Making a Line of Natural Cotton Sweater Knit Fabrics

O! Jolly! New Hudson sweater knit, 2x2 Rib, and natural white yarn
When I first decided to manufacture a few of my sweater knit designs and offer them for sale directly to home sewists, I had no idea at that time that my small fabric collection, would be produced from cotton that was grown, ginned, spun, and then knit in the United States; cotton that grew in color or natural white with no dyes or bleach used in processing. At the beginning, as a knit textile designer, I had only a vague idea of the type of designs I wanted to see knit. Slowly, I went from fuzzy idea to the product I'm very excited about.
Closeup of grown-in-color cotton sweater knit jersey
It started with a request from a retired former client, who was now living in an area that had no quality sweater knits in the local fabric stores. After a few conversations I knitted a textured jacquard fabric that she loved. Soon after she had another request, a simple double knit this time. I then received an order from the client's friend. A quick Google search verified that there were indeed very few sources of quality sweater knits available online for the home sewer. Most of the sweater knits that were available were either acrylic or other synthetic blends.

Making Fabrics
Some of the nicer cotton and wool sweater knits that are available have well known designers' names attached to them; I hope these fabrics are manufactured ethically. But frankly, in the international textile and garment industries many items are not. (Perhaps you've seen John Oliver's recent rant on fast fashion? I'm hoping that tragedies haven't been in vain and that needed improvements in textile workers' health, safety, and compensation can become a reality.) Recently on Fashion Revolution Day, when asked, "Who made your clothes?" sewing enthusiasts could proudly reply, "I made my clothes!" For home sewers, who wish to dig more deeply, we've got to ask ourselves, "Who made your fabric?"

Indeed I had an idea of the fabric I wanted to make. It was time to source yarns and find a manufacturer. My search brought me to several offices and trade shows over the course of about a year. I didn't travel far. All the offices for international companies and fiber and knit fabric expositions I visited were in Manhattan. The unfortunate part was that minimums were too high (for me) and many of the answers to my questions were extremely slow in coming or remained totally unanswered. I was always speaking with a company rep!

The act of manufacturing textiles has an impact on the environment, but in my search I learned that there are positive initiatives in manufacturing. One example is the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean by Designwhich works in developing countries and "focuses on improving process efficiency to reduce waste and emissions and improve the environment". All the yarn I eventually chose to use for this line is produced from cotton grown in the US by farmers who use modern sustainable growing practices. The natural white cotton was grown by farmers enrolled in The Sustainable Cotton Project. This project educates cotton growers about sustainable processes, including biologically based pest management and avoidance of the 13 most toxic chemicals used in conventional cotton farming. Less water is required per pound of harvested Cleaner Cotton ™ fiber than for conventionally grown or organic cotton. One of the Sustainable Cotton Project's Cleaner Cotton partners, Lunatic Fringe, became my yarn supplier.

Though I initially worked with the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator and had samples knit in their beautiful knitting lab, they are primarily set up for sweater knitting and were unable to produce the width I required for yardage. Happily, I was able to find a knitting mill in nearby New Jersey who worked with me to produce fabric that I'm immensely pleased with and thrilled to have manufactured so close to home.

Stoll knitting machine at Fleck Knitwear in suburban NJ where the new fabrics were knit
I learned lots during this whole adventure. It was very satisfying being able to talk directly with the woman who arranged for the spinning and plying involved in creating the beautiful yarns, and it was a pleasure meeting the man in charge of programming and knitting my designs. I'm far from big business, so in the big picture, maybe all my effort doesn't make a huge difference. But I'd like to think it makes a little difference. If many people make the effort to make a little difference, it adds up.

How the sewing community helps 
Kudos to those who reclaim and reuse or repair their existing fabric and clothing. And every sewer I know saves scraps to use for smaller projects. Those who sew for the joy of sewing can be good craftspeople, in that they can take real care in their selection of materials. We can ask questions and try to make good choices, choices that don't inadvertently reinforce damaging or unfair practices. This may mean fewer fabric purchases, but I encourage sewing enthusiasts to focus on the process of sewing over the number of projects completed, savoring the time spent with each individual project. The bonus is that the better the materials and the more carefully a garment is made, the longer the garment will last, and the longer the wearer can enjoy the garment.

Last update 30Oct2019


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