In this blog series we’re exploring the idea of sustainability within the context of textiles, more specifically locally produced wool textiles. We are using the R’s of Sustainability framework – rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, and rot – to guide that exploration. In Part 1: Rethink and Refuse, we delved into wool as a raw material, and how it is processed to create new wool items. Wool is a readily available renewable material that requires minimal processing, making it a great choice as a sustainable textile material. A huge part of what makes our current textile industry unsustainable is the shear excess of it – our fast fashion and throw away consumer culture. That brings us to the 3rd and 4th R’s of Sustainability – Reduce and Reuse.
As sustainability concepts, Reduce and Reuse encourage us to cut back on the amount of new stuff we buy. This can be achieved by choosing items that are versatile in meeting our needs, that are well made, and long lasting. This allows one item to serve many purposes, and to be reused for many years to come. With textiles, particularly, fashion – be it clothing or home decor – it is about introducing some practicality into an area of our lives where we have been encouraged to be frivolous.
Wool – Versatile and Long Lasting
The unique natural characteristics of wool make it extremely versatile, and long lasting. A few well chosen wool items in your household, and wardrobe, can serve as steadfast staples in your daily living for years to come.
As a start, wool is both an excellent insulator and very effective at handling moisture. Unlike other insulators that become uncomfortable and ineffective when wet, such as poly-fill and down, wool can absorb around 30% of its weight in moisture before even beginning to feel damp and without significant impact to its insulating capacity. It insulates as well as breathes. This has important implications both in cold and hot environmental conditions. In cold conditions you can rest assured that a wool garment or wool blanket will keep you warm. Whether you are camping in rainy conditions, have stopped from skiing after working up a sweat, or have accidentally stepped into ice-cold water like in this demonstration by survival instructor, Mors Kochanski. That same wool garment or blanket will not cause you to overheat and become a sweaty mess in extremely hot conditions because it will wick moisture away from the skin, facilitating cooling evaporation, and insulate your body from direct heat exposure such as from the sun or a fire. In extreme conditions, these characteristics can be life saving, in day-to-day living they make for versatile, effective, and practical items to own that allow you to reduce your purchasing. For example, one of the wool fill comforters that we make will keep you both warm during the winter and cool and comfortable during the summer, eliminated the need for season specific sets of bedding.
What is more, wool can be processed into many different types of working material or fabric; carded batting, knit, woven, felted, knit and then felted, and boiled. The result is that wool can be manipulated into having characteristics to suite many different applications. For example, a well felted or boiled wool fabric is water and wind resistant, making it an excellent material for hard-working outerwear that can be used in all conditions - this is what makes the Seine River Shepherd Vests that we carry so great. Alternatively, wool can be knit into elegant, and lacy shawls that have beautiful drape, are warm to wear under a coat during the winter, and breezy for summer evenings. A woven wool fabric has crisp lines and is wrinkle resistant.
Wool is also fire-resistant and the lanolin in it makes it anti-bacterial and anti-fungal; combined, these characteristics make it hard to wreck. You can wear wool next to a camp fire without worrying about a wayward spark melting a hole in your jacket (wool is also used to make fire blankets – if you ever find yourself in a house fire, use your wool blanket to help you escape). Wool activewear can be used for years without risk of developing or holding smells like synthetic activewear do. This also means that wool items can be used for extended periods of time without requiring washing, cutting down on the time, water, and detergent you need to put toward laundry (we know several folks who confess they go months at a time without washing their wool socks because, despite daily use, the socks simply don’t need it).
Slow-crafted with care
If you are going to curb your purchasing down to just a few versatile items, you need those items to be well made with longevity in mind, both in terms of durability and in style - basically the antithesis of fast fashion. This is where we advocate for investing in high quality, locally crafted, artisan items. The initial expense might be a bit more but, in our experience, they tend to be over-built rather than under-built. With care, they pay themselves off through years of reliable use. Each hand-crafted item is also unique, and often becomes a treasured part of one’s identity. Take, for example, the iconic Coast Salish Sweaters; these garments are beautiful artistic expressions of their makers. They are perfectly suited to keep you warm on the damp West Coast or cold Canadian Prairies. They are so durable they can be used and passed down through generations, becoming heirloom pieces in family stories.
It’s true that even the most durable and well made items can become damaged or worn, requiring repair or coming to the end of their functional capacity. The good news is there are a multitude of methods to repair, up-cycle, and recycle wool items before you need to worry about tossing them in the compost pile! We’ll learn about some of those methods in our next sustainable textiles entry, Part 3: Repair and Recycle.