My Life in Jumpers
Looking back at our lives in fashion, we can quickly pick out the garment that best defines us. Mine is the jumper.
I currently own twenty-four; that’s one for nearly every year I’ve existed. Viewing my life through these lovable drawer-dwellers, I see a recent and significant shift. Early jumpers included a harlequin-patterned cardigan in primary colours with fake gemstone buttons, and a school-stained pillar-box red V-neck, complete with gingham summer dress. Skip ahead and there are fistfuls of black fuzzy acrylic, more polyester V-necks (this time in navy blue with a pleated skirt), and fancy Lurex-sprinkled jumpers glittering under disco lights.
With more than pocket money to spend just under a decade later, my love affair with kaleidoscopic synthetics lost its sparkle. I had discovered a fibre more fitting for a woman carving out her own style in a Northern town. I had discovered wool.
Late to the party, perhaps, for the citizen of an island whose inhabitants have been protecting themselves from the elements with wool for thousands of years. Especially late, too, living in Yorkshire, whose homes were built on the textile trade and whose exquisite woven woollens continue to be exported to design houses across the globe. But some of us haven’t even got our invite, let alone joined the woollen revolution.
Wool has been part of our cultural and industrial fabric for generations, yet we’re still not convinced of its benefits. We choose to buy our jumpers knitted from squeaky acrylic and our suits in cheap-looking polyester, rather than taking the time to look after wool and reap its rewards. It’s not entirely the consumer’s fault, however, as decades of lifestyle changes have contributed to the move from hand-knitted jumpers that need TLC to machine-produced, ‘fast fashion’ synthetics allowing you to wash and go.
So why choose wool over the easier acrylic option? Although a higher initial outlay, wool has longevity. Its tough fibres, designed to protect sheep from vicious climates, are long-lasting and hard-wearing – think of furry woollen socks and coarse blankets patched and passed on through the generations. It’s water-resistant thanks to natural oils, and when used in garments close to the skin – like jumpers – symbiotically breathes with us, keeping us warm in winter and cool in summer. Whether woven or knitted, fine grade wool has a luxurious drape like no other fabric while tweedier mixes give a substantial, hardy cloth. Choose wool, and you’ll find a textile to fit any lifestyle and every life.
More than physically, wool gives us spiritual sustenance. Coddled in our first and final years, woollen blankets are a home comfort matched only by the slightly more socially acceptable big woolly jumper. We feel at ease in wool through its womb-like swaddling, simultaneously fulfilling our necessity and desire to be protected, loved, and swathed in safety. From the fisherman in his cabled Guernsey to the duchess in her twinset, woollen jumpers satisfy our id without letting the ego down in polite company.
Strange that it takes growing up to realise the child-like comfort of wool. But as the years progress, the intelligent consumer starts to see fashion unravelling. The cyclical nature of the fashion industry is exposed in pornographic rawness: you live through decades that become trendy again, compare copies of Cosmo from separate summers and see the same nautical fashion splashed across the pages. So instead of hunting down fashion, you pursue style – something that will outlast seasonal changes and fickle editors. You see the benefits of garments your Nana loved, knowing you can be stylish and practical. You don’t tell Anna dello Russo, but you start buying simple, flattering denim and really good basic t-shirts. You discover wool.
The strength of wool’s longevity is not only in its physical and spiritual qualities but in its multi-faceted cultural significance. Built on rural industry and community life, wool and her animal sisters – alpaca, angora, cashmere, camel – have taken on contemporary meanings woven from supposed dichotomies. Gender, class, profession and geography all tie together in the jumper, from the angora bombshell to practical lambs wool, punk mohair to old-money cashmere. Jumpers in natural fibres represent archetypal style; longevity of self-assured sartorial credibility, which fashion can’t touch. This is what really turned me onto wool – not the physical benefits alone but the jumper’s ability to morph into multiple identities while still retaining an almost stubborn style classicism.
Increasingly, wool and other natural fibres are taking over my jumper collection in the same way traditional materials and craft skills are re-entering the wider fashion landscape. From my cloud-like Peebles of Scotland cream cashmere V-neck to the oatmeal-coloured rough lambs wool jumper, these garments are the signifiers of knowledge about the quality, history, culture and physicality of dress. These jumpers are the realisation ‘style over substance’ isn’t inevitable but a choice – a way of dressing we’ve selected for apparent efficiency or economy.
Wool allows us style and substance through disrupting dichotomies long established in fashion: comfort or beauty, naivety or maturity, the city or the country. But it’s only through experiencing these debates year after year, combined with a lack of material and visual longevity in fashion, that we turn back to materials (like wool) we’ve been using for millennia. It’s only when we start to collect fashion experiences – or magazines, or jumpers – that we able to make informed investments in garments and fibres which benefit our physical and sartorial wellbeing, the fashion industry and our surroundings. It’s then that the definition of your life in fashion becomes something of which your Nana would be proud.
This text on Wool was written and submitted by Eleanor Snare for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Eleanor’s entry for Round 1: Boom or bust: bearing the brunt of online fashion editorial