AHEAD OF THE HERD

Interview 
By Will HALBERT - Feature from Essential Journal

Specialising in made-to-last tweed from the wool of rare Herdwick sheep, RUSKIN offers up a masterclass in sustainable style

In an industry rife with brands that feed on the consumer’s constant and collective drive for the  new and the trending, it’s nice to see brands like  RUSKIN take a different approach. Over the last  few years, RUSKIN's founder and designer, Alli Abdelal has perfected a low-volume, slow-tempo, artisanal approach seen all too rarely nowadays. It’s almost scholarly.  

For Alli, design is less of an aesthetic concern and more of an opportunity to communicate. Design becomes a bridge that connects consumer, craft, and craftsperson; a set of visual, tactile and philosophical principles that  help people to develop a deeper understanding  of (and a greater appreciation for) the art. We sit  down with Alli to find out why RUSKIN isn’t just  an exercise in considered luxury; but a heartfelt  attempt to make craft personal. 

First off, talk us through the philosophy behind RUSKIN - What drives you as a brand? 

It really comes down to two things; human connection and creativity. We talk about this a lot, especially now that our world is so visual and  image driven. Essentially, our designs are about connection; human connection with the finer  details of hand crafted work and the natural  nuances and texture of materials that engage  our senses and reconnect us with the world. As humans we tend to lean on our sense of sight  the most - aesthetics are important - but we’re  looking to consider all the senses, to help restore  that delicate sensitivity that has deteriorated  under the circumstances of modern life. RUS KIN is very much a creative endeavour, born out  of curiosity for what might be possible with a  rare natural fibre that has not traditionally been perceived as ‘high value’ and is often discarded.  Our idea is to innovate with the wool and harness the naturally occurring properties in order  to offer an entirely fresh creative proposition. 

 Do you think consumers are becoming  more concerned with questions of sustainability, provenance and craft nowadays?  Are we finally seeing a drift away from fast  fashion? 

I think the world is finally waking up to the se verity of the climate crisis and realising that the  changes we need to make are non negotiable. Our current circumstances have certainly expedited some tough introspection. In terms of sustainability and provenance, it’s a journey and we  are on the right trajectory, people are starting  to seek out products that reflect their changing lifestyles and values, but it takes time to reshape attitudes and behaviours.  

As for craft, I think it will always be relevant because it is a uniquely human endeavour. Humans are hardwired to create. But whenever we  truly create something or innovate it takes time, and even more time to help people understand the subtleties of the rare materials it is made from and the value of the time intensive work involved. All this takes, well, time and in recent  years, with the race for volume, the fashion industry has lost that integral currency of time. As designers, it is our responsibility to help people know what they know differently and better. That’s why it is so important that we tell our stories; knowing where something comes from, who designed and crafted it and what we are doing to respect and work within the limitations of the environment, those are the stories that push the needle, not industry labels and buzz words. 

Can you talk us through the RUSKIN process a little - from initial concept to final  piece? What kind of conversations do you have when creating a new product? 

Before we put pencil to paper to work on new  designs, we discuss what we’ve been hearing  from our customers and from the stores that  sell our products. These interactions provide us with enormous insight into people’s needs  and experiences and afford us that connection; that true feeling of the human element in de sign. What we’re looking for at this stage is to reflect, and at best influence society’s sensibilities. What unfolds thereafter is a long creative  process in designing, sourcing, milling, weaving and crafting. We spend a great deal of time in collaboration with our artisans at the design stage who bring to the table a deep understanding of materiality and technical rigour. Engaging honestly with our customers and partners in the design process is what ultimately helps us deliver great products.  

Production of our tweed meanwhile takes place in three different mills in Yorkshire, where  the raw wool is carefully cleaned and combed  before being slowly spun into a fine worsted yarn. The yarn is then sent to be woven and  washed in natural soap and well water, drawn  from below the mill to shrink and interlock the fibres; this enhances the waterproof properties. The fabric is finally dried and pressed before be ing shipped out to Italy to be bonded, cut and handcrafted into the latest design. 

Are there any design challenges that go  along with creating trendless, seasonless  products?  

We’ve always worked with the rhythms of artisanal production, so the latest trendless, season less approach actually works in our favour. Ours  is not a business model that people are used to  seeing much anymore. We’ve chosen to break  away from the pressures of seasonal production  and rapid growth as a means to success. We’d  much rather do something more quiet, remain  in control creatively and establish a grounded  partnership with all those in our value chain. 

Let’s talk provenance; why is it personally  important for you to work with the wool of  Herdwick sheep? And how important is it  for you to forge solid relationships with fellow artisans?  

I was born and grew the daughter of a mountaineer in the Lake District, so I spent a lot of  my time in the fells and came to love the familiar presence of the Herdwick sheep ubiquitous  to the landscapes there. Despite having grazed  on the upland fells for thousands of years and  despite having a protected status, Herdwick are a breed ‘at risk’. Plans for rewilding, the building  of second homes and the concentrated nature of  the flocks have placed their future under threat.  

We hope that we can help raise awareness of the  breed and play some part in promoting and elevating the status of the wool that Herdwick produce so that they remain on the Lakeland fells  for years to come. When we first approached  our artisans in Rome about the possibility of us ing our custom tweed to create an artisanal bag  they were cautious, but with a customary, ‘non  c’è problema’, they agreed to take a look. As it  turned out, they were intrigued by how durable  and pliable the fabric was and were really interested in what we were trying to do with it. Since  then we have built a strong relationship with  our artisans who are remarkable in their ability  to execute our tweed and they have become as  much a part of our story as the fabric itself. 

And finally, do you think we’re seeing a bit  of a tweed renaissance of late? What do you  think it is about tweed that draws people in  after all this time? 

Yes, I think we are! Beautifully soft tweed, with  a deep, tactile weave and superbly cut, kicked  up a notch with a few nuanced details and some casual seasonal pieces; what’s not to love?  

I think people keep coming back to tweed  because it is so versatile and timeless but per haps there is something deeper in our subconscious about the feeling it elicits as well. With out doubt, tweed has all the right credentials as  a reference for modern design; natural, renew able, biodegradable, not to mention all the rich  heritage reflected in its production, but I think  it also has that enduring capacity to sooth and  stimulate. For our part, our tweed collection is  a quiet reckoning with over production and un fettered growth. We are committed to exploring  the possibilities within natural material innovation because of how it reconnects us and be cause it gives us pause to touch and think and  really feel.

With gratitude to Will Halbert and Essential Journal