LESVOS WOOL

 "islands can be studied as both models for the future and as depositories of the past" (Island Studies Network)

There are about three hundred thousand ewes on Lesvos Island, bread for meat and milk, intended for cheese and yoghurt. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the sheep are from the local breed, the so-called lesbian breed. Their black wool was praised for its resistance, and there used to be twelve wool factories on the island, the last one closed less than twenty years ago.

Long gathered by trucks, the wool was still collected for export until the "lockdown" of 2020. Nowadays, it is abandoned on road-sides, piled up in illegal dump yards, and ends up clogging streams. The E. coli loaden raw wool is a biohazard and a source of bacterial infections for living beings. Wool is treated as garbage.

Breeder Stelios says, his grand-father, who was also a shepherd, told him that, in his time "when a sheep would die in the mountains somewhere, we would go to sheer it, take all the wool. One fleece was worth four days work."

Natural hot springs, two mountains of 1000m each and the surrounding sea were locations for the water-demanding stage of scouring (washing) wool. When ewes are bread outside, hence relatively clean, one kilogram of wool requires an estimated 100 litres of water to be washed. In Lesvos, sheep are bred in stables from the end of the fall until they are shorn in May. Therefore, the wool is not clean. Raw wool washed in the laboratory shows four times more biomass than the local water-clearing system can process.

Wet felting is a technique originating in Central Asia, established anew on the island during the exchange of populations in 1922. More recent migrants are potential holders of elaborate wool techniques as craftswomen and men from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Maghreb are world-famous for their skills in transforming the wool.

The wool of Lesvos breed contains little lanolin (wool fat), and the fibres are a balanced mix of long and hard fibres (high amount of keratine) and short curly fibre, an ideal combination for the resistant and padding non-woven fabric also known as felt. The local word is of turkish origin "ketsès".

Felt is used below the saddles for horses and donkeys and in all harnesses. Hyppic tradition is strong on the island, and wild horses still run on Mt Lepetymnos. Donkeys are used for the olive harvest, especially in oppugning lands. From the eleven million olive trees of the island, many were planted centuries ago in terraced olive groves and remote fields.


WHAT WE DO

A migrant from European metropolis, I experiment with wool as a gift of nature in a natural environment.

Inspired by the wet-felting tradition of the island, I choose this technique for my hands-on enterprises.

For object and technique research, I use exclusively local wool of natural colouring and local olive oil soap. More on object and technique research here. 

I reproduce gestures and actions on-site as a personal practice and a connection in time through the place of the practice. See Fishing for Fibre .

Researching locations where wool was processed on the island, viewing sites of former factories, and sources of water for scouring. 

Interviewing witnesses, listening to the silent ones; women, elderly makers, breeders, collective and individual memories. 

Assisting with the yearly sheering, collecting and selecting raw wool across farms on the island. 

Communicating locally with as broad a pallet of actors as the wool touches: breeders, spinners, weavers, upcycling artists, designers and visionaries, but also educators, researchers, businessmen/women, decision-makers and technocrats.

Giving workshops on the cycle of the wool and wet-felting in events, schools, cooperatives or privately. 

Communicating the particular story of Lesvos wool in national and international networks, personal as well as established ones. 

Vision for the island of Lesvos  revalorizing the local wool

The University of the Aegean is present on the island with the Institute for Environmental Studies, Institute of Anthropology and Institute of Cultural Anthropology, all of which have a direct connection with the wool. Being in synergy with them will infuse, on the one hand, the contemporary research on the wool, its sustainability and symbolism for a caring society, and on the other hand will motivate its use locally.

In the form of waste management, the evaluated 900.000 kilos of wool produced every year, can be entirely put to use in a processing plant. The selection procedure allocates the raw fibres into categories. The finest quality is transformed into a mini-mill. Scoured and carded, it is either spun into woollen knoll to be used as filling material for bedding or intended for felting. The rougher quality, unwashed, is transformed into fertilizer pellets.

Education programs run parallel to the processing plants and ateliers, covering the stages of textile design, engineering, mechanics, chemistry and biology, environmental management, and social design but also the therapeutic usages of the wool, artists' residencies and exchange programs directed in particular to people with migration background and elderly locals because of their technical knowledge. Workshops on-site and in schools, from kindergarten level to higher education, support the multiplication of employment opportunities, lively museums and educational farms.

Designers and craftspeople, along with breeders, technicians and scientists, develop and research best practices. Ateliers, cooperatives and small factories revive local traditions adapted to contemporary aesthetics and needs by producing and distributing unique products and services. Documentation and heritage branding secure the visibility and recognition of Lesvos wool.

Revaluing the wool rewards breeders directly. Moving away from monoculture and over-milking, the breeding conditions improve for livestock and farmers, attention to quality increases, activities around dairy breeding diversify, over-grazing decreases. There are openings in niche markets, such as eco-farms welcoming visitors and working with schools,  as well as higher education researchers or chef cooks.

With the increase in employment and education concerning these matters, the value of local riches gets restored, and social and environmental conditions get improved.

Lesvos Map Cravattes, 2022, 40 cm x 40 cm, local felted wool, silk, embroidery