I was compensated by Amalou for my time researching and writing this post.
When it comes to ethics, things are not so cut and dried, especially when you start to create value hierarchies that combine attention to people, planet, and animals.
Nothing makes this more clear than Alden Wicker’s recent long form piece on the complexity of arguing from a position of animal ethics. In that piece, and the piece I shared on wool a few weeks ago, Alden points out that many surface-level solutions – such as avoiding the silk industry in favor of materials like rayon – can actually be more devastating than the original “problem.” The same is true of vegan leathers, as Emily Folk explained on this blog two weeks ago, and even, according to Alden’s research, of fur alternatives.
How do we absorb this information without throwing up our hands?
In some cases, it’s easier than we think, at least when it comes to wool.
Sheep have been raised for their wool for as many as 11,000 years. The industry has historically sustained communities and empires, though it has declined considerably since synthetic fibers took hold of the marketplace in the mid twentieth century.
While a baseline level of animal care must be met to ensure that individual farms and larger, country-wide industries can sustain themselves, exploitation is rampant due the rise of fast fashion and factory farming in the last 15 years. Still, untreated and organic wool is a smart ecological choice, and it can be ethical in regards to animal treatment when attention is given to the process, so we’re left at a crossroads.
From a psychological standpoint, it’s no wonder that we struggle to prevent large scale problems and identify solutions: humans lack a capacity to comprehend the massive scale of modern operations.
Rather, we are people compelled by stories.
That’s why I find it increasingly necessary to engage with artisans and their work – this is something we can hold onto.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been in conversation with Ellie at new ethical handbag company, Amalou, to create a narrative around human and animal care as it can be. This is the story of Amalou, and of the process from sheep and herder to wool and maker, across the world and into our hands and homes…
Amalou is based in Morocco, a country nestled within a region where sheep and wool have been the primary industries for centuries.
Nomadic herders journey with their flocks across vast swaths of countryside, navigating an internal map for watering holes and rest stops. As Ellie expressed, sheep herding is by its nature a very different experience in Morocco than it is in America and other countries known for wool. In the words of Richard Grant, writing for The Telegraph, “the animals [are] regarded as individuals, easily recognised by their markings and personality traits.”
The work sounds romantic to my Western ears, but it is arduous – hot, with long stretches without water – and requires the skill of years of experience to navigate the terrain and prepare for each new stretch of barren land, not to mention an attunement to the needs of each animal.
When shearing season begins, families and even whole communities work together to shear the herds, then sell the raw wool in local markets, or souks. Some artisans will buy it to turn into carpets or yarn.
In the case of Amalou, wool is purchased to be felted. Wool felt is the oldest known textile, not surprising considering how long humans have lived alongside sheep.
But think about that for a second: when you touch a piece of wool felt, you’re connecting to thousands of years of human craft and culture.
The process is low tech, but labor intensive: hot water is added to layers of unprocessed wool, then the wool is pressed continuously until the fibers start to hook and tangle together.
Since Ellie works directly with the felters, she can describe their process firsthand:
“Once dyed, the wool is turned over to the felters as large bags of loose, dyed wool. From there the felters prep and comb the wool to remove thorns and other debris that might remain. Once the wool is clean the felting process begins. As you’ll see when the bag arrives, each bag is actually made out of a single pice of felted wool with no seams. This means they work out the size and shape of the finished item in their mind before they even begin the work, a feat that frankly boggles my mind. Using nothing but water, wool and an all natural black soap they felt the wool into shaping using their hands. To do this, they add water and soap to the fluffy wool and rub it with their hands until it felts. This is an hours long process and over those hours, you see the bag begin to take shape.”
Amalou’s primary felters, father-son team Mohammed and Abdullah, are in this business because they love it, and it’s a natural fit due to the availability of high quality wool. Mohammed learned how to felt from his own father more than 20 years ago and they continue to work in a simple workshop, occasionally enlisting help from a friend when they’re backed up on orders.
This narrative, one that takes into account the hands and hard work of each animal and person in the process, is something we can digest.
And because it’s manageable, we can make a judgement call: we can call it good.
I am not so naive as to think that all industry can, or even should, go back to the good ol’ days, where handcrafted wasn’t a marketing designation so much as it was simply the way things were done. I know that sometimes these processes feel easy and pure when written out on a fresh sheet of paper, but they can often be the only means of survival in a world of scarcity and crisis. We must be careful as far-removed consumers to not romanticize (or exoticize) “foreign” handicrafts.
That being said, exploring the inner workings of smaller scale, integrated industries like that of wool in Morocco underscores how important manageability is when it comes to building ethical and sustainable companies. We often can’t know what happens at every step in the global supply chain, but when the co-industries of raw goods and finished products literally and figuratively gather together in open air markets, it’s easy to see the people and processes behind our products.
And because we can see what’s happening, we can understand our tiny part in a big world full of reverence for history – and for those loved ones who taught it to us – and with an eye toward sustaining our futures for the good of all who dwell on the planet, from Moroccan sheep herders to felters to American bloggers.
Learn more about Amalou here.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.