How one great sweater can last a lifetime

Knitwear was a staple for fishermen and other outdoor workers in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that jumpers became a fashion statement, propelled by a new interest in sports like cricket, tennis, golf, and cycling. At the same time, communities of Indigenous craftswomen in North America began fusing their own traditional designs with newer silhouettes and machine-made yarn, inventing famous new fashion staples like the Cowichan sweaters of Vancouver. These handcrafted, chunky cardigans became an iconic look in popular culture from the 1960s, worn by the likes of Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, TV cop Starsky and film legend Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. In 2023, an online boutique called Knit Wutth’els opened to directly connect First Nations designers in Canada with shoppers, including pieces created by Coast Salish community artists like Zena Rowland, whose name appears on the label.

Cultural threads are also passed down at &Daughter, the buzzy British start-up by Buffy Reid, who serves as the creative director and co-founder. Now sold at Net-a-Porter and Matches, &Daughter began as a connection to Reid’s Irish heritage. “My granny was an amazing knitter, and she passed that knowledge and passion on to my father,” she explains. “He made his life’s work the Irish and Scottish knitwear of the highest quality… I always loved the stories involved in their making, the spinning of the yarn, the handcraft involved. Each stitch tells a story, maybe more so than any other piece of clothing.” By wearing it, Reid says, you’re supporting local communities and sharing their way of life with the world.

Less is more

Handmade jumpers can also carry environmental benefits, especially when the knitters know where and how their wool is procured. According to Irish-American sustainable designer Maria McManus, supporting small farms with regenerative practices “isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the only thing to do”. Designer wool is only considered super-premium when sheep and goats are healthy, respected and well-tended – standards that must also apply to land management and labour practices from the first shear to the final stitch.

Many flocks have been in the same families for generations, and farms like Dot Ranch in America and Dowrene Farms in Australia are helmed by Indigenous growers working with traditional farming methods.

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