Monday 16 September 2019

Exclusive Interview With The Woolist's Zoe Fletcher

Image courtesy of Zoe Fletcher
She's the queen of sheep after dedicating her PhD research to British breeds and their fleeces' properties. A Woolly Yarn met Zoe Fletcher at this year's Edinburgh Yarn Fest and we're thrilled that she has since taken some time away from all things sheepy to answer our nosey questions!

Q1. How did your PhD research come about?

A. I've always loved making things and studied Textile Design for Fashion at Manchester School of Art for my BA. I became increasingly aware of how using different materials in hand and machine knitting affected my design outcomes.

I wanted to explore this further. Whilst studying for my Masters at London College of Fashion I focussed on finding out more about the ethics and sustainability of my raw materials and their journey - 100% wool is great, but the more I know of their properties and backstory the more I can be in control of the yarn and design outcome.

After graduation I worked in industry for a few years before deciding to continue my test for further understanding the different qualities of wool from different British breeds, undertaking an AHRC-funded PhD at Manchester School of Art. My practice-based research aim was to find out more about these pure breeds of sheep, which have all been developed over generations for specific land, weather and breed management practices. So I set my self a challenge. I wanted to collect a sample of yarn (and fleece) from each of the 72 pure breeds I had amassed. I met with designers, knitters, farmers and production mills amongst others and began to build up my collection. I sampled and documented each stage of the journey, with the aim of creating a practical database of knowledge.

Q2. What were the highs and lows of the project?

A. Getting to meet so many amazing people and connecting with farmers, producers, makers, designers and attending shows and fairs across the country was really exciting, and I gathered so much knowledge and collected such great data.

However I was still tied to the constraints of the PhD format and writing up in the last year was quite a lonely and challenging experience - continuing to sample and thinking through my practice work helped me (along with my really supportive supervisor team and the support of all the contributors I had met along the way!)

Q3. Why do you think hand knitting is so important?

A. Hand knitting connects you to the whole process of making - you are in full control of how the 'fabric' and 'end-product' will turn out. Each and every stitch is considered and due to it being such a tacit experience you get to understand the qualities, handle and feel of the different properties of the wool as you are manipulating each stitch. I do machine knit as well and this has its own set of positives and challenges when working with the different materials.

Q4. Most people think that wool is wool. How do different British breeds differ in their knitted up qualities?

A. There are 72 pure breeds of different British sheep found across the UK today. They have been farmed for generations and adapted to different geographical locations that vary in weather conditions, soil quality and land management. They have been bred to highlight different qualities - some farmers want easy-to-rear breeds, some want good mothering abilities, some want fast growers for meat, some want to keep the traditional qualities alive.

Wool samples image courtesy of Zoe Fletcher
From the hardy Herdwicks of the Lake District with their distinct 'teddy bear' like face and grey tonal wool (which has a high micron count, so relatively thick fibres which can feel a bit harsh, sometimes prickly because of the kemp, next to the skin - but keeps the sheep nice and dry thus these qualities are transferred to the knitted qualities), to the fine Southdown with its dense and short-stapled fleece (said to be one of the finest clips) which creates a crisp, fine yarn. So they all have different colourings, handle qualities, staple lengths (that affect the processing of Woollen or Worsted spinning), elasticity and fineness that depict how differently the knitted stitches will turn out.

Q5. Do you have a favourite wool?

A. It depends what I want to use it for! Each wool has a purpose, but if you wanted to make a beautiful draped silky scarf a Scottish Blackface's wool would not highlight these qualities, whereas using Blueface Leicester wool would. So I can't choose a favourite as it would depend too much on what I wanted to make it into!

Q6. What do you think will happen in the next ten years to the British sheep industry and the hand knitting industry?

A. Looking at it positively, hopefully with the public's awareness of welfare standards, natural fibres and renewable/sustainable principles being challenged and heightened (we have seen it in the food industry with locally-sourced, organic and fair trade being more widely available) and their awareness of the damaging impact the fast fashion industry has across the world, we'll begin to see the benefits of slowing down the fashion cycle and investing in quality 'local' products that benefit the communities they are grown/produced/made in as well in the consumer - that's in the perfect world!

Digital media as a positive tool can be (and is being0 used to connect people - giving them access to patterns, materials, communities, information that doesn't always have to be about fast consumption but connecting with like-minded people who can take inspiration from each other and find out about individuals and small companies doing amazing things with local wool that might have been hard to find before Hopefully this will continue to be positively strengthened.

Q7. Is there a favourite jumper/accessory pattern you like to be knitted up with British wool?

A. You can't beat a nice thick pair of stripy stocks for Winter - one of my favourite patterns is a Winwick Mum DK one. I use up all the different colours I can't resit buying and mix them with all my leftover DK weight naturally coloured yarns!

Q8. What's the current state of The Woolist Project?

A. The Woolist Project is continuing to be worked hard upon behind the scenes. Summer has been a great time for getting out and about to different shows and fairs and talking to lots of different people about future ideas. Now that Autumn is creeping in it's time to get hibernating and start getting all these things online. 

The Woolist exhibition on tour image courtesy of Zoe Fletcher
There are a couple more big outings of the practical research before Christmas  - workshops and pop-up exhibitions of work and products across the UK which I update for Instagram (@thewoolist).

Q9. What are you aiming for for the future?

A. To develop and create an online resource that allows people to find out more about British wool, that can act as a bridge to connect people wanting to learn more and use more local materials, and materials with a significant historical story, to producers, makers and designers who are using them today.

Thanks so much Zoe for answering A Woolly Yarn's questions! Find out more about the project at The Woolist website.

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