Not Your Grandma’s Sweater: Why Fashion’s Next Generation Loves Knitwear
On April 14, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) was swarming with VIPs who had come to see the work of FIT’s senior students. It was the day when the soon-to-be graduates’s hard work culminated into an exhibition where their garments would be seen by judges and critics of note.
Only the best would would earn a spot on the runway at the Future of Fashion Graduates’s Collection show in each of the specializations: intimate apparel, special occasion, knitwear, children’s wear, and sportswear.
Judges included Colleen Sherin (senior fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue) and critics included designer Reem Acra and Phillip Lim, as well as Jason Mahler and Annalise Frank from American Eagle Outfitters. And it’s not every institute that has Francisco Costa, head of women’s creative director at Calvin Klein, drop in. He was neither critic nor judge but came to see the students’s work.
Walking into the Fred P. Pomerantz Art and Design Center at FIT, it was clear where most innovation was taking place. Out of the 200-plus garments on display, at least 60 were in knitwear.
Having majored in knitwear myself when I studied fashion design in Melbourne, Australia, I have followed from afar how this fashion genre has been developing over the last 30 years or so. It has to be said that it rarely evolves in the same leaps and bounds as does fashion that uses woven materials.
However, judging by the FIT students’s passion for it, soon a movement may be afoot.
The Status Quo
Traditionally, knitwear has been associated with craft. And when it is mass produced, fashion designers use knit mostly in the way they use fabric: Fine jersey knit is cut and sewn according to a two-dimensional pattern.
When the odd chunky scarf or top makes an appearance, the manufacturing is usually outsourced to countries where labor is cheap enough for garments to be knitted by hand. Perhaps these two reasons are what accounts for the lack of real innovation in the overall design of knitted garments.
The area where most innovation has been taking place is in the structure of the knitted “fabric” where the sky’s the limit in terms of textural and pattern variations with dazzling color combinations.
Looking at the students’s work, their creative approaches in knit varied so vastly compared to the students who chose to design in fabric. Some experimented with the textural elements, some with geometric patterns, and others explored the sculptural potential of chunky, hand knitted pieces in materials like rubber tubing or transparent plastic tubing combined with cotton yarn.
Passionate About Knit
Senior student Chanan Reifen was chosen to receive the Critic Award for knitwear specialization. His concept started with the idea that we carry our personal and cultural identities on us in the same way that backpackers carry their homes.
“I really wanted to take what we think of tribal print and decontextualize it using color,” he said.
Using a Stoll industrial knitting machine, Reifen developed a jacquard structure of geometrical “blisters” with a Lycra-backed cotton knit to create volume.
When asked if knit is just a phase or a career plan, Reifen said, “one hundred percent definitely knitwear designer.” Reifen’s main interest lies in developing a style that focuses on “graphics, colors, and volume” and believes that in order to be a responsible designer you need to be a technician too—be able to speak the technicians’s language and understand what your limits are.
The Rainbow Room
FIT’s facilities are among the best in the world. The institute has three industrial knitting machines onsite.
An invitation from Asta Skocir, associate professor teaching knitwear specialization, lead myself and my photographer into the belly of FIT—the knitting studio. She said it is endearingly nicknamed “the rainbow room” because, as far as the eye can see, the huge workshop’s left hand wall is packed with shelves where colorful cones of yarn, ranging from warm to cool—just like a rainbow—are stacked from floor to ceiling.
If this was not enough, the students also have access to a number of hand-operated knitting machines and, in a separate room, lie dormant the three behemoths to which every knitwear designer dreams of having access—the Stoll industrial knitting machines.
To give an idea of how popular the subject is among students, Michael Seiz adjunct professor at FIT explained that on class registration day, the registrar opens up the website at 6 a.m. “At 6:01 a.m., all the knitwear places are gone. If you miss that 60-second window you are not in,” he said.
His enthusiasm is obvious and it also shows in the students’s work. “We are really trying to instill in the students a love of knitwear,” said Seiz with pride at their achievements.
A Greener Way to Knit
Seiz went on to point out that the institute has sustainability written into its mission and knitwear in particular lends itself well to it because “a fully fashioned garment lasts 10 times longer than a cut and sewn garment.” The rest can be achieved with choosing sustainable materials.
“Fully fashioning” refers to the process by which knitted pieces for garments are pre-shaped, in a machine or by hand, by adding or dropping stitches and then they are knitted or linked together so that nothing is cut. This makes the garment not only durable but also more elegant, and in fact, seamless. Chunky knits with a more loose structure can only be made this way, not cut and sewn. Fully fashioned knitting cuts down on the amount of material required to make a garment because it eliminates salvage.
Seiz points out that, whereas fabric designers are limited by fabrics that are available, all that the knitters have to do is choose a cone of yarn and “go crazy with it.” It should be pointed out that implied in his remark is what every knitter knows—that the same yarn can be used to create a huge variety of textures depending on the density of the structure and the type of pattern.
But despite the optimism of teachers, the problem is that knitwear designers still think in terms of patterns and templates that are used in fabric design. They make a flat pattern, check for the fit, and then program the knitting machine to spit out a facsimile of a fabric pattern, the only variation being that it has a knitted structure and texture.
Perhaps one day students and designers alike will dare to think outside the patterns delimited by traditional fabric design and realize the unlimited sculptural potential of knitwear.
And if you think that knitwear is all about wooly sweaters, and if you’re reading this wearing anything stretchy—a T-shirt, socks, and underwear, you are in fact wearing knit from head to toe. Somewhere, a huge machine with hundreds or thousands of tiny needles is knitting the fabric used to make the clothes in which you feel most comfortable.