Your grandmother’s knitwear, Isobel & Chloe is not. Run by Nantucket designer, anthropologist, and knitter Charlotte Hess—her motto is “knit fast, die warm”—the label taps into hand-crafting’s raw, primeval side. Each piece is painstakingly knitted by Hess herself, who sources her all-natural fibers from ethically and sustainably minded suppliers, including a friend of hers who owns a flock of sheep. Hesse draws her inspiration from multiple cultures and traditions, a result of an itinerant past that took her across the globe to France, New Zealand, and Scotland. Ecouterre recently sat down with the designer, fresh off the runway at Charleston Fashion Week, to talk about her yen for texture and textiles, the difference between American and European designers, and how Isobel & Cleo fits into the burgeoning slow-fashion movement.

Isobel and Cleo, Nantucket, eco-friendly knits, eco-friendly knitwear, sustainable knits, sustainable knitwear, made in the U.S.A., eco-fashion ,sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, slow fashion, locavore fashion, Charlotte Hess

MADE BY HAND

What first attracted you about textiles?

I believe I’ve always been interested in textiles and fashion because I was surrounded by it at a young age. My mother worked as a model and a photographer’s assistant before I was born and was always associated with fashionable and creative people as I was growing up.

I’ve always been interested in textiles and fashion because I was surrounded by it at a young age.

I think that interaction with the artistic community really influenced my interest in fashion. My early Montessori education, an approach that bases itself on learning by exploration, eventually fostered my love of textiles.

Having developed a hands-on and exploratory style of learning, it seemed only natural that I would eventually be passionate about making clothing from the very beginning of the process. I get to start at the actual fiber or yarn and sculpt clothing from its most basic form, as opposed to working with existing fabrics, where much of the characteristics of the cloth have already been determined.

What does crafting by hand—and knitting, in particular—mean to you?

I’ve always been attracted to people who work with their hands and bodies. Many of my friends are carpenters, builders, sculptors, painters, dancers. I myself am attracted to knitting because it combines my interest in fashion with my own desire to create with my hands.

I enjoy doing my part to preserve traditions that are constantly threatened by machines and cheap production costs.

I also enjoy doing my part to preserve handmade traditions that are constantly threatened by factories, machines, and cheap production costs.

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Isobel and Cleo, Nantucket, eco-friendly knits, eco-friendly knitwear, sustainable knits, sustainable knitwear, made in the U.S.A., eco-fashion ,sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, slow fashion, locavore fashion, Charlotte Hess

HIGHLAND BOUND

How did you end up in Scotland?

I was an art and anthropology major at Grinnell College in Iowa and I initially wanted to do an anthropology study abroad course in Morocco. Long story short, the school said no and left me scrambling to get into another program a semester late.

I got into the Glasgow School of Art a week before classes started in Scotland.

In the end, I decided I’d rather do an art-focused study abroad to catch up on credits so I applied to the Glasgow School of Art. I didn’t get in the first time around—my slides were terrible to be honest—o I did a huge photography and drawing portraiture project, enrolled in a program in Paris, and in the meantime, petitioned GSA. My stubborn persistence and the extra work paid off. I got into the Glasgow School of Art a week before classes started in Scotland and luckily just before I bought my ticket to Paris.

Was Glasgow a turning point?

When I was in high school, I contemplated applying to an art college. My mother, who works for an art museum, told me she wasn’t paying for me to go to an art school. I think at the time, her close proximity to the art world gave her the impression that I was never going to be able to sustain myself with an art degree. So when the time came to study abroad, it was a lucky break that my original plans fell through and I got to go to GSA.

Studying in Glasgow just solidified that textiles was what I wanted to do with with my career.

Studying in Glasgow just solidified that textiles was what I wanted to do with with my career more than the more academic archaeology road I was initially following. It gave me the final push to say to my Mom, “This is what I want to do.”

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Isobel and Cleo, Nantucket, eco-friendly knits, eco-friendly knitwear, sustainable knits, sustainable knitwear, made in the U.S.A., eco-fashion ,sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, slow fashion, locavore fashion, Charlotte Hess

SPINNING YARNS

Where do you source your materials?

On Nantucket, I shop at Flock, our local yarn shop, for really beautiful novelty yarns. These tend to be yarns that are too expensive to make a complete garment out of but can have a lot of impact as an accent yarn.

My absolute favorite brand at Flock is Alchemy Yarns. They hand-paint their yarns in California using fibers created by rural communities abroad who are committed to respectful work conditions and environmental responsibility and sustainability.

For a couple of garments, I used a bit of unprocessed wool and roving from a local friend who owns a flock of sheep.

A little further out, I use WEBS in Northampton, MA, and Fabulous Yarns in Tivoli, NY, for big orders of hand-knitting yarns. Fabulous Yarns also stocks a lot of organic and independent yarn companies, and both companies give discounts for bulk orders. For machine-knitting yarns I also use Silk City Yarns in New Jersey.

There are a few international companies I use for wholesale orders. My favorite foreign companies are both based in Australia. One is run by a woman produces her own mohair, cashmere, and silks from animals on her ranch, and the other is a company similar to Alchemy that works with small communities in Asia to produce all-natural fibers, predominately silk.

For a couple of garments in my upcoming collection, I did use a bit of raw unprocessed wool and roving from a local Nantucket friend who owns a flock of sheep. The raw wool I used had received no treatment other than being shorn off the sheep, so it was really fun and different to work with. I was literally getting my hands dirty by lightly spinning it with my hands before knitting it into fabric. An added bonus was that my hands got really soft from all the lanolin in the wool!

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Isobel and Cleo, Nantucket, eco-friendly knits, eco-friendly knitwear, sustainable knits, sustainable knitwear, made in the U.S.A., eco-fashion ,sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, slow fashion, locavore fashion, Charlotte Hess

MINING INSPIRATION

What inspires you most in your designs?

Texture! I love creating fabrics and designs that people just feel compelled to reach out and touch. Whether that texture is achieved though the fiber itself, the pattern, or silhouette, what excites me is playing architect with that single strand and building it into something more than a simple top or pair of pants.

I love creating fabrics and designs that people just feel compelled to reach out and touch.

I think a close second would be other designers. When I see amazing work, it motivates and inspires me to push myself to surpass my ideas.

What differences, if any, have you noticed in the way U.S. and European designers approach ethical fashion?

I’m not sure that I can do justice to this question but I’ll definitely give it a go! In my experience, I’ve noticed a difference more between the size of the company than an American or European divide. When I worked for a large American company, most of the sweater production was done overseas where manufacturing is less expensive. I think that the larger companies are more concerned with keeping price points low, and it seemed to me that when ethical practices were used in my company, it was spurred on as a trendy marketing ploy rather than an genuine interest in ethical fashion.

In my experience, I’ve noticed a difference more between the size of the company than an American or European divide.

Plus, those items were sold at a premium, and were far more costly than the rest of the collection. It was a bit frustrating to see because while ethically made clothing tends to be more expensive, I don’t believe it needs to be prohibitively more expensive. It’s not really sending the best message to the consumer or encouraging them to buy sustainably and green when they can.

When working for another much smaller American company that had all production done in Peru, I noticed it was very important to the creative director to use organic pima cotton as much as possible. That was the brand’s selling point. When working with a foreign luxury brand, all the samples were made in-house, and then the larger production runs were made in a factory in that country.

As a luxury label, it was important for that brand to keep up with the image of selling quality, well-made clothing, and the fact that the garments were made locally was a source of national pride. Independent labels started by my peers both in the U.S. and abroad are seemingly more interested in green fashion, so perhaps it’s also an approach more appealing to younger designers.

How does Isobel & Cleo fit in with the growing ethical fashion movement?

I believe there will always be some aspect of Isobel & Cleo that is rooted in ethical fashion. Just by the nature of how I do what I do and what I enjoy doing within the business, it’d be very hard for the label not to be ethical. So as my business grows, I hope to be another person that others can look to as an example for sustainable fashion.

I hope that our communities begin to appreciate the necessities of “green” fashion, support the labels that participate in it, and insist on ethical practices from brands that don’t.

I hope that our communities begin to appreciate the necessities of “green” fashion, support the labels that participate in it, and insist on ethical practices from brands that don’t. I think that as awareness increases, it’s becoming a difficult stance to ignore, and I believe in the future companies at the very least will offer organic, sustainable, or ethical lines within their brands.

+ Isobel & Cleo