Hand Manufacturing, Value + Conscious Design

It takes me approximately 10 hours to knit a hat from start to finish. This includes washing, (not including drying) tying in the ends and making a pom pom for the top. It’s got me thinking about hand manufacturing and the costs/time/impacts associated. I knit these hats with 3 needles, completely by hand, it’s not my area of specialism by any means, but it’s something that has helped me get my own creative ideas going during lock-down after many years of not doing my own design work and has started many design conversations in my head.

There are ways to knit hats quicker, maybe I’m not that fast a hand knitter (I don’t think this is too bad time wise) by hand machine or by getting them manufactured. But, I’ve been wondering how desirable products are to consumers, that are made by hand (or machine with hand elements) and if the hand skills, tradition and less impacts environmentally (more on this part later) sway their purchase decisions even if they have a higher price tag?

I’ve worked in the Scottish Textiles manufacturing industry for the past 5 years since I graduated from University. Working in this industry in Scotland is special to me for a number of reasons. In my opinion, the products that are produced here are ultimately very special. (I am sure that this is similar to other industries and places around the world that manufacture too.)
Firstly because of the heritage story attached. Often companies in this textiles area are old traditional companies with authentic heritage which they have brought forward to today, making their products reputable and also interesting to support and consume by those world wide and closer to home. The heritage stories of the companies that I have worked for have made me proud to be an employee and also proud tell their stories along the way for them.

Secondly, with these companies, traditional hand manufacturing methods are often still used alongside the introduction of more innovative modern technology where processes can be improved. If I know that a product has been hand produced and is less available than a mass produced product, I know I would be more interested in making a purchase.
This is for a few reasons, one, being that I am more interested in small scale production and products that are produced in a better way. Another is a completely selfish reason, I like to be different than others, so like to purchase pieces that I know others might not have.
However because of costs this is not always possible for me, but I like to make myself aware of brands and companies that produce in Scotland or other conscious brands so that if I do have the means to make a purchase then I could.

Thirdly, manufacturers in this area are often based in smaller towns and remote places, (Shetland included! There are a number of small textile manufacturers based in Shetland doing just what I am talking about) with a number of families members and various generations working for these organisations. With the products, come the people who make them. I really like this aspect and feel it is one of the most important parts and I have met many characters within manufacturing workshops along the way who are the most highly skilled craftsmen/women and their knowledge is second to none.

Fourthly, I have worked for two very different manufacturing companies in Scotland within the Scottish Textiles industry. One much larger than the other, but still relatively small scale compared to textile/garment manufacturing overseas. While I can only speak from my experience, I know that other manufacturers within the UK/further afield will be the same as my next point, however, from my point of view, the companies that I have worked for have one main thing in common. A higher price point with no compromise on quality. As quality is embedded in every part of the process from design, development, manufacture and customer service, the skills and expertise that every member of staff has, is all part of the cost you pay and get from the product you buy. This then also results in products which last a long time and are not frequently consumed and thrown away. They are made to last, go through seasons and are cared for.

As previously mentioned above, I’ve produced a number of hats and woven textiles samples while I have been back in Shetland for lockdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of time and skill attached to a product and whether consumers think about how long they expect to use the product/garment for while making purchases? I am not sure it’s something I think of that often, but now, I will.

I realise that my thoughts are probably coming from an area of privilege. I acknowledge that I have been incredibly lucky to be in a position to study locally in Shetland, before leaving to go to university, complete a masters in Fashion and Textiles and also find work in the industry I trained in. During my studies I learnt about textile manufacturing specialising in woven textiles. From my undergrad I learnt about the whole process from taking raw materials to yarn manufacture, to creating different types of cloth. In my masters year, I hand manufactured my own cloth in different weights and then turned the meter-age into garments, which was an incredibly long process with a lot of hours put in. In my working career I have been lucky to see my design work getting produced at small and large scale in a manufacturing capacity which has taught me a lot.

Perhaps my experience leads to increased awareness of the whole process of manufacturing products/clothing, albeit small scale and on the smaller less impact full end of the scale, and means that I may value the time, skill and expertise needed to create products so would be willing to purchase these at a higher cost? Maybe this is just an area of interest to me? Maybe some people don’t really care?

This has led me to think about products which have a higher value attached, because they are hand crafted, produced in smaller batches, are perhaps more considered because of the design or use of materials.
A few brands which fall into this category that I really like from the UK are:
– Huit Denim, an organic denim company making jeans based in Wales (https://hiutdenim.co.uk/)
– Paynter, a jacket company producing limited edition jackets (https://paynterjacket.com/)
– Law Design Studio, an small batch slow fashion brand using sustainable materials. (https://lawdesignstudio.com/)
This conversation then leads to, if we then take more care of these types of products because of their value compared to products you might purchase on the high street, wear a few times and then throw away because they are no longer on trend, does this then help reduce the environmental impact?

I recently read a report called the Environmental Price of Fast Fashion (link below if you are interested in reading) which looks into the environmental impacts of the fast fashion industry despite it continuing to grow. The fast fashion industry relies on cheap manufacturing, frequent consumption and garments which don’t last very long.

As we have all slowed down over the last few months and have been consuming a lot less (of everything) this along with producing my own design work again has raised my awareness of the environmental impacts of the fashion and textile industry. As a designer I have had an awareness of sustainability because I feel a level of responsibility to design and manufacture in a conscious way so that any impacts can be reduced but I can’t help but feel this awareness has increased steeply during this lock-down time for me.
If the fast fashion industry is continuing to grow and have a detrimental impact on the environment, as a designer I want to make sure that any products that I personally create through my own design work (Browns Road, wherever this might go) are something that last a long time, are cared for and repaired where possible and are less reliant on trends and more in line with a capsule wardrobe.

Through my work as a designer in the manufacturing industry, I can be aware of being sustainable and the impacts that the fashion industry has on the environment. I can relay information and my thoughts to my employers to help make changes. I can choose better materials and ensure good quality remains at the forefront but it is a much slower process to make change to bigger systems, although one which I will continue to try to make a difference in.

I came across the podcast called Common Threads which I would highly recommend listening too (link below). The hosts cover a wide variety of interesting topics and have definitely made me think about the choices that I will make going forward, to anything that I consume, design through at work or make and design through my own design work. I’m not saying that I don’t purchase from the high street – there are some things that I do buy from mass produced brands. However I would say that when I do, I try to purchase garments that are classic items, are less trend led and going forward I will continue to make a much more conscious effort.

This post has just touched on a lot of points, ones which I feel are all interlinked together and plan to work more into these areas in my own design work going forward. These points are not just limited to impacts on the environment but also ethics and how people are treated and is something that I will make a commitment to learning more about to make better informed design decisions.

Links:
The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion – https://www.nature.com/articles/s43017-020-0039-9
Common Threads Podcast – https://open.spotify.com/show/68WHxKVJrihjFW11TMTxuT

Reading:
This Changes Everything – Naomi Klein
Slow Fashion – Safie Minney

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