We had an inspirational conversation with Cardiff-based knitwear designer Suzanna James and we’ve been charmed by her gentle personality and her genuine passion for handcrafted, sustainable and ethically sourced garments. Her beautiful and tactile knitwear designs are a blend of sophistication and simplicity that immediately speaks to us in the dreamy and rugged language of the great outdoors.
Suzanna welcomed us into her cosy home and studio where she showed us her faithful vintage sewing machine, her huge collection of fashion magazines and her eye-catchy portfolio of sketches, pictures and yarn swatches. We talked about her 3 months road trip adventure across the USA and Canada, the challenges and the rewards of ethical fashion and her recent collaboration with Chloe Grayson from We are Fox and Owl. We then went for a walk on the stony beach near Penarth pier, Suzanna’s favourite spot in the area, where she shared with us her dream to figure out the supply chain issues of Peruvian Alpaca and her intention to plan and fundraise for a trip to the Andes.
Can you tell us about Suzanna behind Suzanna James Knitwear?
My full name is Suzanna Kate James, I was born in Leuven, Belgium in February 1992, we moved around quite a bit when I was younger, but eventually settled in Carmarthenshire. Over the years my family have been all over Wales with some coming from Pembrokeshire and others from Abergavenny and the surrounding areas. My two great grandmothers, Violet May, and Rosanna Kate, both were ahead of their time and had knitwear businesses which I found out after specialising in Knitwear at Winchester School of Art. I studied Fashion Design at the University of Westminster before my specialism.
Have you always wanted to be a fashion designer?
No, I still don’t always think of myself as a fashion designer really. I have a love for all things creative and I think I could potentially be happy doing something else creative. When I went away travelling it was only a few weeks before I was battling insomnia and boredom and had to go and buy a sketchbook and yarns. I think I actually bought yarns in the very first week I was away, I was in Iceland and was amazed by the ‘plates’ of yarn which I’d never come across before. Designing is just a natural inclination for me, and often comes now from being attracted to fabrics and fibres and having to make something out of that.
When and how did you come across the concept of ethically sourced materials?
I’ve always had an internal battle between designing fashion and textiles which I love, and an ever present niggle from my altruistic side, so it was only natural for me to combine these two traits in the form of ethical fashion. It was during university though when I started to make a lot of things myself that I started researching and looking into ethical materials in great detail and I set myself the challenge of creating a graduate collection with 100% ethical materials. I was naive when I decided that and I didn’t realise just how complicated it would be, I did make a lot of progress but am still working on making sure that I don’t have a single niggle about any material I use and that I can trace it right back to the plant that it was or the animal that it came from.
“I am still working on making sure that I don’t have a single niggle about any material I use and that I can trace it right back to the plant that it was or the animal that it came from.”
Do you believe that ethics and sustainability will ever become the main trend in the fashion industry?
Yes, I do believe that but I think it will take a long time and I envisage that we could be working on it for the whole of my lifetime and will still be phasing out unethical practices. It has invaded everything so there is a lot of work to do. I believe that we need to stop the current practices in fashion production rather than only inventing new sustainable ones that run alongside.
What is your customer base and how are your creations received abroad?
So far my products have been very successful within Asia, the majority of my customers that I have met at shows have been Chinese or Japanese and I’m in touch with an artist community in China who link up British designers with Chinese customers, it’s in its baby stages but I definitely feel that my work is received very well there. I’m fascinated by that and I’d love to visit there one day.
“We need to stop the current practices in fashion production rather than only inventing new sustainable ones that run alongside.”
What are the main features that your products offer to the outdoor enthusiasts that have not tried them yet?
Merino wool is the top material found in outdoor knitwear but the majority of merino comes from Australian sources and from my own experience the wool is incredibly difficult to trace and ethical stances are not welcomed in all areas of that industry. My products offer an alternative to that, with wools that have similar properties to merino but are 100% traceable and ethically sourced. I am working on sourcing British merino and hopefully that will be included in my products soon. This year I’m releasing a new collection of more minimal knitwear that I hope will be really useful for outdoor enthusiasts and will provide a realistic alternative.
Where do you source your materials from and what are the criteria behind your choices?
My criteria include: the materials traceability, including country of origin; whether it’s cruelty free; whether, having traced it, its ethics are sound; including meeting the highest standards of animal welfare; whether it had been dyed naturally and/or organically, and whether its raw material is certified organic, Fairtrade or vegan. There are still loopholes in many of certifications and it is a minefield, I have to be scrupulous, this means it’s an ever changing process and places I have sourced in the past don’t make the mark anymore, I found out that the entirety of the Peruvian Alpaca market is flooded by two giant companies who refuse to comply with animal or human welfare standards and so I’m not using my ‘Fairtrade’ Peruvian Alpaca anymore because sadly in this case it’s possible that the certification cannot be trusted. So for now I have found a British supplier of Alpaca who is absolutely great and I get the yarn dyed organically which is a really rewarding process as I can feel it and work with it and admire it without any concern at all as my supply chain is so short and I have the facts for every part of it. Other places I source from are an Italian supplier of Eco-merino and alpaca, and I get certified British wool from the Shetland isles, the wool board of the UK and Izzy Lane. Izzy Lane is a fellow knitwear designer and cruelty-free yarn producer, I hope to be working with her a lot more in the future. Certain unethical practices like mulesing are banned here in the UK which makes the sourcing process slightly less complicated.
Tell us about your sampling process.
Sampling and I have a love-hate relationship! My favourite jumper was in the fabric from my first sample attempt, it worked and I liked it. Other times I will do 10 samples without creating what I want, so it can be a long process. I start off with sketches and inspirational imagery and sometimes map out colours before knitting but usually having selected my yarns I will begin a smaller square swatch and try to translate the design idea in mind into knitting.
What is your favourite colour palette?
Soft pinks, sea greens, grey and a bit of yellow. I also love blues.
Do you keep a sketchbook of all your designs?
Not always. I love to make sketchbooks but it is more of a creative practice in itself which means sadly I don’t always have the time. I used to be really diligent about keeping them but over time the process has morphed into an ever changing wall of sketches, pictures and yarn swatches, rather than a permanent record within a book.
Have you ever considered creating a downloadable digital library of patterns that you've used for your garments?
I have but I don’t enjoy that process when I’ve tried it before. I am not mathematical or methodical and it’s something that disrupts the creative part of the process for me as I have to stop and write down what I’ve done in order to later write up a pattern. One day I want to commit to it from start to finish and actually I think some new pieces from my upcoming collection lend themselves to traditional knitwear patterns more than my previous work so we’ll see!
Tell us about your experience at the New Designers Fair. Who were some of your favourite fellow designers that attended the event?
Forest and Found. I knew I would love their work before we got there and they didn’t disappoint! Their work is beautiful and skilled and my favourite aesthetic. They’ve mastered this perfectly crafted minimalism that I think so many others aspire to including myself! There’s also Zag Woven; the founder, Zohreh, and I, get along really well and we are collaborating on a project promoting textiles makers. I love what she’s doing and her aesthetic as well. Also there’s Rowenna Mason, her use of colour is beautiful, and I was inspired by ‘SEIN‘ with their zero waste techniques, but I couldn’t name all of the people whose work I loved, there were so many talented designers, it was an honour to be a part of it with them!
Who do you admire in your industry and why?
The brand I admire most is Amma Lanka, because it’s founded by one of my closest friends, Josie, I’ve literally watched it form and experienced the resilience and determination of Josie as she has moved to Sri Lanka and begun the social enterprise at the foundation of her brand. She is teaching unemployed mums to dye yarn and fabric naturally and also to weave by hand, it’s an incredible achievement and people like that who are tangibly forming the future of fashion are my favourite people.
What was the greatest challenge you had to face as a young designer and entrepreneur?
It has definitely been adapting my designs into realistic products, finding a balance between bespoke and wearable, and getting to accessibility in accordance with that. I’m a strong believer in making ethical fashion available to all, but at the same time it really is a balancing act and the fact is that corners are being cut in order for products to be ‘affordable’ at the moment. Clothes are made by a person somewhere in a factory, it’s not that technology has totally overtaken, that means that person is definitely being underpaid and most likely in an oppressed situation, at the moment though, consumers are having a hard time making that jump to higher price points in order to avoid this. It will take time.
What was the event that helped you the most to consolidate your place in the ethical fashion industry?
There have been several pivotal moments but not one that jumps out as the obvious answer, it’s a process all the time.
Where do you go for inspiration?
And for relaxation?
Anywhere outside again!
What other disciplines are you involved with or interested in?
So many! Illustration, photography, collage, papermaking, bookbinding, basketry, anything I have time to do! I rarely get time for anything else but if I did have time I’d like to be doing those as well as other textiles specialisms like screen printing, hand weaving, and quilting and also disciplines I’ve never had much time to try out like ceramics or carpentry.
You currently live and work in South Wales. What is your favourite location in the area?
The black mountains near my family home are where I visit most regularly and feel most attached to, but I absolutely love places on the Gower too and beaches in Pembrokeshire. I will travel quite far to see a new location or old favourite and there are so many places I still haven’t visited even though I’ve lived here in South Wales for most of my life. Living in Cardiff, I like Penarth because it’s the closest place I can go to see the sea, I like the old pier with the festoon lighting and stony beach.
Do you watch Scandinavian films? If so, what are some of your favourites and do you find yourself paying more attention to the characters’ outfits rather than the plot?
I don’t think I’ve seen many Scandinavian films, but I definitely am quite impressionable and often if I really love a story or character, part of that will include their costumes in the film. I always watch all of the credits and look up the costume designers, I’m intrigued by the links between a story and how it’s visualised, and how a character comes across because of what they are wearing.
What is your favourite dish?
Can it be a pudding? I have a sweet tooth! My mum is an incredible baker, and I think it would have to be a chocolate roulade she makes at Christmas. It’s from a really old recipe book from a cafe in Boston I think, she lived there for a while when she was my age now.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Somewhere cold, sunny, and by the sea. I think I’d be happy living anywhere that was right next to the sea. I’d love to be able to see the sea from my house and step outside and walk to the beach, I find the sea beautiful every time I see it.
What was the best gift you have ever received?
That’s a hard one, my family are good at gifts! The very generous gift of a trip to Paris for my birthday from my partner was unforgettable though.
What is your fondest memory from your visit to Iceland?
I don’t have to think about this one at all, it would be, without a doubt, a hike we did to the ‘Steaming Valley’, it was incredible. We had been out all night trying to see the northern lights, but it was cloudy so we ended up driving towards the steaming valley where we’d planned to go the following day, we were hoping that there wouldn’t be so much cloud cover in a different area. We arrived around 6am and it was just getting light, it was freezing, I had about 5 layers on including a traditional Icelandic jumper! You could see the valley from miles away because of all of the steam trails in the distance. So we hiked up into the mountain for about an hour until we found a part of the river that was the perfect hot spring temperature and got in! There was no one else there and it felt like a hidden gem we had found. It was totally our own and an incredible place, the steam rose from the streams and rivers all the way up the mountain and they were surrounded by cotton grass, which was a phenomenon I hadn’t come across before, and I thought it was wonderful.
How about your USA/Canada trip? What are some of the most memorable places that you have visited during this trip and how has this experience influence your creativity?
I was surprised by how much I loved North America, I have always felt more of a pull to European countries but by partner was born in America so he felt a huge draw to explore there and it really was the experience of a lifetime. Yellowstone was a highlight, there was so much snow that we could only travel on one road into the park and then we had to turn around and go back again, and we had it all to ourselves because no one else goes to Yellowstone in November. Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and Nova Scotia in Canada stick out for me as well and I think my favourite city was San Francisco, but the more I think about it the more it’s impossible to choose! The Canadian Rockies, Boston, Cape Cod and New York were special places for me too, I miss our road trip all the time. The main creative influence I took from my travels at that time was the plethora of dramatic and striking horizon lines I saw, I came back with pages full of horizon line after horizon line that I had drawn without taking my eye off the view as we were driving along, that’s where the designs for much of my autumn collection last year came from.
“I’m a strong believer in making ethical fashion available to all...”
What can we find in your wardrobe?
I was given a cardigan from Gudrun Sjoden for Christmas and I can barely remember a day I haven’t worn it since! I also have a few items from People Tree which I’ve worn endlessly and my favourite shirt is from Toast. I do buy from ‘high street’ shops occasionally too as long as they are members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. I’m excited because I’ve recently got a pair of boots from Will’s Vegan Shoes, non leather shoes seem to be finally being diversified, I guess because of the increase of the vegan community, I’ve never worn leather having been vegetarian since childhood, so I’m happy to see the change happening.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my pre-fall 2018 collection, I’m releasing a small number of pieces in late summer/early autumn this year, consisting of the more minimal pieces I mentioned earlier and for the first time, coats, which I’m very excited about. So right now I’m making a ‘Chloe’ jumper in Shetland wool, it’s a design I recently worked on for Chloe Grayson from We are Fox and Owl for a bespoke bridal photoshoot, and I’ve decided to include it in my new collection.
Can you recommend us:*
A book: I actually can recommend a couple of books. This year I have been trying to work on my work life balance and reading has been a part of that as well as beginning to get to know some podcasts from knitwear designers and creative business owners alike. One that I have been listening to is by Hanna Lisa Haferkampf from Berlin, Hannaontheroad and she sometimes includes book recommendations. I was interested in a few of the books she mentioned and have been reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. The book is quite a lot darker than my usual cup of tea, but it is quite gripping and it actually has a really interesting link to knitwear as Chloe is a keen knitter herself and has been collaborating with yarn company ‘Quince’ and knitters globally who have been knitting in response to her book. Let my people go surfing by Yvon Chouinard is next on my list, the story of the brand Patagonia who are pioneers in terms of sustainability and personal heroes of mine, I am fascinated to read their story. Lastly, my good friend Josie from Amma Lanka also recommended Wonder by R. J. Palacio, which was a wonderful book about a boy with a facial deformity, and generally an insightful commentary on humanity; she told me she thinks everyone should read it, and I definitely agree!
A film: I've enjoyed a lot of films directed by Wes Anderson and Taika Waititi. Sam and I received a copy of Moonrise Kingdom as a wedding present, as the main characters are called Sam and Suzy. I really like the visuals within Wes Anderson's films and how he uses symmetry and cinematography to present an image.
A song: I've been playing A Blaze of Feather’s EP on repeat. I've only just discovered that Ben Howard, one of my favourite artists, has been working on new music as part of this band and I love it.
*March 2018 addition
Thank you, Suzanna for welcoming us into your home and studio and for sharing your story with us.