“It’s our connection to clothing, and the relationship we have with our pieces in the wardrobe, which brings such value to our lives,” says Oubas founder Kate Stalker. “To love your clothes and want them to last, and for them to do that with you in life, is a wonderful thing.”
Founded by Kate in 2012, the knitwear brand works exclusively with British artisans and ethically sourced materials from leading woollen mills and spinners, crafting timeless pieces that transcend the seasons. “I guess the inspiration for Oubas came from an amalgamation of my childhood growing up in the Lake District,” Kate tells me, “and an appreciation for the old industry found beneath the idyllic landscapes so often seen in quintessential landscape photography of the area. It’s such a working landscape, and I was inspired thinking back to how locally textiles were processed here once upon a time.”
Kate has always had a fascination in textiles and clothing, believing that what we adorn ourselves with is a reflection on who we are, and what we choose to have close to our skin. Prior to setting up her brand she honed her knowledge of knitwear and textiles at the Winchester School of Art in 2009. “I was immersed in learning and reading about the industry now, and became aware of the way many of our traditional knitwear mills had closed as globalisation took hold, and companies outsourced production abroad,” she says. “I guess I’m a romantic at heart but I wanted to use the practical skills I developed in knitwear through my years in Winchester, and work to support UK artisans as my brand grows.”
Much of her motivation stems from a frustration with the effect the fashion industry has had on society and an unease at the effect mass production was having on the environment. “It’s a really complex industry but I wanted my effect to be as positive as it can. A lot of the passion and drive for what I do now comes from a desire to work against the poverty and injustice within the industry and the more disposable side of fashion,” she tells me.
I love knitwear as you’re designing with the yarn and the way fabrics will drape, as well as the way that the structure of a stitch affects it. There are endless possibilities!
For Kate, it’s all about relationships and a pride in working with good materials. Each Oubas piece begins life in her Cumbrian workshop, where she employs traditional hand-flat knitting machines, and some items are then crafted locally or produced in small-batch specialist knitwear mills in Scotland and England. “I can travel easily to our mills and always love catching up with the technicians and hand finishers who work there,” she tells me. “Being able to build these relationships over the past few years has enabled us to grow and develop the quality of our pieces.”
She tells me that she was initially drawn to knitwear design as the process is rooted in mathematical and technical detail. “You’re working to design the structure of a fabric, and also the overall silhouette and shape of a garment,” she says. “I love it as you’re designing with the yarn and the way fabrics will drape, as well as the way that the structure of a stitch affects it. There are endless possibilities, particularly now within CAD (Computer Aided Design) which is really exciting.”
Kate has a deep appreciation for her materials and is careful to ensure transparency and honesty throughout her whole production chain, from the raw fleece, to the sorting, carding, dyeing, and eventual spinning of their wool. Oubas primarily use Merino Lambswool in their products, which is not only renewable and biodegradable, but also breathable, non-allergenic and a temperature regulator. “I love working with wool because it’s such an amazing fibre,” Kate tells me. “You can do so much with it in the way that it’s spun, whether it’s superfine lambswool and light, or a chunky heavier weight. And unlike synthetics, it’s amazing at regulating your body temperature. It’s also quite easy to care for when you know how.”
The nature of fully fashioned knitwear means that there is no waste once the garment is knit; it isn’t cut and sewn like woven clothing, with the offcuts having to be discarded or found a use for. The panels for garments are knit and shaped, so they come off the machine ready to be linked together. Kate places a real emphasis on the longevity of her garments and accessory pieces. “I have a really strong value placed on the natural world and the beauty found within it, so I look there a lot for inspiration in colour palettes, and details. I remember reading a book called ‘Eco Chic: The Fashion Paradox’ back in 2009, which spoke about the juxtaposition of green clothing being stylish too. It’s great having greener credentials, but the pieces you design have got to be wearable and flattering too. The idea of timeless style, simplicity in shape, and rich shades which will be adored by our customers has never changed and that’s made Oubas what it is today.”
The brand’s signature Brant wrap was the first piece Kate created when she started Oubas, using a stitch inspired by how clothing worn over the years shows a memory of time spent with their owner; stitched and patched, darned and repaired. It was the idea that those fabrics would have changed over time which led her to develop the stitch, which is formed by laddering through the fabric to open it up. The Brant wrap is knit in a fine lambswool yarn; woollen spun and very lofty and light. The yarns are usually melange, creating a beautiful rich depth of colour, as there are five or six different tones of wool and fleece spun together. “On a Winter’s day it is like a warm hug, and on a cool summer evening it can provide comforting warmth for the shoulders,” says Kate.
The past few months operating under the restrictions of the recent lockdown have naturally been challenging. “We usually go out in the Spring and Summer months at fairs and it’s always lovely getting out and connecting with customers and meeting other designers and makers,” Kate tells me. “We’ve lost that and the landscape for fairs and shows will change for the medium-term I’m sure. However I’m lucky that we have a workshop here in Cumbria, and have been able to continue with commissions more than usual, and connecting online now more than before. I’m really grateful for that.”
Kate feels the tide is changing towards ethical fashion and the movement has grown exponentially over the past few years. “I feel that people have become more aware through the pandemic of smaller brands and businesses,” she says, “and wanting to support them because they have realised how it affects someone local to them’s livelihood, unlike when shopping at a chain or a large department store. I ran a Scrub Hub early on in April, and the political side of the government’s supply chains within that have been highlighted in a fairly negative light. There are many, many brilliant manufacturers here in the UK, and I hope that this brings the focus back on to what we can make here.”
Long term she’s keen to increase her range offering and give her customers the option to choose the shade or yarn they would like specific pieces made in. She’s hoping to upgrade her machinery soon in order to be able to offer this type of bespoke service, and would also like to incorporate natural dyes in limited editions to her online store. “I’d like to continue being an advocate of quality, timeless knitwear, and to inspire others to follow in similar footsteps,” she says. “There is room for all creative minds and I’d love the local high street to be rich with them, whether it’s clothing, footwear, jewellery, millinery, pottery or furniture.”
All photography © Oubas, used with permission.