RAM HORN, POTATO SACKS, AND CHICKEN FEET

Sigrun Bjork Olafsdottir tells us about the materials she uses in her collection – some of which may surprise you.

Perhaps it is because my bedtime stories as a child weren’t always fairy tales with happy endings that I design the way I do. Instead they were stories of trolls, elves, Vikings, Valkyries, gods and goddesses, and monsters! Often the stories didn’t have happy endings but they were very much a reflection on the history, culture and nature of the land I was born in and so I learned that there is life and then there is death and that there can be beauty in both. Both are children of nature.  

When I started designing, I found myself questioning fabrics and materials. Up until then, I always just assumed that materials such as cotton were sustainable natural products that didn’t impact much on the environment. Since then I have had to re-think and re-adjust my thinking. Learning about fast fashion and deciding if that is a market I want to tap into was a challenge in itself. The original dream of having a collection picked by a big high street fashion house suddenly doesn’t appeal so much anymore. Instead, the idea of designing on a smaller scale but more intimately has taken root so my ambition today isn’t a flagship store in all the greatest fashion cities of the world, nor is it to have a collection picked by a high street store. Today, my ambition as a designer is to manufacture responsibly and in limited numbers for a small and patient market – clothes that are truly timeless.   

I started to reach out to individual tanners and farmers in the Nordic countries and started learning about what they were doing. Most of them are constantly looking to reduce waste and are looking to use as much as possible from the animals that are farmed or caught for food. As a result of that, many have returned to old methods dating back to times where waste was pretty much unheard of. If you owned a horse, it was your vehicle until it died and once it died, you used every part of it that you could. The hide would be used for warmth, the tail hairs as threads, the meat was salted, dried and smoked, the bones were boiled for broth and then they were carved for various uses.

Fast forward to today and everything is about fast food, fast fashion, fast knowledge etc. Instant gratification has become the expected and in many highly developed countries, children have no understanding of where things come from or how they are made. We stop caring for things because they are disposable.

Some people really struggle with my designs because they sometimes involve various animal produce and I agree with them to the extent that an animal should never be farmed for the sole reason to be turned into a coat. It matters greatly what kind of life an animal has and if an animal is to be killed for a purpose then that should be as cruelty free as possible, but we should then also make sure that as much as possible of that animal is used. No animal should be killed so we can use its beak and throw away the rest. What a waste of life! Animals do die – every living thing does. What matters is how they are treated when they are alive and how we dispose of them. When questioning who I am and what I stand for as a designer, I stand for organic, natural, no-waste and cruelty-free materials in my designs. Those are my guidelines. It is not always possible to be 100% sure if a material fulfills those guidelines but I always aim for them and am always looking for new suppliers that tick the boxes.

There is so much hypocrisy in the fast society we live in – I have seen protesters line streets screaming murder at people wearing animal products and those same people will be dressed from top to toe in polyester. The fur they are often so passionate about is a material that nature made and nature will decompose of – with little to no impact on the environment. It does leave the question of cruelty and certainly nobody should ever buy from unethical sources such as furfarms – it does however not just automatically apply – not all furs are equal.  Many are obtained through sources such as individual tanners who buy hides from hunters who hunt either for food or culling and then we have many who buy hides from slaughterhouses (food byproducts), and some use roadkill etc. The polyester they are wearing cost the environment dearly to make and will take up to 200 years for nature to dispose of. Not only that but the actual dye used to print and colour polyester is toxic to humans – so they are also poisoning themselves. People need to get a grip. We need to start by slowing down! Stop throwing things away. Buy responsibly and for us designers, we need to source responsibly.   

In my designs for my last collection I used materials that were sourced from various places, amongst them insects, feathers, fish leathers, ostrich leather, ram horn buttons, animal bones, horse hairs, nuts, vegetable fibres (potato sacks!), wool, sea shells, linen, organic cotton and silk. I also used a washed-up fisherman’s net and some old designs were recycled and given a new lease of life. Recently, I have obtained entire horse tails that have been tanned, chicken feet leather, skeletal bone buttons and more and I’m super excited to explore those. I will also be visiting my favourite tanner in Iceland and hunter in Denmark soon and am super excited to see what they are doing and preserving.

It was quite interesting to have to ask a model if she was allergic to nuts because the item she was wearing contained nuts! I was looked at as if I had just arrived from outer space.   

I tried to create a tiara from the skeletal remains of a salmon but as it dried, it became extremely brittle and unusable. I’ll need a larger skeleton to succeed in this creation. This is one of the downsides to creating items from natural produce, they don’t always last very long as the oxygen decomposes them. Some of the (roadkill) bird feathers I used to make headpieces a couple of years ago can no longer be used as the feathers have become barren.   

For one headpiece I made earlier this year, I had obtained 50 dead butterflies and moths and I had to learn to relax and mount them before I was able to apply them. They are such delicate creatures that the smallest mistake will destroy it. I just about managed to use the piece for two photo shoots before they had all decomposed and returned to earth in the form of dust. I like to think that by capturing the essence of their beauty before they returned to dust, they became immortalised in a way. I should add that those butterflies died from natural causes.   

What is ahead – well, I’m visiting Denmark, Scotland, Iceland, Norway and Yorkshire in the coming year and I will be searching for unique natural materials there. I have quite a fetish for wool at the moment but let’s see where this journey goes.

You can see more of Sigrun’s collections and follow her journey through its next stages at sigrun.co.uk. Photography by James Alexander Lyon

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