A timeless staple of anyone’s winter wardrobe is knitwear, whether styled over a dress, layered under a trench coat or thrown over your WFH attire. The longevity of wool makes it one of the most environmentally-friendly items you can wear, but many knits on the market are made using plastic-based materials such as nylon, polyester and acrylic, or dyed using polluting chemicals.
These processes are all dependent on fossil fuel extraction and a source of environmental contamination. The UN Conference on Trade and Development consider fashion to be the second most polluting industry in the world, second only to oil. It is forecasted that by 2050 the industry will use up 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget while it already exceeds the emissions of both aviation and shipping. On top of this, there are concerns over how animals are treated in the knitwear supply chain. Practices such as “mulesing” involves removing strips of wool-bearing skin on merino sheep, leaving the area exposed to infection and flies.
Whether it’s shopping vintage or repurposing old pieces, there are plenty of ways to enjoy knitwear in a way that is kinder to the planet, and some brands are making this switch to sustainably sourced knitted goods a lot easier.
We’ve found some of the best that are committed to reconstructing supply chains in order to clean up fashion's footprint. Many brands have a fully transparent and traceable wool policy right back to the sheep, while others are using resources more efficiently and opting for less hazardous materials such as recycled polyester. We also considered packaging and transportation.
In our search we tested for the quality, fit, style and design of each knit. Some of these are investment pieces and at the pricier end of the market, while nearly all must be hand-washed to preserve the wool’s quality. Ruth Rands, founder of Herd, a British knitwear brand that launched last autumn, explained how best to care for natural fibre knitwear.
“Wash it as little as possible. You may be surprised at how well it shrugs off dirt and smells – wool is naturally antibacterial and anti-fungal which means it’s self-cleaning (a bit like your skin doesn’t stain or hold onto smells). Never hang knitwear as it will change shape.
“Store with care to avoid moth holes by keeping it out in a well ventilated and light room or store in moth bags with cedar balls or dried lavender bags,” Rands added.
Equally important to shopping sustainably is cutting down on overconsumption. All these brands are creating classic pieces that are wearable season after season.
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Herd wyre cardigan
With raglan shoulders, blouson sleeves and delicately scalloped hems and cuffs, Herd has added unique detailing to this classic cardigan. We were impressed by how soft it is and loved that it has a touch of the bohemian about it. Woven from the wool of Bluefaced Leicester sheep in Lancashire and Yorkshire, this homegrown brand aims to create lasting and locally sourced knitwear. We sized up and wore a medium, as it looks and feels best slightly oversized.
The brand’s mission is to revive the traditions of sheep farming for wool in England, in turn cutting the environmental cost of each piece by having a total journey, from sheep to the finishers, of just 230 miles. Herd champion the expertise of farmers, spinners, makers, knitters and skilled craftspeople, creating a knitwear chain that’s beneficial to all. Cardigans are currently available to pre-order from the next batch, and will be delivered by the end of January.
Buy now £375.00, Herd
Navy Grey the cocoon funnel
Nailing the signature roll neck, this classic and minimal ribbed knit is in a flattering, oversized style with its longer turtle neck that’s perfect for – as the name suggests – cocooning up in. Made from 100 per cent merino wool, the piece is fashioned with a French shoulder detail and longer line fit. The British knitwear brand works with two types of handpicked wool, from merino sheep in Australia and New Zealand, and lambs in South Africa.
Each knit is 100 per cent natural and biodegradable in a bid to create pieces that transcend trends and last for generations. Cut into classic styles and made in limited quantities to avoid excessive waste, the pieces are carefully woven in a female-led factory in Porto, Portugal. The knits come in plastic-free packaging and are shipped using carbon-neutral methods. Coming in an array of colours including fawn, grey, ivory and the brand's signature navy, with a Navy Grey piece you’ll have a true wardrobe staple on your hands.
Buy now £195.00, Navy Grey
Nu-in 100% recycled polo neck ribbed bodysuit
A more affordable option than some of the knits we tested, this 100 per cent recycled ribbed bodysuit is a good option for those wanting to shop trend-led sustainable fashion. We found it to be soft, true to size and a lighter knitwear piece that will be wearable throughout winter and into the spring. Polo tops were all the rage in 2020, and we’re expecting the trend to continue this year. We styled it with high waisted light denim jeans and gold jewellery, which complimented the bodysuit’s neutral tones.
A relatively new brand, Nu-in was founded in 2019 with the aim of creating sustainable clothing at high street prices. Made in the brand's Vestire factory in Portugal, the piece is 50 per cent recycled cotton and 50 per cent recycled polyester, and arrived in Forest Stewardship Council-certified recyclable packaging.
Buy now £36.00, Nu-in
Babaà jumper woman no20 natural
Comfortable, cozy and practical – this knit ticks all the boxes. Though one size only, it comfortably fit our testers who ranged from size 6 to 14. The chunky cotton knit is given character with its crew neck, draped shoulders and two pockets, while its boxy fit makes it perfect for styling over a dress with chunky boots for winter, or throwing over some joggers for a more put-together WFH look.
Made from special yarn grown, harvested and spun in Andalucia in southern Spain, this knit is the colour of natural cotton, avoiding the chemical waste of synthetic dyes. Each knit from Babaà is designed to last, using 100 per cent natural materials sourced from local providers, therefore supporting the local textile industry.
Buy now £223.00, Babaà
Signe Abla vest
The knit pullover vest has had a big moment recently, and this green design from Danish brand Signe nails the trend. Made from 100 per cent organic cotton, all Signe’s knitted goods are produced by small local providers and certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Using organic cotton has a much lower impact on the environment as it is grown without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, the soil fertility is maintained and the amount of water necessary to produce it is minimised.
The slightly cropped length of this sleeveless piece meant it was perfect for layering over a white shirt, and we predict it will look great paired with jeans in the spring. The knit was packaged in biodegradable bags and recycled cardboard.
Buy now £131.98, Signe
Sheep Inc. the v-neck
True to its name, the details of a particular sheep are included with every purchase of a knit from the world’s first carbon-negative knitwear brand, Sheep Inc. Each product comes with an attached tag and when we scanned ours, we discovered the name of the animal that the wool for our knit came from. We were also shown an aerial image of its farm in New Zealand. All the brand’s pieces are unisex and we tested the v-neck sweater in moss green, finding it soft, warm and not too heavy, yet thick enough to keep us toasty on a cold evening – everything a good knit should be.
Sheep Inc. pledge to mitigate 10 times the carbon footprint of every purchase, with the aim of fixing some of the environmental damage done by the fashion industry. These pieces are intended to last you forever – literally, as they come with a lifetime guarantee. Each of the knit styles, including the original, the cardigan, the light knit and the beanie, come in colours from moss green to pacific blue, with the aim of putting you back in touch with nature.
Buy now £160.00, Sheep Inc.
Finisterre eyre knit cardigan
Our tester found this oversized wool blend cardigan from Cornish brand Finisterre to be thick and warming. Finisterre was born with the aim of creating functional pieces for coldwater surfers that keep out the chill. Though a little on the heavy size, the cardigan's weight is perfect for frosty days and has a luxurious feel to it. It’s made from 80 per cent wool and 20 per cent polyamide, with the brand sourcing its lambswool from Bluefaced Leicester sheep. The yarn is spun in Yorkshire before being knitted in Manchester. Having everything produced in Britain means the carbon footprint, from sheep to shelf, is vastly reduced. All of Finisterre’s polymer-based fabrics are made using recycled materials from post-consumer and post-industrial waste.
Buy now £150.00, Finisterre
The Knotty Ones heartbreaker sweater
We loved the statement patchwork detail of this knit, and we found it incredibly soft and intricate in its design. Made from 65 per cent wool and 35 per cent alpaca, the knit is cruelty-free and handwoven by women in rural Lithuania, taking anywhere between four to five days to create. Celebrating quality over quantity, the brand source natural materials and create designs that are wearable season after season.
We tested the black, throwing it under a trench coat for a daily lockdown walk and immediately feeling blanketed in warmth. The jumper also comes in grey, beige, moss green and a striking red. The Knotty Ones’s mission is to provide stable jobs, fair wages and financial independence to stay-at-home mothers in Lithuania.
Buy now £229.00, The Knotty Ones
L’Envers Paola merino wool sweater
Everyone needs a classic cable knit and this beige crew neck offering from L’Envers fits the bill. It boasts raglan sleeves which are fitted at the bottom for a balloon effect and is of a slightly cropped length, which lends it perfectly to pairing with high waisted jeans. Chunky and warm, the sweater is weaved from pure merino wool sourced and knitted in Spain.
L’Envers aim to make fewer pieces in a mindful way that cuts down on over consumption. All its items are knitted locally by artisans who have suffered from the textile industry’s epicentre moving to Asia. The independent French brand based in Spain create lots of classic cuts that go beyond seasonal trends.
Buy now £217.00, L’Envers
The verdict: Sustainable knitwear brands
For making an intricate, cosy and versatile piece of knitwear that will see us through seasons and trends, we’ve chosen Herd’s wyre cardigan as our best buy. The British brand has created a process that’s both kind to sheep and workers, using a supply chain spanning just 230 miles that cuts down on the carbon cost of transportation.