Knit Couture Featured

On the subject of knits, Brits have the last word on couture. Luxos discovers a heritage dating back to the Middle Ages and dominating the catwalk today

For anyone who witnessed the brilliance of Karl Lagerfeld’s ice queen vision with its Fair Isle techniques, the signature louche baggy cardigans of Stella McCartney or Burberry’s directional bandage wrap knits on the FW10 catwalks, bear in mind that garments originally created for fishermen now grace everyone from presidents to peasants. With many of the world’s most feted designers showcasing the craft in their collections, perhaps this will be remembered as the season of innovative knitwear.

From Nottingham lace to Welsh silks, Yorkshire wool, Shetland knits and Scottish cashmere, Britain has been handcrafting since the 1400s, burgeoning into a thriving cottage industry during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Innovations in equipment during the 17th and 18th centuries – when the colour and verve of Fair Isle techniques and geometric form of Intarsias emerged – and the need to replicate it en masse was met by the Industrial Revolution, drawing knitters out of their cottages and into the factories.

Historic companies such as Pringle, Johnstons of Elgin, William Lockie, Scott & Charters, Fox Brothers and GH Hurt are still very much thriving today. They are fed by specialist luxury yarn spinners, colourists and fabric houses dating back centuries. Between them, they supply to just about every international couture and luxury fashion house in existence – in an industry that never likes to betray its secrets Dior, Stella McCartney, Gucci, Prada, Burberry, Hugo Boss, Chanel, Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs, Dolce and Gabbana, Hermès, Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent are a few names you may be familiar with.

Traditionally, proximity to the sea and rivers to power the mills was essential to trade, and today waterside locations play host to much of the industry. In sleepy enclaves of rural Britain boasting the plumpest sheep and largest cows, the rugged landscape, slow life and countryside kaleidoscope inspire the colours – woodland browns, evergreens, lavenders, sky blues, heathers and ambers – commonly found in woollens today.

The result is this season’s leading edge Burberry super fine silk wool bandage wrap cardigans that are so soft to the touch that they practically melt. Cashmere the consistency of clouds in all the colours – from the richest, most radiant teal to rainbow-hued, heirloom-effect lace – that the gaze can imagine. Elsewhere, the chunky cable knit of Aran sweaters – a technique pioneered by early 20th century Donegal fishermen – dominated the Prada FW10 runway. 

“Cashmere is something to be cherished, like a diamond. If it has the slightest flaw it is not of the same value to the discerning buyer who is looking for something with longevity and ultimate beauty,” says an ambassador for Johnston’s of Elgin, established in 1797. In the late 19th century an important discovery was made when the Empress Eugenie introduced cashmere to Europe. Alongside Italy, Scotland is renowned as the cashmere capital of the world today. The exquisitely fine underhair collected from the thick exterior coats of the goats (at least three creatures’ pelts are needed per sweater), sourced directly from Mongolia and China, goes through an exacting 30-stage processes from dyeing, teasing, blending, carding, spinning and weaving to hand-finishing by the intergenerational craftsmen of rural Scotland. It’s then hand-washed in their legendarily soft water, in a journey that reaches from the farthermost reaches of Inner Mongolia to the fashion capitals of the world.

As the Industrial Revolution stripped mainland England of its handcrafting skills, those living in the far-flung regions continued much as they always had. On the islands of Harris, a remote community in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, artisans continue to make cloth entirely by hand, as they have done for centuries. Nowadays, the islands’ mill produces the yarn and the vat has replaced hand-dying, but by law the material must still be hand-woven within the home of one of the Western Scottish archipelago’s 130 weavers – the result is ultra-luxurious, textured materials stamped by the impressive Harris Orb, among the rarest textiles in the world and the only one in existence protected by an Act of Parliament. Harris Tweed has inspired entire collections by Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuitton, amongst others, in recent years.

During the 1920s, Coco Chanel and fellow Parisian couturiers Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli revived knitwear, reintroducing the technique to high fashion. Today hand knit couturiers such as Eribe and Hillary Rohde regularly have to turn down orders from the international luxury design houses. “They always come here and want to buy the whole collection, so we have to tell them “No!” and direct them to our archive instead…” says Rosie Eribe, whose order book counts clients such as Prada, Burberry, Gieves & Hawkes, and Liberty of London.

“We work closely with designers to realize their vision, and whatever they are looking for we’ll find a specialist hand-knitter – an artisan who is expert in a certain weight, colour or technique,” says a spokesperson for Hillary Rohde. The Edinburgh-based hand-knit cashmere brand produces all the cable knit for Pringle, and when they worked closely with Stella McCartney’s team on a textural relief hand-knit stitch, it soon became a bestseller. “It’s quite magical, what you can do with knit.”

Most craftspeople learn from their families, knitting before they begin to read. “I love knitting, I knit all the time,” says 72-year-old Margaret MacIntyre. One of Eribe’s hundred-strong network of home knitters, she lives in a tiny village comprised of just 19 small holdings on the Isle of Lewis. She was taught to knit at the age of five by her father, after producing a pair of knitting needles and a ball of wool and asking how to use them. A few years later she learnt to read patterns and create intricate lacework and cable stitch from her mother, who was also highly skilled. “It was part of the culture of long, dark evenings – we lived in a wee village in the country, and we all knitted alongside our mothers.” That creations she has made might grace the London, Milan, New York or Paris catwalks barely registers in relation to the craft that she was born into and practised from home. A complex garment can take 90 hours to complete.

Today elegant waffle knits, cobwebs, crochets and appliqués in one-ply cashmeres and rope yarns are some of the creative approaches melding centuries-old techniques into couture conceptual pieces. 
Often these creations – by their nature limited to editions ranging from 10 to 50 – combine heritage skills with super contemporary sculptural designs for showpieces that would be near-impossible to replicate by machine. But, while the artisan population of Great Britain is steadily ageing (“My granddaughter’s more interested in buying Chanel than making it,” says one handknitter) a new generation of Schiaparellis, Chanels and Patous in the 21st century is rising. This is perhaps a result of the re-emergence of handcrafts and ethical products gaining fashionability in Britain – incorporating new techniques into directional pieces from leading lights such as Louise Goldin, Mark Fast and Christopher Kane. Kane is endorsed by Versace and working exclusively with Johnston’s for his cashmere. This season’s striking black pieces were then sent to India for the heavy floral embroidering that are the hallmark of his FW10 collection. 

The supermodel Lily Cole recently founded her own label, North Circular, incorporating Scottish lace and British wool alongside the knitting experience of mothers and grandmothers around the country to execute their designs.

Mark Fast, meanwhile, travelled from the Canadian wilderness to study at London’s Central St Martin’s and is now making directional, showstopping hand-knit creations from his East London studio retailing from £500 to £2,000. He, Kane and Goldin – one of the most promising knitwear designers to emerge today – are all aged 30 and under, and working from studios in East London to critical acclaim, under the admiring gazes of some of the world’s leading couturiers.

Ballantyne has been synonymous with luxurious cashmere since its inception in 1921. And for the second consecutive season they have collaborated with Louise Goldin for her eponymous line, reimagining the signature Ballantyne Intarsia motif, combined with Scottish tartan in psychedelic colours and innovative approaches to Jacquard, Aran, waffle, boucle and cable patterns. This contemporary approach to traditional techniques, combined with creative hand-knitting or futuristic blends of cashmere with Lurex mix, is key to luxury knitwear today.

In January 2010 the Prince of Wales launched his latest initiative, ‘The Wool Project,’ to renew the fashionability of wool among shoppers in the UK. He said that he was “Delighted that the Project includes some of the world’s leading fashion designers, retailers and wool growers.” His campaign manager, Condé Nast Managing Director Nicholas Coleridge, phrased it a little differently: “As the late John Lennon almost put it: All we are saying is ‘Give Fleece a Chance.’”

London FW 2010