Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang

Origin Stories: Wool and the Gang

BY HANNAH THIESSEN // I truly believe that most people have a passion for the environment. Regardless of how you feel about climate change or the politics of going green, I would wager that most humans around the world have had at least one outdoor experience they found enjoyable. Whether this means long hikes and biking on deserted trails, a car trip through the mountains, a summer camp memory in your childhood or a long day at the beach, people find intrinsic value in beautiful landscapes. We find solace in the reality of ever-present nature around us: We look for homes nestled in greenery, are delighted at the appearance of a rare, bright bird each Spring, and dream of vacations that often feature unknown-to-us plants and locations. If you have ever experienced the loss of a place you’ve loved (perhaps through a tourism boom, construction or natural disaster), you know all too well the importance of preservation: In your own way, your heart has urged you towards making small changes in your own life in order to affect larger changes in the lives of others.

One of the ways that Karen discusses preservation here on the Fringe Association blog is through sustainable garment choices. There are endless ways to apply preservation principles: mending, thrifting, upcycling, hand-making and sharing are just a few. As a knitter, one of my favorite ways to support sustainable garment making is through buying traceable fibers. While I have fallen in love (madly, madly in love) with many beautiful yarns in my decades of knitting, I have recently committed to the idea that if the maker of these yarns will not (or cannot) tell me where they come from, I should not keep buying them. My dollars instead will go to companies willing to be transparent about their supply chain and how their products are impacting the environment — knowledge is power in the hands of knitters.

This doesn’t mean that I knit exclusively with “farm yarns.” While I adore a wonderfully rustic, sheepy wool, I also often find myself craving the sleek and fashionable, comfortable and soft. When a company can combine fashion with transparency, I feel that they’ve hit the “sweet spot.” Such is the case with Wool and the Gang, a fashion knitting company that supports uncomplicated, accessible making, and has made a splash, bringing new knitters into the fold with fun, fast projects and a variety of squishy yarns. Packed in trendy, branded kits and wrapped with recycled paper labels, their goods are the gateway drug of knitting. I cannot count how many kits walk out the door of our local shop in hands that eagerly return, ready to try a new project a few weeks later. While bulky yarns and quick projects have overtones of fast fashion, the reality of Wool and the Gang’s yarn line is based on the idea that by understanding how things are made, we can see more intrinsic value in those made by others.

Jade Harwood, one of the co-founders of Wool in the Gang, is the perfect example of this idea. She learned to knit as many other knitters do, from a relative at a young age. In making miniature outfits for her toys, she embraced her love of making, specifically garment-making, and set herself on the path towards becoming a fashion designer. At 14, inspired by fellow British designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, she focused her attention on the dream of someday attending Central St. Martins, a London-based college with a world-renowned fashion program. While in attendance years later, she met Aurelie Popper working for a summer at Balmain. (Yes, the Balmain!) After finishing school, they combined efforts with Lisa Sabrier. The three shared a mutual love for building a fashion brand with a soul, a message that could make knitting accessible for a new generation.

The kit concept developed out of breaking down what was hard about learning: super simple introductions, chunky wool and large stitches, paired with online video tutorials. By slowing down and making your basics, they worked to counteract fast fashion by helping people learn new skills. They created a community, the ‘Gang’ part of their name, to support, encourage and connect knitters of all skill levels and ages. They believed that the first step to sustainable fashion was helping people identify with the person behind their garments: in this case, themselves. By pulling back the glossy, magazine layers of fashion, they revealed the truth below — people make things, and it’s possible for all people to make things.

Of course, sustainable goes so far beyond just the act of making. It is about materials. Since day one, the team of Wool and the Gang worked to be conscientious of the environmental issues being caused by mass-produced fashion. While wool is intrinsically considered a sustainable fiber, they wanted to break the mold and introduced yarns that could make even more of an impact on consumer waste.

Heal the Wool expands upon the sustainability of wool by utilizing the leftovers from their existing yarn mill in Peru. 100% recycled wool, it began with the process of gathering six tons of waste fiber that would otherwise have gone into a landfill. Through careful blending and sorting to create colors, they avoided the use of dyes, saving 48,000 liters of water and giving these leftovers a second life. Billie Jean, a denim yarn, is made using upcycled, pre-consumer denim waste — leftovers from denim production in the fashion industry. The waste is ground into fiber and woven into yarn without chemicals or dyes, saving 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material. Wool and the Gang will also introduce a new sustainable yarn this summer, using eucalyptus tree fibers.

Origin Stories: Wool and the Gang

One of the toughest questions I ask of any yarn company is about outsourcing. A delicate subject in this industry, outsourcing is often about cost, and comes with a variety of concerning environmental impacts all its own: shipping, exports and questionable mill standards for workers. Often, our views of international fiber production are colored by the horror stories of sweatshop factories and child labor in developing countries. I was worried that this British based company was making a sustainable product, but at the cost of their own domestic wool production (in case you aren’t aware, the UK is having a seriously exciting moment right now with native wools — more on that in a future column!) I was pleasantly surprised by Jade’s answer to my questions about why they’ve chosen to take their production overseas: It is more environmentally sound to have a yarn milled where it is grown.

Peru is the source of the highland wool and alpaca used in Wool and the Gang’s yarns. With ample farming land and a mill partner who is actively involved in the sourcing and invested in the success of Peruvian farmers, it was not a stretch to work within the country to create yarns that embraced the history and tradition of South American wools. Beyond this, the mill they work with can handle the scale of their production, but is also passionate about offering innovative choices, as evidenced by the unique yarns Wool and the Gang is able to commission. That said, Jade and her partners are exploring the possibilities of adding a ‘Brit Wool’ to the pack, and are already dreaming up pun-based names!

In the spirit of this fresh-faced, exciting company, I asked how Wool and the Gang encourages knitters to make a start on the path of sustainable making. Jade suggests recycling yarns that you have, and points towards a recent blog post for the Gang’s top tips on how to help the environment – I am particularly interested in The Uniform Project

As for my own thoughts on the subject? I’m going to continue on my mission to share sustainable, accessible, interesting and affordable yarns with you here. In the same way that preserved nature is available to all, I believe that it’s possible to find knit-worthy yarns at all price points and preferences, from the hands of farmers or behind the sleek label of a fashion brand.

Hannah Thiessen is a freelance creative & social media strategist who specializes in yarn and fiber. She knits and dabbles in other crafty pursuits on her blog, www.handmadebyhannahbelle.com, and you can follow her on Instagram as @hannahbelleknits


PREVIOUSLY in Origin Stories: Starcroft Fiber Mill

Photos © Wool and the Gang; used with permission

22 thoughts on “Origin Stories: Upcycled Wool and the Gang

  1. “While bulky yarns and quick projects have overtones of fast fashion, the reality of Wool and the Gang’s yarn line is based on the idea that by understanding how things are made, we can see more intrinsic value in those made by others. ”

    because I don’t see how chunky 2 ply wool can withstand years of wear. I haven’t tried watg’s wool for that reason. If I’m spending 100+$ on wool for a sweater, I want it to hold up to years of wear, ideally.

    Additionally, you’re talking about transparency in the supply chain but are the Peruvian farmers picking cotton or shepherding alpacas fairly compensated? what about the garment workers in Turkey that the recycled jersey yarns come from? Could you describe the ways it is more environmentally sound to mill the yarn where it’s grown? I don’t know what the environmental ramifications of milling yarn are so when the CEO says “It is more environmentally sound to have a yarn milled where it is grown” I don’t know what I’m supposed to be comparing it to, or what in particular makes it “environmentally sound”

    I’m sorry if this sounds snarky or cynical, I’m curious because I see them sponsoring IG famous knitters and the price point for natural fibers is a good deal to be sure but for the product to be shipped transatlantically twice before it reaches my door step, I question how environmentally conscious it is so maybe I’m missing something.

    • Hey Danielle! Thanks for commenting. In some cases, the sustainability of a product should be measured against other, similar commercially-made products. If the WATG bulky/chunky kits encourage someone to knit their own rather than buying a similar item from Target, they’re helping sustain the wool industry (instead of the petroleum one), plus learning about the effort that goes into making that type of item, so in my mind, that’s a step towards sustainable practices. They’re likely going to take better care of that bulky knit item they made themselves (whereas the Target alternative will probably end up in a trash bin by the end of the season.) I would not recommend knitting a sweater in the chunky personally, especially since I live somewhere that a chunky sweater is impractical!

      For the environmental statement from the company, I can only speak to my own experiences with Peru. Many of the mills in Peru actually have extremely high environmental standards and are Oekotex certified or have other similar certifications for water handling and waste handling. I actually work with another company that has milled yarns in Peru, and a portion of the funds from the mill go not only to the workers, but also directly into a project called the Mirasol Project. In my experience, Peruvian mills seem very interested in supporting their local economies and sustaining the fiber history of their country. When you mill a yarn where it is grown, it is not required to travel further in order to be processed: there is less trucking and flying of the material across the world, so by nature, less carbon footprint than say, importing the alpaca to the US or UK (where WATG is based) to have it milled. While it still has to make a journey to the UK (or maybe a US warehouse?) to be shipped to knitters, there is at least one trip eliminated in the supply chain for processing and milling.

      You don’t sound snarky at all! I think your concerns are really valid. Fringe has readers ALL over the globe, so what might be a great local brand for a knitter in the UK might not be the same for a citizen of Canada or the US. There are lots of great wools everywhere, and Origin Stories is just about highlighting them on an individual basis, not necessarily with a ‘this or that’ stance. Ultimately, our goal was just to highlight how one company is offering some recycled wools and cottons in addition to their standard products.

      • I guess they would take better care of a chunky sweater as opposed to a target sweater but I wonder how many people buy a kit from WATG and then never pick up knitting again. Knitting is hard work, we probably forget that since we do it every day but there are some that will abandon their projects and never pick it up again. In that regard, everyone loses – the materials are wasted, the yarn has traveled all those miles and undergone all that processing to no end and the farm that raised the material will not have a repeat customer.

        I’m always a little suspicious when people say they “reinvest” in their workers, usually their children. I wonder if this is meant to make the intermediaries feel good about exploiting their artisans or if it’s a tax write-off. Why not share your profits with the people who are actually doing the laborious work? Why can’t they tell me what percentage of each ball of yarn is paid to the farmer? It shouldn’t matter that their cost of living is different than mine – when I buy yarn made from wool/alpaca/cotton/whatever from someone, I am entering into a community of makers and artisans that care about wool/alpaca/cotton/whatever and as such I want to compensate them fairly, they are making art. It’s a skill and a craft and should be treated like such, not a commodity.

        • I look at WATG kits in the shops and wonder who buys them? I think it is likely they are being bought as gifts. I look at them and can’t believe a knitter wouldn’t rather pick up a pattern, yarn and needles separately for a lot less money.

  2. “Regardless of how you feel about climate change” Um what? That statement is just irresponsible.

    • I’ll clarify. I personally believe in climate change, I believe that it is happening and that it is caused by humans, and that our efforts against it are important. However, at least in the USA, a lot of people have different opinions about what some of us may see as an irrefutable fact, and I would rather talk about environmentalism and exciting yarn stuff without instantly offending people who may just stop reading if they feel they are being lectured.

  3. Hannah, If you’re interested in that uniform project, you may also be interested in the one(s) beginning in 1991 by Andrea Zittel – zittel.org – click on “works”. She has a large body of interesting work. If you scroll through the projects you will see several with “uniform” in the title. My favorite is Single Strand Uniforms from 1998-2001. She would wear one crocheted garment for 6 months and be making the next during that time. Enjoy and thanks for your post.

  4. Thanks for writing this article; I learned quite a few things that I didn’t know about WATG.
    I do agree with Danielle above that it would obviously still be better to be using local fleeces and milling them instead of taking Peruvian ones and shipping the finished yarn to their offices before distribution. After reading about Wovember last year and hearing that brands such as Baa Ram Ewe are taking British wools and British Alpaca (!) then spinnning and dyeing them in the UK, I am much more inclined to buy those yarns than the WATG ones. However, it is good to see companies supporting Peruvian farmers who might not have other opportunities to sell their fleeces within their own country – I just hope they’re being paid fairly!

    • I agree that there are so many exciting things going on with the UK right now! I already have more than a few UK producers on my future interview list.

      The term fair wage is such a tricky one. I don’t know what the Peruvians working at the mill are being paid per hour, or what the farmers are making for their alpaca fleeces. We have to assume that if they weren’t making enough to support their families, they wouldn’t keep doing it. That said, if we ask ourselves the crucial question of what % of the total product price should a worker be making, we have to start diving into much deeper societal issues. Should it be a percentage of the company’s overall sales? Or is the ‘fair’ standard simply one that covers the cost of living in that country, and is it a single person’s ability to live on their own, or is it with two incomes by which we draw the line? Or, should it be a fair standard that allows developing countries to pull their citizens out of ‘development’ and into ‘developed’? I struggle with this question a lot myself and will definitely try to get answers when I can, where I can for this column.

      • I don’t think we can, nor should “assume that if they weren’t making enough to support their families, they wouldn’t keep doing it.” This seems dangerously naive to me; there are people around the world who can’t make ends meet or aren’t justly paid but continue working because some income is better than none. There are definitions of living wage and fair compensation available from labor rights and fair trade groups, and I’d love to see that explored further. I know there is some RTW info on what fair trade means (for ex., People Tree, Patagonia’s recent video on fair trade factories) but I’ve yet to see it in a yarn/knitting context (which could entirely be because I haven’t really gone looking!) — maybe fair trade could be incorporated into a future Origin Stories column? I love the story arc of this piece and the fiber recycling component, but I do think that, especially as it’s fashion revolution week, we should (as knitters, consumers, etc.) be asking WATG for more information and accountability on who makes the yarn.

      • “We have to assume that if they weren’t making enough to support their families, they wouldn’t keep doing it.”

        And what would they do exactly??? Work at a start up in Peru?? If the economic livelihood of a community is based on laborious, small production products, there aren’t going to be a lot of opportunities for them to do something else especially when it is something that they, as a culture, have been doing it for centuries. They aren’t going to become a freelancer.

      • Thanks very much for taking the time to reply. I completely agree; the discussion around a living wage or a fair wage is a tricky one. I myself struggle with the question as to what is a fair wage because what I need to live a comfortable life is not necessarily the same as what someone needs in other parts of the world (in terms of money or things). It’s a great questions though, and one I hope to see discussed further in the column because I think it could bring a really good discussion and debate.

        I do however, think it’s a little naive to think that people wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t making enough to support their families. Just because there are plenty of people out there (not only in developing countries – it happens in our own countries too), who would rather work in difficult conditions or in jobs that don’t suit them because it’s better to have a little income to support their families than none at all.

        Thanks once again :)

  5. Thank you, Hannah, very interesting article! I am curious about the pattern for the blue bag in the photo, is it available anywhere? Thanks, Catherine

    • The same company have bought Sirdar yarns who are definitely not champions of sustainable natural products. My view as a yarn shop owner is that WATG are overpriced and that chunky yarn is not necessarily the best place to start knitting (cost is higher, skills can be different, outcome is less ‘knitterly’ for want of a better word.) IMHO kits like these also remove yarn store expertise from the loop and the pleasure of buying the essentials bit by bit. Not a fan, as you’ve probably gathered.

      • I think that the market is totally different than the yarn store market. I ran a store with my mom for 5 years and we only had someone under 20 walk into the store a few times (unless they were with a parent) — it seems like WATG has found a way to introduce knitting to an entirely new audience, one that will hopefully find themselves open to the wide world of knitting. Nobody wants to knit big chunky things *all* the time, and the yarn stores are where knitters go to learn how to experiment and grow. I believe there is room in our industry for many different avenues that all lead to creating more knitters.

        • Someone under 20 probably didn’t walk in for the same reason I didn’t at that age – yarn is expensive, I didn’t have the disposable income for it. I don’t think WATG can change that.

          WATG are stocked in my local yarn store in London, in fact they are based just up the road from me. Their yarn doesn’t generally appeal to me – it screams ‘transient trending’, something that painfully cool people will buy to knit giant garter stitch cowls with and then drop when some other fad comes along. HOWEVER, the billie jean yarn I spotted is on my list, and so are the crochet espadrille pattern (because I can’t crochet and this looks like a good learning project). They also have some unique colours.

          As for the ethics, I am not personally sold on WATG’s credentials for two reasons.

          First, yarn that has needlessly travelled all over the world before reaching me is, by my standards, not hugely eco-friendly, but I can see why on another person’s definition it may be.

          And secondly, the article was simply way too vague about the supply chain. Having lived and travelled extensively in Peru, I know that fair pricing for fleeces to individual farmers by larger operatives is very much a live issue. Couple that with a rather vague statement in the article about the supply chain, I’m not persuaded. That’s not an assumption about developing countries per say, it’s just that WATG have not provided in enough evidence to make out their claim.

          If you put yourself out there on an ethical footing, you have to expect very close scrutiny.

  6. Very interesting, tons of food for thought in the post and in the comments. Thanks for writing it.

  7. Pingback: Origin Stories: Wing and a Prayer Farm | Fringe Association

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