The knit crowd
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This piece was originally published in May 2021.
Michelle Obama cast on during lockdown and now describes knitting as a “forever proposition”. Musician Ronnie Wood was producing “endless scarves”. Actress Krysten Ritter has been designing patterns for knit kit behemoth We Are Knitters. Ella Emhoff, stepdaughter of US vice president Kamala Harris, is a model/artist and a knitter. Following the inauguration, she sold out her own capsule knitwear collection, and has recently announced a new collaboration with Batsheva.
Real handknits, made by one person with two needles and ball of yarn, are a rarity in high fashion. But JW Anderson’s handknit patchwork cardigan became a TikTok sensation, launching a thousand DIY knitters when Harry Styles wore it on stage last February. That the trend then took off among a tribe of Gen-Z home-crafters created a pleasing circularity. Knitting designer Ruth Herring, who reverse-engineered an at-home pattern of the cardigan to be shared on social media (including JW Anderson’s own Instagram), points out that the charm of seeing a knitter’s “handwriting”, evidenced in slight variations in tension, is an additional appeal.
For most designers, scaling up a one-off handknit for sale is extremely time-consuming, not to mention prohibitively costly. Emhoff alternates between a knitting machine – which she has used for projects such as her knitted-to-commission trousers – and knitting or crocheting smaller pieces by hand. Alicia Robinson, the creative director of London label AGR, a semifinalist for this year’s LVMH Prize, describes herself as being a “knit wizard”. She included a fully handknit piece in her last collection but, like Emhoff, she mostly works on a machine.
Often, a label will offer one handknit element as part of a larger commercial collection: Bottega Veneta’s spring/summer ’21 collection includes two short, chunky handknit dresses in primary colours, with matching clutches. Bode, a high-fashion paean to the handmade, sells socks or mittens knitted in Peru; slow-fashion label Colville is supporting the women’s refuge CADMI by auctioning knitted blankets made in patchwork squares by home knitters after a call-out on social media. And Australian business Koco Handknits works with women in rural Indian villages to create handknits for labels like Toast and Jil Sander.
But an emerging number of smaller brands are focusing exclusively on handknits. Northern Irish fashion and textiles designer Hope Macaulay uses a local team of 15 handknitters to produce her brightly coloured chunky cardigans (from £180) knit in giant stitches in super-bulky yarn. Cornish label Darn, which specialises in limited runs of handmade items, has just begun offering scallop-patterned sweaters (£280) for pre-order, which are handknit in Hertfordshire. The US-based Misha & Puff sells “popcorn”-style sweaters ($460) that are handknit in Peru. Finnish label Myssy employs Finnish “granny” knitters to make small accessories such as hats (from €59 for a beanie), New Zealand-based mother-daughter outfit Frisson Knits specialises in oversized handknit sweaters, cardigans and vests (from NZ$439), and the Spanish family atelier Andión Clothing offers limited-edition handknits.
For the potential home-knitter, there is a brilliant argument for doing it yourself: the mental health benefits of engaging with anything that is mindful. “Knit on with confidence and hope through all crises”, was the rallying cry of the late knitting author Elizabeth Zimmermann, and her words still ring true. “Knitting’s specific hand movements – bilateral, co-ordinated, repetitive, rhythmic and automatic, and crossing the midline of the body – can facilitate a meditative-like state and make the brain feel safe,” says Betsan Corkhill, author of Knit for Health & Wellness. As we venture back out into the world, she argues, knitting is also a “portable self-soothing tool”.
In truth it has never been easier to become a knitter. In 2007, when I first learned to knit, my local yarn shop introduced me to a then burgeoning website called Ravelry. Often described as a Facebook for knitters, it is a mesmerising, encyclopedic database that in its launch year collected around 57,000 members. It now boasts more than nine million, and was the subject of an extensive New Yorker profile in March. Life for a new knitter is also more inclusive, with a multitude of yarn kits, in-depth tutorials and workshops available from companies, such as Wool And The Gang and We Are Knitters, which have sprung up specifically to serve tentative beginners.
Spanish company We Are Knitters, favoured by Selena Gomez and Drew Barrymore, recommends that neophytes start with a one-skein kit, such as the Himba Snood (£35) for the satisfaction of a quick FO (finished object). The company has enjoyed phenomenal growth throughout the pandemic – during the first lockdowns in Europe, sales grew by 200 per cent year on year. US-based yarn and pattern sellers Brooklyn Tweed, which saw a 28 per cent increase in sales last year after launching a “yarn stimulus program” to help out its brick-and-mortar stockists, also caters for beginners with its “BT by Brooklyn Tweed” line.
As a knitter’s skills increase, it follows that the size of the stitch generally decreases. There is an indescribable comfort to be found in socks knit to your exact size in hand-dyed yarn – check out the joyful neon designs of
@summer.lee.knits on Instagram. You become obsessed with Shetland-inspired cardigans from native pattern designer Gudrun Johnston, and fingering weight shawls made contemporary by cult designer Stephen West. One’s relationship with a LYS (Local Yarn Shop) grows in earnest, along with the necessity of a “stash” of yarn and a subscription to Laine magazine.
Among the dedicated, the vast swathes of time available in recent months have allowed a deep dive into once-in-a-lifetime projects and challenging techniques such as stranded colourwork. Think of these endeavours as the knitting equivalent of a yogi’s headstand. Though, as the knitting author and guru Stephanie Pearl-McPhee warns: “If you happen across a pattern that says ‘heirloom’, slowly put it down and back away. Heirloom is knitting code for ‘This pattern is so difficult that you would consider death a relief.’”
Purls of wisdom: where to find the most sustainable skeins
By Lauren Hadden
High-end handknitting yarn follows the same trends that can be seen across the luxury industry: sustainability, alongside traceability in the supply chain – in this case right back to the sheep. Rachel Atkinson, whose Daughter Of A Shepherd yarn – including a 100 per cent Hebridean fibre (£24 a skein) – is sold at Loop, in London, believes you can sense the “terroir” of a great yarn as you would a fine wine, “beginning to form an image of the land and the sheep whence it came”. In March, US yarn company Brooklyn Tweed launched its third “ranch-specific” yarn, Ranch 03 ($16.50 a skein), a limited edition that can be traced to Julie Hansmire’s Merino flock at her Colorado ranch.
May Linn Bang at Stoke Newington shop Knit With Attitude stocks yarns from Irish dyeing studio Hedgehog Fibres (from £25 a skein), as well as regularly selling out of Muud leather project bags (from £95). Meanwhile, cult New York knitting store Purl Soho stocks yarn (from $22.50 a skein) from the Fair Trade Manos del Uruguay brand used by Gabriela Hearst in her first collection for Chloé. Diversity is rightly an ongoing discussion in the knitting community – #diversknitty – and was the impetus for the formation of Black Girl Knit Club, an east London collective that has just launched its own upcycled wax-print cotton yarn (£22.50 a skein) at Liberty.