STITCHED is an audio series in which we delve into Europe’s booming fashion landscape. We talk with brands, manufacturers, and experts about everything made in Europe.
In our first episode, we pay a visit to the headquarters of Devold of Norway, a legacy of wool since 1853. The proud Norwegian brand is known for its ethical knits – locally production in Italy, as well as its owned knitting factory in Lithuania. We spoke with Maria Flakk, Brand Director and board member of Devold, and Creative Director and founder of sister brand O.A.D. We delve into Italian patternmakers, making coarse wool comfy, and what it’s like to lead a knitwear heritage. Let’s continue this thread.
Maria Flakk: When do you want me to start, 1853?
Roos: Maybe just the short version of how you got here.
MF: It started in 1853 with Ole Andreas Devold in Sunnmøre, a region with lots of rough weather, lots of fishermen. My family bought Devold in the eighties. I’m fourth generation. And for the last thirty years we’ve been building that brand. It’s now doing really well, but in the beginning, it was difficult to communicate our heritage properly. It was more about performance and sports and not necessarily about the intricacies of wool and knitting techniques.
That is where O.A.D came in. Devold’s little sister is coming out a little bit more fashionable. It’s a step that we’ve been thinking about with the family for about 10 years now. And we finally launched last year with a full Fall/Winter 2023 collection. The last few years, I’ve been heading up their product and marketing department. Many of the styles are rooted in that same history and heritage and have the same patterns as we have in the Devold collection.
R: I’d like to understand your production process a bit better.
MF: We moved production from Norway out to Lithuania in the nineties. We built our own mill and today we have almost 400 people working there, and a big team here. We source our wool directly from farms in New Zealand – the best merino wool in the world is from New Zealand and Australia. We used to source from more countries, but because of climate change, we’re not getting the micron that we need. We also work with a sheep to shop program. So, you can trace your sweater back to the farm where the wool came from. We cut out the middlemen and have direct relationships with our farmers. They ship to our factory in in Lithuania, where we spin the wool and knit it – that is for Devold.
For O.A.D we use Norwegian wool to knit big sweaters. To make it a little bit softer and get all the fibers long and stretchy, we work with different washing techniques and treatments that are not harmful. We tried many softeners with our manufacturers and the problem is that either the customer washes it out again, or it is not sustainable. We don’t want to use chlorine or use something like a nylon coating since nylon is not a natural fiber and it would destroy our story. O.A.D is more than just a brand. It’s also a project for us to explore what is possible within sustainable textile production. Can we educate on what to do, what not to do, how to take care of these products, how to make them last for generations?
R: Many of your customers have Devold pieces from their parents and grandparents hanging in their closets. Why do they last so long?
MF: It’s in the quality of the wool, but also how it’s produced including craftsmanship and finishes. You can have great fibers, but if it’s not put together well, it’ll still go apart. Sure, you can buy incredible new machinery and so much is happening in today’s industry, but you still need the people skills to understand these machines and how to work with them properly.
Older people in our factories have it in their fingers in a way that is very hard to teach. We’ve bought old machines back from the thirties and forties for their outstanding performance. They don’t make these machines anymore because they’re time consuming which makes it much more expensive. Some luxury brands could set whatever price they want, but it makes it harder for people to buy these products. That kind of sustainability thinking doesn’t really work for us, because then it’s just for a few.
R: Can you tell us more about your Italian pattern designer Olmes Carretti?
MF: He started working with the company over 30 years ago and made many of our bestseller patterns. He is a proper expert in wool and knitting techniques and much more than a designer if you ask him: he wants to communicate the soul and the spirit of a place or a story in a product. For instance, once I was showing him an old photo of a sweater that I thought was inspiring, but he said no since it had a Russian pattern and it needed to be Nordic. Every time I visit Olmes’ studio, he gives me something from his archives. He’s very important to us and the company.
R: You mentioned that wool as a raw material product is changing.
MF: Our relationship to sheep has evolved over thousands of years but looking at the latest gene modifications we started to use as humans, there’s no going back: merino sheep must be sheered nowadays, or they will just produce more and more wool. There is a famous story from Australia where a sheep got lost and when it was found three years later, it looked like a cloud. It had so many kilos of wool on him, which was probably terribly sore and painful. These sheep have been bred to produce well, so it doesn’t stop by itself.
Can we breed in a way that will contribute to them losing their wool naturally. How can we reverse the damage? How can we make the process more sustainable for the sheep, and eventually for the industry? It is interesting to see things moving in that space.
R: Both Devold and O.A.D are part of the nearshoring trend. What are the benefits of having your factories located in Italy and Lithuania?
MF: I don’t think it’s right to assume that just because something is produced in, for example, Bangladesh, it’s inherently bad. But Asian countries do have a bad reputation for a reason, and I think the main problem is that you’re not close enough to be able to see what’s happening. We chose to be in Europe so that we could have a close relationship with everybody. Our suppliers really want to help. They’re quite small producers, mostly families, and they get invested in this as well. They tell us: we were working on this for so long, and it’s starting to look amazing. They know the best yarn suppliers and help us connect. And when Olmes works for us, he needs to touch, and he needs to tell in person what the product needs. It doesn’t work over a Zoom call.
R: Devold and O.A.D take pride in their Norwegian heritage.
MF: Next to Denmark and Sweden, we were we were always the youngest sibling. We were dirt poor and never had an upper class like them. The only industry that we had was, fishing, because only 3% of Norway’s land was farmable. So, our people would travel up and down the coast to live from fishing. They would be gone for months and have one, maybe two pairs of clothing with them. We’re talking about longevity. Some of Devold’s first pieces were knitted so tightly that they would be almost wind and waterproof. We had to live with nature and its seasons. We needed clothing to protect us from that and back then, wool was the only thing they could use.
Every Norwegian has grown up with wool. You wear it close to the skin and it is the first thing we put on a baby. Everyone knows how good it is and that it’s superior to synthetics: it breaths, it doesn’t smell, it regulates body temperature, it’s natural, sustainable. Wool has been part of what we do for so long. I love my history and I love my wool.