The Science of Knitwear

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a scene in the 2006 film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ in which Meryl Streep’s character (Miranda Priestly) ridicules her intern Andy (aka Anne Hathaway) for looking down on fashion. Fashion affects all our choices she argues, describing the process by which ideas trickles down from catwalk to high street making our supposedly freewill-driven consumer choices predetermined by the fashion industry. At least I think that’s what she meant. The case is made beautifully though quickly falls apart on closer inspection. We have no choice but to buy what’s available, the fashion industry may shape what’s currently in the shops, but clothes would still exist even if the industry did not. A stronger case, I think, is that science, and northern science in particular, has shaped what we wear.

When I arrived in Leeds about 4 years ago, I was quickly greeted by academics making bold claims for the power of science to determine my fashion choices. Unlike Miranda Priestly’s, the longer I’ve stayed, and the more I’ve looked, the more evidence I’ve come across to support this case. Of course politics, business and even the fashion industry have played a part, but science, as I’ve come to learn, is definitely up there.

Lets begin with the wool itself. Wool, as we all know comes from sheep. Except that actually, mostly it doesn’t. Take a look at the label in your knitwear. Certainly in my wardrobe (or drawer, I learned once from an episode of Columbo that no woman would ever put knitwear on a hanger) most of it is cotton, viscose or acrylic. Making those materials look and feel like wool, survive the washing machine, and hold their colour are all down to science. The Clothworker’s Guild knew this when they ploughed money into the Yorkshire College as it then was (now the University of Leeds) back in the late nineteenth century. The University knew this in the 1930s, when they employed William Astbury and set him the task of examining wool fibres to see how they could be replicated and manipulated artificially. That work led him and his research student Florence Bell to take the first X-ray picture of DNA. Hundreds of students knew it too, as they came to the University throughout the 20th century to take degrees in Colour Chemistry or study in the Department of Textiles.

Money was made in this industry and this fed into the look of the city. All those nineteenth century, big imposing civic buildings came out of the textile and related local industries. And science, not just the utilitarian directly applicable to industry type science that enabled the creation of new fabrics and new dyes, but all sciences became part of the identity of the city. We still have the remnants of that enthusiasm for all things scientific in the extensive natural history collections held at the City Museum housed in what was once the buildings of the city’s Philosophical and Literary Society.

The feel of Leeds has changed since then. As a relative newcomer, I’m tempted to say its lost its way a little, lost its identity. Once it was a city built on wool, now, with Harvey Nicks, the M&S heritage trail and more recently the opening of the new Trinity Centre, its hoping for a reinvention through shopping. Will it succeed? I’m not sure. Its still a super friendly, lovely place to live, but I wonder if in focusing on shopping rather than its heritage in fashion and fabric and science and industry, it might not have missed a trick. Why focus on the high street when the city could lay claim to have shaped the choices at the very beginning of that chain, those choices shaped Miranda Priestly’s catwalk?

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