THE WHY AND THE HOW
I created De Rerum Natura in 2012 as a response to a need and a challenge. After discovering the pleasure of knitting and being able to create your clothes with awareness and simplicity away from over-consumption, I realised that I knew next to nothing about the yarns that would spend hours in my hands and live on my children's skin. The 'wool' on the label didn't tell me whether the sheep had suffered from 'mulesing', what part of the world it came from, in what country and under what working conditions the yarn was then made, and the standards that governed the dyeing and finishing products that were applied to it. This was completely at odds with the harmony I was looking for.
I therefore turned to the country wools that were available at the time, but I quickly realised that, although their authenticity was very appealing to me, the roughness of the touch made them difficult to match with the soft skin of my little men. I had also turned to knitting for the love of colours and I did not find this pleasure of painting the world in the very basic range of colours generally proposed.
So I began to dream very seriously about a reinvented country wool, which would enhance the value of wool from traditional farms close to me, which would be soft enough to be worn next to the skin, or almost, which would have both the wild beauty of natural wools and a inspiring palette of colours. A beautiful and good wool that would draw a world with sheep in the mountains, small flourishing spinning mills and all sorts of happy knitters.
Gradually, the creation of what was to become this company became the answer to a series of questions that were nagging at me and to a great personal challenge.
Was it possible to create these yarns with the animal, human and industrial resources we have on our old continent? Could these threads be made by people with the same social security coverage as me and still be sold at a price that I could afford? And more personally, would I be able to leave the comfortable and very intellectual path of my studies to face the realities of a company in all its concreteness?
In other words, what remains of our dreams when they are confronted with reality :)
The answers to these questions came little by little, first by discovering the rich history of Merino sheep breeding in France, which dates back to the 18th century, and the efforts of certain breeders to revalue the wonderful wool of the Arles Merinos. Then by meeting industrialists who share the same desire to revive the local industrial heritage and to renew the links between breeders, spinners and knitters. I then thought that the ingredients were there to try the adventure and thanks to the support of the small community I had gathered on my blog at the time, to the friendship of designers like Nadia Crétin-léchenne who shared the news and to the unwavering support of my little family, I set up a corner of the living room and Gilliatt and Pénélope took off :)
THE WONDERFUL WOOL OF THE MÉRINOS D'ARLES
All the unbleached wool in our yarns comes from Arles merino sheep. It is a fine wool (21.5 microns on average) and probably the finest that can be found in Europe at the moment, but it has a very strong elasticity due to a very pronounced "crimp". This term describes the way in which the fibre zigzags and, in the case of Arles merino, it does so at a very high frequency. This characteristic gives it a great shape memory, which is used for example in the manufacture of tatami mats in Japan.
Thanks to this crimping of the fibre, it has a lot of spring and the yarns created are naturally bulky with an advantageous yardage since the wool takes up more space for the same weight.
To highlight the possibilities of this particular wool, I chose to develop a range of carded yarns ("Ulysses", "Gilliatt" and "Cyrano") where it is blended with Portuguese brown merinos to create a mottled palette and a range of more sophisticated worsted yarns with the addition of a little touch of silk (a fingering yarn "Albertine" and DK "Penelope") to accentuate the softness and drape.
The carding method of spinning enhances the natural bulking of this wool by trapping air in the fibres. To remove as many short fibres as possible, the wool is first carefully combed rather than simply washed. The fibres are then spun with a gentle twist to preserve the swelling of the fibres and then well twisted to improve the strength and give the yarn fullness.
The more strands there are, the rounder the yarn will be, which is why Gilliatt, 3-ply twisted, and Cyrano, 5-ply twisted, bring out the twists and textured stitches.
MAKING AT THE NEAREST, THE SOFTEST, THE MORE BEAUTIFUL
Our unbleached wool comes from farms located in the South-East of France near Arles for the most part and for the brown merinos, from the Alentejo valley in Portugal. Black merinos are much rarer in France, which makes it difficult to add value to their wool, but we are hopeful that we will be able to showcase these shades of fleece.
The sheep practice transhumance in the mountain pastures in summer and are raised in the open air as much as possible. In order to help breeders generalise the best possible breeding practices, we systematically favour certified farms by committing ourselves to buying all the quantities available. The number of certified farms currently allows us to offer organic Merino d'Arles wool for our combed yarns and 50% for our carded yarns.
To preserve the natural qualities of this wool, after it has been carefully sorted and washed, it is cleaned by mechanical combing and not by carbonisation. A few strands of plant material may therefore remain, but the treatment is much gentler on the fibres and less energy consuming.
The wool does not undergo any bleaching or superwash treatment. Our range of carded yarns includes four natural colours created without dyeing from the blend of raw and brown wool. After spinning, these yarns are simply washed with a non-silicone biodegradable soap which gives them a slightly rougher appearance than traditional industrial yarns, but their softness then increases with each wash (rather than decreasing as the finish wears off...).
The yarns in our carded range (Ulysses, Gilliatt and Cyrano) are spun and dyed in France in the Creuse. Our worsted yarns (Albertine and Pénélope) are spun in Italy by a small spinning mill near Biella, as no spinning mill in France is currently equipped to produce such fine worsted yarns.
For dyed colours we try to make the most of the natural colours of the wool and use dyes sparingly. The dyes currently used in our yarns all comply with the European REACH standard, which is one of the most restrictive in the world, and the dyeing unit that carries out our production has its own phyto-treatment plant which ensures that the water discharged does not contain any harmful substances.
We are currently working with the dyers to improve the formulation of our colours to make them as low impact as possible and we hope to see some progress on this long project.
EXPLORING THE BEAUTY OF THE RAINBOW
The first colours were created in a very artisanal way. At first we had only three natural colours "salt", "pepper and salt" and "pepper" and I imagined a small pattern that from very few coloured threads could highlight these natural colours.
I then dyed bright colours between my kitchen and my bathroom on the basis of the mottled colour "salt and pepper" to create a rainbow of skeins which I then hand-piled into small hanks. This "rainbow" cardigan became a bit of a mascot for the brand and I had to quickly find a solution to meet the demand for colours :). I then asked the mill to reproduce these colours on a larger scale. At the time, the idea of dyeing on a mottled base and thus considerably muffling the colours seemed very strange but it was precisely this mottled aspect (without having to produce a large quantity of wool as for yarns dyed in flock) that interested me.
The first colours were therefore those of a very happy rainbow! I then tried to develop, on the same principle, softer colours that would match each other to create harmonious stripes and colorwork.
Our production has well grown since those early days and the new colours in our woolen range are now created by dyed in fleece blends which allow us to create deep and subtle colours from a number of shades whilst limiting the amount of dyeing required for colours made from a mixture of dyed wool and natural wool. For example, "ébène (ebony)" is an off-black made from 80% black dyed wool and 20% natural brown wool, thus avoiding 20% of the dyeing required for a traditional black colour.
The development of colours is a bit of a background task for me, a permanent quest that feeds on all the moments of life: a piece of fabric, wilting flowers, the crust of bread, a peach sorbet, a photo in a magazine. I fill little notebooks with ideas for associations and when it's time to submit my ideas to the dyer, I spend long hours looking through my big Pantone binders for colours to combine to recreate that fleeting feeling or emotion. It's sometimes quite frustrating because the colour I'm looking for usually falls between two shades, but when, after a lot of trial and error, a new colour is found, it's a great satisfaction.
For the dyed in fleece colours, I first test each of the colours that will make up the final colour and then the proportions of each to achieve the desired result.
This process allows me to create families of colours that share a common hue and therefore resonate particularly well with each other. For example, we find the same turquoise hue between "ciel (sky)", "lagon (lagoon)", "plume (feather)" and "nuit (night)" and a little of the mauve of "aster" and the fuchsia of "confiture de rose (rose jam)" in the "bruyère (heather)" colour.
AND A TOUCH OF LUCRECE ...
"I wanted to expose this doctrine to you / in a song with the sweet accent of the Muses, / and to put on it the sweetness of their honey, / in the hope that our verses will know, by this means, / how to hold your mind while you perceive / things in their totality, / and penetrate you well of their utility."
Lucretius, De rerum natura
In the Lucretian view, everything in nature is part of a whole and nothing comes from nothing or disappears. When I sought to understand where the yarn I was knitting came from and what impact it had on the world, I realized that, as Lucretius invited us to do, I was seeking to perceive this yarn as "a thing of nature" and not as a product, anonymous, inert and falsely inconsequential.
By taking an interest in the life of sheep, in the specificities of their wool, in the know-how and the reality of the daily life of the breeders, in the complex stages of the work of the wool from the raw material to the yarn and then to the work of creating colours, patterns, to the hands of the knitter, I had the impression of being able to recreate a link of harmony between human beings and these marvels of nature that are the wool of the sheep or the fibres such as the linen that we can knit. Yarns that would be "things of nature" and that would invite us to question the "nature of things" that surround us.