Meet this season’s Featured Maker, Emily Brewer-Yarnall of Été Noir, Brooklyn, NY. Her work embraces a kinder designer-to-closet cycle that aligns beautifully with our philosophy at Manouche. We hope you enjoy getting to know Emily as much as we have.
I actually quite recently moved to Hudson, NY, after spending nearly ten years in Brooklyn. I was starting to feel overwhelmed by how much work it is to live in the city, and I wanted to have a garden and a big studio and bake bread once a week. But Brooklyn is also where I felt like I had a place for the first time, and friends who are my forever friends, and freedom to pursue different creative paths. For someone like me, it was a good place to become an adult.
What is your background?
I studied photography at NYU, which I loved. I think I was one of the last classes to come through who was given a choice between a digital or analog (film) concentration, and I chose film. Eventually I realized that I liked working in the darkroom and experimenting with different printing and toning techniques better than I liked shooting, so I started thinking about more process-based industries. I’ve been a knitter since I was about 10-11 years old–I taught myself out of an old how-to book (pre-YouTube). After college I was working for a photographer and I found an old knitting machine on eBay. I taught myself how to use it, and started selling small sweater runs at local stores in Brooklyn. Finally I decided to concentrate on knitwear and started making real collections and showing them to buyers. I went to Peru about a year and a half ago for the first time, and it changed all my ideas about what was possible in knitwear. The quality and luxury of the yarns and the degree of craftsmanship there is unparalleled.
Who makes your clothes? Where are they made?
I work with a women’s collective in Puno, Peru, in the southeastern part of the country. The artisans who work there are mostly native Quechua women. It’s a very small factory–during the busiest times there are five or six artisans total. They predominantly work on their own projects which they sell independently around the country, and then a few times a year they set aside a few months to produce outside collections.
They also individually raise their own sheep and alpacas and produce absolutely gorgeous drop spindle handspun yarn which I keep on trying to find a way to incorporate.
The first time I went to Peru I was amazed by how often I would encounter a Quechua woman walking calmly along a path or roadside, spinning as she walked. They use all hand knitting machines, and finish the pieces by hand.
What was the turning point in your manufacturing philosophy?
There are many organizational aspects that I’m still trying to figure out–it’s also very interesting, coming from an extremely American work background, to adjust my communication to a different culture.
I tried very hard at the beginning to find a way to produce in the U.S., but the knitwear possibilites are quite limited, both in terms of options and of skillsets. Peru has an incredibly rich artisanal history and craftsmanship, as well as some of the most beautiful yarns in the world (all of which are made in Peru).
In a convoluted circumstance of international currencies, it also has an exchange rate which overwhelmingly favors the dollar. This is not so great for Peruvians trying to import but wonderful for designers concerned about producing ethically, since it’s possible to produce at a cost which U.S. buyers can afford and pay the Peruvian makers a fair wage.
How often do you travel to Peru?
I’ve gone twice in the last year and a half, and I’ll go twice this year. It’s truly one of the most amazing countries I’ve been privileged to visit. Peru has an incredible history and climate–it is one of the most biodiverse in the world, and contains an incredible range of climates, altitudes, and flora. Peruvians invented maize, corn, quinoa, and terrace farming. They also developed the llama and the alpaca into what they are today. The alpaca is believed to be descended from the vicuna, a wild camelid which still exists today. It’s forbidden in Peru to domesticate the vicuna–they can be caught once every three years for shearing within a certain age range. Their fiber is some of the softest (and rarest) in the world. Unlike the vicuna, the alpaca has the greatest natural fiber color range of any fiber-producing animal, so it’s possible to obtain yarn in nearly every natural color without dyeing. Peru also has very strict import laws to encourage the use of Peruvian grown and milled fibers in their handcrafts. Basically, every time I go I realize how much more there is to learn!
How do you see your business growing?
Mostly, I want to continue many of the things I’m already doing–
I’m constantly encouraged by the growth of ethical and sustainable fashion, and of stores like Manouche that allow for that growth.
I was very impressed in one of my first conversations with Kim by the specific questions she asked about my practices and manufacturing methods. I’m also aware of many things I need to work towards and do better–one of the elements I’m working on now is dyeing. I’m fortunate that Peru has pretty strict guidelines about environmentally safe dye methods, but I’d like to move to all-natural, small scale dyeing. Because alpaca comes in so many natural colors, I use almost no dyed yarns in winter collections, but many of the summer cotton yarns are dyed. My dream for some years now has been to have a tiny fiber farm in upstate NY, with a fiber artists’ retreat. I think that fiber artists are producing some of the most innovative and transgressive work, but that they are constantly undervalued because of their materials and their gender (they are overwhelmingly female). My sister is a farmer and an activist, and she’s been my best source for ideas and information.
What’s a misconception about your work that you wish people understood?
I think knitwear is a little odd to many people. To me, it’s the coolest–it’s infinitely flexible and adaptable. It’s naturally breathable and is based on exactly one stitch, which can be made backwards and forwards and sideways and over and under to produce an infinite range of results.
It’s the only truly zero waste technique, since fully fashioned garments are made exactly in the shape of their patterns.
It’s also potentially the most high-tech–my family is always sending me articles about 3D printed garments or sewer-less sewing machines, which I find funny because knitwear is already there–most knitwear is made on programmed digital machines with almost no human labor. But any knitter with two sticks can produce the same results (albeit much slower). My pieces are produced on hand-operated machines (in Peru they are called artisanal machines) which is more of a middle ground. Machines are still involved, but they have a handmade element which I like. Also in practical terms digital machines are many tens of thousands of dollars, but used hand machines are usually only a few hundred. So Peruvian artisans can create production businesses with a much smaller outlay.
Do you have a creative beast? If so, what feeds it?
I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by many creative people. They are also incredibly generous people. My first few lookbooks were shot by, modelled in, and facilitated by friends who were working for free or for trade. I am also consistently helped and buoyed up by other designers (most notably my friend Gina, a fellow knitwear nerd and designer of Poppy & Pima, who has saved me many times over). I think this creates an environment that is incredibly supportive and so conducive to creativity. I make all my own samples, and like many knitters find it very satisfying to work slowly and carefully towards a result. I make countless mistakes and usually have to start over, but some of my mistakes have resulted in my favorite pieces.
Where do you find inspiration?
Right now I’m transfixed by the work of Marianne Breslauer, a Weimar-era photographer who captured the androgynous style of the time. It was this odd, beautiful window of freedom between two oppressive periods. The women she photographed were sleek and functional–clearly feminine, but incorporating a more masculine style of dress, and that duality is so much more interesting to me than one or the other.
I am uncomfortable with the narrow range of femininity we are given, and the women I find most inspirational are those who work to subtly (or overtly) undermine it.
For me, the growing ethical fashion industry is a perfect example–it’s almost 100% run by women in what is seen as a traditionally feminine field, but the retailers and designers in this field are running very successful businesses without compromising principles.
Tell us about the woman that wears Été Noir. Who is she? What is she doing? Where is she going?
To be honest, mostly she’s me! I like to wear specific things, and I make the things I want to wear. I’m very tall and I have difficulty finding trousers and jumpsuits for longer legs, so I probably spend more time on those pieces. I spend half my day bending over my knitting machine and the other half running around carrying too much stuff, so things have to comfortable to sit in and move in, and pockets are very important. I worked briefly in a retail environment for independent labels, and it was eye-opening because I got to meet the women who wore clothes like mine, and to see what they gravitated towards and what they wore over and over. They were an incredibly diverse group with diverse lives, but what they wanted the most were things that were easy and comfortable and flattering and that they could wear to work and on the weekends and to pick up their kids.
I think that fashion is fascinating because it’s such a personal and emotional process–it’s a way to try on your different self, or the woman you could be or want to be.
I have some complicated thoughts about leveraging feminism to sell products, but ultimately I try to make clothes that are easier for women to move in and live in.
Stop by soon! The Été Noir Spring ’18 line is going fast. We look forward to seeing you!