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Textile talk: alpaca wool

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When it comes to fashion, there's a lot to talk about. But we don't often talk to designers about the textiles and materials they use in their lines. Interviews often consist of explaining inspiration, silhouettes and fit, but rarely about the type and origin of a fabric. I think that it's important to talk about all aspects of fashion, especially those that have the most impact socially and environmentally speaking. In my first of several "Textile talk" posts, I chatted with the founders of a soon-to-launch knitwear brand based in Montreal, Quebec.

Système de Valeurs (French for value system) was founded by Melanie and Lauren just this year. I randomly came across this brand (as I do most fashion things) on Instagram, and I was excited at the prospect of a Canadian knitwear company with a youthful, modern aesthetic. They were nice enough to answer some questions and help me introduce you to their great brand. I can't wait to see their first collection!

I'm excited for your launch and to see your brand come to life. What can you tell me about it?
Système de Valeurs is a new fashion and lifestyle brand based in Montreal that stands for casual luxury. The cornerstone of our company is that all of our products are produced ethically and eco-consciously. For our first collection, we’re focusing on knitwear and are producing a line of sweaters, accessories and home goods made out of ethically sourced baby alpaca wool. Note that when we say baby alpaca wool, we don't mean wool from baby alpacas, but rather the soft under-hairs of alpacas.

How did you come up with the idea to launch this brand?

We came up with the concept for our brand about two years ago but we met six years ago while working as designers at a fast fashion company. We became friends and noticed that our personal aesthetics, while somewhat different, were complementary.

We eventually started working for different companies and one day, both feeling bored and a little disillusioned at work, started an email thread in which we discussed our frustrations with the fast fashion industry. We kept going back and forth, talking about cool brands and eventually thought “Hey, why don’t we start our own brand?”

The first thing we decided was that if we were going to have a fashion company, it had to be sustainable. We were also adamant that we wanted to it be a high-end, fashion-forward brand that happened to be sustainable, rather than a stereotypical “green-fashion” brand. We decided on producing sweaters first because they're luxury items that can really carry a brand. Also, living in Montreal has taught us the importance of having a good, warm sweater!

Two layers of spools of white wool, leaning against a white wall.What is your design philosophy?
We design fashionable, functional knitwear for the modern “woke” woman. We always have a pulse on fashion trends but want our pieces to be classic enough to last season after season.

How many pieces do you plan on designing for your first collection?
We're producing one sweater, a scarf, a toque and a blanket. We decided to start with a very concise capsule collection, which we will build upon in coming seasons.

What stage are you in right now in building your business?
We are in the product development and sample making stage, hoping to launch our first collection in fall 2017.

How does your brand incorporate both your personalities and values?
Our brand is all about our personalities and values. Our brand name literally translates “value systems.” We want to make sure that our values, specifically regarding the environment, human rights, quality and craftsmanship are things that we never lose sight of. In terms of our personalities, we want to have an approachable, fun and cheeky “voice” to our brand. The fashion industry can be somewhat stuffy, and while we want to be an elevated brand, we still want to be accessible.

Image of white alpacas on a Quebec alpaca farm.Where do you source this from and why is this significant?
We source our yarn from Peru, because Peru is home to the largest alpaca farms in the world. Initially, we wanted to source our yarns from Canada, however the industry here is too small to support our production. We decided on our particular supplier because they operate a wonderful, sustainable farm where the animals have tons of land to live on and are treated very well.

What have you learned about fashion in Canada since starting the brand?
We’ve had a lot of pitfalls, and sadly we’ve come to realize that much of the production side of the industry in Canada has moved overseas. Thankfully, there are still a small number of factories here, but we hope that one day we can help rebuild this industry.

We've also learned that sourcing Canadian alpaca yarn is difficult. There are some good resources for other eco-fabrics, but the alpaca yarn industry here is very small.

Tell me more about the material and what makes it great.
Alpaca yarn is typically considered softer and warmer than sheep's wool, even cashmere. It's 100 percent hypoallergenic, so people who have trouble with sheep's wool can wear our sweaters. It is said to wick sweat away whereas wool will absorb up to 50 percent of its weight in moisture.

The environmental impact of alpaca farming is also lower than that of cashmere goats from which cashmere is produced. Alpacas have soft padded feet that don’t destroy the land, as opposed to the cashmere goats that have hoofs that destroy the land and crops that they trot on.

How are you guaranteed of the farm's ethical treatment of the animals? Did you visit the farm?
We haven’t yet visited the farm, but we'll be making a trip there in the near future. Our supplier owns a breeding ranch on approximately 3,000 hectares of land in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes, where alpacas originate. They also own a breeding education centre to help sustain Peru’s alpaca population.

We're told that the animals have plenty of land to move around on (fewer than one alpaca per acre) and graze naturally. Indigenous people from the Andes mountains shear the animals once a year during shearing season (November-March) without hurting or harming the animals.

The ranch itself is built into the natural landscape of the highlands and is open to the public to observe the alpacas, learn more about them, the Indigenous people of the area, as well as the practices of the company. Although we can’t be 100 percent sure until we visit, given the transparent nature of the company, we trust that their claims are true. The ranch looks absolutely beautiful, and we're planning a trip there soon.

Is the wool processed in Peru too? All on the same farm or in a different facility?
Yes, the wool is processed in Peru as well. They own a processing factory separate from the farm. The wool we use is from their Eco-Collection which is not dyed.

Tips on buying alpaca yarn 
All Alpaca yarn is quite soft and luxurious and has all of the great properties that we mentioned before, however we are partial to the baby alpaca wool, the fine under-hairs.

We exclusively use baby alpaca yarn because it's the softest and most lustrous. For buying, make sure you're buying either 100 percent alpaca or an alpaca/silk blend, unless you're looking for a more corse yarn that could be blended with lamb's wool. Alpaca blended with synthetic fibres really defeats the purpose of all of the amazing natural properties of the fibre.

Do you make the dyes yourselves?
We are experimenting with making a few dyes ourselves, but for the most part we purchase them from a company in British Columbia. They send us the raw materials and we still have to process them.

Neat, what's your dyeing process?
We're experimenting with soaking black beans, which gives a dye that can achieve dark blues, similar to indigo. With the dyes we get from the company, we have to grind some of them (for example the cochineal bug).

We're sent a jar full of dead bugs and we have to grind them in a coffee grinder, then boil them to extract the colour. The world of natural dyeing is totally fascinating and somewhat counter intuitive. Did you know boiling avocado pits and skins gives you a soft pink colour?  We’re still learning by trial and error, but it’s really fun!