Single acts can inspire action. More importantly they can start ripples and create change.
A month or so ago I read that Woollenflower (an independent fibre artist) and Rachel Atkinson (the tour de force behind Daughter of a Shepherd yarn) were collaborating to create a small range of gorgeous tweed project bags. These weren’t just your average knitting project bags. They were ones with a very clear provenance, i.e. made of Ardalanish tweed, i.e. from the Ardalanish farm’s own Hebridean flock (and other locally sourced native breeds) and woven in its own mill.
Earlier this year I fell seriously in love with Hebridean wool courtesy of the Daughter of a Shepherd. Rachel’s skeins of crisp, undyed deep chocolate coloured wool were the result of her experiment to turn the gorgeous fleeces of her father’s flock into a valuable product, in response to the ridiculously low price her dad was receiving for the fleeces via the British Wool Marketing Board. This entity bulk buys and sells British wool but fails to realise the value of different wools, often selling dark or rustic ones for use in carpets.
I love how with this new collaboration Rachel is not only championing gorgeous Hebridean wool but another farm’s efforts to derive real value from its fleeces and, in the process, strengthen local supply chains. I even joked how I wish I could find such tweed by the yard in my local haberdashery. A flippant comment but it set me thinking. How lovely it would be to be able to find more breed specific and locally woven fabric, in the same way that we knitters are starting to enjoy such specific knitting yarns!
It is still possible to source British woollen fabric by the yard but you really need to hunt it out. Finding British grown AND milled wool is even harder. And when you do, it costs. But the reality is, unless we use it and are prepared to pay a fair price for it, farmers have no incentive to invest in processing the amazing wool in this country into a quality product. So, rather than buy a new winter coat, I will be sewing one… and I shall use woollen fabric grown and milled in Britain.
A single newbie sewer making her own coat will of course change very little but as a knitter, I know the power of a community of makers. I have seen how our shared love of quality material and an interest in making our own garments can support livelihoods, supply chains and add value to local resources. I therefore shared my plan to sew a local woollen coat with fellow knitters-cum-sewers on social media and asked if any of them fancied doing the same? And so the idea of a sew along (SAL) was born.
If anybody fancies joining in here are the guidelines.
1 – Sew a coat from local-to-you wool
Hunt out a 100% woollen fabric that is made from woollen fibre that is local to you. Local is obviously relative. If you live in the US or Australia, it may be the same or an adjacent state. If you live in a part of Europe where sheep are not reared for wool or the wool is not used for fabric, you may have to look to another country in your region.
To the extent possible, use wool that is not only grown but also milled locally. This may be trickier as the drive for cheap has meant the closure of a lot of weaving mills. If in your hunt for local wool, you can’t find anything grown or woven in your own area, ask your local sewing shops, farmers… Those conversations can be embarrassing but it’s only by repeatedly asking for a product of local provenance that producers and retailers will realise there is still a market for such products!
2 – Experience
This sew-along is aimed at all levels of experience, not just people with years of sewing under their belt. I am definitely a newbie dressmaker and yes, I am slightly wary of cutting into expensive woollen fabric. However, as somebody pointed out, a simple coat design can be easier to make than a highly fitted dress. And thanks to this SAL there will be a community of fellow makers, who can share tips, advice, encouragement and of course, suggestions for accessible patterns. (I am toying between Merchant & Mills’ Haremere Coat and the boxy Burda 6736 Jacket.)
3 – Resources
If you’re based in the UK or are looking for British woollen fabric, check out this post by English Girl at Home, which includes suggestions of where you can source British and Irish woollen fabric. If anybody wants to share suggestions of local-to-them sources, feel free to include them in the comments and I shall happily collate them into a list.
As much as I’d love some Ardlanish tweed, I’m not yet confident enough in my sewing skills to risk cutting into that fabric so instead I am using some berry/heather coloured British tweed from British wool spun at the Abraham Moons & Sons in Yorkshire, which I found via Clothspot.
4 – Duration
This will not be a rushed SAL so there will be no pressure! Coats are investment pieces that are meant to last for years so I would prefer to take my time to make a garment that fits and is well made. As I shall most definitely be making a toile before taking my shears to the tweed, I am allowing lots of time! I am thinking of running this SAL till the end of January 2017 but will extend this preliminary deadline if necessary.
5 – Perks
I know many knit alongs (KALs) and SALs involve prizes. I may be able to rustle up some sponsored prizes but to my mind the main point of this SAL is to:
- gain new skills;
- produce a garment with real provenance that will last for years;
- deepen friendships within our community of makers; and
- support local wool producers and show farmers and mills that there is still a demand for their fabulous product!
6 – Sharing and chatting
If you fancy joining in with this SAL, please take to Twitter or Instagram (or another preferred social media) and share your experiences, pictures, questions, tips, highs and lows…, using the tag #LocalWoollenCoatSAL*. Although this is a SAL rather than a KAL I am happy to create a group in Ravelry if folk prefer to chat via that medium. And of course, feel free to share thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
* I have suggested the tag #LocalWoollenCoatSAL rather than #BritishWoollenCoatSAL to be as inclusive as possible and to focus on supporting our local resources, whatever they may be. If you want to add a tag that references your specific local area, by all means do so but please be careful how you phrase comments and captions. There is enough jingoistic nationalism and xenophobia on social media at the moment. This SAL is about celebrating our own undervalued local resources not maligning non-local ones.
In the interest of complete transparency, I should declare that one of my research interests is the potential of online communities in nurturing changes in attitudes and behaviour. I am organising this SAL for the reasons listed under Perks and because I need a new winter coat, but obviously I can’t switch off the social researcher part of my brain. This is SAL may therefore inadvertently inform future research projects and articles but if this is the case, I shall of course not use any specifics (comments, photos, exchanges, names…) without contacting the relevant individuals first for their express consent.