If you’re a weather-watcher you’ll know the polar vortex is descending on North America once again, bringing another winter that promises to be as bone-chilling as the last.
This is a grim reality for most of us, but it’s great news for Sartoria, the Toronto underwear label that has found a creative, eco-sensible way to keep the winter chills away.
Sartoria produces a women’s and men’s collection of cozy vintage-style undergarments made entirely from recycled cashmere and merino wool sweaters.
The surprisingly broad assortment of pieces offer the same kind of performance qualities found in merino base layers favored by skiers and other winter-sports lovers — they’re breathable, wick moisture away from the skin and help regulate body temperature. And they’re warm.
“We like to say — ironically — this is Canadian lingerie,” Sartoria founder Sara Torrie told Lingerie Talk.
“We live in a northern climate, where even going out to walk the dog or take the kids to school can be hard. Putting these on is an amazing way to take care of yourself in this climate.”
Now entering its 6th year, Sartoria (which is Italian for ‘tailor’s shop’ and coincidentally mirrors Sara’s name) makes women’s briefs, bralettes, singlets and onesies and longjohns for both men and women. There’s also a few compatible accessories like leg warmers, fingerless gloves and the ‘Vickey‘ — a faux turtleneck that fits under the arms to prevent it from bunching up like old-style dickies.
(If you’re in Toronto, you can visit Sartoria‘s booth at the One Of A Kind Christmas Show until Dec. 4 at Exhibition Place.)
Sara is the first to admit that new customers typically have to get past their own preconceptions about wearing wool underwear. It must be itchy and uncomfortable, right? That may be true for lambswool, which is typically used in sweaters and outerwear fashions, but not for the soft, finer fibers of merino and cashmere.
“These are not like any other piece you have that you call underwear,” she said. “They’re extremely comfortable and make a great base layer. But people have to get around the idea of wearing wool.
“When our undies first hit, no one had heard about cashmere underwear in about 100 years.”
In fact, cashmere — the light, warm (and expensive) hair fiber harvested naturally from goats — is showing signs of becoming the thermal fabric of choice for fans of luxury underwear.
Several hosiery brands offer pricey cashmere tights for winter, and the Seattle-based label Mere Basics launched a year ago with an all-cashmere selection of lounge and underwear styles. At the high end of the lingerie market, boutique brand Kiki de Montparnasse developed its own lavish cashmere winter line (below), with bras and briefs starting at $500 and lounge pants at $1,250.
What sets Sartoria apart (besides its affordable prices) is its commitment to what it calls ‘regenerative design’ — an approach to environmental sustainability based on reclaiming and repurposing discarded materials. Every Sartoria garment began its life as a cast-off luxury sweater, which is deconstructed, cut into new patterns and reassembled by seamstresses at the company’s Toronto studio.
The business requires a dependable supply of a prized commodity — when was the last time you threw out a cashmere sweater? — and Sara is reluctant to share details of the supply network she has put together over the years, other than to say Sartoria has “a good and steady supply that is satisfying where we’re at in terms of demand.”
Recycling luxury apparel has also given her a unique perspective on fashion’s place in society.
“It’s interesting that this is even possible,” she said. “The fact that there is a supply of used merino and cashmere sweaters shows me that we live in a rich culture with a very affluent, very privileged lifestyle. It makes me feel really grateful, and that’s what I’m celebrating.”
Sartoria is part of the Slow Fashion movement and its unconventional business model is apparent as you browse its webshop, which stocks a limited inventory of most pieces. Instead, most people use its online custom-order menu that allows them to “collaborate in the creation of your Sartoria piece.” Customers choose a product and are then sent a questionnaire to identify color and fabric preferences based on Sartoria‘s existing supply.
Custom orders are typically shipped in 2-3 weeks and slight variations in color are to be expected given the source of the fabrics used. Underwear sets cost at $110, singlet/undershirts are $75 and the women’s onesie/bodysuit is $140.
Sartoria‘s biggest seller is its Superhero longjohns (above, starting at $110), which are made from three separate pieces and can be ordered with either wool or cotton underwear at the top (the cotton is from recycled T-shirts).
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say Sartoria owes its existence to its longjohns, which are popular among urban cyclists who continue to ride through slushy northern winters. Sara’s first experience with recycling luxury wool came years ago while living in Montreal and trying to find something to wear while riding her bicycle in winter. She made a pair of longjohns for herself and soon after began scouring second-hand shops with her new business idea in mind.
Once we all get through this winter, Sartoria will begin focusing on the summer season — though not with wool undies. The company previewed a new swimwear line earlier this year, and will begin its first production run in the spring.
The swim line, which includes five vintage styles inspired by traditional 1920s swim ‘costumes’, will be manufactured from a nylon/Lycra fabric and all pieces are lined. Sartoria‘s experience in upcycling cast-off fabric may eventually be applied to the swimwear collection, though. Sara says she is hoping to build relationships with mainstream swimwear brands to acquire end-rolls and off-cuts that are discarded during the manufacturing process.
She also acknowledges that, despite its eco-benefits, recycled wool underwear isn’t suitable for everyone.
“Some people cannot wear even cashmere next to their skin,” she said. “It’s also not for women experiencing hot flashes during menopause, or people with allergies to wool.”
As for everyone else who tries cashmere or merino undies for the first time, Sara said, they’ll discover the secret to Sartoria‘s inspiring success: “that it really feels wonderful … and it’s not weird at all.”