Wearing Wool by Felicity Ford

WARNING: This is a LONG post! Get TEA!

Last year working on WOVEMBER prompted me to embark on a personal project – a ten-year long project – entitled The Slow Wardrobe. I wrote about it here, but here are the salient points:

I want to propose the establishment of The Slow Wardrobe as a way of honouring what wool is. The Fast Wardrobe and BOGOF prices of the High Street are out of kilter with the timings of animals and of the Earth, and with the value and production costs associated with processing real wool. From now on, I intend to clothe myself as much as possible with wool that has been:

produced in a traceable and sustainable way
repurposed/salvaged from ebay or the local charity shops
made by me
grown on a sheep I have personally met

I also want to introduce some practices into my life associated with the development of the Slow Wardrobe which shall include:

passing on good quality woollen items which I have and cannot use in some way to others, so that they can continue their useful life
promoting 100% wool through the production of creative objects and items which celebrate and highlight what wool is
writing about wool and seeking to document the stories of the clothes that I wear

I estimate that it will take me approximately 10 years to accumulate all the clothes I will need for the rest of my life, and that these items shall – as much as possible – be entirely comprised of wool.

A grand plan, for sure, and not completely original – slow fashion is a pretty established concept by now, and indeed only a few days ago, we heard from Amy Twigger Holroyd about what it means to run a Slow Fashion Label… but how’s year one of my Slow Wardrobe project gone?

I have made fewer 100% WOOL clothes this year than I have repurposed/salvaged from the local charity and vintage shops. However, a deepening interest in mending, making and valuing clothes has meant that why I buy clothes has radically changed.

Now I care about wool content. And the history of garments.

I purchased this knitted waistcoat/vest purely because of how often it’s been mended. This was clearly hand-knitted, ironed very regularly, (the cables are completely flat!) and skilfully repaired with sewing thread in many places. I don’t know whether or not it is made of 100% WOOL and it makes me look older than I am to wear it, but everything it represents – valuing, care, labour – is dear to my heart, and so I wear it anyway.

I purchased this oversized man’s cardigan, made by M&S a long time ago in 100% Shetland Wool, with intentions of modifying it; of making it more woman-shaped, more fitted, changing the buttons etc. but the moment I put it on, I felt like my teenage self again. I wore a lot of big baggy man-sweaters as a teenager, with floppy hats from River Island and leggings… (ah the ’90s!) The cardigan was the perfect companion throughout September and carried me perfectly through October, too, paired with shorts and tights and worn with a variety of hats, urban urchin-style. Every time I bury my hands in the pockets, I feel less inclined to do anything to this cardigan but enjoy it, keep it in good repair, and safeguard it from the moths.

I LOVE this poncho, found at Frock and Roll vintage shop in Reading. I love its imperious sweeping folds of blanket-y wool, the way it sits on my shoulders, and the fact that as soon as I put it on I feel the urge to don a turban. It feels like a signature fashion statement in big bold checks, and I enjoy very much that it adds a splash of colour to my wardrobe (more on that later).

As I type, 2 shapeless 100% lambswool man-sweaters are in the washing machine along with an old woolmix Primark tunic on a 60 degree felt-making wash cycle. This represents my most ambitious salvage project to date and both the sweaters were purchased from Age Concern in Reading.

The Primark tunic comes from former times, before I was a serious knitter and before I started seriously thinking about High Street Fashion. At some point in 2009 it got some paint on it, and I decided to embroider over the paint-stains, thus turning the unfortunate spillage into a design feature.

Paint flakes and embroidery repairs

I wear the tunic very often. Repairing it has made me feel affection for it, even though it is only 70% wool – and poor quality wool at that – and even though it comes from Primark. It is a garment I feel proud to own, it is the start of my own interrogation of the ethics of cheap fashion. However it is falling to bits.

I am hard on my pockets. All sorts of stuff goes into them, and these are now full of holes. Also, the shape of the tunic is incredibly unflattering, with a lumpy seam running along the line just above the fullest part of my bust. This is not a good look! Once the sweaters and tunic currently in the washing are done with their felting cycle, I intend to cut a new top for this tunic from the felted fabric, to create replacement pockets, and to up-cycle it into something which will extend its life for another few years.

The tunic is by far and away not the only garment in my wardrobe falling to bits; the felted sweaters will provide patches for all kinds of items in states of disrepair and fraying.

One of the downsides of The Slow Wardrobe is that I have felt permanently scruffy. This is a classic ‘Me’ outfit including 3/4 length corduroy pants from 2005; a charity-shop cashmere sweater and a merino sweater purchased in 2008; the aforementioned tunic; a pair of falke soft-merino tights and some 100% WOOL Estonian legwarmers designed by Riina Tomberg. I am pleased with the composition of the outfit, but anyone would be forgiven for thinking that I am dressed to go gardening and not that these are actually the clothes I wear most of the time!

This is still my first and favourite sweater. What did not fall out of it as pills in the first couple of weeks of its life was subsequently felted in the washing-machine (not deliberately, that time) resulting in a bobbly, semi-felted, merino/angora sweater that is soft but perhaps the worst advert for WOOL’s lasting powers that I own! THE PILLING!

These are some of the best mends from the first year of The Slow Wardrobe:

I love all of these socks in their ever-murkening shades, and am I think justifiably proud of how tidy my darning of them is becoming, through practice.

But the MURK is a problem I need to address in the forthcoming years of The Slow Wardrobe, which brings me to a story which is both about my sense of frustration and failure around SHOES and The Slow Wardrobe and the need for colours in what you must agree so far is an unremittingly MURKSOME palette of greys, blues, greens and dingy browns.

These are some Skechers shoes purchased earlier this year. They are my favourite shoes, my very favourite ever shoes. In August, myself and Mark undertook a 187 mile walk over 12 days, journeying on foot from Weymouth in Dorset to the London Olympic Stadium – a project detailed on Mark’s amazing website. I have arthritis which is now well-controlled with anti-TNF drugs, but my feet are misshapen and finding comfortable shoes is difficult. I did eventually find a good pair of walking boots, but during the 187 mile walk, developed shin-splints. When I returned home I was horrified at having difficulty walking again. I used a walking stick a lot in my early twenties and though I’ve done much to claim a positive image of myself as a disabled woman I have a vehement hatred of any sort of shoe (thin-soled; narrow; high-heeled etc.) which impairs the incredible physical pleasure that is being able to walk.

I shall admit here that when I returned home from the 187 mile walk, all thoughts of The Slow Wardrobe momentarily left my mind in favour of the pressing priority to find an enabling pair of shoes. These shoes are designed to stop you from heel-striking; they force you to walk on the middle-part of your foot. I saw them and instantly felt a deep rush of pleasure at the fun I could have in such a pair of shoes. Light on the foot, a dream to walk in, able to accommodate my misshapen feet and insanely bright in colour, I loved them at once. I actually had a nightmare last week that I was mugged for them, and I woke up crying real tears.

However my insanely fun trainers do not fit The Slow Wardrobe ethos at all, as I have no knowledge of the supply chain that lies behind their making, and they are made completely of synthetic textiles! I have some boots from the Natural Show Store which I have had for years and on which the zipper is broken, and a place in which I intend to have these mended, but shoes pose a very particular problem for me in terms of The Slow Wardrobe. I loved Tom’s post about mending some old leather shoes of his, but the shoes which empower and enable me to walk – soft-soled; non-leather; soft enough to accommodate a passel of wonky toes; – are uniquely resistant to a culture of repair and mending. For example the shop in which I bought my MBTs (another expensive set of trainers, essentially) have explained to me that there really is nowhere they know of where specialist sports shoes can be sent for mending. What are my options here? I don’t know. It’s a pressing future question for The Slow Wardrobe and for my feet. For now, all I can do is maintain these shoes for as long as possible and search for options which will work for my feet and which contain a higher proportion of natural materials!

The shoes are not the only failure of this year, and the others are also connected with the 187 mile walk, in August.

I’d had grand plans to invent an entire WALK 2012 wardrobe to wear on the walk; hand-knitted base-layers, lightweight sweaters; a host of thick, wool walking socks etc. – but then planned badly, failed to allocate adequate time to the tasks associated with making such things, and then had various giant, all-consuming work-projects on the go – all of which meant that I had not made any of these things when the time of the walk arrived.

I did buy some t-shirts and cotton shirts as I was concerned about how I would fare walking up to 20 miles per day with a 100% WOOL outfit on in August! I do not feel good about these purchases – all High Street purchases, all in the sale, all cotton.

However for every night of WALK 2012 I was saved by wool socks and my icebreaker merino base-layer (vest and long-johns). I own one icebreaker vest, 2 pairs of icebreaker pants, one pair of icebreaker long-johns, and one long-sleeved ice-breaker crewe neck base-layer. They are the things I wear most in my whole wardrobe, recently supplemented with a couple of pairs of Falke soft merino tights.

Icebreaker are a laudable company and their stuff is extremely long-lasting and traceable, and their ethical stance on land usage, animal welfare etc. is excellent. However I am troubled on my dependence on wool from the other side of the world in my wardrobe, and wonder whether it is going to be possible and/or desirable to invent some wardrobe staples from wool grown closer to home.

One of my biggest inspirations in this regard are the Nether Garments knitted by Carolina and blogged here. She made long legwarmers that are essentially giant, wearable swatches. Colourful, practical, and I expect pretty warm, this is the kind of Slow Wardrobe staple item that I aspire to creating! I did begin some such leggings when in Estonia, but the tiny gauge size required to make my Estonian wool look nice is just too soul destroying for words. They shall become mittens I think. Or legwarmers, but I don’t have it in me to make leggings at a gauge of nearly 200 sts per round for the ANKLE. I said SLOW Wardrobe, not GLACIAL!

However, although Estonia crushed my dreams of making Muhu-inspired leggings in brightly-coloured Estonian yarns, I did meet a lot of sheep there, and am a few stages closer to fulfilling my objective to knit something from sheep I have personally met! Meeting Anneli’s Native Estonian sheep, (all hers come from Kihnu, though there are also native Estonian sheep found on other islands and in the flocks of other shepherds) I obtained enough yarn in 4 shades of Estonian wool for a pretty major design – for a truly classic item for The Slow Wardrobe – that I cannot wait to begin knitting.

I also learnt to spin while in Estonia. And I shared my philosophy of The Slow Wardrobe in various workshop contexts, where I was encouraged to continue exploring this theme.

When I came home I was so inspired that I spun enough yarn to make my first handspun thing, a pair of fingerless gloves, the pattern is by Churchmouse Yarns and Teas:

One of the greatest successes of The Slow Wardrobe is connected with my stay in Estonia, actually. My favourite Slow Wardrobe item to date is my 100% WOOL uniform, created for my one-month-long residency in Estonia exploring the idea of a cultural wool-exchange.

It is made from two very simple sewing patterns which I feel I have pretty much mastered – The skirt is Vogue V8424 and the tunic/top is one I’ve made a load of times – Butterick B5217.

It is made from 100% WOOL fabric purchased at Filkin’s Wool Mill.

I am proud of my neat slip-stitches just inside the bodice, and the use of a random 50cm of rowan fabric purchased years ago as a source of bias-binding and lining materials.

I love the french-seams I utilised inside the top.

But am less enamoured with the rubbish job I did with this zipper.

And I am yet to properly sew all the bias binding inside the skirt on properly…

One realisation about adopting The Slow Wardrobe as a philosophy, is that one’s clothes are never done. I have an interminable pile of to-do clothes-related tasks.

I feel I need to shift gears so that the gratification of shopping for new clothes is replaced by the gratification of restoring or mending the things I already have. Like this dress, found at Frock and Roll, which fits me like a glove, and split right up to my arse the other day when I was looking for something underneath the bed!

Sometimes the acquisition (or creation) of new things feels appropriate to the ethos of The Slow Wardrobe, however. My Layter jacket is a good case in point. I am very proud of this garment – it’s one of the actually SMART items which I own – and in spite of its sheepy palette does not appear to my eyes to be MURKY, but rather elegant and understated. I love the construction which I developed for making this celebration of sheep and that it uses so many yarns created by Sue Blacker, whose work with WOOL I deeply admire.

Layter is the first, I hope, of many original Felicity Ford knitting designs. One of my regrets for the first year of The Slow Wardrobe is how few of my other ideas have become finished things.

Here is an amazing, 100% WOOL thing, not yet finished.

And another one…

However The Slow Wardrobe is just that, and I have been developing this project in tandem with a whole slew of other art projects; at times I’ve felt that the most abused resource in the whole enterprise is my own energy.

…At its lowest points, year one of The Slow Wardrobe has been about being an artist with not very much money, working on too many different projects at once, and not having time to mend socks. At such times I have felt badly-dressed, barely-presentable, and skint.

At its highest points, year one of The Slow Wardrobe has been about the deep pleasure of exploring fashion, the meaning of clothes, and the politics surrounding the act of dressing myself. I am proud to be a maker of WOOLLEN BROOCHES – an accessory that showcases the beauty of woven woollen textiles to fantastic advantage – and to have invented a stylish jacket that celebrates the colours of our beautiful British Sheep breeds.

The truth is somewhere between these extremes… and I am blessed to have a beautiful, thoughtful, supportive partner who is joining in with my slow-wardrobe ethos, and who cares not if I am clad in falling apart PRIMARK clothes, as long as I am smiling.

And that counts for a lot.

I am happy I made a uniform which will last me for years to come, (though I do need to fix the pockets, the zipper and the bias-binding inside). And I am sad that I didn’t finish this:

It is a toile for a dress, to be made in high quality tweed sent to me as a generous gift, by Kate. I have not ‘fixed’ the toile yet, much less cut the tweed for the actual dress!

But these are all things that shall come to pass; the ultimate lesson for The Slow Wardrobe has been that this is about fashion as story and process, and that it’s called The Slow Wardrobe because it is slow…

In summary:

I have not produced produced as many clothes in a traceable and sustainable way as I perhaps might have liked – shoes and summer wear pose me the greatest problems in this regard;

I am pleased with what I have repurposed/salvaged from local charity shops and vintage stores.

The things I have made – a pair of hand-spun mitts; a jacket; a wool uniform; a hand-knit speaker system; a baby blanket and a scarf – are all deeply pleasing to me because I understand something about where the wool is from and in many cases, which breed, which mill, and sometimes even which sheep. My favourite achievement of all those items is The Knitted speaker system, because it represents everything I believe in when it comes to WOOL, however it is a wardrobe FAIL since I cannot wear it!

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Handknitted speaker system!

I have not yet knitted with wool from an individual sheep I have personally met, but I have knit more with wool from flocks I know this year than in any other and this is a correlation which I hope to only build on in future years of The Slow Wardrobe…

I have passed on several handknits to people whom I know will derive more pleasure from them than I ever can; my best friend Dorrie now has my Tatami and my Rover stole and I hope they are keeping her warm and cosy during her pregnancy.

I feel I have done much this year to promote 100% WOOL through the production of creative objects and items, though I should add to this list that projects such as curating the WOVEMBER blog posts might count towards this aim for The Slow Wardrobe in future years!

As the principal WOVEMBER blog-post organiser, I am satisfied that I have written about wool plenty this year!

Aims for next year?

My principal aims for The Slow Wardrobe next year are:

to make more things out of WOOL
to explore SLOW WARDROBE approaches to footwear, and summer clothing
to continue to build WOVEMBER as an online, annual celebration of wool
to finish some of the handknitted things I am working on!
to meet more sheep and shepherds
to do more to promote WOOL
to escape MURKFAKTOR in next year’s Slow Wardrobe additions