I have always wanted to create something new to complement the tweed, but at the same time, I wanted to work with fabrics that embody the same the quality and approach that the Isle of Mull Weavers take. They have an artisan scale - which makes it much more personal, and also a fineness that you sometimes don't get at the same time as the artisan. They are also based in the UK and the native breed sheep mean that this is a product which is harmonious with our environment and has few carbon miles.
My initial search centred around linen. In the 16th century clothing was made primarily made from linen and wool as these were indigenous fibres to the UK, so linen seemed to complement my tweeds. Flax, the plant from which linen is made used to grow in England, Scotland and Ireland profusely. Now, there is very little flax grown here - and certainly not in England or Scotland anymore. I spent a lot of time trying to get in touch with producers in Ireland, North and the Republic. However, I found very little response - people just not answering calls or emails. It's not a great start is it? Anyway, I eventually spoke to some Northern Ireland companies and discovered that there is very little 'real' Irish linen any more - they don't harvest the flax any more, or if they use flax they import it from Eastern Europe. And, more often than not they just weave the linen or 'finish' pre-woven linen in situ. It's a dreadful shame.
So I was delighted to come across a Belgian company, Libeco Lagae which had a long linen-producing heritage. Firstly, their service and helpfulness was exemplary and secondly they have good environmental standards. They have created a collection trademarked Eco Linen. It is all undyed linen, and has recently been certified as Öko-Tex Standard 100 class IV.
Turning flax into linen is generally a very chemical-intense process but this collection is retted in the dew. Which literally means that they harvest the flax and let it lie in the fields and this retting (the softening process) takes place naturally. The processing and weaving process is all done in what they call a closed-loop process, which means that any effluents are contained or neutralised within the factory. They tested these linens and found that there was no chemical residue. The flax itself is grown locally; in Belgium or the Netherlands so it seems to me that it's got a very low carbon footprint. The low countries are even nearer to me here in Farnham than Scotland.
In addition to all these wonderfully sustainable credentials, these linens are of a beautiful quality. They feel heavy and luxurious, but with that rusticity that is also so much a part of my work.
I use tagua nut buttons from Colombia for the blouses, skirts and trousers. It's a nut that is also called 'vegetable ivory'. I sourced these from Artisan Life, who are based in London. Here is a detail of my Vita Breeches (which I am wearing as I write!).
Then we have the cotton print. I had wanted to use the cotton hand-block printed cottons from Les Indiennes. I had got to know owner Mary Mulcahy as we were both winners of the International Design Award's Land & Sea Competition in 2008. They were lovely but just too expensive and I wasn't too sure I wanted fabrics that were woven and printed with no use of electricity then to be flown to the US and then to Europe to me. In the end I found some absolutely enchanting prints from an organisation called Moral Fibre who produce lovely cottons in the 'khadi' tradition, which was pioneered by Ghandi. Ghandi campaigned to re-introduce the tradition of handweaving to India. He was unhappy that all the cotton (indigenous to India) was being transported to England to be woven into cloth, and that Indians were wearing this cotton and had lost the skills. So when you see 'khadi' cloth, it means it's been handwoven. This means it's employing people, using very little electricity and I think has a different quality to machine woven cotton. My jackets are lined with handwoven cotton from a different supplier.
When I saw these prints I knew they would be perfect for my work. A subtle introduction of colour that to me recalled both the 18th century and the 1930s at the same time. They are all hand-block printed and use only natural dyes.
Finally the hemp. I loved this hemp canvas when I discovered it two years ago.
I made a sample and everyone loved it but I wasn't quite ready to create a whole collection. So, I recut the coat and am really happy with it.
The hemp is woven in Romania, and undyed, like the linens. Hemp is an interesting fibre because it is so sustainable; it requires next to no nutrients and little water to thrive perfectly. It's strong and a little sinuey - like linen but a little more waxy and silky. My tailor, Neil, looked askance when I turned up with this rough heavy canvas. I didn't really brief him to carefully, muttered something about French seams and came back a week later to find this work of art.. he'd bound the seams beautifully in my blue cotton lining and finished it with such skill.