For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this summer has been a very fickle one—with record highs followed by periods that feel more autumnal. I’m writing this while in Amsterdam and although it’s July, I’m glad to have packed a light sweater. I get cold quite easily. Is it my tropical heritage or my bad circulation? It’s hard to know! But no matter where I call home, I always wear knit pieces year round because I love how versatile they are.
Knit neckties and vests can add a playful element as the soft structure of knits takes the formality out of traditional haberdashery. A pullover or cardigan can be slung over the shoulders or wrapped around the neck as a scarf, or tied around the waist as a belt or for extra cover if something is a bit sheer. Knitwear can take summer weight clothing into cooler temperatures: chuck a cardigan over a dress or a one-piece and wear it with some stockings to play with prints and textures, and mix together fabric types.
Here’s an example from A Space of Stillness, pairing a cotton pullover with light cotton gauze wide-legged pants. This was shot in Los Angeles, where it’s not unusual for temperatures to dip drastically in the evening—regardless of the time of year.
There are some designers and initiatives out there exploring sustainability in knitwear in very hands-on ways. One of these is the Dutch design studio, The Knitwit Stable. Founded in 2015 by Reina Ovinge, The Knitwit Stable is a farm with a knitting studio in Baambrugge, a small village about 20 kilometers south of Amsterdam. It is home to a small collection of Merino sheep and Angora goats (for mohair). Drawing from over 20 years of experience in the fashion industry as a buyer and producer, Reina started The Knitwit Stable to create a transparent and sustainable place where professionals can learn about this aspect of fashion production from the very beginning—the animal and its welfare.
As Reina explains, the mission of The Knitwit Stable is “to make transparency possible on a small scale in every link in the wool [production] chain by keeping Merino sheep and Angora goats in an animal-friendly way, [practicing] the sustainable re-use of existing Dutch wool, and processing wool and making it into a local and honestly (or fairly) produced garment. We share this knowledge with professionals in the fashion industry.
“We want to pass on to new generations the processing of honest wool into a sustainable, locally produced end product at a fair price. In doing so, we are restoring the value that wool deserves: a natural luxury product that has been produced with respect for people, animals, and the environment.” To this end, The Knitwit Stable created TREK & TREES, a line of knit cardigans, sweaters, and accessories made of Dutch wool produced from their own sheep and goats.
The label is designed in-house in collaboration with various knitwear designers. Every piece is knit-to-order so there is no waste and the production is entirely transparent and fair as well. You can also purchase yarn from their shop and make your own creations.
The wonderful thing about wool is that it is a purely natural and renewable material, and has many properties that make it desirable. Wool garments can last for many, many years if cared for properly. Aside from being durable, wool is versatile; it can be knit up to be chunky and structural or gossamer and lightweight. Also, it is breathable and retains its shape well. It is odor-, stain-, and flame-resistant, and provides UV protection. While it is one of the most reused and recycled fibers, once it is at the end of its lifespan, it takes one year (at the most) to fully decompose whereas polyester and nylon garments take about 40 years to biodegrade.
During Fashion Revolution Week this year, I attended a screening and workshop put on by The Knitwit Stable at Fashion For Good. Every year, Fashion Revolution Week commemorates the April 24, 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of 1,138 people and injured many others. Fashion Revolution Week mobilizes people globally to ask fashion brands #WhoMadeMyClothes and call for “a fairer, safer, cleaner, more transparent fashion industry.”
On this occasion, Reina was on hand along with members of the team to speak about the mission and work of The Knitwit Stable and to introduce their documentary From Goat to Garment, Part 1.
The film captures the entire journey that mohair goes through in order to be turned into yarn so it can be knit into clothing; in this case, the mohair originates in the Netherlands at The Knitwit Stable (with their angora goats) and travels all the way to South Africa, where 53% of the world’s mohair is produced and where the majority of mohair processing plants are located. There, Reina and the small crew visited mohair farmers, processing plants, a mohair broker, and a spinning mill in Port Elizabeth. Along with making the mohair production chain completely transparent, From Goat to Garment also brings to light the substandard conditions for the people working in the processing plant.
It was an illuminating documentary, and as much as I learned about mohair production and the immense distances our knitwear travels within its production chain, I also realized further how incredibly complex the fashion industry is. Prior to viewing the documentary, I hadn’t considered how much the workers shearing the animals were paid, and I was surprised to learn that so much of the world’s mohair originates in South Africa.
But it’s essential to unravel and demystify fashion production as much as possible in order to understand where we can improve aspects of the process and to select sustainable and ethical knitwear brands. TREK & TREES is one such brand and if you’re in the Netherlands, you can visit The Knitwit Stable to learn more and meet the lovely people who’ve created this wonderful resource center and see the well-cared-for animals producing the merino wool and mohair.
After the event, I wanted to know more about what inspires Reina’s work with The Knitwit Stable and what led her to make From Goat to Garment. I couldn’t make the trip to Baambrugge, so we corresponded over email.
Reina, what inspired you to make the documentary From Goat to Garment?
After shearing our goats we wanted to make a nice sweater out of it and found out there was much more behind [the process] than we expected. Even after 25 years of experience in knitwear, it seemed that I did not know much about the supply chain before the yarn. So we did a deep dive into the supply chain. We also thought it would be nice to inform professionals and consumers about what it takes to make a mohair sweater. A documentary seemed like a good medium to do that.
Did you have any outside funding or was the documentary self-funded?
It was all self-funded, with free help from the videographer and the editor.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while filming in the mohair processing plant in South Africa?
The documentary features the Samil processing plant, and the [mohair] broker and farmers. What was most surprising was the development and progress they have already made and the love they have for the animals and the business.
What would you like to see improved in the mohair processing chain?
The conditions for the people who are shearing [the goats] and sorting the mohair.
What makes you most hopeful about what you learned in South Africa?
The care and dedication.
Did anything you learn in South Africa inspire you to do things differently back at home in the Netherlands?
In the Netherlands we don’t care so much for our wool. The price is very low and some farmers just throw it away as the price of shearing is more expensive than the wool itself. It inspired me to look into what we do with Dutch wool from sheep [raised for meat].
When I came back from South Africa, PETA just released the mohair [exposé] that gave a totally different view [than what I witnessed]. I wrote a statement in response.
(…) Reina does not recognize the experiences shown in the PETA film. In 2017, she travelled to South Africa and visited the farmers, auction, spinners, mohair merchants and factories where the mohair is processed. The goal was to get a complete picture of all the processes and facets of the mohair industry and to compare them to present sustainability standards.
Before she left, Reina fully expected that the animals would be mistreated, and that sustainability would be very hard to find. She was surprised, however, by the steps taken by the mohair industry to improve sustainability and animal welfare. Trade association MSA (Mohair South Africa), for example, uses sustainability guidelines to carry out its audits, while shearers are trained according to the guidelines of the NWGA (National Wool Growers Association). She was touched by the passion and devotion of the South African farmers and [industry] workers, and their respectful treatment of the goats. Of course, this does not alter the fact that each individual incident involving animal cruelty is unacceptable and that tough action needs to be taken against it.
Yet, Reina did encounter another injustice: the low wages of the shearers and sorters working on the farms. It became clear that big steps are still needed when it comes to viable wages.
TREK & TREES by Anneke Hymen
Regarding TREK & TREES, how do you apply your transparent chain/slow fashion/ethical practices to the brand?
We want to make a perfect basic that lasts a long time. We want to be 100% transparent about the making from goat/sheep to garment.
We do that by [documenting] everything, and by using GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certified factories for dying and processing the raw wool. We use raw wool only from our farm or Dutch breeders.