March 23, 2010

Sourcing steals the spotlight: The One Sheep Cardigan and its elk, er, ilk

As a designer, I usually don't see fibers until they've already been grown, harvested, dyed, spun, woven, and finished into a lovely fabric. But on a trip to bucolic Putney, Vermont last fall, I had the rather interesting opportunity to see wool at its very source: sheep, of course. But the sheep farm, though charming, was just the beginning of the wool's journey. Back in the town center, the kind ladies of Green Mountain Spinnery gave us a personal tour of their amazing vintage machines, which they use to comb and spin the fibers into beautiful yarn ready to be knitted.

All of which came to mind again the other day when the lovely Sara pointed me to this ingenious project by Christien Meindertsma: the One Sheep Cardigan. Taking direct sourcing to the nth degree, or really the smallest possible degree, Meindertsma reminds us of exactly where our clothing comes from by creating each cardigan from the wool of exactly one sheep, and accompanying it with a photo of just that sheep. Variations in size and sleeve length are directly related to the amount of wool sheared from the sheep in question, and the color is — you guessed it — the color of the sheep. So simple, and yet so incredibly labor-intensive, because the yarn must have been hand-spun in order to spin such a small amount at a time.

While this project is a particularly extreme example, Meindertsma isn't alone in putting her sourcing front and center these days. Here in New York, restaurants are trumpeting their food sources, and food farmers are becoming stars. Yet in stark contrast, the garment industry's inner workings remain shrouded in mystery. Sadly, when designers don't get to know our sources, even the best of intentions can be thwarted.

This was the case in H&M's recent scandal with their supposedly organic Garden Collection, which turned out to have been contaminated with genetically modified cotton from India. According to Ecotextile News, rampant fraud has been going on for some time within the Indian organic cotton industry, and several organic certification organizations have been cited in the snowballing scandal.

The remedy is conscientious sourcing. For smaller lines, this can be very personal, as with my friend Kate at Pigeon, who's shepherding her organic, veggie-tanned leather from farm through the tanning process to make sustainable bike bags; or another friend, Francoise Olivas, who works with traditional artisans on the techniques that go into her clothing designs. Larger companies such as Edun and Kuyichi have found a solution via Made-By's Track & Trace program, which traces the origin of their garments throughout the production chain.

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