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Ever since we got into ethical fashion we keep discovering responsible, small-scale designers and producers with absolutely inspiring stories. One such designer is Eleanor O’Neill from Newcastle in the UK, who founded her fashion label STUDY 34 in February 2015 – after having worked as designer for a large fashion brand. Besides designing clean, versatile knitwear staples now, the highly energetic business woman also loves to share insights about ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry on her blog. We are very happy that Eleanor got into conversation with us about her story and her latest slow fashion knitwear line “Alpaca Crew”.
Dear Eleanor, could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your idea of a sustainable lifestyle?
Sure. I guess to sum up my idea of a sustainable lifestyle would be to aim to have less stuff, and for the stuff you do have, to have been well researched and sourced from responsible companies or second hand. I really do believe that less is more and it seems that the longer I believe in this, the more ingrained it becomes in my lifestyle.
When it comes to clothing, I rarely see something that I actually want to buy. ‘Shopping’ is no longer really a part of my life. When I need something – and that is not very often – I look to the small selection of labels I know design and manufacture in responsible ways or I research the second hand market.
I think it’s interesting here also to talk about a sustainable market place or business ecosystem. I think it would be much richer for the consumer and better for businesses in general if we shopped from small independent and local shops a bit more. I don’t mean going back to the days of only buying local of course, but just shopping in a more considered way – a way that supports your local economy, be that your immediate community or your country for example.
When did you first get involved with ethical fashion and what makes you stick with it?
For as long as I am aware, I have always been interested in craftsmanship when it comes to making things – and that is not exclusive to clothing. But if we isolate clothing as an example, I have always been drawn to items made by craftsmen and women, with a real skill in a particular area.
It makes what they are making – and what we are buying – something unique, a real piece of art. That feeling and that knowledge is lacking from mass produced cheap clothes. They don’t have any of that special something, that soul. And I think that’s quite sad really.
When I first started STUDY 34, I made every piece myself by hand using end of line luxury yarns. One of the reasons I chose to start in this way was because I love the manufacture of knitwear and I think in order to be a good designer, you have to develop and work on your understanding of how it is made constantly.
It’s my deep appreciation for these skills and the huge value that the craftsman brings to them that makes me stick with it. If we lost these people, with such incredible skill and knowledge, we would lose so much value and history. And fashion and clothing just won’t be so exciting anymore.
To what extent do you see a change in designers’, producers’ and consumers’ mind-set towards more ethical fashion in the UK?
This is difficult to say I think and one of the reasons why is because when you work in such a niche area of the market, as I do with ‘responsible fashion’, you are spending your time talking to and working with others who are passionate about the same things. And your customers are passionate too. So, in that respect, it’s easy to think that attitudes are changing and people care – because that’s what you are exposed to. Pan out a bit and the situation is very different.
With The Alpaca Crew you now offer knitwear made from Alpaca wool and you seem very enthusiastic about this fibre. What excites you so much?
So many things! I really discovered this fibre last year, when I was invited out to Peru to meet some of the spinners and manufacturers. It was a 4 day event all about alpaca and its history, so an incredible opportunity to learn about it! Some of things that make it so special are that it has a large range of rich natural shades, that it’s soft and breathable and if looked after properly, you hardly ever have to wash it. It’s got such a beautiful drape too – when it’s knitted it’s almost spongy to touch.
On your website you state that the wool for The Alpaca Crew is sourced from Arequipa in Peru. Have you made personal visits to Peru before choosing your supplier?
Yes, absolutely! I have been to Arequipa to visit the manufacturers I work with twice since I started developing The Alpaca Crew and I plan to continue to go at least annually if I can as I continue to work with them.
At the moment, Peru is home to about 85% of the world’s alpacas and it has a huge history of working with the fibre so it was a very obvious place to go to learn more about it and explore opportunities to work with it.
You also say the knitwear of The Alpaca Crew is „designed and made by women, for women“. Can you please describe the production conditions a bit?
For sure! What I think is great about the STUDY 34 supply chain is that it is short. You have me designing the pieces and then next is Teresa, who manages the production of the garments at Incalpaca (the manufacturers). And then you have their manufacturing team – predominantly women – making up the garments. Further down of course you have the spinners (in STUDY 34’s case Inca Tops, a sister company to Incalpaca) also based in the same small city of Arequipa. Most of the fleeces for the yarn come from co-operatives who buy the fleeces from smallholder farmers and their families in the southern and central regions of Peru.
At the moment the range of The Alpaca Crew is limited. What are your plans for the future?
It is limited for sure but it’s kind of supposed to be that way too. I really believe in a simple and functional aesthetic and having a smaller number of versatile pieces is a good way to build your wardrobe and style. As the label grows, I’ll be able to offer a few more styles (classic shapes like a V neck and turtle neck for example) and a slightly wider colour range, but it will always remain limited and special because that’s what I believe in.
Is there one last thing that you want to share?
I’d like to wish the wonderful greenlooksgreat readers a very happy Christmas – and to encourage everyone to support local and independent businesses at this particularly significant gift giving time of year!
Thank you very much, Eleanor. We wish you merry Christmas, a happy New Year, and all the best for your business.
Do check out Eleanor’s video ‘10 Things to Know and Love About Alpaca’ if you’d like to know more about why the Alpaca fibre is so amazing.
Eleanor’s collection is available via her STUDY 34 website. The others brands listed there are also small and independent and look to manufacture their products in a responsible way.
Email interview: Questions by Mary Schmidt
Photos: © Eleanor O’Neill, STUDY 34