Back to My Roots

Hello, and welcome to my mid –February Journal Entry.

As Charl enters into its second year, I’ve been looking back at the core values of my collection, following the advice of expert gardeners and ensuring the roots are still strong in order to cultivate new growth! At the same time, I thought it would be interesting for my new subscribers to gain an insight into the collection and the motivation behind it…

Earlier this month on Facebook and Instagram,  I remembered my first visit to the archives at Cromer Museum where I discovered their collection of Gansey jumpers for the first time. Then last week I was invited to talk at the prestigious Bradford Textile Society’s panel discussion on “Wool for the 21st Century”, both of which brought me back to the core values embedded in the collection.
For those of you who didn’t get to join us last Tuesday evening, here’s a copy of what I talked about. The full event and discussion will soon be available on the Bradford Textile Society’s website – I’ll let you know when it’s ready to watch!

I’d like to share with you some of the content from the talk I gave as I hope it will tell you a bit more about the story behind my knitwear, and my motivation for bringing it to life!

I’ve been working as a knitwear designer in the fashion industry since I graduated from Kingston University more than 20 years ago.

I immediately began working in Italy, firstly in Milan and then in Treviso for the Benetton Group, where I became the knitwear designer for their Sisley collection. This was a great time to work for the brand as they still produced all of their knitwear in Italy, down the road from the design studios. I learnt so much from the yarn technicians, machine programmers and knitting technicians that has provided me with invaluable hands-on knowledge for the whole of my career.

After Benetton I moved to back to London, to work for Burberry as the Senior Knitwear Designer for their Women’s main line collection. This again was a great time to be at the company whilst it was transitioning from a small heritage British clothing company into a global brand. Since the birth of my two children, I’ve been consulting for smaller British labels, mainly Studio Nicholson and 2 years ago I began working on my own collection.

I have become increasingly aware of the impact fashion and clothing has on the planet, animal welfare and garment workers, especially after working in the industry and reading Lucy Siegle’s book “To Die For – Is Fashion Wearing Out the World” and Stacey Dooley’s TV documentaries on the subject.

At the time when I started working on my collection, I felt that most fashion brands were not seriously addressing this issue, so I felt compelled to create my own collection showing that it IS possible to create a sustainable and largely traceable knitwear collection. This is a work in progress because not all elements are as sustainable as I would like them to be, for example, I would like to use plant based dyes across the whole collection, but these are currently only available in certain yarns. But as with any supply chain, you keep pushing the boundaries and eventually I’ll get there!

Group of Bluefaced leicester sheep

I chose British WOOL for my collection, because it is a fibre that we have in abundance in this country, and which is being chronically underutilized. Not to mention its endless benefits, more of which are being discovered every year. In my opinion it is the most sustainable natural fibre, it’s completely biodegradable, regulates body temperature and it’s antibacterial to mention just a few of its attributes, but you can find out much more on the British Wool website

In my career I have been lucky to work for brands who can afford to use 100% wool in its various forms; from Geelong for colourful argyles and stripes, merino for next to skin softness and drape, to tweedy, more textured yarns for heavier knits and outerwear pieces. Wool is not cheap, but the benefits of using it from a designer’s perspective are endless: it is far more durable than synthetic fibres, maintaining its shape and form after multiple washes, it does not fade or become shapeless and it can be dyed or over dyed into an endless assortment of colours.

As a designer working to tight fashion calendars, it was always difficult to find the time to carry out in-depth studies of the yarns I selected. Designers often rely on what is being proposed by the mills each season and they don’t always have the same eco agenda as you. However, the textile industry is now responding to consumer demand for more ecological, sustainable and recycled fibres so more of these options are available. It is still a challenge though, to convince people to buy fewer products of better quality, as they will ultimately last longer, look better over time and most importantly be better for our environment.

Working with a local yarn like British wool, means that its carbon footprint is greatly reduced. The wool in my collection goes on far fewer and much shorter journeys than say, cotton or manmade fibres and it is much easier to monitor because it is certified by British wool and bears their crook logo of approval.

We are becoming increasingly discerning about the provenance of what we buy – certainly in food, we’re asking where it comes from, how it has been treated and how far it has been transported, and this is spreading into the clothing industry.

Sheringham fishermen, courtesy of Norfolk Museums Service

The Olive and George collection from my own Charl Knitwear takes its inspiration from the heritage craftsmanship and stitches of the Norfolk fishermen’s Gansey jumpers, near where I grew up. These were worn by the fishermen during the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, before the wide use of manmade technical fibres were adopted for outerwear. I wanted to create a collection which celebrated the importance of their legacy and craftsmanship, making it more visible to more people through a more modern interpretation of fit and shape, better suited to our clothing requirements in the 21st century.

The original Ganseys were knitted in a Yorkshire worsted yarn and I wanted to get as close to this wool as possible because it is perfect for re-creating the iconic stitches that were knitted into these pieces. Wool’s natural elasticity, lustre and evenness make these stitches stand out creating almost sculptural fabrics and silhouettes.

I found that using the Sheepsoft wool from Laxtons Mill, near Shipley, I was able to create machine knitted stitches that were really sculptural and three dimensional without being heavy, or dense. The garments have a hand knitted feel to them, like the original Ganseys, which is exactly what I was aiming for, as this is the antithesis of fast fashion and mass production. I worked extensively with my knitwear factories in London and Perugia, Italy to get the correct tension, wash and handle for the yarn which varies between colours.  This is all part of the challenge when creating a modern, collection which incorporates style, sustainability and heritage whilst feeling thoroughly resolved when worn.

I set out to preserve and make the most of this centuries old  natural resource (the wool) in my collection, whilst creating garments that have a real cultural significance, story and sense of style to them. They are not just another jumper to be discarded after a couple of years, but instead, I hope they will become wardrobe favourites, cherished and passed down through generations like special clothes used to be in the past.