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July 12, 2011 / KristenMakes

Sustainable Knitwear?


Reversible is a project in which I share the work that I am doing for my MA in Fashion & Textiles Design.  I am investigating sustainable design for knitwear in a reversible and reworkable context.  Utilising the organic quality of the knitted structure to create intrinsic shaping and detail as fabric and garment are simultaneously created, I am designing and knitting a garment that can be worn in different ways and produce different looks.  As such, I invite the wearer to engage personally with their own wardrobe, and hopefully value and meaning can be instilled into a garment that would otherwise be thrown out after a few wears.  In this blog feature, I will talk about why I chose this path, how I am proceeding, and what the final product will be.  I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in this space so that we may all learn and benefit.

 For today’s post, I wanted to combine the past 2 elements I’ve discussed (sustainability and knitwear) to see how the two can work together.

In the Sustainability post, I touched on a few elements or particular focuses in which fashion can be sustainable: Design, Materials, Manufacture, and Life Cycle.  Today I want to focus more specifically in those elements within the context of knitwear.

Design for Sustainability in Knitwear

I’ve been really into watching TED talks lately, but one that I found particularly interesting was from Tim Brown of IDEO.  He talks about design-thinking and human-centred design as opposed to design for purely aesthetic reasons.  I feel that that is becoming more of a trend in fashion, but slowly.  Kate Fletcher (whom I have quoted before) talks about functional innovation in design: ‘A shift from thinking about products (e.g. clothes) to thinking about results (e.g. clean clothes)’ (Fletcher, 2008, p. 86).  Thinking more about results from a product than the product itself seems so simple, and yet we are so far removed from that mind-set.

At a time when each town has the same shops and therefore each shopper ends up with the same cheap items, there ought to be more meaning and relationships between shopper and designer, body and garment.

We will see beauty and greatness in garments that value process, participation and social integration, in pieces that advance relationships between people and the environment… Sustainable fashion is about a strong and nurturing relationship between consumer and producer.

(Fletcher, 2008, p. 125)

When I read the above quote, I think of small-level producers such as Garment House, Wikstenmade, Hetterson, ALL Knitwear, and many others that are producing on the small level unique, handmade items and as such with the internet, have fostered strong relationships with loyal customers.

Hetterson’s Crenelle Sweater

The goal for sustainable designers is to make sustainability look attractive, even to those for whom sustainability isn’t a purpose.  Additionally, my ambition for this investigation is to extend wearability in individual items by creating multi-look textiles and multi-functional garments.  Knitting is quite responsive to this aim, and it is quite easy to develop a stitch pattern that eliminates the idea of right & wrong side of the fabric, but furthermore garment type and function need to be addressed.  In Chapters Six and Seven of her book, Fletcher recommends in designing clothes to be light (to ‘maximize efficiency of products and their use’) and durable (‘extending the life of products’).  I will go into more detail of how those are also my goals in the next few posts.

Materials for Sustainability in Knitwear

Sheep’s wool is perhaps the most popular fibre for hand-knitting, at least in my observed experiences as a hand-knitter, it seems as such.  And why should it not be?  It is renewable, inexpensive, warm, and lovely to work with.  Also, it is extremely durable, a quality which allows the yarn to be reused.

Wool was one of the original fibres to be recovered, recycled and re-used.  As demand used to outstrip supply, recycling was necessary in order to provide the required quantity of material.  The natural quality and resilience of wool meant that this processing of ‘remanufactured’, ‘reclaimed’ or ‘salvaged’ wool was very successful… Now the shoddy factories and reclaimed wool dealers have virtually gone, but the value of this highly sustainable process has begun to be recognised once again…

(Black, 2008, p. 158)

Even Rowan has its Renew line of yarn made from recycled wool (I’ve fondled it at John Lewis and quite like the feel and smell of it, hope to use it in a project soon!)

Rowan’s Renew knitting wool

It should be specified that sheep’s wool isn’t all organic; most farmers use sheep dip to be rid of parasites in the sheep’s fleece.  However, organic wool does exist!

Other eco-friendly (and fair trade) fibres seem to be quite a trend in hand-knitting as well.  Bamboo, Soya, linen, etc. are all easy to find, and seem to be slowly becoming more prevalent in garments in retail shops as well.

Cardigan from Banana Fibre, by People Tree

Manufacture for Sustainability in Knitwear

That organic quality of knit that I continue to harp on lends itself well to garment construction as well.  Fully-fashioned knitting means that knitting machines can knit up a sleeve, perfectly shaped and ready to be sewn (or linked) into the sweater.  Unlike woven fabric in which the sleeve needs to be cut from a flat piece of fabric into the proper sleeve shape (which for garment construction can lead to 15-20% material waste on the cutting room floor alone) this means much less waste.  One such company that utilises this aspect is John Smedley.

Johns Smedley knitwear

Sandy Black explains, ‘John Smedley is a vertically integrated knitwear company which controls all its own processes from spinning yarn to knitting garments on one site in the UK…The separate pieces are precisely shaped or ‘fully’ fashioned’ as they are made, which reduces waste compared to cut and sew methods.  Within the factory, the high value yarns are preserved as any waste knitting (for example with faults) is unwound and re-used…’ (Black, 2008, p.65).   I’m not sure how many knitwear companies take the trouble to unravel a faulty sweater and reuse the yarn for a new sweater like John Smedley, but the beauty of knitwear is that even on an industrial level, frogging is possible!

frogging: ‘rip it, rip it’

And technology is only getting better.  According to Fletcher:

The digitization of production – for example, where computer-aided design (CAD) technology is interfaced with whole-garment knitting machines, body scanning technologies and digital printing – makes possible the ‘mass customization’ of garment production at multiple locations, perhaps even in stores and in collaboration with consumers.  Mass customization is concerned with best fit rather than exact fit and tries to find the closest match for a consumer’s needs from a selection of predefined options rather than making individually tailored garments.

(Fletcher, 2008, p. 145)

Imagine a systems-change in which you shop and find something that fits you perfectly, is entirely your style, and is unique to few; perhaps even just you!  In a world like that we create fewer, but better things, and garments are purchased more thoughtfully and cherished more strongly.

Knitting is very well-suited for mass-customization.   With companies like My Best Fit, body scanning is becoming more attainable.  Sandy Black is coupling a similar body scanning technology for proper sizing with knitting technology to investigate the requirements that would achieve that systems-change in knitwear with her Knit to Fit project.

knitting a perfect fit, one-of-a-kind sweater

Life Cycle Sustainability in Knitwear

One of the knitting technicians told me a story of his former boss at a knitwear manufacturer.  The boss had recounted to him that in about 5 years he had only washed the jumper he was wearing about one or two times.  That was all that was required (mind you, this is including time spent in smoky pubs!).  All that the wool required was love and care, a bit of spot cleaning, and perhaps a bit of steaming from the shower.

I certainly do not regularly wash my hand-knits; I’ve only washed some once and others not at all.  Not because they can’t take it (they can!) but because they don’t need it.  Knitwear is layered over tees or tanks, so it doesn’t really acquire the stink of bodily odours.

I’ve touched upon laundry habits before and as it stands, the biggest energy expense in a garment’s life is in after-purchase, and that is including garment mileage (Fletcher, 2008, p. 75).  UK retailer Marks & Spencer has recognised that a lot of this is due to lack of customer awareness.  As such, they have introduced a new scheme of laundry care labels in which the recommended wash temperature has lowered from 50⁰C to 30⁰C (Fletcher, 2008, p. 84).  Initiatives such as this help to modify behaviours and habits that are simply caused by lack of information.

Blogger Elinor gives a great tutorial on how to wash your woolens when you do need to.

Laundry aside, most hand knitters will tell you that their woollens are very well-suited for mending. Darned socks, mended elbows, you can even unravel the sleeves of a top-down knitted jumper and reknit them longer to fit children as they grow.  Little gems of activity such as these extend the life of garments and keep them out of the garbage heap.

Darned socks

In my opinion, knitwear is very well suited for sustainability, and I hope I have supported this opinion adequately.  Having done so, I am now really excited about the next 2 posts I have scheduled, but nervous too!  The next post will be me explaining what I have done this past year at uni, and the development of my project; after that, in the next-to-last post I will share my actual work – garment and samples (at least what I’ve got at that point, as submission isn’t until August 5th & I expect to be working quite up to the end).  I’m nervous because not only am I putting my work out there for you to see (and hopefully like!), but also, I would like for you to be the judge on its sustainability factor.  Hopefully I stand up to what I preach in terms of sustainable design for knitwear, but I would like for you to tell me honestly what you think!  So be ready!


Leave a Comment
  1. Mum / Jul 12 2011 9:10 pm

    Very interesting…I had never thought about knitwear not having waste (scraps) the way sewn clothing does. One of many valid reasons that support your project. There are many points to take away that have me thinking. You may get some prissy types from the states cringing about the laundry issue, but I think you have something. I heard somewhere long ago: “Keep it nice, wear it twice.” Or even more, right? Well done!

  2. Lizz @ A Good Wardrobe / Jul 13 2011 2:10 pm

    So much to discuss here!
    I would love to see consumers move towards building a closer relationship with designers and tailors. These fast trends tend to be a result of unflattering fit – you blame the design rather than the fit so you’re constantly looking for something different. I think when your clothes fit, they stay in your closet longer.
    On a similar note, I’m curious about this body scanning technology. However, I think the future of sustainability should be in local-wares and this technology would allow to drive it away. And really, how sustainable is it to buy your clothes from half-way around the world?
    Laundering also dictates how much (and how often) I buy. I tend to have more shirts (and other garments that are worn close to the skin) because I need to wash them more. Laundering definitely breaks down a garment and, therefore, I need to replace the item more often. Dresses, sweaters, and jackets tend to have long shelf lives because I wash them (maybe) once a season. Many of these items I’ve owned for ten(+) years (and still wear) because they’ve held up so well.
    In regards to waste, I think there is also a psychological aspect. As an artist/designer/crafter, I always felt that knitting was about building something up, whereas sewing is about deconstructing/tearing down in an effort to build something. This was always something that I loved about knitting. It just felt more natural.

  3. Jo Campbell / Jul 13 2011 3:59 pm

    I have an interest in the historical development of cloth and what is interesting is that in early clothing designs, when fabric was made entirely by hand rather than by machine, the cloth was woven to the size and shape needed for the garment. This required no (or very little) cutting and produced no waste fabric. Of course garment shapes were much simpler. As society has developed, industrialisation and urbanisation have moved us further and further away from a hands on experience of how things are made, so it’s no surprise that many people really don’t consider the impact of their clothing choices.

    As an aside, yesterday I grabbed some cheap wool I had in my son’s craft cupboard and a pair of knitting needles to see if I could remember a little of what my granma taught me 25+ years ago. And, after a quick reminder from a couple of knitting video tutorials, I discovered that knitting is like riding a bike – you never forget. I was never particularly good at knitting as a child/teenager and the little section I managed yesterday isn’t anything to write home about but it’s encouraged me to have more of a go. I think I’m going to start with something based on rectangles 😉

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