It’s 9:41 a.m., and the moon just passed between the Earth and the Sun. If Mother Nature reigns supreme, her power is felt most on the Faeroe Islands, a place where total solar eclipses, unpredictable weather and “slow fashion” give rise to celestial celebrations.
The remote country consists of 18 tiny islands situated in the North Atlantic, halfway between Norway and Iceland. Home to only 50,000 Faeroese people, isolation and long winters have enforced Nordic traditions of shepherding by day and knitting by night. It’s no surprise one homegrown fashion label saw an opportunity to create clothing using the county’s top three resources: sheep, fish and idle hands.
Guðrun & Guðrun, a sustainable and socially responsible knitwear brand, was founded by two Faeroese women: Guðrun Rogvadottir and Guðrun Ludvig. Together, they’re turning tradition into progress and making waves in Paris, New York City, Tokyo and Milan.
Their story sounds like a page ripped out of an eco-luxe lover’s dream diary: delicate garments made using wool from the Faeroes’ own organically raised sheep, hand-knitted in the homes of women knitters in the Faeroe Islands, Jordan and Peru.
Co-founder Rogvadottir greets me with bubbly excitement, still reeling from that morning’s total solar eclipse.
“We had 11,000 tourists visit for the occasion. Suddenly, the population grew 20 per cent,” says Rogvadottir. “I’m looking at the shop on the other side of the street—it’s really, really crowded. Gudrun has made some beautiful windows for the total solar eclipse: a black hole and a golden ring with a sweater inside.”
The duo met in 2000 and started their local production two years later, with Ludvig designing and Rogvadottir managing the business side of the operation.
The idea to launch a sustainable label came to Rogvadottir in the 1990s when clothing crafted from natural resources wasn’t as popular.
“During the time of shearing, we could see big bon fires everywhere. There was no use for the wool, so they would burn it. People didn’t appreciate it at that time, and it really broke my heart,” she says. “Growing up on remote islands like these, we learn that we should take really good care of the resources we have.”
The team started by producing lambskin samples but soon realized it was Ludvig’s sweaters that were attracting attention at the fashion fairs in Copenhagen, especially from Japanese consumers.
However, it was a traditional Faeroese snowflake sweater that really put Guðrun & Guðrun on the map after the main character on The Killing, a popular Danish television show, donned it for the series. But spend some time chatting with the Guðruns and you’ll learn that their company is so much more than one iconic sweater.
Their sustainable practice of using wool from sheep that are raised for mutton cannot be ignored. This philosophy has even extended to their accessories, which are crafted out of fish leather, a waste product of the Faeroes’ fisherman. Clearly, their eco approach is working. After all, their most-sold line of sweaters is made from 100 per cent untreated and un-dyed Faeroese wool.
The Faeroese people enjoy being part of Guðrun & Guðrun’s story, especially the women who help hand-knit the garments as a second job on evenings and weekends, says Rogvadottir.
But eventually, when the islanders alone couldn’t meet the demand, the label had to look into production locations abroad.
“A man from Hong Kong asked to make some samples for me. They were beautiful, but when I asked him, ‘How do you find these knitters, and how are their working conditions?’ he promptly told me, ‘I go to the poorest village, blow my whistle and people come crawling.’ At that point, I thought, ‘We have to do something completely different.’”
Rogvadottir’s previous career in international development led her to Jordan, a country where many women are unable to find work outside of the home due to their family roles.
Thus, a simple but effective employment project was born: women get yarn and knit at home when they have free time, allowing them to earn some money and be paid fairly. Though many of the knitters are the same ones that started with the project seven years ago, several Syrian refugees have since joined the charge. The company recently launched a similar program for women in Peru.
“Suddenly, you feel responsible for a lot of people elsewhere,” says Rogvadottir. “It can be tempting to do something in a less sustainable way for a cheaper price, but then you will lose your identity. There are so many other brands that can make cheap T-shirts.”
The fact that each piece is uniquely hand-knitted is evident in Guðrun & Guðrun’s fall/winter 2015 collection, which features a range of layerable pieces in different wools, textures, stitches and earthy tones reflective of Ludvig’s main inspiration, the Faeroe Islands.
“Every morning when you look outside, it’s like looking at a different painting. You can’t even book a flight in advance because the weather is so unpredictable.” says Rogvadottir. “The fact that we understand that there is a bigger power than ourselves—nature—makes the people from the Faeroe Islands very special.”
Guðrun & Guðrun share a bit of that inspiration, and other stories, during their trips to visit the knitters. From a sheep field in the Faeroe Islands to the slums of Peru, to their showroom in Milan, the duo is proving that the best fashion doesn’t have to be fast to be moving.