Knitwear was a staple for fishermen and other outdoor workers in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that sweaters became a fashion statement, driven by a new interest in sports such as cricket, tennis, golf and cycling. At the same time, North American indigenous craft communities began fusing their own traditional designs with newer silhouettes and machine-made yarns, inventing famous new fashion staples like the cowichan sweaters from Vancouver. These chunky handmade cardigans became an iconic look in popular culture since the 1960s, worn by people like Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, Starsky TV cop and film legend Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. In 2023, an online boutique called Weaving Wutth’els open to connect directly First Nations Designers in Canada with buyers, including pieces created by Coast Salish community artists like Zena Rowland, whose name appears on the label.
Cultural threads are also transmitted in &Daughter, the lively British startup from Buffy Reid, who serves as creative director and co-founder. Now sold on Net-a-Porter and Matches, &Daughter began as a connection to Reid’s Irish heritage. “My grandmother was an incredible weaver and she passed that knowledge and passion on to my father,” she explains. “She made her life’s work into the highest quality Irish and Scottish knitwear…I always loved the stories involved in making it, the spinning of the yarn, the craftsmanship involved. Every stitch tells a story, perhaps more than any other piece of clothing.” By using it, Reid says, you are supporting local communities and sharing their way of life with the world.
Less is more
Handmade sweaters can also provide environmental benefits, especially when knitters know where and how the wool is sourced. According to the Irish-American sustainable designer Mary 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 the sheep and goats are healthy, respected and well cared for – standards that must also be applied to land management and labor practices from the first cut to the final stitch.
Many herds have been in the same families for generations, and farms like Point Ranch in america and Dowrene Farms in Australia they are run by indigenous producers who work with traditional agricultural methods.