Shorn this Way
Wool has always been a bit of a wallflower. The often forgotten champion of the textile pecking order, it’s a material that’s always been by our side, whether in the form of a shawl to swaddle new-born babies or an old faithful cashmere cardigan to keep zephyrs of wind at bay as we tramp through autumn leaves. Wool isn’t fancy or flashy and doesn’t attract the hungry eye of high street fashion-istas, who rift through racks of sparkly get-ups on their Saturday afternoon shop. Despite this, I have long since nursed an inkling that wool will make headlines and hemlines once more; duly confirmed when woollen creations began to materialise as part of recent collections for luxury fashion houses. As misconceptions unravel, wool is slowly spinning some kudos, signalling that it is high time to become re-acquainted with this remarkably versatile fibre.
It is little wonder, considering the long-standing associations intertwined in the history of wool, that this hardy material has had a tough time formulating its own identity. Some forty years ago, the British wool industry suffered a significant setback with the onslaught of man-made fibres. The constellation of new synthetic upstarts cobwebbing the textile trade (the culprits namely polyester, nylon and rayon) had teenagers dancing the night away in lycra mini-skirts, leaving heritage materials such as wool to gather dust on the looms of the country that had once sported a thriving industry. Reclaimed from the rails of charity shops, wool has worked its way back to its rightful spot on the catwalk. And with major brands now taking up the needles again, wool is slowly but surely being hook-and-eyed into the public’s fashion consciousness.
Wool has a distinctly understated sexiness; one which is rivalled only by denim jeans, garments which calmly float above the perennial tides of fashion edicts which compete for attention each season. Just take a glance at the soft woollen blazers and trench coats slung around the shoulders of the models of Burberry’s recent collections. Hardy cable-knit cardigans fastened with hessian ties; a look that could be lifted straight from one of Thomas Hardy’s beloved Wessex topographies. So have Chanel’s A/W multi-hued tweed creations shown a playful feminisation of the heritage material, best encapsulated in Cara Delavigne’s youthful irreverence as she skipped around the faux-hypermarket in a floor length candy pink trench.
It’s not just the big name fashion houses that are capitalising on the renaissance though. Traditional British brands are experiencing a renewed interest due to a penchant for the tradition of the past mixed with the modernity of the present. Interest is waning from the zones of fast-paced consumerism and throwaway culture, orbiting instead the realms of quality and craftsmanship. It’s clear that experimentation and gradual evolution is what’s secured the longevity of these well-respected names. Take Pringle of Scotland for instance, who for their S/S 14 collection reoriented the wool aesthetic from cup-of-tea-and-hobnob to sharp, architectural silhouettes, featuring the argyle design re-envisaged in pop brights mixed with mesh tops with plenty of perforations for subtle sensuality.
If one really stops to consider the longevity of this remarkable material, we can begin to appreciate its trajectory through history. Imagine nomadic Bedouins travelling across golden desert plains, their richly coloured woollen mantles dotted across the sand like rubies adorning a glittering casket. Consider the Champagne Fairs of the Middle Ages, in which the production of wool turned medieval Europe into a thriving network of textile marketplaces. Ponder the heritage of the much-loved Aran jumper, lovingly knitted by fishermen’s wives for their husbands, each unit identifiable by its unique, distinctive cable knit pattern. Every jumper imbued with its own individuality and complexities, just like its wearer; each stitch indicative of a moral, belief, or wish; be it wealth, luck, or simply a plentiful catch.
Woollen garments are much more than just faithful friends to throw around our shoulders and keep us snug. Wool is more than an inanimate material, the bearer of a life and energy unattainable by synthetic fibres, which demands that clothes sit bolt upright on the coat hanger, statuesque in their immobility. It is a smart material with a memory, capable of responding spontaneously to its wearer’s needs as much as it memorialises its life in the very threads of its existence. Woven into the plaid patternation or wayward spirals of a woollen knit is a very human system of reflexes. By dynamically reacting to the atmosphere and the wearer’s bodily temperature, wool will insulate you when cold, keep you cool when warm and repel moisture. Like a guardian angel cloaking you from harm, a woollen garment’s natural elasticity will mould to its wearer’s body shape, maintaining its longstanding durability.
Perhaps the most curious thing of all is the nature of the creator of woollen wonders. If wool has codes and secret knowledge encrypted into its fibres, then it requires a fair hand, and mind, to tease magic from its core. Each handmade woollen garment has been produced by a maker with a mine of tacit knowledge that cannot be communicated verbally. It is fitting therefore, that the wonders codified in wool must be transmitted via a practitioner with haptic perception; that is to say a certain feel for a material. Refracted through the senses and fingertips of the weaver and knitter, wearers of wool are granted access to the properties of a material that will allow memories to become ingrained into the human psyche, as much as they become embedded into the fibres itself.
Perhaps it was the proximity to the workshop of a designer whose own life is mapped through the fibres of this marvellous material. Maybe it was the fact that I was wearing my beloved taupe woollen jacket passed down to me from my mother; a garment which feels like a thousand warm embraces. In any case, I shall never know what prompted me to skewer my knitting needles through my chignon. But that, I suppose, is a secret that will remain just so.
This text on Wool was written and submitted by Christobel Amelia Hastings for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Christobel Amelia’s entry for Round 1: A fashion by women for women