For a couple of years, Nikki at thisismoonlight has been doing a project called one year one outfit. The idea is that you source and make an entire garment from within your region of the world – fabrics, processing, dyes and all. I’ve been reading with interest since it began, but have not been making. The first year, I didn’t really know what she was intending from the brief description – but watching her research and her progress got me thinking about what fabrics are sourced from within New Zealand, and what I could do. I’ve been doing research on and off, and this year I’m making it a goal to make a full outfit using only materials grown and processed within New Zealand.
I love doing this kind of research, so I’ve been tracking all I can find about New Zealand fibre production. We have a lot of sheep, so the obvious first place to start was wool: we grow wool here, but how much of it is processed in New Zealand?
The answer appears to be: a fair bit. There are quite a few companies – small and large – selling wool for knitting that’s been spun here, and I know of of one mill processing merino wool to knit fabric, all ready to sew. The real problem here appears to be dyes. The vast majority of NZ-processed wool is available in commercially-dyed colours, and one can find knitting wool and unspun fibre in natural colours if you look for a while, but I have yet to find any wool that has been processed into fabric without a conventional dye being added. I called Levana to ask about this, and they have available the option of producing undyed fabric for you but… only if you want 200m of it. Next time I’m starting up a fibreshed small business I’ll know where to go.
There are a few companies selling handwoven and naturally dyed (or undyed) blankets/wraps that I could theoretically use, but unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) handwoven shawls are far, far beyond my price range (honestly I don’t have a problem with them being sold at that price – I respect the amount of work that goes into them – I just can’t afford to buy them. But that’s a whole other conversation).
So, as far as wool goes, I have as much as I want of unspun roving and a variety of weights of spun yarn, in a variety of natural colours, but I have nothing pre-prepared into fabric for me. This is unsurprising, but does mean some extra work in the making of the outfit – it suggests that in some manner, whether knitting, weaving or felting, I’m going to have to create the fabric for every part of my outfit.
In my searches for wool, I discovered also that apparently there is a thriving alpaca industry here. Because of the large variety of natural colours, a decent proportion is undyed as well. (There’s also a surprising number of actual alpacas for sale.) I’m not sure if I’ll end up using it, but it’s definitely there as an option.
Now, what of other fibres?
Harakeke/New Zealand flax produces a good strong fibre – similar to linen – but as far as I can tell the only people still using it are a few Maori weavers making kahu/korowai – traditional cloaks. I was able to find information on how to prepare the fibre, and how korowai are made, but so far as I can tell, there is no fibre industry around it. I haven’t ruled out using it in my garment – but it would be a lot of work, as I’d need to find, cut, and prepare the fibre myself, and then work out how to spin it, and then follow that up with either weaving or knitting a fabric for a garment. It’d be fun, and a fantastic achievement, and I’d love to be able to say I’d done it – but it’s a lot of work.
I’ve just spent an instructive evening looking into silk in New Zealand. There’s no silk industry here, but apparently you can raise the worms – a few individuals here do! I couldn’t find anyone raising on a scale that they might then sell it on (to me), however. Perhaps next year – or some distant time in the future when I have a thriving mulberry tree – I’ll try grow my own silk. That would be a fantastic adventure!
We have one species of native Linum plant – related to linen flax – but I don’t actually know what it looks like or where it grows, so that’s out. Similarly, there are nettles around so theoretically ramie is an option, but I don’t want to have to hunt down and prepare that. (I have memories of a very large nettle bush on my grandparents’ property as a kid – perhaps if that was still there I would do the nettle thing, but it is long gone.) And as far as I can tell, no one even tries to grow cotton.
At this stage, my most likely scenario is a 100% wool outfit – I suspect that I won’t have the time to spin and weave a flax garment, as fantastic as that would be. I’ve sourced myself some naturally coloured Romney sheep fibre to spin for a cardigan (from Otago – sourced on TradeMe), just bought 400g of undyed fingering weight wool for a knit top from Skeinz in Hastings (if I do end up with enough flax yarn to make a top of that instead, it’s also a great weight for baby garments or shawls, which means I was happy buying when I’m not 100% sure what I’m making), and am pondering the options that felting offers for making a skirt. I was unexcited about this as an option until yesterday, when I found Andrea Zittel’s beautiful garments. (Go have a look, they’re pretty stunning.) Handmade by Carolyn also made this gorgeous dress for One Year One Outfit in 2015 – like me, she has no premade fabrics and mostly only wool fibres for her outfit. I didn’t know felt could be ethereal!
I’ve also been exploring natural dyeing, but that’s a story for next time….
(oh, and side note: me-made-May begins tomorrow. I’ve done it in the past, and was thinking of aiming to wear a different outfit every day for the month this year – I think I can manage it. I am not making a formal pledge though, I don’t need another thing in my life this month.)