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FUND: a sustainable sweater brand with a worthy cause

March 1, 2021By Francine Heath

Rachael Howard created FUND with the goal of designing cosy, conscious sweaters that look, feel and do good. Here, the founder reveals what inspires the neatly embroidered statements and why it’s so important to give back.

Let’s start from the beginning, could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

When I was 18 months old my family moved to a remote region of southern Africa, my dad was a geologist and I often rode out with him into the desert. 

I was only part of that world for a short while as we moved back to England when I was seven, but living in a small African community had a profound effect on me. I saw that the children there had so little, I saw how much they loved school because, for many, it was the only meal they would eat all day. When we moved back to England we lived in Northamptonshire and my father worked in recycling. My sister, brother and I had a very happy childhood. 

Before heading to university I wanted to go and explore the world so I went travelling with friends and then taught English for a year in a very poor region of Nepal. Once again I became inspired by the beauty and enthusiasm of the children there. During that time I decided that whatever my business would be it would involve providing school meals to children in poverty. School meals provide much more than daily sustenance; they provide children with opportunities that empower them to strive for a better future for themselves, their communities and the world. So the mission of FUND came first.

Have you always been interested in sustainability?

Yes, I have always been amazed at the ‘waste’ culture we live in. Using jumpers as an example – on average consumers only keep and wear a jumper for a couple of years which is very unsustainable. The reason for this is largely down to the quality of the knitwear.

Most items of clothing contain synthetic fibres which gradually break down during the washing process so that over time the item loses its shape and softness. These tiny microplastics then get washed into our seas and oceans causing untold damage. Sadly the fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world.  The textile industry is the second greatest polluter of local freshwater in the world and is culpable for roughly one-fifth of all industrial water pollution. Some of the main factors that contribute to this industrial caused pollution are the vast overproduction of fashion items, the use of synthetic fibres and the agricultural pollution of fashion crops. We haven’t got time to sit and be scared by the current situation, we’ve got to be positive, hopeful and innovate so we can bring about change.

At FUND all our knitwear and packaging is 100% plastic-free, we only work with wool which is a low impact, biodegradable fibre so we feel we are providing a good example for other businesses to follow.

What about fashion? 

I am a big fan of sustainable fashion and so try to seek out brands that I feel a personal affinity to that have a story behind their creation and processes. I wear lots of dresses and one of my favourite fashion brands is called Christy Dawn. They make the most beautiful dresses out of dead stock.

Many of the larger fashion brands order in vast swathes of fabric, for a certain dress or skirt style which ends up being discontinued and the fabric is then wasted. Christy Dawn buy up this beautiful fabric and upcycle it into vintage style dresses and one-off pieces.

My sister is a fashion designer and I follow the creative development of brands such as Gucci and Vivienne Westwood however, personally, I try not to be governed by trends. Instead, I like to purchase items that are beautiful, interesting or timeless in their own right

How would you describe your own personal style?

I like clothing from all eras – I have pieces in my wardrobe that have been passed down from my mum and grandmother, along with other vintage pieces I’ve sourced myself. I wear a lot of dresses, mostly in colourful prints and I often wear these with my jumpers. I like small interesting brands who make things well, so they last a long time. I try not to buy anything synthetic if I can help it. I also really love crazy trainers and ‘80s-style wool socks pulled up over my jeans. Basically anything colourful or different! The most beautiful thing I own is an Alice Temperley floor-length dress embroidered with beautiful flowers.

Do your studies in Art History inspire the colours in each collection? 

I studied Art History at university so colour, pattern and design have always been very important to me. I like to paint, mostly in oil and my work is usually very abstract. I like to play with the interface of light on different shapes and textures. I take inspiration from everywhere: interior design magazines, fashion editorials and books on art or architecture. I think of my work at FUND as an art project – a snapshot of modern cultural experience. The jumpers are my canvas and the embroidery is like my paint, it’s about making your own statement.

Who are your favourite artists?

I am really inspired by the work of Tracey Emin. Her work embodies a new perception of female sexuality, redefining beauty and confronting stereotypes and taboos. Her most famous work “My bed” was an installation consisting of her unmade bed, slept in for weeks and stained with life. She uses vulnerability to tell a story of her struggle and the struggle all women face. Through her charity work, she has raised money for the NSPCC and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. She is a very provocative English artist and I like that her work covers both autobiographical and confessional pieces. One of our statements “love always wins” is actually inspired by her neon art piece entitled “true love always wins”.

What inspired you to launch FUND?

I wanted to find a way of making the clothing we wear more meaningful. I have always wanted to run my own business – even at school I knew that it was going to be important for me to create something of my own. I have never been driven by money but instead have always been drawn to work, people and brands with a social and environmental mission, where the motivation is doing good in the world.

My lightbulb moment came when I was teaching English in a remote region of Nepal. I saw the huge difference having an education can make and so decided that my business would need to make a contribution to this in some way. Through each jumper purchased we fund 100 school meals for children living in poverty across 26 countries. For many children, a free school meal means they are able to attend school rather than being made to stay at home and undertake household chores. Education empowers people and fosters positive change in communities. It is a ladder out of poverty and will lead to a more sustainable future for all. I set FUND up as a vehicle to do good, it’s much more than just a fashion brand. 

How would you describe your brand to someone who’s completely new to it?

A brand that ‘FUNDs’ positive change through cosy, conscious, carbon-neutral statement knitwear that is made in the UK.

Could you tell us more about the yarns you use?

Our yarn is spun in Scotland – it’s a beautiful old mill on the edge of an ancient loch. We source our wool from ethically reared sheep and use natural dyes and recycled water from the local Loch to colour it into a beautiful array of bespoke hues. The wool is very soft because the water is gentle and so our jumpers feel like cashmere. We have an expert team of British weavers who knit our seamless knitwear from a single thread, we do this to avoid any fabric offcuts and waste. Once complete, the jumpers head to our embroidery workshop near the Cornish coast, it’s where I live so I go every day to see the colourful new creations. The team hand-finish each piece (which can take up to two hours to complete!) and every piece is made with lots of care and love.

Could you explain more about the thought behind the conscious processes, making and packaging?

We are a carbon neutral business, we have a very low carbon footprint because every part of our process, from the wool we use, to the way we knit our jumpers, to the recycled packaging we use is considered. We only work with British suppliers because it’s very important to us to support British manufacturing – now more than ever. It took time to find good people who shared our belief in sustainable luxury. We currently make a monthly donation to the carbon trust and are looking to become a B-corporation business this year.

How long does it take to make and embroider one sweater?

We have a lovely little artisan embroidery workshop in Cornwall piled high with different coloured jumpers and threads. Every jumper purchased on our website is embroidered to order so that we don’t carry any stock and to reduce waste. Once we receive your order, we pick your jumper and set up the embroidery machine with your chosen design and thread. It took us a year to refine the process, and it takes between 1-2 hours  to embroider each jumper. Because we don’t use any synthetic backing in our embroidery we had to develop a completely new way of embroidering with wool on wool. Even now we have to prototype each design a number of times and make small alterations in order to create the perfect finish. 

How important to you is it to support small, independent farmers and why?

All our jumpers are made from a super soft lambswool called Lamaine. Wool was the perfect choice because It is a naturally sustainable fibre. It is warm and flexible, water-resistant and anti-bacterial which means it retains its shape and softness and requires only gentle occasional washing. We only work with independent farmers to ensure that the highest standards of animal welfare are adhered to and to support small businesses. We also only work with British suppliers, both for wool and across the entire brand, which makes it much easier to look into the full supply chain of who we work with. 

What’s your personal favourite statement in the lineup so far and why?

We are extremely excited to be launching with Harrods and alongside our own collection, have also created a collection of exclusive, limited-edition jumpers. The colours are so eye-popping and fun! The statements on our jumpers are all inspired by longer quotes from notable figures that have a profound meaning. A new favourite from the Harrods range is “DEPENDS” which is a vibrate blue jumper with bright red embroidery. It’s inspired by a David Attenborough quote, “the future of our planet and indeed all life on earth depends on us.”

Who (or what) inspires the other phrases? 

I am drawn to song lyrics, poetry, satire and quotation and inspired by the experience of others and the positive power of self-expression through language and storytelling. I am also a hopeless romantic. Everywhere I go, I go singing – I have a useless talent for remembering every word of every song or poem I have ever heard, and much to my children’s annoyance I can’t help but sing along to everything. Each of our statements comes from a meaningful quotation or a beautiful poem or song lyric for example our BRIGHTSIDE jumper is inspired by the quote for C.S Lewis “when you can’t look on the brightside I will sit with you in the dark”. It is actually about friendship during difficult times. All our embroidery is designed to inspire bold self-expression and empower people to speak their truth. I’m also completely fascinated by the amazing lives many of the authors have had, often battling adversity to do incredible things. You can read the bio for each author of my statements on the product pages of our website www.fundjumpers.com

Who would be your dream person to spot wearing a FUND jumper?

FUND jumpers are for everyone, they are a unisex fit. I absolutely love David Attenborough and would be overwhelmed to see him in my green “SAVE IT” jumper. It is inspired by the quote from Robert Swan, the great polar explorer who said “the greatest threat to the planet is thinking someone else will save it”. We should all watch David Attenborough’s documentary “A Life on Our Planet.” He is brilliantly honest, but hopeful too. He suggests that we should not waste things; not food, not electricity. Buy less and buy well, choose things that you love and that will last a lifetime. Invest in people and in education and look after the natural world by rewilding and learning to grow food in smaller sustainable areas. The earth is the most precious thing we have and we all have a part to play.

What does the future hold for FUND? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?

On 3rd of March, we are launching on Harrods.com with an in-store pop-up planned for later on in the year. As a young independent brand, it’s a huge honour to be recognised by an institution like Harrods. I can’t wait for launch day to see FUND, the brand I’ve created, alongside so many brands I’ve admired for years. 

Fund Jumpers
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.