A timeless staple of any wardrobe is knitwear. And while the longevity of wool makes it one of the most environmentally friendly items you can wear, there are still many knits on the market made using plastic-based materials such as nylon, polyester and acrylic, or which are dyed using polluting chemicals.
These processes are all dependent on fossil fuel extraction and are a source of environmental contamination. The UN Conference on Trade and Development considers fashion to be one of the most polluting industries in the world, second only to oil. It is forecasted that by 2050 the sector will use up 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget, while it already exceeds the emissions of aviation and shipping.
On top of this, there are concerns about how animals are treated in the knitwear supply chain. Practices such as “mulesing” involve removing strips of wool-bearing skin on merino sheep, leaving the area exposed to infection and flies.
From shopping vintage to buying pieces made from dead yarn, there are plenty of ways to enjoy knitwear in a way that is kinder to the planet, and some labels are making it even easier to switch. From The Knotty Ones to Paloma Wool and YanYan, these brands are committed to reconstructing supply chains to clean up fashion’s footprint.
Some 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, as well as reconsidering packaging and transportation. Some offer investment pieces with the price tag to match, while others aim to create sustainable items that don’t break the bank. Equally important to shopping sustainably is cutting down on overconsumption, and all of these shops are creating classic pieces that should prove wearable season after season.
Each knit from Spanish label Babaa is designed to last, using 100 per cent natural materials sourced from local providers and spun and dyed by Spanish artisans, helping to support the textile industry there. From timeless cardigans to bold printed jumpers, Babaa’s one-size styles have an oversized and loose fit for extra comfort. We’ve reviewed the brand’s jumper no2 (£223, Babaa.es) before, praising it as comfortable, cosy and practical.
London-based ethical fashion label Birdsong was founded in 2014 to help combat the evils of the fast-fashion industry and the abuse of women in the production line. Its knitwear collections are either hand crocheted or knitted by “golden oldies” in Enfield using recycled and reclaimed fabrics or organic cotton.
Launched just before the first lockdown, London fashion label Damson Madder has gained a cult following thanks to social media. Aiming to create sartorially on-point fashions that are environmentally friendly and don’t blow the bank, its pieces are effortlessly cool. From knitted flares to vests, the brand’s knitwear is made from recycled polyester and cotton fabrics.
Based across the pond, American label Everlane is a one-stop shop for ethical and elegant basics worn by the likes of Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie. Its mid-range knitwear pieces vary from cashmere jumpers to alpaca crews or mohair sweaters, all made from mostly recycled fabrics and certified wools and cotton.
Cornish brand Finisterre was founded with the aim of creating functional pieces for coldwater surfers that keep out the chill. Its knitwear collections are made from wool – produced sustainably and with low environmental impact – or polymer-based fabrics made using recycled materials from post-consumer and post-industrial waste. Head here for practical and heavyweight pieces.
Founded in 2016, British knitwear brand Hades designs classic pieces with natural fibres that are built to last. From slogan scarves to jumpers, each knit is crafted from pure lambswool and designed in-house. The collections include a “Hunky Dory” line influenced by David Bowie and a range of cardigans inspired by Greek mythology.
Herd – a relatively new label launched in 2020 – is on a mission to revive the traditions of farming for wool in England, in turn cutting the cost of each piece by having a total journey, from sheep to finishers, of just 230 miles. Championing the expertise of farmers, spinners, makers, knitters and skilled craftspeople, it’s aiming to create a knitwear chain that’s beneficial to all. Woven from the wool of Bluefaced Leicester sheep in Lancashire and Yorkshire, this homegrown brand creates pieces to last, from vests to cardigans.
Northern Ireland-based luxury fashion label Hope Macaulay has been praised for raising the sartorial status of knitwear, creating pieces that have been worn by everyone from Gigi Hadid to Naomi Osaka. Her collections are handmade to order and full of contemporary, chunky knits designed to make a statement: think balloon sleeves, bold, bright colours and woven corset-style tops. Though costly, you won’t find pieces like Hope Macaulay’s anywhere else.
The Knotty Ones
Based between New York and Lithuania, The Knotty One’s creates individual luxury pieces rather than collections to reduce waste, sourcing natural and sustainable fabrics. As well as incorporating these better practices into its supply chain, the label is dedicated to providing stable jobs, fair wages and financial independence to stay-at-home mothers in Lithuania. Its pieces tend to be chunky and warming with interesting stitching, such as on this Barbora roll neck (£375, Theknottyones.com).
Independent French brand L’Envers is based in Spain and aims to design environmentally responsible pieces to last. Its mindful items are all knitted locally by artisans who have suffered from the textile industry’s epicentre moving to Asia. Head here for classic cuts that go beyond seasonal trends.
This 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 which will last for generations. Cut in 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 all come in plastic-free packaging and are shipped using carbon-neutral methods.
Head to Nu-in for sustainable fashion that doesn’t break the bank. A relatively new brand, it was founded in 2019 with the aim of creating ecofriendly pieces at high-street prices. Its knitted goods are made up of organic cotton or recycled fabrics. And the trend-led designs won’t see you scrimping on style.
US label Reformation has grown a cult following as a go-to for chic and more environmentally conscious pieces. From cotton dresses to cashmere trousers, its knitwear is made from organic cotton and recycled blend fabrics to help reduce the impact of waste and chemicals on the planet. Head here for trend-led pieces at a mid-range price point.
Spanish unisex label Paloma Wool has made a name for itself with kooky knits and zany, bold patterns, from balaclavas and sweaters to miniskirts and trousers. All its knitwear is made in workshops just an hour away from the studio using recycled fabrics, mulesing-free wool and responsible alpaca wool.
True to its name, the wool origins of your knit are included with every purchase from Sheep Inc – the world’s first carbon-negative knitwear brand. The label pledges 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. Each of the brand’s designs come in colours from moss green to pacific blue, with the aim of putting you back in touch with nature – Tom Hardy is among its fans. And these pieces are intended to last you forever, as they come with a lifetime guarantee.
Launched in 2019 by two lifelong friends, YanYan – which means “everyone” in Cantonese – is brightening up the knitwear world. Its rainbow-print pieces and bright colourways are inspired by their cultural heritage and the experience of growing up in Hong Kong. Both veterans of the fashion industry, the founders aim to combat overproduction and use yarn leftover by other companies or order the smallest quantities possible to fulfil customer orders.
Luxury slow fashion knitwear and accessories brand &Daughter creates timeless pieces with a contemporary twist; think statement collars, bold colourways and thick roll necks. Working with artisan mills in Scotland and Ireland, the label’s collections are made in small batches to avoid waste, using 100 per cent natural and locally-sourced yarns. The flattering fits and long-lasting appeal help justify the heftier price tags.
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Looking for more environmentally friendly brands? Check out our guide to the sustainable fashion labels you should bookmark