There's something special about possessing a sturdy, quality, hand-knit sweater. The more it breaks in, the more comforting it is -- perhaps even to the point where a long-lasting sweater evolves into a family heirloom for generations.
Chop Wood Carry Water's knits are just that. Rooted in Bolivian traditions and timeless construction, CWCW's founder and designer, Brook Strong Bergland, pairs his skill for modern design with the durability of practiced hand-made knits. We spoke with Brook about the history of the folk craft of knitting in Bolivia and its importance to the local communities below:
On how Chop Wood Carry Water got its roots in Bolivia...
"A family friend of mine, I grew up with him and he’s a bit of a Bolivian godfather to me, he had been importing and exporting Bolivian goods, mostly sweaters, for the past 30 years. He had never made sweaters, but he knew a lot of people who did and had manufacturing connections. When I got out of fashion school, I lived in Paris for four years and worked for high-end designers like Rick Owens and Lucien Pellat-Finet, so I sort of cut my teeth in there. When I came back, he and I ended up back in Oregon together (that’s where I’m from). We started talking about potential business together making sweaters because it’s something we both sort of knew. It was a natural family connection."
"I want the sweaters to stay pretty true to it’s roots. On the one hand, I have hundreds of years of experience with knitting with the Bolivian people, it’s a folk trade art that they’ve perfected, so I’m trying to marry that with this brand of modern design. Knitting in Bolivia has been a folk craft for centuries, not only out of necessity but also as a vehicle for self-expression and pride. Essentially, I'm marrying my understanding of fit and function and form with their old world expertise. I try to let them both live."
On his process...
"The process happens best the more time I spend down there. If I’m able to go down there, especially in the beginning of the season, and explain in person what I want and sit and work with them, I’m able to get much better results."
"It's very hands-on. There’s a lot of trial and error. I’m often inspired by the multitude of yarns they have; so I could be at home and design the sweater and it’s blue, but when I get down there and I see this crazy yellow on the shelf and a great heather oatmeal marl and somehow they just make sense together, that’s when I think I get the best design."
"I think design is typically over thought, and so I think the more time I can spend in the factory with the people, the better product I get. On the one hand, it’s just better communication, but on the other, we just bring so much more to each other’s processes. I’ll design stuff that they have never seen -- nor even heard of it existing. I’m taking their understanding and turning it on its head in certain designs. There’s just a little bit more magic when you’re doing it face to face."
About the history of knitting in Bolivia...
"It spawned out of necessity, I think probably like most knitting. Originally, it was just something that the people needed to keep warm -- we’re talking like 12,000+ altitude. We are high in Altiplano, and it’s cold as fuck, so at the outset it’s for them to stay warm -- but it’s also part of their self-expression. Their knitting and their weaving is a part of their folk art. You can see it in all of the different villages and towns and their different styles of knitting and weaving. They are a very colorful people, they like their garb to set the tone, I think. It’s a very decorative way of dressing."
"This particular factory -- and when I say factory I mean six people in a house where the owner is a husband and wife and they own it as a family -- they’ve got a great deal of know-how in quality, so they are able to offer things like hand-made buttons. All those little details that are important to me and my customer. There’s no sense in automating it if you can do it by hand at a reasonable price. And it’s not about the price, it’s about the quality of the work."
"This is a yarn making factory in El Alto. El Alto is basically the highest point in the La Paz region, and that’s where there’s a lot of industry. It’s almost 14,000 feet high. There's the photo where I’m looking out onto the rooftops, between El Alto and La Paz. There’s a number of winding roads because you are essentially driving up the mountain. The roads are littered with taxis and dogs and kids and there’s all this incredible scenery, it’s just such an open sky and then the rooftops below -- it’s just breathtaking."
On his inspiration behind the CWCW + Pilgrim collaboration sweaters...
"I had never worked in Highland Wool before, I had only done Alpaca and baby Alpaca and those type of blends. The Highland Wool has such a different characteristic -- it’s gorgeous, it’s much more rigid, it’s got more body, it’s not quite as soft but it’s stronger. It was really cool for me to be able to play in a new medium."
"I’m a big fan of old guernsey sweaters. It's a type of fisherman woolen sweater from the British isles, and it’s actually called guernsey from the island of Guernsey. I already had those in my arsenal and so we built off of those, and then we also built off of this great cable that I was working on already. Again, the collaboration really came naturally."
"The Peace Pilgrim sweater, that was something that came later. It was inspired by this woman, Mildred Lisette Norman, and I had seen a photo of this woman before I left for Bolivia. She was walking for peace, essentially, across the country. She wore this tunic that said 'Peace Pilgrim' that was in all-white letters, I think they were felt, on a navy sweatshirt. And it just made sense. The jacquard knit, it’s more of a heavy sweatshirt feel and less of a sweater feel. It’s got a little bit of body and it’s thicker and it’s gorgeous."
All photos courtesy of Brook Strong Bergland. Interview by Chelsea Burcz.