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Elisa Yip has been designing knitwear for years now: She first tried it at a hand-knitting Brother machine in Italy during a '90s study abroad stint. Then as an assistant knitwear designer for Liz Claiborne, a student learning under master knitters in Hong Kong, and a senior winter accessories designer for Nordstrom. All before launching her own line of luxury knitwear, Sskein, at the end of 2020.
So when she tells you that alpaca wool is the next big thing in sustainable luxury fabric—the new cashmere, if you will—you listen.
“I fell in love with alpaca when I learned about it,” Yip says. That love led to something of an obsession. She can tell you that the miniscule, hollow fibers in the ruminant’s coat trap heat and shed water. That alpacas’ padded hooves make them gentler on grasslands than cashmere-producing goats. That Sskein’s Peruvian wool source allows the animals to graze freely until it’s time for their summer haircut. “They're not in a confined space,” Yip says. “They live happily ever after.”
The pastoral fabric, though, is just the beginning: Yip has designed a truly beautiful line of special, but casual, clothing that expands the idea of what knitwear can be. “I make sure I design for myself, because [if] I don't love it, there's no reason to produce it,” Yip says. “And I need to be obsessed with it.” Her current favorite: A reversible double knit coat ($725) that can be buttoned two different ways and worn inside out to reveal a second color.
Sskein's commitment to sustainability shines through in that sort of careful attention to detail. Each garment is sourced and made entirely in one country to minimize shipping emissions, and most are made to order, so surplus fabric doesn’t go to waste. It’s a business that serves as the antithesis to big companies that use greenwashing techniques to disguise what essentially amounts to fast fashion.
But Yip’s certainly not on her high…er, alpaca?...about it. “I'm guilty of shopping fast fashion in the past,” she says. She’s even designed some trend-focused, cost-cutting acrylic pieces over the course of her career—an exercise, she says, in seeing how cheaply an item can be made “just to get a very small moment of satisfaction for yourself, to fill a void, to fill a closet full of stuff that's gonna fall apart.”
Though her pieces are competitively priced with designers in the same niche, the high cost of slow fashion might seem unattainable. But Yip encourages consumers who have the means to do so to see clothing as investment pieces that will last a lifetime. For the price of five or six fast-fashion sweaters you’ll wear out in a couple of years, you could get a luxury piece that retains its quality, defies trend cycles, and feels “like getting a hug from an alpaca.” Hard to argue with that.
This heavier weight beanie, available in a full spectrum of brights and neutrals, will quickly become a winter staple (just note before wearing it every day of the week that it's dry-clean only). Style it alongside a matching ribbed baby alpaca fringe scarf ($175) for an enviably fashionable cold-weather ensemble, and feel those warm fuzzies inside and out: For each beanie purchased, Sskein will donate another knit hat to Seattle nonprofit, Mary's Place.
Like the world's coziest peacoat, this cardigan made from baby alpaca wool—a softer variety of fiber, not a nod to the alpaca's age—adds visual interest to a classic form with a double-breasted front. That also makes it versatile: Button just one row for a roomier fit.