Food isn’t the only 100 mile commodity. Toronto designer Smythe is applying the concept to its 100 Mile Blazer, part of Holt Renfrew’s exclusive Canadian designer capsule collection with the Campaign for Wool. The global endeavour, initiated by its patron, the Prince of Wales, aims to raise awareness about wool’s renewable and biodegradable benefits. (Also featured in the collection are knits from Line and ça va de soi.) As the name suggests, the $750 jacket is made from wool – raised, milled, dyed and woven within 100 miles of the brand’s Toronto studio.
Smythe has also crafted jackets for the Campaign using textiles from the heritage U.K. woollen mill Abraham Moon, but the 100 Mile jacket marks the first time the cloth is intentionally hyperlocal. It’s a garment as showcase, both educating consumers on the immediate benefits of choosing wool (an ideal fabric as temperatures cool), and in the long term, helping to revitalize the country’s domestic wool industry by creating opportunities for Canadian artisans – in this case, the Upper Canada Fibreshed.
The Campaign for Wool’s annual collaborations are designed to get people talking about wool and raise awareness of how many more possibilities there are for the country’s natural resource, chief executive Matthew Rowe says. “That’s why in recent years we started creating these much more detailed projects that are transforming Canadian wool,” he says.
The 100 Mile blazer’s farm-to-closet journey isn’t exactly linear; this small-batch production is more of a zigzag, among a community of artisans who consult one another and share their expertise every step of the way.
For Smythe co-designers Andrea Lenczner and Christie Smythe, inspiration began with a swatch of indigo in fabric samples from Toronto-based weaver Deborah Livingston-Lowe, who also managed the 100 Mile project along with members of the Upper Canada Fibreshed network. “We loved the richness of that blue,” Smythe says of the different dye lots in the warp and weft yarn that give it dimension. “It reminded us of the vintage shopping we do in Paris and all the different hues of blues in old surplus-y garments. The density of the wool also had a military feel.”
“It didn’t speak to a structured blazer,” Lenczner says of the resulting style’s slouchy silhouette, “and we try to do what a fabric wants to do.” The jacket has elements of Smythe’s distinctive DNA, including bellows pockets, stamped brass buttons and a men’s wear feel, plus the military nod with red chevron insignia on the lapel by Toronto embroidery specialist Stitchy Lizard.
A spirited flock
Fibre farmer and breeder Allison Brown has raised sheep and angora goats at Pine Hollow Farm near Norwood, Ont., since 1988. The fleece from her unique purebred-cross flock is called Norbouillet, a portmanteau of the farm’s location and their breed makeup of Rambouillet sheep, a cousin of the Merino, crossed with Romney, a breed originating in England, and a third that remains secret. “They’re rangy sheep, they like to go on pasture and graze,” Brown says. “What they really like are Manitoba maple and grape vine leaves! They’ll eat alfalfa, white clover and grasses. And we have some wild apple trees that I have to keep them away from.” The flock was shorn in April, before lambing, but their wool and its innate characteristics reflect their experience and care year-round. “It’s a nice strong fibre, the lustre is lovely, the sheep are happy.”
Pick and choose
Once shorn, but before leaving the farm for the mill, any fleece that’s coarser, soiled or contains too much vegetable debris matter, usually from the sheep’s belly and rump, gets “skirted,” or separated out and used for a different purpose. “I’m not just picking whole fleeces, I might take half a fleece,” Brown says of her sorting and selection of the 90 pounds of raw Norbouillet wool she supplied to Donna Hancock at Wellington Fibres. (Annually, an adult ewe in her flock of 40 produces between nine and 12 pounds of fleece, yearlings about half that.) Brown is a hand-spinner herself and that informs the fineness, uniformity and density she aims for when breeding her modified closed herd; she also keeps meticulous records to track fleece characteristics and yield. Each member of the flock is also named and numbered, which means Brown can trace the 100 Mile jacket back to its specific animal. For this season’s must-have sustainable jacket, you can thank Elma, Zitera, Zera, XPansy, Deidre, Devon, CaDanielle, Flolera, Eden, Cassie, Zeetha and Cassandra.
The golden fleece
Early in the project Livingston-Lowe and spinner Hancock discussed optimal yarn combinations, given how the finished cloth needed to perform for Smythe’s design. The fine hand and drape of premium cloth is why Livingston-Lowe chose to use Brown’s Norbouillet fleece – for its strength and density as well as its “beautiful gloss” aesthetic. They settled on 70-per-cent Norbouillet, with the remaining composition being alpaca from the herd at Old Mill Alpacas farm in Colborne, Ont. “Blending in another fibre is going to create a bit of a network and tie down everything after it’s all finished,” the weaver says. “Wool is the workhorse in that it retains its structure, and the alpaca is an underlying support.” The finished yarn is two-ply in the weft, single in the warp, but spun so they’re essentially the same weight.
Spinning a tale
The fleece eventually woven into the 100 Mile jacket was mill spun at Hancock’s Wellington Fibres in Elora, Ont. Upon arrival, the fleece is washed to remove its natural grease, aka lanolin, and any grime. A washable lubricant similar to a conditioner is applied that allows the wool to pass over rollers without damage, and it’s given a rest overnight. Next, it’s picked, carded (worked through a system of wire rollers that straightens and aligns the fibres and removes any remaining vegetable matter), and fed into a pin drafter to further align the fibres. Then it’s spun and plied into yarn. “When we’re spinning it we have to decide how much twist to put in, knowing what the person is going to do with it,” Hancock says of the spiral rotation that binds yarns together in a continuous strand. “It’s more of an art than a science.” Hancock points out that spinning was the first thing industrialized in the Industrial Revolution: “The whole process and the equipment is basically the same as it was early on – it’s just modernized a little bit. From the day we start washing to the day that we take that skein off, it’s five days. Anything that’s worthwhile takes time,” she says.
Colour me beautiful
The jacket’s rich blue recalls traditional Japanese indigo, the hue that captured Smythe’s imagination. To achieve this effect, Toronto artist Liam Blackburn of Iron Cauldron Colour Works worked closely on sampling wool with Livingston-Lowe and had the freedom to experiment. Tests involved dyeing just a few grams at a time, to get a sense of colour tones on natural cream-coloured Norbouillet yarn. “It has a certain degree of natural lustre, which is uncommon for wool,” he says. “I knew going in if I ended up using just one single dye at a certain percentage, it would look really flat,” Blackburn explains of the decision that the finished cloth would be a two-tone weave, with one shade of blue in the weft and another darker shade in the warp.
To dye for
When spun yarn arrives from the mill, Blackburn’s first step is to remove the spinning oils, “which involves cooking it for about an hour in a soap solution. Then it gets rinsed. Then I mix up my dye recipe and put that all together in one of the vats and that cooks for about two hours,” he says, of the time each batch spends in 60-litre brewing pots heated to 80 C. This is the largest single project Blackburn has done to date – 22 lots in total.
Although he and Livingston-Lowe staggered their work to compress the timeline, the more than 80 pounds of yarn still represents a solid month of his labour. “I would dye enough warp for Deborah to put onto her loom and then I’d dye weft and give that to her, and while she was weaving I’d be doing the next,” he says of the regular delivery – usually made in person, since they work just blocks away from one another. All while co-ordinating with the mill to receive yarn as it was ready for the dye stage. “There’s a lot of back and forth in this sort of supply chain, because it is small it has the opportunity to have more of a reciprocal movement,” Blackburn says.
On a good day, Livingston-Lowe can produce six yards of the herringbone tweed cloth on the Canadian-made Leclerc loom in her attic studio. Based on how many times she stepped on the loom treadles, by her calculations she put in the equivalent of walking 66 kilometres making Smythe’s textile. She had to weave close to 95 metres to make the required 80, because the cloth retracts and shrinks after it comes off the loom. “It’s also very stiff,” she says. “You wash it a couple times to soften it up, and press it.” The final yardage was delivered to Smythe’s studio in early July.
The herringbone tweed is a classic textile that Livingston-Lowe, who’s been a fibre artist for more than 30 years, has developed over time through her research into men’s historic suiting fabrics. “I’m doing something here that’s rooted in tradition,” she says, “but I want it to be fresh and new, something that had softness to it. So, it’s going to look tweedy but when you come in close and touch it it’s going to feel like cashmere.”
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