An Interview with Talia of Ramnation

Launched in 2013, Ramnation knitwear focuses on ethical production and provenance. Read more about our interview with founder Talia Hussain.

How did you become involved in ethical and sustainable fashion?

Like many people, especially women, I have always been interested in clothes and fashion. I don’t think that’s unusual. Also, I have a background in art and design. So, there’s another interest there. I’ve taken some pattern constructing courses. I have a certification in that.

I had an interest in how those are made and constructed. Tying in with that, I grew up in the countryside with access to lakes, rivers, and holidays in the mountains. At some point, you realize that we can’t keep throwing things away.

You can’t keep using non-renewable resources. That applies to everything. If you read the paper and try to take an interest in the world, occasionally, these scandals pop up. For a lot of people, they register them, then they forget, but I didn’t forget them.

I would learn about children working in factories in Bangladesh. I didn’t forget. It made me think when I was shopping. I would remember those things I read in the paper. I remembered the companies.

People were shopping in the stores. I realized people didn’t know where those clothes came from, those products. As I became more knowledgeable about making clothes for myself. I became more aware about different fabrics, different properties they have, and also where they come from – whether they are animal protein fibres, botanical plant fibres, or synthetic fibres.

Then thinking about the supply chain for them, and thinking about the stories and what I was learning about the source of the materials, it kept adding up to, for me, a picture of an industry that was deeply in need of change and inflicting a lot of incredible damage to the environment, but out of view to most people.

Most people can’t see it. They don’t think about it. The story, the true story behind how those clothes end up in the mall or the high street is hidden behind glossy advertising, models, and beautiful photography and branding.

I became aware of the truth behind how these things got made was quite ugly. Eventually, I felt compelled to try and act on that knowledge.

Ramnation is a unique range of knitwear made entirely in the UK and eschewing the use of chemical fibres, finishes and dyes.

In conversation with others, does this reflect their awakening to the reality of certain aspects of the fashion and garment industries?

Different people come to it in different ways. When I am speaking to other people with similar ideas, they come to it in different ways. Some are interested in the labor issues. They want to resolve some of the labor issues that they see in different parts of the word.

Other people see it as a way to empower women in poor countries through cooperatives for them to make a living. Other people get interested in the environmental aspects of the dyeing or the tanning of leather, and the chemical usage.

Other people get interested in recycling and how to reuse fibres. For some reason, at the moment, there seems to be a big boost in people who are starting brands that make swimwear out of recycled ocean waste. There’s a big trend for that at the moment. For them, it is a love of being in the water and so on.

Different people come to it from different ways. I think still other people come to it from veganism and vegetarianism. They start there. They realize that those same issues affect their clothes as well as their food.

I think there’s different routes into it. For me, it was a route of reading, seeing, and tying the two things together by thinking about the loss of and devastation of the natural environment.

Wool is sourced from a small mill in Cornwall that was spinning and organically dyeing yarns out of specific breeds of rare and traditional breeds of sheep. Local UK factories produce our samples and limited edition collections.

Much of the damage to the environment – if you take the trillions of bits of microplastics in the oceans alone, it is devastating. At the same time, it seems institutional to me. In the sense that, people are looking for the profit on the managerial and business side and customers/consumers are looking for cheap products.

As you have noted on the website about externalities, which implies a lot of things, some of those would include the reduction in a living wage or the violation of rights – no oversight in terms of working conditions, and the fact that mostly women and children are involved in that. So, their rights are mostly being violated.

These sorts of things are more implied because of the institution of looking for profit on the business side – make money – and the consumer side – find cheap products – rather than something conscious.

I totally agree. I would consider it something inherent in capitalism. The way neo-classical capitalist economists think about these things is that you’ve got supply and demand. As long as people are demanding, suppliers will come into the market to meet that demand. Then you would further say that sometimes the market fails, like with climate change because it is a massive externality with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

So, you can correct for that by imposing a tax and artificially correcting the price, so supposedly that’s all you need to do to fix the externalities, but the underlying idea is that supply should be maximized to meet demand as much as possible through the market. However, it totally ignores that you’ve got all of these problems, which snowball onto each other.

If you look at an example in Bangladesh, where there’s a lot of poverty and low-wage workers vying for work in factories, it becomes a systemic and circular thing because those clothing factories are polluting the natural environment. The leather factories are dumping chrome and effluents into rivers and destroying the fisheries and the subsistence livelihoods of the people living there. So, they have to work in the factories.

You have this downward spiral of destroying the natural world and forcing people into seeking new kinds of livelihoods. To me, it seems a structural problem that capitalism isn’t able to address in the way it is conceived right now. Obviously, it is an environmental and human rights problem for those people as well. You’ve got the two sides to it.

Ramnation itself, for those that don’t know, what is it? What is its feature product?

Ramnation is a concept label. I conceived and created it as an experiment as what happens when you try to make a fashion product that doesn’t have or tries to reduce at every opportunity the harmful impacts of your consumption, which you see all the way up and down the supply chain.

I started by thinking what material would you use if you wanted to create something that was going to be fashionable, long-lasting, and biodegradable. Wool is a fantastic answer to the question. It’s a great fibre. It’s warm. Living in the UK, it’s a local product and traditional industry. Wool was a good choice for using as a base material.

When I started using wool, it is subject a lot of the problems seen in other agricultural fields such as monoculture, factory farming, and so on, are present in the wool industry as well. I thought, “How do you find wool that isn’t subject to those kinds of problems?” I was able to find a mill in the UK that sources fleeces from local flock owners, who specialize in the rare and traditional breeds of sheep.

Many of them are organic producers as well. That was a first step in finding a good material, then it was moving onto what type of garment can be made with this material. Then it was finding a factory in the UK that would help me find some samples and garments to produce.

Also, how do you get buttons, labels, and packaging to finish out this product, and try to pay attention to not using materials that either are going to be long-term persistent waste in the environment. Apparently, you can’t get zippers that aren’t polyester.

The brand carefully sources each component in detail, in the pursuit of the best, least harmful product they could make. The labels are silkscreened by hand with organic ink. And printed the silk for the classic opera scarf using home-cooked ink made with natural botanical dyes.

(Laugh)

I don’t have zippers on my garments. I might have to change that. It’s interesting. There’s a huge demand for non-polyester zippers, but they won’t lie flat without the polyester in them. So, you won’t get jeans without polyester zippers. That’s one of the many, many things I learned when learning how to make a product. That’s what I’ve been doing – researching and trying to follow through the concept as much as I could.

Obviously, the mill that I’ve been working with has been organically dyeing everything. They aren’t dumping effluents. Everything is treated to the best standards that they can get. I found a button manufacturer that developed a collection of buttons that were developing a collection of physical techniques without chemical finishes, it’s sanding finishes without chemicals.

I couldn’t find labels without polyester in them. Many organic cotton labels are organic cotton thread woven onto a polyester base. So, I ended up finding organic ink and having labels silk-screened onto organic silk. I didn’t want to let myself down at that last step. It has been interesting to follow the whole concept through to the final details.

In the end, the result is a small collection of jackets and accessories that use all organic fibres. I do use organic pocketing and linings in some of the garments. Most of the main material comes from main breed sheep, which are local in the UK. Everything else is done locally in the UK. The mill is here. The factory for the garments is here. It is a lovely factory run by a father and daughter. They have mandatory factory holiday 3 times per year when school comes out for when families can be with children – at the obvious times of the year, e.g. summer holidays and Christmas. It has been an interesting process of learning.

Concept labels, by their nature, are experimental. Experiments come with trial and error. It can come with great successes and great failures at the same time. In the midst of developing Ramnation, what have been obvious mistakes and great successes in the development of the business?

Something, less of a mistake and more of a misjudgment, if you get caught up in your own head, if you’re interested in something, I thought that the market was further ahead than it was and that there would be more demand for this kind of organic product with story. I think with food and drink, there is that demand. If you look at what’s happened in organic food and whole foods, that’s taken off.

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s just massive. Then if you look at the rise in the past 10 years of craft beers, that’s exploded. People are interested in those products. Here in the UK, the big thing is artisan gin and distilling. It has become absolutely massive. It seems like every time you go somewhere, then you meet some guy doing an artisan gin distillery.

Made from a blend of naturally coloured and organically overdyed wool and mohair yarn.

(Laugh)

Seriously! I have met so many people. Some guys did vodka. There’s tons of these things happening and they’re taking off. People are interested in these little quirky labels and little quirky distilleries doing these small batches of experimental things in food and drink. The market has been developing for longer.

I misjudged the appetite for the similar thing in the garment industry. As I’ve talked around to other people who are doing similar types of things, they have the same sorts of problems. That concept of ingredients and sourcing – people haven’t quite made the connection to clothes and other consumer goods.

I would say that was my biggest mistake or misjudgment. I am aware that awareness is growing. I guess that’s where, maybe, some of my successes have been – by being able to be on the ground floor of this thing. I have met interesting people – not simply similar things, but working in related areas such as accessories, retail, etc. I even met the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) who has been promoting the use of wool. That was a high point.

It has been a mix of success and learning. One of the things that I am definitely working on now is some project on “how do you start getting people to start thinking about these issues and other kinds of home wear type goods?” Because they come from the same place, the natural world. That’s something that I am working on with other people now.

We have all of these products. They are amazing, interesting, beautiful, and have great stories. But how do we come together and take this idea into mainstream consumer culture and get them to think about it the way they’ve been thinking about food and drink?

If you take those, and reflect on newer businesses, one just starting. Any recommendations for them?

I think the biggest thing that I would say is to know what your story is, what your product is about and its story, and be prepared to be telling that story at every conceivable opportunity. Every channel that you possibly can because that’s ultimately what people connect with, especially in fashion. There’s so much product out there. Do they want this t-shirt or that t-shirt? There’s so much out there.

If you want to stand out, you want to have something that people can really connect to in a meaningful way. You need to be able to express that over and over, and over, again through as many channels as you possibly can. You need to keep telling the story of what your product is and how it came to me, and make sure that you’re clear on that story.

Smart opera scarf: warm wool one side, soft silk twill the other. A versatile item that can also be worn to the cinema or the pub, if the opera isn’t quite your thing. Made from a blend of naturally coloured and organically overdyed new British wool. Lined with silk, hand-printed with natural dye extracts.

Any recommended ways for people to become involved with Ramnation?

I must confess. I am not as wonderful as I would like to be about my story. I am on Twitter. I tweet from time-to-time. We have the website, where the products are available. We do some shows such as New York Fashion Show. We have been to Germany as well. I look forward to doing in the future, but no plans at the moment.

My big plan is hopefully to be working with other brands on a retail project, so we can be taking this idea of clothing and furnishing being part of an open conversation with consumers – about how they come from the same places as food and drink, and are part of the same ethical and environmental concerns.

Hopefully, I will have some exciting news in the next year or so

Any thoughts or feelings in conclusion about what we’ve discussed today?

I am always excited to talk to people about what I’ve been doing. I am excited that there’s more and more people realizing that there’s a problem. People have been making films about it. We have True Cost a couple of years ago. Recently, Alex James made a film as well. So, I am encouraged more and more people are beginning to take notice and understand what the issues are and to begin pushing for change.

Thank you for your time, Talia.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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