possible to utilise it, but wool needs to be the right quality for the purpose. One issue appears to be that there isn’t enough of the right grade of British wool available to interest larger mills. However it is all getting better: the rise of the Internet has, I think, made it easier for people to ask questions and think about problems and try and get answers. There’s nothing wrong at all with a yarn (knitting or weaving) made of imported wool, but when you’re led to believe it’s British and then you end up telling your own customers it’s British… well, it raises the question: is a British yarn one that’s spun in Britain or spun in Britain from British wool? The end consumer rather expects the latter. For us, Welsh Wool means wool grown in Wales.
Small scale production can also mean uncertainty and long lead times and this does cause a huge problem, most especially with fabric – we had to wait over 6 months for a bolt of cloth for example, and a batch of wool was spun into the wrong gauge, which lost us a design and a wait of over a year for another chance… Certified organic is the best one can do, as a maker, to prove the provenance of the material used. Organic is currently small scale – and so the circle goes…
In developing the Organic Wool Wales project we’re looking at various ways of people working together to reduce processing costs, to make the yarns and fabrics more affordable and easier to access for small businesses, yet still give a proper return for the producer; it’s also at the core of the Cambrian Mountains Wool group, which Juliet and I are also working with. Small can work to your every advantage of course – but it still has to be economically viable. Fabric is a particular issue as the wool has to go out of Wales to be spun; it can come back to be woven to Organic Standards, but then has to go up to Scotland for finishing; it all adds to costs.
WOVEMBER: The price point for your garments is significantly higher than the prices you might find on the High Street, reflecting the extra costs involved in using local labour; high quality materials; and the small-scale production runs you are working with. Could you say something about the economics of Llynfi?
Sue: There’s no way we can compete with ‘High Street’ and we’d like to think that what we are offering is quite different to what might be found there! We fall into the category of designer–maker, we’re not manufacturers, we don’t use manufacturing facilities. We sell directly to our customers as we can’t price our work to allow selling through retailers. It’s hard work, but people appreciate being able to talk to us as the makers of the piece they are buying, we can take into account personal figure issues, we can tell the stories of the materials we use. Our customers tend to be women who buy only very few items in a year, or who have saved specially. We don’t change the collection every season – being wool we focus on Autumn/Winter anyway, and we have to keep older patterns as they get asked for.
The challenge we set ourselves was to use Welsh wool wherever possible or, at least, British, and in a contemporary style. I think my previous points about scale also highlight the challenges involved in working at this artisan level.
WOVEMBER: The Shear Waste report includes some very heartening phrases, including this gem: “Organic Welsh wool has a powerful resonance with the new economic values of natural, sustainable, local and organic. There is no difficulty engaging designer and consumer support in the concept.” I wonder if you could say a few words about changes in perception which you have noticed, as a fashion designer, in terms of both what you now want to design, and what your customers now want to buy?
Sue: There is definitely a shift to paying more for fewer pieces that are well made, that are going to last better and have a reassurance about them where production is concerned. I think people are starting to realise the true cost of cheap clothing. Having never set out or trained as fashion designers, we have come into making clothing from a different angle – that of developing our own interest in wool and taking our own clothes making a step further. We design and make things that we like, one eye on the trends but definitely doing our own thing, with clean lines and interesting detail. We haven’t really had to change anything – but it’s certainly heartening to discover more and more people who like what we do. I think there is much more opportunity out there now, people are learning how to wear wool, and they appreciate knowing about the origins of the fibre and buying into a sense of place.
WOVEMBER: In the world of organic food production, one of the things that seems to have really taken off is product differentiation, and also increased consumer awareness regarding different types of breeds, provenance, etc. I wondered if the organic food model has been inspirational at all to you in terms of thinking about how woollen textiles might be once again considered artisanal, and marketed as such to an increasingly aware consumer base?
Sue: Absolutely! One of the puzzling and frustrating things is that wool isn’t considered an agricultural product so it doesn’t have the same status when it comes to farm support, or the same promotion behind it as organic food. Organic farming is all about food – why not the wool as well? There is very much to be done with farmers through to general public though, when it comes to wool qualities. All wool is not the same, and it’s vital to make the appropriate use of the wool available. Just because a particular breed has a certain appeal doesn’t mean that it would make a jumper that someone would pay a lot of money to wear, and I think that’s where wool producers, processors and designers could gain much by working together more closely . It also needs to be accepted that artisanal products have a price attached to them which reflects the production, or that the product needs to be made in such a way as to repay the maker appropriately.
WOVEMBER: The Shear Waste report covers the whole sheep to shoulders supply chain, describing where value could be added both for end consumers and wool-growers. It bought people together from all ends of the wool industry, including designers, mill-spinners, representatives from the British Wool Marketing Board, Shepherds, Designer-makers etc. have these meetings with folk involved in other areas of the Organic Welsh Wool industry changed how you think about your work as a fashion designer?
Sue: It has been an extremely interesting year! It’s made us realise how little the general public know about textile production and how interested they are to find out; how massive the wool industry is and the vast quantities involved (and how very, very tiny we are!); how much passion there is among small producers and designers/makers and craft people for making more of Welsh (and indeed, British) wool; how supportive the Wool Board wants to be – they’re not the bad boys after all… And it’s given us much encouragement and helped us grow tremendously in our direction for the Project. Personally, it’s given us so much more confidence in moving forward with what we are already doing – exciting times!
WOVEMBER: Your current look-book has a wonderful, WW2-inspired atmosphere; I wondered if this vintage aesthetic in some way harks back to an era when more clothes were made by hand and before the widespread adoption of synthetic textiles caused an international drop in wool prices?
Simply – yes! That wonderful rose-tinted way of looking back to a time of a slower pace, elegance of dressing for an occasion, women starting to have more freedom, and discovering flight and travel.
WOVEMBER: Could you talk WOVEMBER readers through a couple of the designs you have made using 100% WOOL?
Sue: Although I make the knitwear, dressmaking was my first interest and I always start with the dress styles of a period. For the current aeroplane designs, it was the detailing of cuffs and collars in the 30s that caught my eye. The more we looked into this era, the more we found out about how popular flying was for women, and cycling for holidays. Then I came across a lovely old photo of a model aircraft show, with planes of all shapes and sizes lined up ready for take-off. Cue developing the jacquard pattern of aeroplanes. I’d also found a little vintage red aeroplane brooch, which was the perfect shape. I really, really, wasn’t sure about it though! I mean – ‘planes? For ladies? I made up a jacket, using a smaller ‘aeroplane tweed’ for a contrast of scale as well; Emily loved it and made me do more! It’s taken off (!), and the funny thing has been – people don’t see the planes at first; they fall in love with the overall pattern. So I can get people wearing aeroplanes, without them realising they are… I felt this design needed a soft yet fairly sturdy woollen spun yarn and tried Sue Blacker’s ‘Classic’ (although not organic); this has Blue Faced Leicester from a Welsh farm with Lleyn (which is a Welsh breed although this particular flock is in Cornwall) and some Hebridean for a grey blend. The yarn works beautifully, with a slight sheen, and dyes well with madder for the red aeroplanes.
WOVEMBER: Finally, just for fun, there are quite a few sheep breeds native to Wales – do you have a favourite and why?
Sue: Tricky! I’m interested first and foremost in suitability of wool. I think the Welsh Black has to come pretty near the top though – we like to use naturally coloured wool and this is a breed developed specially for its colour. The wool can be good for knits, and for woven cloth. Hill Radnors (of which Juliet has a flock) have a great, sheepy, friendly appearance and an interesting fleece, also the little Balwens with their blaze.
Balwen with its blaze, image found here