In the early morning of the second day of London Fashion Week last September, a bleary-eyed audience assembled in the elegant Portico Rooms of Somerset House and proceeded to have its socks knocked off by an anarchic collection, courtesy of knitting collective Sister by Sibling.
Supersize pom-pom dresses, sequinned leopard print and intarsia skull cardigans were interspersed with more commercial pieces, such as fine knit tennis dresses and pencil skirts. Lacy skull caps – some embellished with more pom-poms – extended into full face masks tied with a bow under the chin. In short, this is not knitting as your nana knows it.
But it's not just knitwear that has had a modern make-over of late. Simone Rocha's acid-bright crochet daisies – cut into oversize biker jackets and peplum skirts – were a stand-out of the season, while James Long's womenswear debut was made all the more personal by his use of embroidered odes to the women in his life. Is it a coincidence that these bright young things are pushing the boundaries with homespun techniques?
“I don't have any knitwear training,” confesses James Long, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, which may come as a surprise for a designer whose offering has been knit-heavy since its debut for 2011. “I think that's why it's interesting – I couldn't sit and knit you a jumper, but I could draw you how I want a jumper to work. I think sometimes when you know how to knit, for example, you restrict yourself to a certain level.”
Long's monochrome collection for spring/summer was notable for his use of embroidered graffiti, threading his collection with extremely personal notes: odes to his family, his seamstresses and mentor Lulu Kennedy; Patti Smith words and PJ Harvey lyrics. But this was a happy accident: “I did some knit drawing that I wanted to have writing on,” says Long. “But that's really difficult and expensive. Sometimes I do draw something and it can't be done. So it has to turn into embroidery or something.
“With embroidery, I always want it to be three-dimensional, I really want the pieces to live. It's about making them all-encompassing.” Long has members of his family working for him. “My mum got really ill, she had a brain haemorrhage and gave up work and she learnt how to knit as part of her rehabilitation. She became a bit of a demon at it and now she has a knitting business. I'm a big fan of someone who has amazing knowledge, I'm always willing to listen and take advice.”
The importance of passing down practical skills, then, is something all these designers share, before using them to push things forward and develop a new way of presenting things.
Simone Rocha, thanks in part to the legacy of her father designer John Rocha, is one of the more established names among the young up-and-comers. In fact, it was working for her father that first brought her the skill which is becoming something of a signature. “I learnt to crochet originally when I was assisting in my dad's studio,” she says. “I think I was 13. It was one of the autumn/winter shows he held in Claridges. The collection had charcoal-grey ankle socks which had a line of crochet running up the back of them – that's where I originally learnt, putting that chain stitch in the socks. Then I did a lot of hand crochet in college, developing dresses.”
Rocha studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, before going on to gain a Masters from Central Saint Martins under the of renowned talent spotter Professor Louise Wilson. “I learned all my technical skills in Dublin,” says Rocha. “How to pattern-cut, draft patterns, sewing, machine knitting – it was very skills-driven which was great. It was a very different kind of learning to what I picked up from my father: it was a sensitivity to fabrication and an understanding of silhouette but also a respect for craft and handwork.”
Sister by Sibling
Although most modern collections are produced on industrial machines, there is a real benefit to being able to create something by hand. “By producing pure knit collections we hope we are showcasing what can be achieved through hand and machine knitting,” explains Cozette McCreery, one-third of the knitwear collective Sibling. Together with knitting supremo Sid Bryan and pattern cutter Joe Bates, McCreery has produced some of the most technically and visually creative work of late. “We all were disappointed with the knitwear for men both on the catwalk and in store,” says McCreery of the brand's origins. “Joe, possibly fed up with hearing us all whine about it, put the idea that we do our own collection.”
And as necessity is the mother of invention, combining their varying levels of skills – from Bryan and McCreery, who first picked up needles and yarn as children, to Bates, who doesn't knit – the trio embrace the limitations of the medium. “Sometimes actually knowing less about the techniques can help because it makes us question what we want as a finished garment. We like tradition, it is the foundation of our brand, but then we have fun messing around with it – like a collage almost.
“The fact that we know about knit helps,” McCreery adds, “but often the 'jolly' is thrown in by Katie Grand, who adds her magic to the collection. The catwalk is the essence of all the ideas but in the end we are a business and our selling rail is the catwalk stripped bare. In the end we want to sell nice jumpers.”