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Wool and 3D Knitwear Reshape The Future With Zero Waste

By Jackie Mallon

Jun 29, 2017

Before an audience of well-heeled design professionals munching on avocado toast inside the luxurious creative space of Manhattan’s NeueHouse, a panel of Fashion Customization Pioneers reveal the results of an interesting partnership. Michelle Lee is Head of Americas for The Woolmark Company, Veronika Harbick is a fashion tech entrepreneur and founder of 3D knitwear brand, Thursday Finest, and Timo Rissanen is Professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons. Let the illuminations begin.

A reduced yet bespoke footprint

A 3D knitting machine chugs quietly away producing a gift for each guest: a pair of socks. We’d left our measurements upon entry, and will receive our custom-fit wool socks in the mail––socks with both right and left-shaped feet, seamless toe and heel cupping qualities. A pair can be produced within fifteen minutes to color and pattern specifications, replete with personalized messages. The event permitted the unveiling of Thursday Finest’s recent development: the “no-show” sock designed to look like you’re not wearing any.

Thursday Finest is a two-year-old brand whose mission is to provide an alternative business model to respond to the over-consumption that has damaged our planet by producing only what is needed, offering a modern bespoke experience, starting with accessories. “Instead of seeing the country of manufacture on the label of your garment, you see your item being made right there in front of you,” says Harbick. “We only use the wool we need. There is no inventory waste because we produce after you place your order. it’s zero waste.” She calls it “purchasing with a purpose” but believes that manufacturers and consumers are in this together, and “conscious consumption must be paired with conscious manufacturing. That’s when fashion really becomes a force for good.”

Champion diversity

Michelle Lee of Australian organization The Woolmark Company, informs us that 95 percent of the world’s wool is grown in Australia by the country’s 55,000 wool farmers, 75 percent of which are merino wool producers. Wool is natural, renewable, and biodegradable, yet despite its enormous eco-credentials, worldwide, wool only accounts for 1.5 percent of the fiber market (polyester comes in around the 60 percent mark.)

“We need a more balanced landscape and must champion diversity of fibers,” affirms Timo Rissanen.

Woolmark has carried out extensive research on the biodegradability of wool compared with other fibers, from the moment it leaves the sheep’s back to when it goes into the ground, “from cradle to grave,” and deduced that its low impact and long life are unique. One high-profile experiment they conducted was with Prince Charles, patron of the Campaign For Wool, in which he buried two garments, one wool, one synthetic, in the ground, and after six months dug them up. The wool had almost biodegraded, the non-wool garment was intact, just sitting in the earth. Lee points to wool’s durability and adaptability––above ground––as the key components for Woolmark’s partnership with Adidas, initially in the creation of a running shoe but which has since evolved into apparel.

Follow the sheep

“The sheep is the model we adhere to,” she explains, “It needs to stay warm when the weather’s cold, and be cool when the weather’s hot. Wool has the ability to do that for the sheep so we transfer those benefits to the garment. Wool absorbs moisture, traps it and releases it in the wash so the garment stays fresh.” Lee says Woolmark is seeing renewed interest in the fiber from designers worldwide and cites the area of activewear as wool’s fastest-growing.

Wool wins in the long run

Rissanen, who happens to be an experienced marathon runner, vouches for wool in activewear. And with a PhD in zero waste, he is drawn to new business models and companies with this same commitment at their core, which are spurred on by advances in technology. As an educator in sustainable design, he had some important words for the audience of designers and production experts from New York’s top fashion companies: “Be prepared: graduates are now becoming very knowledgable about this issue. They are coming to you already with a wealth of information and understanding of this subject. Be ready for them.”

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

All photos from Joe McShea.