One time, in my early twenties, I lived in Ireland for a few years. Way out on the Mizen Peninsula with my then boyfriend in a very old stone cottage nestled in some trees and surrounded by old stone outbuildings. Not sure why or how, we just kind of blew in there one day and stayed, as you do. No running water, no bathroom and our total drain on the electric grid was a couple of feeble lightbulbs.
Water was hauled in buckets from an old stone well at the other end of the vegetable garden, heating and cooking achieved after much wood chopping to feed an old range and a bath was when you hauled and heated enough water to make a decent showing in the old tin tub you would drag inside for the event.
Life was most definitely harder than the flick a switch, turn a tap days i had known thus far, but there is something incredibly satisfying when you peel it back a few layers and get things done yourself another way. Living that way meant spending a lot of time outside, rain or shine, just to get your daily living done. We knew the sky, the sea, the hedgerows, the weather and all their changing faces well.
It didn’t snow very often down there in West Cork, but water was a pretty constant companion much of the year. Either just plain old dumping rain, or what the locals called a ‘Soft Day’, which just meant you were living inside a cloud. Needless to say, wool was rather popular in our house. It repelled water, stayed warm even when it was wet, didn’t need to be washed so much and didn’t hold a pongy ‘guess who just chopped wood’ smell. Longjohns, socks, hats, sweaters etc etc. We loved us some wool so we did!
As did the farmers and fishermen of the Aran Islands. Located just off the coast of Galway in the west of Ireland, the Aran Islands are famous for their woolen Aran sweaters. Having usually to deal with more than a ‘soft day’ the hardy Aran Islanders have rain and seawater coming at them sideways regularly. Although beautifully decorative with their cables and diamond stitching, the Aran sweater was part of a survival wardrobe to keep them safe and warm in a brutal environment. They used to leave more of the sheeps lanolin on the wool than you will find in a sweater today, which keep them even more water repellent. The stitching patterns are said tell stories to those who know how to read them about clans and their identities. The Aran Islanders are still a hardy bunch out there on the rocks as their famous Aran Sweater woos the world.
As gray as a day may be on Ireland’s west coast sometimes there is something incredibly magical about the place. When the sun finally cracks through the clouds the landscape just comes to life with colors like I have never seen anywhere else in the world. It is a culture and landscape that makes a home in your heart and the Irish take that with them, across oceans and down through generations wherever they go.
When we were kids my mum had a spinning wheel. This isn’t either of them, but the spinning wheel was not too different. A lovely dark wood with gracefully turned legs, a big fat wheel and lots of intriguing accessories. Bobbins, racks, carders etc.
I loved the whole process of taking a fleece, carding it into workable fiber then patiently spinning it into usable yarn. Mum used to spin in the evenings, where there used to be plenty of time before we were all glued to our computers. She used both black and white sheep’s wool and would blend them in various amounts to achieve different shades of grays and browns. Come winter we would all be sporting ‘homespun jumpers’ (sweaters) of various color combinations.
I inherited the spinning wheel for a while in my late teens but by my early 20’s was trotting the globe so with the wheel more in storage then in use she claimed it back I did learn spinning is very relaxing, very rhythmic and completely satisfying to see the dramatic change you are creating in your raw material.
With finished product so accessible these days and big machines spinning millions of miles of yarn its easy to forget that each garment went through all these stages from sheep to your child’s back. Conventional processing of wool uses a serious amount of intense chemicals to achieve the fastest cheapest result. With nui we choose a process that slows it down (not quite hand spinning slow…) and cleans it up. We are creating garments that will last for years, maybe generations, and believe they are worth the wait.
Mum used to have some hand looms too, making wall hangings and rugs. But that’s another story…
I would love to be able to design the way a child’s mind works. With the freedom and imagination that we only have before we grow. I think for that to happen it would take a serious amount of ‘unlearning’ however.
I have a bit of a thing for mannequins. Old ones especially have a certain grace and charm that almost brings them to life. But I know they are resin or wood or what have you so my ‘interaction’ remains purely to view them.
I have some infant and child size mannequins. Mostly headless, with creamy cotton ‘skin’. Once, when my son was about 2 years old I had them all at home, their naked, headless little cotton bodies all lined up in the hallway. I had thought my son would be interested in them but he paid them no attention at all, never once acknowledging that they were even there.
A couple of days later I dressed them, putting together some outfits that they would be wearing for a coming trade show. Only then did they come to life for him. As soon as they were dressed, he walked around each one with his juice cup, giving each invisible head a sip of his juice while muttering words of encouragement and greeting. As soon as I undressed them they disappeared again. I was so intrigued by that. I am going to try and make some of that magic. Until then, I will resign myself to taking photographs…
Someone asked me…
“why organic? why do you make everything from organic?”
And i answer, because whether its an apple or a tee shirt, organic is better for your body now. Its better for the people who work the land now. Its better for the people who manufacture the products now. But its not just for now. Its better for tomorrow. For our environment tomorrow. To not make it worse, to hopefully heal it some too.
And I have a son, who i love very much.
And if my son. Loves his child. As much as i love him.
Then the greatest gift i can ever give him. Is a gift he can give his child.
And isn’t that a healthy happy place to grow?
If you’re in London next week do check out Wool Modern. Part of the Campaign for Wool, the exhibition focuses on the modern, innovative and avant garde use of wool throughout the creative industries. Runs Sep 8th - 29th at La Galleria, Pall Mall. Some spectacular designers on display, all raising the baa on contemporary design…
We take our wooly caps off to HRH The Price of Wales, aka. Prince Charles. Long a supporter of small farmers, local production and environmental issues, one of his latest causes is the support of wool, at every stage including growers, processors, designers, retailers.
According to Campaignforwool.com “The Campaign is multi-national, multi-sector and inclusive, and tries to embrace all sections of wool users from the very largest companies to specialist artisans.”
Excellent. Thank you Prince Charles. We love wool too.
Thought I would slip in a sneak peek at our spring/summer 2012 offerings.
Made from the perfect blend of organic cotton and hemp.
Comfortable enough for loungewear, tough enough for the playground, smart enough for school photos day.
I grew up on a small farm in the North Island of New Zealand. We had sheep and cows and horses, assorted cats and dogs and guinea pigs, a very personable goat named Sultan and eels down in the creek. While I liked the sheep well enough, they are not really the kind of animal you make close pals of. Partly because there was always a big bunch of them and really, how do you single just one out as confidante and side kick? And also because they didn’t really want to know us that much, quite content with each other, lots of grass and random fallen oranges in the orchard. And then there was Gus. Sweet endearing Gus who somehow quickly became known as ‘Gus the Spastic Lamb’. We got Gus from my uncles sheep farm. Gus was born with funky legs and once he lay down he could not easily get up without assistance. He would not have survived long on a commercial sheep farm. With childhood stubbornness and the firm belief that we could somehow save him my sisters and I brought him home and made him ours. We fed him from a bottle, helped him up when he needed it and gave him lots of rides on the skateboard upon which he sat quite calmly with his little funky legs tucked under himself. Alas, Gus passed away one day after he fell into the diggings of the new septic tank and drowned in 3 inches of water. Had he lived to adulthood, been able to walk and learnt to skate standing up, I don’t doubt he would have looked much like this photo.
And the moral of this story??? you may quite rightly ask. Although little Gus had some big health issues and would never have survived too long anywhere, it does reinforce the point that we are ultimately responsible for a sheep’s welfare. We domesticate them and breed them in large numbers so we can use their wool. It is not just the sheep farmer who can make the choice about how that sheep is treated, but the person who buys the wool sweater. They use the power of how they spend their dollar, to make a difference in a sheep’s life. Organic sheep are happier sheep.