Interview with Solenn Couix-Loarer of De Rerum Natura
September of our year-long knit-along is sponsored by De Rerum Natura - hurrah! If you've been following Pom Pom for a while now, you'll know just how much we love De Rerum Natura yarn. It has always been a favourite of ours and featured in our publications as early as Issue 4 (vintage Pom!), and you can expect to see it in our forthcoming Issue 39, too!
We had the exciting chance to interview Solenn Couix-Loarer, De Rerum Natura's founder! Without further ado, let's hear from Solenn.
First of all, we'd love to know what inspired you to create De Rerum Natura!
Thank you to the Pom Pom team for this invitation, I am delighted to be able to exchange with you after all these beautiful collaborations!
I created De Rerum Natura almost 10 years ago as an answer to a need and a challenge.
After discovering the pleasure of knitting and being able to create clothes with consciousness and simplicity and without over-consumption, I realised that I knew almost nothing about the yarns that spent hours in my hands and that would 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 planet it came from, or in which country the yarn was then manufactured and therefore the standards of the dyes and chemical products 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, even if their authenticity touched me a lot, the roughness of the texture made them difficult to match with the soft skin of my little boys. I had also turned to knitting for the love of colours and I did not find pleasure in painting the world in the very basic range of colours generally proposed by country wools.
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 or close to the skin, which would have both the wild beauty of natural wools, and a palette of colours that would allow one to imagine a thousand variations. 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 De Rerum Natura became the answer to a series of questions that were nagging at me and to a great personal challenge.
Is it possible to create these yarns with the animal, human, and industrial resources we have on our old continent? Could these yarns 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 17th century, and the efforts of certain breeders to revalue the wonderful wool of the Arles Merinos breed. 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! Thanks to the support of the small community I had gathered on my blog at the time and to the friendship of creators like Nadia Crétin-Léchenne who shared the news, I fitted out a corner of the living room and Gilliatt and Pénélope took off :)
Your brand shares its name with a philosophical poem by Lucretius, a Roman poet! Did the poem inspire De Rerum Natura's name?
Yes, this poem is well at the origin of our name! 😊
It is a work I examined during my studies and which touched me a lot in its will to reach a better understanding of the world using the means of creation and beauty. Lucretius exposes the Epicurean doctrine in a long poem where the search for truth is combined with beauty to lead to good.
I wanted to set forth this doctrine to you / in a song with the sweet accent of the Muses, / and to lay upon it the sweetness of their honey, / in the hope that our verses may, by this means, / hold your mind while you perceive / things in their totality, / and penetrate well into their utility.
In the Lucretian view, each thing in nature is part of a whole and nothing comes from nothing or disappears. When I tried to understand where the yarn I was knitting came from and what impact it had on the world, I realised that, as Lucretius invited us to do, I was trying to perceive this yarn as 'a thing of nature' and not as a product, anonymous, inert, and falsely without consequence.
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 transforming the wool from the raw material to yarn, and then creating colours and patterns, to the yarn being in the knitter's hands, I had the impression of being able to recreate a link of harmony between crafters and the marvels of nature that are the wool of the sheep and the fibres such as the linen that we can knit with.
Yarns are "things of nature" as well as that which invite us to question the "nature of things" surrounding us.
It's no secret that Pom Pom adores De Rerum Natura yarn! We use it so often in our magazines and books, the most recent example being Skyward from Issue 38. One of the many things we love about your 100% wool yarn is its satisfyingly spongy texture. It's very unique, so can you speak to how you achieve this?
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 great shape memory which makes it ideal for 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 airy with an advantageous yardage since the wool takes up more space for the same weight.
To highlight the possibilities of this particular wool, I have chosen to develop a range of woollen spun yarns (Ulysse, Gilliatt and Cyrano) where it is blended with Portuguese brown Merinos to create a mottled palette and a range of more sophisticated worsted yarns. We use this wool with the addition of a bit of silk for Albertine (a fingering yarn) and Penelope (DK) to accentuate the softness and the drape.
The woollen spun method 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 and then twisted well to improve the strength and to give the yarn fullness. The more strands there are, the rounder the yarn will be, which is why Gilliatt, 3-plies twisted, and Cyrano, 5-plies twisted, bring out the twists and textured stitches particularly well.
You describe your yarns as 'natural', but can we hear more about what this means? In other words, can you tell us about the provenance of your yarn?
The initial plan was to use nature's resources and therefore our yarns do not contain synthetic fibres.
Our Mérinos d'Arles (white) wool comes from farms located in the South East of France near Arles for the most part, and the brown Merinos from the Alentejo valley in Portugal. Black Merinos are much rarer in France, which makes it difficult to use their wool, but we are hopeful that we will be able to showcase these shades of fleece in the future. The sheep practice transhumance in the mountain pastures in the summer and are raised most of the time outdoors. In order to help breeders generalise the best possible breeding practices, we systematically favour certified farms by committing ourselves to buying all available quantities. The number of certified farms currently allows us to offer organic Merinos d'Arles for all the wool used in our worsted spun yarns and for half of the wool used in our woollen spun range yarns.
To preserve the natural qualities of this wool, after being carefully sorted and washed, the cleaning is done by mechanical combing and not by carbonisation. A few strands of plant material may therefore remain, but the treatment is far more gentle on the fibres and less energy consuming.
The wool is not bleached, nor does it receive superwash treatment. Our range of woollen spun yarns includes four natural colours created without dyeing from the blend of white and brown fleece. 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 chemical product wears off).
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 strictest 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 a dye-house to improve the formulation of our colours to make them as low impact as possible and we hope to see progress on this project next year.
At Pom Pom, we love colour and your palettes are always so beautifully coordinated! Please can you give us some insight into how you develop your colour palettes?
The first colours were born in a very artisanal way. At first we had only three natural colours: Sel, Poivre et Sel, and Poivre. I designed a pattern which, from very few coloured threads, could highlight these natural colours.
I then dyed bright colours between my kitchen and my bathroom based on the mottled Poivre et Sel natural shade to create a rainbow of skeins that 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 jacquards.
Our production has grown considerably since those early days and the new colours in our woollen spun range are now created by a dyed-in-fleece blend 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 is an off-black made from 80% black dyed wool and 20% natural brown wool, and therefore requires 20% less dyeing compared to a traditional black.
Colour development 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 is usually between two shades, but when, after a lot of trial and error, a new colour is found, it's a great satisfaction and a little bit like welcoming a new member to the family. 😊
For the dyed-in-fleece colours, I first test each colour 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, you find the same turquoise hue between Ciel, Lagon, Plume, and Nuit, and a bit of the mauve of Aster and the fuchsia of Confiture de Rose in the Bruyère colour.
Do you have any exciting projects which you'd like to tell our readers about?
The palette of our worsted yarns Albertine and Pénélope in organic Arles merino and silk will welcome eight new colours for the beginning of October, which we will preview on October 1st and 2nd in Lyon at the Knit Eat festival.
Our big project today is the development of a new range of ecological yarns for 2022 based on natural dyeing, with organic Merino and recycled cotton. This is a project that has been in the works for a long time and I hope to be able to tell you more about it at the end of this winter!
Thank you, Solenn, for your wonderfully detailed answers. We've thoroughly enjoyed learning about the origins of De Rerum Natura and all the thought put into the brand's expansion over the years. Here's to the next ten! Xx