During a winter hike in 2019, we first started talking about Herder Gear. Besides the backpack, we were also instantly enthusiastic about offering a broader spectrum of sustainable hiking essentials.
Because (merino) wool is a beautiful material that we love to use during our hikes, we wanted to find out how the industry around wool operates. That's how we found The Knitwit Stable, who started a mission to keep Merino Sheep on their farm in Baambrugge (the Netherlands) and use the wool for production. Sounds simple enough, right? Is it still simple if you want to add some scale, producing more than a few products?
To explore these questions, we joined the Knitwit Stable masterclass at the start of 2020:
From goat to garment, from sheep to Sweater
Transparency in a complex world
The day started by adding some perspective by outlining the average process for a merino wool product through a documentary they made:
Most merino wool comes from sheep in either New Zealand or Patagonia;
From there, the wool is shipped to South Africa to be washed and prepared for spinning;
In Italy, the yarn is spun, the knitting can now start;
The cones of yarn are transported to Bangladesh, where the garments are made;
The final products are then shipped worldwide to a store near you.
In short, the products we use have seen more of the world than your average Joe does in a lifetime. Footprint, social conditions, and animal welfare are often bad (and/or not transparent for consumers).
During the masterclass, every participant also got to knit an actual hat with a manual knitting machine. For someone who has never knitted anything, this seemed like no small feat. Without help, I would have failed for sure. A lot of skill and time is required to operate the machine(s) needed to make a hat. In the picture you see me trying to make sense of a mistake I made during setup.
These machines are quite ''basic'', though they are not uncommon for the production of simple products. Setup is done by hand, errors in the work have to be corrected manually, and finishing is often an additional step on a different machine.
Since the masterclass, the Knitwit Stable has expanded its practice. Firstly they got 50 more sheep in the field. Secondly, two impressive industrial 3D knitting machines were acquired to make the production of complex products in a larger quantity more feasible. These machines are rare in the Netherlands, and a load of knowledge is needed to operate them.
Concluding visit to the farm
With the hat on your head, you go outside to the start of the whole chain. To meet the beautiful animals that are sheered for the wool, and it sinks in. For every step in the process, there are people who work hard to make it possible to enjoy wool products.
The bottom line is that the answer to the "It's easy, right?''' question is a resounding no. It's not easy to make wool products 100% locally on any kind of scale. The Knitwit Stable works to eliminate as many steps as possible and show us, the consumer, how complex social responsibility in the textile sector is and helps create transparency. If you are not convinced yet, just take a look at the high-quality products made by the Knitwit Stable.
We contacted Reina (the founder of the Knitwit Stable) at the end of 2021 to see if we could collaborate and produce a merino hat for Herder Gear. As for any autumn or winter hikes, it's just essential to keep your head warm so you can enjoy the outdoors no matter the weather. We are proud and excited to add the second product to our inventory: the Nova merino wool hat (named after the dog of our co-founder Stef).
Thanks for reading 🙏