A sustainable new style spin

Brands are regenerating and recycling wool to radically reduce fashion’s environmental footprint. Marc Abbott reports

Pringle of Scotland regenerated wool jumpers, £895 each
Pringle of Scotland regenerated wool jumpers, £895 each

“I don’t think you should ever have to sacrifice style and luxury for sustainability,” says Stella McCartney. This mission – to create high-end fashion using methods that reduce the industry’s environmental footprint – is one that she has long championed. And increasingly, it’s being taken on by other designers. While some are making their supply chains more sustainable, a growing number of brands are using recycled and regenerated fibres to move towards a circular economy. 

One focus for McCartney is cashmere, a once-exclusive fibre that’s now ubiquitous on the high street. “It takes four goats to produce enough fibre to make a cashmere jumper,” she says. “Due to the increasing demand for accessible cashmere products, farmers have had to increase the number of goats in their herds, which is having a damaging impact on the environment.”

To counteract this, she has started using regenerated cashmere, which is made by a process that takes factory off-cuts then washes and respins the fibres into new yarn and fabric. She introduced it with her women’s collections in 2016 and rolled it out in her menswear this year.

“By switching to regenerated cashmere, we have reduced the environmental impact related to our cashmere use by 92 per cent,” says McCartney. “The results are incredible; the fabric is still high quality and beautifully soft – and we are showing that a different, more circular system is possible.” McCartney’s regenerated cashmere jumper (£385) is simple in style, with a crewneck and subtle embroidered logo at the bottom, and is available in eight colours. 

From left: Ermenegildo Zegna recycled cashmere coat, £4,810. Katharine Hamnett regenerated cashmere Darwall coat, £1,350
From left: Ermenegildo Zegna recycled cashmere coat, £4,810. Katharine Hamnett regenerated cashmere Darwall coat, £1,350 | Image: Pixelate Imaging

McCartney uses Re.Verso wool, which is the result of a collaboration between three entities – Green Line, Nuova Fratelli Boretti and Lanificio Stelloni. They collect pre-consumer textile waste, including cashmere, sheep’s wool and camel hair, then re-engineer it into yarn. The scraps are sorted by hand into colour and to check the quality of the wool, so the yarn doesn’t have to be redyed. “It’s very difficult to select which materials from pre-consumer waste are reusable, but the fibres are not damaged in the process,” says Daniela Boretti, CEO of Nuova Fratelli Boretti. “We’ve overcome the challenge of not losing the strength of virgin wool during production.”

The company reports a 76 per cent reduction in energy usage, 89 per cent reduction in water and 96 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide for every kilo of Re.Verso made, compared with sourcing and using virgin fibres. This is even more significant for cashmere, with respective 82 per cent, 92 per cent and 97 per cent reductions. Proponents of Re.Verso include Gucci, which was the first luxury house to adopt the product in its men’s outerwear as part of Alessandro Michele’s debut collection in 2015.

The overtones here are 21st century, but the process has been used in Tuscany since the 1800s, according to British designer Katharine Hamnett, who works with Re.Verso’s regenerated cashmere and camel hair. This season’s collection includes the full-length Darwall overcoat (£1,350) made with regenerated cashmere. Hamnett’s reasoning for sourcing regenerated fibres echoes McCartney’s: to lessen the strain on grasslands. 

“The rising demand for cheap cashmere puts nomadic goat herders under pressure to increase production and therefore herd sizes,” she says. “Grasslands cannot regenerate quickly enough when unnaturally large numbers of goats graze on the land, and to increase the size of the flock tenfold on marginal land is a recipe for desertification.” 

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The vision of a more circular economy – whereby existing materials rather than virgin fibres are used to create new collections – was at the centre of Ermenegildo Zegna’s autumn/winter runway collection. Like McCartney and Hamnett, the Italian brand re-engineered off-cuts that it sourced from its factory in Trivero. 

“The materials are made from pre-existing pieces of fabric that have been reassembled,” says artistic director Alessandro Sartori. “The result is a luxurious, responsible fabrication that is recycled as well as recyclable.”

Items using recycled cashmere include a light brown patch-effect jumper (£1,240), a black and beige graphic-printed coat (£4,810), a blue jacket (£4,770) with a front zip, and a checked one-and-a-half-breasted coat (£4,810) in chocolate and plum. This production method has continued into Zegna’s spring/summer 2020 runway collection, and the brand plans to extend the use of recycled materials into its other ranges. “We are working on new generations of sources that reflect the value we put on recyclability and wasting no single material in the production chain,” says Sartori.

Knitwear specialist Pringle of Scotland, already famed for its use of local materials and skills, has now introduced regenerated wool into its menswear for autumn/winter. 

From left: Stella McCartney regenerated cashmere jumper, £385. Sunspel recycled cashmere jumper, £420. Ahluwalia Studio upcycled wool jumper, £891.
From left: Stella McCartney regenerated cashmere jumper, £385. Sunspel recycled cashmere jumper, £420. Ahluwalia Studio upcycled wool jumper, £891.

“For well over a century, Pringle has integrated sustainable production techniques into its manufacturing,” says Katy Wallace, the company’s director of brand, studio and design. Two styles (£895 each) use a tonal grey or red/orange geometric design to add pattern to proceedings.

“We found a way to use recycled textiles, carefully making pieces from clippings that are a by-product of the manufacturing process,” Wallace adds. “This has drastically reduced the amount of water and energy needed to make new pieces.”

While these brands are using pre-consumer off-cuts that have been respun and reused, that still leaves the rather large and well-publicised bulk of worn knitwear out of fashion’s closed loop. But designers are making progress in this area too: British heritage brand Sunspel is this season releasing black and grey cashmere jumpers (£420) made from worn garments that have been deconstructed and respun into yarn. The fibre, produced by another Italian wool supplier, is not re-dyed, which also helps lessen its environmental footprint.

Emerging British brand Ahluwalia Studio takes pre-loved garments and upcycles them into new pieces. “I aim to repurpose as many materials as I can,” says founder Priya Ahluwalia. Her autumn/winter collection comprised joyous jumpers (£891) woven from upcycled wool. “I source things from wholesalers of vintage garments or companies that sell dead stock,” she says. “It’s time-consuming work.”

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But worth the effort, if it helps prove that the fashion industry can find a compromise between releasing new collections and lessening its environmental impact.

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