Now Reading
Mended, Knitted, and Loved: How Collingwood-Norris Creates Vibrant, Eco-Conscious Clothing

Mended, Knitted, and Loved: How Collingwood-Norris Creates Vibrant, Eco-Conscious Clothing

Flora Collingwood-Norris is the talented woman behind Collingwood-Norris design studio — an ethical knitwear brand based in the Scottish countryside. When she first started out in 2016, her mind was brimming with ideas ranging from responsible wool sourcing, collection planning, and local manufacturing. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that she also started to incorporate mending as a service that her brand provided.

Now, a few years later, Flora has inspired many others to embrace those pesky moth-holes and turn them into treasured features. From playful embroidery to plaid blocks or rainbow-like blends of color, her approach to mending is sure to bring people joy. But even more wonderful is that she’s happy to share her knowledge and experiencence in her newly released book, “Visible Creative Mending for Knitwear.” Congratulations, Flora!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity in collaboration with Flora Collingwood-Norris. Although Kinship + Craft typically employs American English, Flora’s answers remain in British English out of respect for her writing style. Therefore, readers may find differences including color and colour, or sweater and jumper, which we left in intentionally.

Flora Collingwood-Norris in her studio wearing one of her first mended sweaters while working on another. | Photograph by J. Borghino.

A wonderful mix of influences

K+C — Hello Flora, it’s nice to meet you virtually! Would you mind telling us a little about yourself and what you do?

Lovely to meet you too! 

I’m a knitwear designer, maker and visible mender based in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. I’ve always been interested in textiles, and after doing a foundation art course at Leith School of Art in Edinburgh, I went on to study Design for Textiles at Heriot-Watt University, where I specialised in knit. I love that with knitwear you can create texture, and shape at the same time, and make pieces with little or no waste. 

Five years ago I started Collingwood-Norris, after working freelance for a wide range of clients after I graduated in 2009. I work from a small home studio, where I have an old industrial V-bed knitting machine that I create most of my work on. I also have a few domestic knitting machines, a couple of linkers (used to join seams and finish edges), and two tables to lay work out on. It’s a bit of a squeeze, as I’m on the top floor with sloping ceilings. However, that also means I have lots of light, and I love it here. My studio is definitely my happy place. 

A few years ago I started exploring visible mending and just fell in love with it. It’s a reason to combine all the skills I enjoy- knitwear, embroidery, sometimes crochet in one, while creating unique designs and making something whole again. This year I’ve spent a lot of my time creating a book “Visible Creative Mending for Knitwear” which I’ve self-published, to share my skills and inspire others to look after their knitwear for longer. 

Flora in her home studio working with one of her knitwear machines. | Photograph by Susan Castillo.
K+C — And your mom originally taught you to knit, right?

Yeah, so my mum started me off when I was about 6. I also went to a Rudolf Steiner school to start my schooling, and they placed quite a lot of emphasis on crafts and handwork, so I also learnt to knit at school.

Then, I also remember my mum teaching me cross-stitch, which we did at school, as well. So, it was a mixture between the two. My mum has always been encouraging of my interest in textiles, and especially in colour which she has a great eye for.

Moreover, one of my grannies was really into sewing. So, when we visited her, I would do some more sewing and embroidery with her. I really just loved exploring different craft skills, so that’s how I spent most of my free time in my childhood and teens — just teaching myself different stitches and different techniques. I also loved making my own clothes or customizing second-hand clothes for myself. 

K+C — Oh wow, cool! That sounds like a wonderful mix of introductions.

Yeah, it was great. I left the [Steiner] school in class five, but it was really good. I think for me, it was the perfect base. I started with all these really great hand skills (we also did pottery, some woodwork, lots of painting and drawing), and the rest is sort of what you make of it, isn’t it? 

The beginnings of Collingwood-Norris

K+C —  That sounds very idyllic for children! So you now live in Scotland, which plays a big part in the manufacturing side of your studio. Can you tell us a little about that?

For me, it’s always been important to be as ethical and sustainable as I can be. While I’m far from perfect, I think being as local as possible — well, certainly with my manufacture and sourcing — that’s a big part of what matters to me. For the designs that I outsource to a manufacturer, I use a mill that’s only half an hour away. The Scottish Borders has a long history of knitwear and textile manufacturing, so I love being part of that. 

Yair Scarf by Collingwood-Norris. | Photograph by Rose+Julien Ltd.

For me, it’s always been important to be as ethical and sustainable as I can be.

Flora’s dog Leni seen in the Scottish landscape. | Photograph by Rose+Julien Ltd.
K+C — Where did that initially start, and what is the driving force behind that?

Well, I think, I first started learning about the issues in the fashion industry when I was in university. Through my own research for projects, I became quite interested in that, and well — fashion’s got so many issues, hasn’t it? From labor and materials, and dying and end waste, and I really don’t want to contribute to the negative sides of it. 

K+C — Yeah! (both laughing) 

So I’d been researching sustainability at university and in my free time, and I became interested in it —certainly the human impact that fashion can have. Whether that was really horrible stories of harmful pesticides being used on cotton that impact the people living near it; or about the amount of debt that farmers get into to buy pesticides for their Monsanto genetically engineered cotton in India and the suicide rates of farmers there.

Then there’s the cheap labour and unethical working conditions that fast fashion is manufactured in, I just didn’t want to contribute to that. So, I was very lucky that I found an internship at People Tree when I graduated. They are are fair trade, and the job description basically written for me. [It said something like:] “You have to have an interest in fair trade fashion and knitting,” and that was perfect. And while doing that job, I worked with and visited their producers in Nepal, where their knitwear is handmade, which was really interesting. 

K+C — Mhmm. 

So, I was aware when I started my own business that outsourcing my manufacturing would be an option, and I could have my designs fairly made somewhere else. However, that’s just so much harder to keep an eye on. I was starting my business without huge funds behind me, and I knew it would be tough financially to visit producers somewhere like Nepal even once a year— let alone a twice-annual trip, which would be necessary to ensure good standards and conditions. 

As a result, it’s had an impact on what I can produce for my business. Because I have an interest in hand knits and crochet, I would in theory have had much more elaborate designs that would feature those skills. Nevertheless, that would involve outsourcing to another country. And, I mean, there is a cottage industry in the UK, but it sort of involves paying old ladies about 2 pounds an hour. I just don’t think that’s ok — even if they enjoy doing it. 

K+C — Of course. 

It’s just not something I’m willing to get into. So that means I’ve had to design around what I’ve been able to produce here, myself, and with local mills.

K+C — Of course. You’ve mentioned that you make nearly all of your knitwear. You have it dyed somewhere that has a GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification, and that you also send it out to local manufacturers.

Yeah, I work with one of the local factories here to produce some of my designs, and I use yarn from a spinner about an hour and a half away.  I try to source everything as local as possible. The only issue that I have is that we don’t grow wool that’s fine enough, quality wise, in the UK. The fibre I use comes from South Africa at the moment (as they are mulesing-free), and it will start switching to Australia, as they become Responsible Wool Standard certified. The spinners I work with, take responsible sourcing seriously, and make sure their dyes don’t impact the environment around them. I did a placement with them while at university, so I love being able to picture exactly where it’s being spun.

Shiel Silk Scarf and Eildon Jumper by Collingwood-Norris. | Photograph by Rose+Julien Ltd.
Berneray Scarf by Collingwood-Norris. | Photograph by Rose+Julien Ltd.
Storm Jumper and Mist Block Scarf by Collingwood-Norris. | Photograph by Rose+Julien Ltd.
K+C — Right, and the specific sheep needed for that, they have to be suitable for the climate, as well. 

Yeah, so in the UK, we generally grow a much coarser fiber. For me, I made a choice not to use cashmere — which I also enjoy using — because it’s slightly less sustainable. Partly, it has to do with the way the goats eat. Their hooves chop up the land and they rip up the grass, rather than munching it. This means you potentially end up with more desertification with goats. In contrast, sheep are slightly more sustainable. 

K+C — I didn’t know that. That is really fascinating.

Yeah. But, you know, I like cashmere in that you can wear it next to the skin. So, for me, my wool choice has to be nice enough to wear next to the skin. So that’s the compromise — I could use British wool, but it would be itchier and scratchier, and I want to create a product that feels fantastic. 

A new skill to offer

Zero-Waste Lavender Bags by Collingwood-Norris. Lavender is one of many natural moth deterrents, so they are great to store with clothes. These have been made from scarves that fell off Flora’s knitting machine. “I can never bear to throw anything out, and I’ve been saving these pieces from days that didn’t go to plan ever since I started Collingwood-Norris. Thankfully, these days it happens much more rarely.” | Photograph courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.
K+C — Of course. So, where did the decision come in to include mending in your studio? That’s another level of involvement with sustainability, too. 

Well, it’s kind of one of those things, you know? I was self-employed for so long — working freelance — and there were some businesses where I was directly feeding into fast fashion. For example, companies like H&M would buy my designs. Then, there were some that were very much local and sustainable, which is obviously my preference. So, it gave me a lot of time to think about what I would want for my own business. 

When I look back at my initial plans for what Collingwood Norris was going to be, I was really trying to think of how to make garments last, and what aftercare services I could have to extend the life of my designs. One of those was repair, and maybe over-dying to update pieces. I had all of these plans for how I could keep these garments lasting longer. 

For me, aftercare and the end life of the garment are as equally important really as the beginning stage of it. I don’t think you can ever really call yourself a sustainable designer if you’re not considering the end-stage. It just took me a while to find my feet with mending because when I was initially planning, I don’t think I’d started doing any repairs. It wasn’t really a skill set that I thought I had. 

K+C — Oh no?

Yeah, it took me a while to find my way into repairs. I initially thought that they had to be invisible, and that’s not a skill that I’m trained to do. Well, I can do a relatively discreet mend, or a fairly invisible mend, but it’s not perfectly invisible like the mills here would do. But then I got a puppy and she had a taste for sleeves. I would bend down and she would grab onto my sleeve, and I had ripped jumpers everywhere. So, I started getting interested in mending. And,  I think I’ve been following Celia Pym‘s work for years, possibly since I graduated actually.

Then, I found Tom of Holland’s work, as well. So there were interesting menders going on. 

I’ve always loved embroidery, so it just made sense to me. If I was going to make the mend into a feature, I could add embroidery and turn it into a flower or get creative with it. So, that’s where I started really enjoying it! Plus, it fitted my skill sets, and just fell into place. 

I started posting about my mends on Instagram and getting requests, so it became a part of my business — that just fit. It happened naturally. 

A visible mend on an old woolen sweater that uses joyful splashes of colored thread to get the job done. | Photograph courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.

For me, aftercare and the end life of the garment are as equally important really as the beginning stage of it. I don’t think you can ever really call yourself a sustainable designer if you’re not considering the end stage.

A darning sampler from Flora’s new book Visible Creative Mending for Knitwear. | Photograph by J. Borghino.
K+C — Oh, fantastic! So it was really a very organic process that just naturally fell into place.

Yeah! It’s great, I think. It fits with my original aims for having aftercare and, actually, it doesn’t matter that I’m not repairing my products. I’m repairing other people’s products, but it’s just a nice service to offer. I really enjoy it because each hole is different, so it’s a constantly new challenge.

K+C — Absolutely. I can see how each one would be different and that you could get playful with how to approach it. So, how do you typically start? I mean, most of them probably need a different solution depending on what they are.

Yeah, the way I approach it really depends on the piece. I’m often mending for other people, so it depends on my client a lot of the time.  Some of my clients already have ideas for what they want. A few of them have seen particular mends of mine and want something along those lines. Other people have very definite ideas about color.

Most of them give me quite a free rein. I will come up with a color palette for them and they can either say yes or no, or that they don’t like that pink, or whatever. Normally, we’ve discussed colors that they particularly don’t like or do like before I choose, and then I generally do whatever style or pattern I feel like. 

K+C — Okay.

It sometimes depends on where the area of damage is, too. So, for underarm mends I tend to them keep quite discreet, rather than colorful. I generally don’t think that that’s an area you particularly want to draw attention to.

K+C — Yeah. (laughing)

And it depends on how much strain that the area will have, as well. So, things like elbows will experience more strain than just a hole somewhere on the front because people lean on them and there’s more movement there. Those are the considerations I have when I approach the mends. But, yeah, it always starts with color. I normally choose that first and then work out what I want to do from there. 

An example of a discreet underarm mend in a sweater. | Photograph courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris from her account @visible_creative_mending.
One of Flora’s mends, featuring both embroidery and more discreet blocks of color. | Photograph courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris from her account @visible_creative_mending.
K+C — Okay. So it starts off quite collaboratively with the person — with you asking if they want the mend to be visible? Or, if they want it to be more discreet?

Well, I assume it will be visible mending with all of my customers. I don’t offer an invisible service, so it’s always going to be visible. I just assume, if it’s an underarm hole, they don’t want a bright pink mend when it’s a navy jumper. (laughing)

K+C — Right. That’s understandable!

So there is a discussion, but I still feel like I’ve got creative control over it at the end of the day. 

K+C — And you said that it has kind of worked its way in organically. How long has that been going on now?

I think I launched the mending service in 2019. But, I perhaps started offering workshops in late 2017?

K+C — Okay.

Maybe it was 2018. I can never quite remember. It must have started a bit earlier, but it has gradually built up from there. 

The art of wearing many hats…

K+C — Okay and if you don’t mind me asking, too — what is your time split? And, have you also seen an increase of interest in mending services as an addition to your design practice, too?

Do you mean what’s the split in time from sort of knitwear to mending in my business? 

K+C — Yes, exactly. 

It’s hard to guess at the moment. I mean, I’ve not actually had time to do many commissions this year, but that’s partly because I’ve been doing mending kits, and working on my book — those have taken up a lot of my time. But, mending has been gradually growing and is now a much bigger part of my business. Maybe it’s 50-50? Whereas, it would have been, sort of 90-10 knitwear to mending two years ago. 

K+C — Wow, that’s a big jump.

It’s definitely a big split, but it’s nice because my business is so seasonal as knitwear is really a winter thing. The mending means that I can now take on more commissions during the summer. I just have to work around my seasonal business and know that. In the winter it’s much harder to fit the mending in. It’s something I’m still working out. 

Basically, it’s still quite new. It’s always interesting how your business evolves. It’s not necessarily how you expect. I’m never quite sure,  but as I’m a one-woman business, I do whatever has to be done on a day. I can’t allocate my time specifically to mending or knitwear. I’m juggling everything at the same time.

K+C — Absolutely. I definitely understand that. If there’s any one day that looks exactly the same then something is off or getting neglected. 

Yeah, or you’ve forgotten it or something! But there are always certain things that get neglected, aren’t there?

K+C — Yeah, exactly. Okay, so is your primary mending period actually in the summer months then? After everybody’s gone through the winter season, worn their sweaters, and discovered they’ve got a hole?

I mean, it’s the time where I want to be doing mending. I’m aware that people want mending in the winter because everything is still very knitwear season-based. However, I think the summer is the perfect time for people to actually take care of their knitwear. If you’re someone who puts your winter woolens away, then summer is the time to make sure it’s clean, moth free and stored properly. That way, in the winter, you don’t take it out and find holes. There’s nothing sadder than wanting to wear your favorite jumper and finding it’s covered in moth holes. So, I think, summer — even if people aren’t really interested in warm layers — it’s the time to make sure they’re ready for winter.

K+C — Do you also do any guides on how to best store items?

I have that as part of my book and in a blog post. For example, I have a range of blogs that will cover avoiding moths and other related topics. Storage isn’t complicated, but it’s covered in them, too. 

The first Collingwood-Norris book on mending!

The front cover of Flora’s new book Visible Creative Mending for Knitwear. | Photograph by Susan Castillo.
K+C — Oh, great! And I suppose those are also covered in your new book, too, which is out now! Could you tell us about what people can expect in the book?

I have tried to pack the book full of clear, step-by-step instructions for all the repair techniques I use, with corresponding images. This includes darning, swiss darning, scotch darning, embroidery, repairing cuffs and edges, and adding patterns into darning. I’ve also included chapters on materials and equipment, understanding knitted fabric and what to look out for, as well as a chapter on design for those wanting to be more creative, and one on how to care for your knitwear. There are plenty of examples, and five case studies, showing particularly challenging projects of mine from start to finish. I know bigger holes can seem scary, so I’ve tried to explain my approach in the hope of making them less daunting for others. 

K+C — Plus, you’re self-publishing the book! Could you tell us what motivated that decision?

I wanted to create new and exciting content that people haven’t seen before, and self-publishing felt like the best way to have complete control over the content and look of the book. I had been approached by a few different publishers, but their deals didn’t appeal to me as much as having autonomy over the book. 

K+C — It’s so wonderful that you said, “No, no, I’m gonna I’m gonna go ahead and do this on my own,” especially when the deals didn’t feel appropriate. 

Well, as someone who’s made their business out of not exploiting other people’s skills, I’m not ready to have the skills I’ve spent my life developing be under someone else’s control. I’ve worked for so many companies where I either haven’t been paid or haven’t been paid well for my skill and my design time, that I didn’t want to risk feeling exploited. 

K+C — Absolutely. 

If we’re to bring back these skills in a way that’s meaningful, I think they have to be valued.  And while we do want everybody to have these skills I think, if they’re always free or very close to being free, that doesn’t place any value on them. They still stay as a sort of domestic women’s work — something that isn’t considered really very important — and I think mending should be seen as really important!

K+C — These skills are absolutely valuable and that’s what I love about the idea of publishing a book about it because we’ve kind of lost the skills. [They’re] tragically dying off because many of our grandparents are no longer here and they’re the ones who primarily had these skills.

Absolutely, and we changed culture, didn’t we?  Clothing was something we spent more money on in the past, but we bought less of it and we had to look after it. Now we have fast fashion. You can buy something cool to wear for practically nothing, and only wear it a few times, if that. I still find it bizarre that anyone would just wear something once, but there is that pressure of not being seen in the same thing. It has been a sign of poverty to repair clothing. 

Flora working in her studio. | Photograph by Susan Castillo.
K+C — Right. The difference of what living in abundance actually looks like — that definition has changed. 

Yeah, but I think it’s so interesting that, now, if we can make mending a visible thing, and make it look good, the sustainable side of that becomes so much more interesting and healing. We need to value it. If we’re to build back a greener, fairer society, we need jobs that are paid properly, doing things like repair. It shouldn’t be something that’s always delegated to a minimum wage position, which is generally what craft skills are — if you even earn that. A lot of the time, it’s piece work — for example, hand knitting a jumper and you get 30 pounds a jumper or something. That’s insane! 

K+C — Agreed. 

So, I don’t think we can build back a fair, green society if repair is something that’s a minimum-wage craft job. That’s my personal opinion. It frustrates me that these skills are always seen as a kind of drudge work!

K+C — Absolutely. And you’re based in the UK, which heralds itself as a craft destination. I become even more concerned about what’s happening in places where handcraft not more appreciated.

Yeah, well I have hope that the rise of the craft movement and the interest in mending will have an impact. You know, people can’t spend hours and hours repairing something or making themselves a dress to then not put in the mental arithmetic for how much their fast fashion t-shirt costs, or even something from a mid-range kind of high street store. Maybe there’s a lack of understanding of what markups generally are within fashion, but most people must be aware that there’s a markup happening, which means the cost of those pieces is so low that there’s no way anyone is earning a proper wage to make them. It just doesn’t add up.

K+C — Yeah, absolutely, especially when you get into women’s in clothing.

Yeah, that’s crazy! So, I hope that while people start mending, that they make these connections and they do a little bit of maths. I just always think — how much would people want to be paid? People would at least want to be paid minimum wage to do this. And, in fact, once they’ve spent a whole day making something they’d probably want more than minimum wage for it. Hopefully, then, people start to think: “I shouldn’t expect someone else to make it for less than their living wage.” I hope there are more people talking about it because that’s a big part of it, as well, isn’t it? You can’t make these connections by yourself and not share them.

K+C — I couldn’t agree more! Well, thank you so much, Flora. It was lovely speaking with you!
Eildon Scarf by Collingwood-Norris. | Photograph by Rose+Julien Ltd.

Interested in another sustainability-driven textile designer?
Click here or here for features on Indian textile designer Kamala Murali of Kambli Studio.
Scroll To Top