Sunday, July 15, 2007

Knitwear Design at the London College of Fashion

This last week has been bliss. I am sorry not to have posted for so long and all I can say in my defence is that I was at college (college!) every day and doing knitting homework (!!) every evening. It was brilliant. I just couldn't believe the luxury of it: a whole week off work to think about knitwear design. If you want to do the same, the course you want is the Short Course (summer school) in Fashion Knitwear Design: the link is here. The course was held at the John Princes Street campus at London's Oxford Circus. This means it is on the doorstep of Topshop and all the other high street fashion stores, plus John Lewis is literally two minutes' walk away. I should note that JL has a yarn department and that there was a 50%-off sale that coincided with the dates of the course. I'm sure I don't need to spell out the consequences of that discovery. The course was taught by the knowledgeable, kind & out-of-this-world beautiful Imken Donde, of whom I cannot say enough good things.

My class included Saima and Caroline, both fashion professionals who know a lot about design & garment construction already, and who had come to learn more about knitwear design specifically. You get a lot of factual information on the course about how knitting machines work, and how to achieve certain stitches and finishing effects with them, for the purpose of commercial production. Then, for the handknitters, which included Estelle and Sandra as well as me, there was a lot of very useful insight into the process of creating your own designs, which will help all three of us break free from the tyranny of patterns. So, for all handknitters, here is a quick'n'dirty summary of what I did.

The Design Process

Set a Goal.

You need a clear goal, like 'design a collection of 10 knitted fashion items by the end of this week'. Take a pencil and sketch 10 knitted items, as fast as you can. Give yourself 15 minutes for the whole task, and don't worry if the drawings are crap. You will refine them later. For now, just look at the garments your imagination has created. Think about which of them you'd most like to wear, what colours they would be and how they would fit. Then set your drawings aside and go read some magazines.

Find your Inspiration.

Identify some visual images that move you. It could be an existing fabric or actual garment, or images from fashion magazines, but it doesn't have to be: your inspiration can come from anywhere. I'm very interested in certain colours, and my inspirations included hospital walls ('institutional' shades of yellow, green and pink), the milky, slightly dirty shade of pink blancmange that British schoolchildren used to get served at lunch in the 1970s, and, most of all, the paintings of Barnett Newman. His Wikipedia link is here. Newman did lots of work in the 1950s. He was an Abstract Expressionist, a high modernist dealing solely in abstract forms. He made really big paintings:

  1. You can see that Newman's work is all about the restrained discipline of simple shapes, exploration of space and dimensions within the frame, and of course colour. Imagine the above ideas expressed as knitted fabric, in a colour palette taken from the mass culture of the American 1950s. Look at this advertising and packaging, from that period:
Note the pale turquoise in the background of the ad: a lovely 1950s shade Incidentally, note that it also has quite a nice relationship going on with the white and then the dark brown immediately behind it.

High modernism in margarine packaging. Note how the big, simple abstract shapes mimic the modernist art movement of which Newman was a part. And note that slightly sickly pale yellow. These are the shades and shapes that move me.

Think about Shape and Outfit.

You need to decide what kind of silhouette you want to create with your garment. Is it going to be tight-fitting or loose and drapey? When are you going to wear it, and what are you going to wear it with? Think about your lifestyle: what kind of garment will you actually use? What will look good with your other clothes? This is a good time to look through fashion magazines, everything from Vogue to the fashion pages in Heat. Look at lots of pictures of sweaters and figure out what shape, fit and drape you want.

Here's what people were wearing in the 50s. Note the simple shapes and the big areas of block colour, just like the art & graphic design of that period. Note the stand-up collar on that boxy little red jacket. Note that the bodice of the blue dress is fitted and sexy but also quite plain & rather angular, and the more 'outerwear' type of garments like the jackets have a simple, boxy shape.

Now, I'm not going to pull on high heels and white gloves every time I go out of the house, so let's think realistically about wearability. What's going to be my 'usage occasion', as we say in marketing? I scanned through Heat and similar titles, looking at all the pictures of the celebs in their off-duty outfits, going shopping and taking their kids to the park. I made a rough collage of the pictures I liked.

It didn't take long. I stopped when I got to that picture in the middle. It's Sarah Jessica Parker, on an off-duty day. I wouldn't be seen dead in the frou-frou frocks she minced about in on SATC, but here she is trogging round the shops in her local neighbourhood. She's wearing a big parka jacket, jeans and great big boots. Perfect. That's the usage occasion and the outfit, right there.

Next, I needed to think about what the above discovery about outfit & occasion was going to do to those 1950s fashion shapes. I decided that there would be little effect on the more 'outerwear' type of garments as they're already quite plain and boxy, and a good length. However, when it comes to sweaters, I don't want anything too high-waisted. I am not going to be stepping out in a sweater/fitted-skirt/high heels combo and I am not wearing jeans'n'crop-top - yuck. So I'll slightly relax the shape of my sweaters from the convention that 50s fashion dictates and put some extra length on them, maybe as far as the hip bone. That way I can sling my sweater on over a pair of jeans without flashing loads of flesh around the middle.

One final point about wearability. I don't want to spend years of my life caring for my knitted garments. Wearability means being able to chuck it in the washing machine with all the other laundry, and something tells me that means no pure cashmere sweaters and quite likely a synthetic blend of some sort.


I'm thinking about what kind of fabric I want to produce. Having thought quite a bit about colour, I was desperate to find those shades in yarn, and knit some of them together to see how it looked. Off I went to John Lewis. Because I knew it would be hard to find the exact shades, I temporarily lifted all restrictions on fibre content and yarn weight. I also had a dig through my stash to see what I had in the colours I was looking for. I found quite a lot of DK and 4ply. I knit up some swatches to see how the colours would look together.

This is the DK swatch:
Lovely colours, aren't they? So few of them were exactly the shades I longed for, though. I do like the washed-out blue with the bitter chocolate brown in the centre of the left-hand swatch. However, the turquoise above it has too much green in it. And the yellow is too true, too banana-y. It needs to be paler and even a bit clouded, a bit dirty if possible. Most of the yarns in the DK swatch are RYC and Rowan wool blends, eg RYC Cashsoft DK. There are also some cotton blends in there, such as Rowan Calmer.

Here's the 4-ply swatch.

The yarns in this swatch include a lot of 4-ply cotton, which is giving crisp stitch definition. That might be exactly what I need to achieve those big 1950s abstract shapes and fields of colour. Also, the colours available in cotton seem a lot sharper. Comparing the two swatches side by side, I came to realise that I would have to knit my garments in 4ply (I had envisaged DK for the more 'outer' styles), and that I would probably end up using either pure cotton or a cotton blend (a blend might be better for softness). I am glad I swatched, otherwise I would have started something in a DK wool blend and been disappointed with the fabric it yielded.

The big block of yellow there is still too strong for the colour palette I have in mind, and so is the pink, but let's look more closely at the top of this swatch.

My classmate Sandra let me have cuttings of some of her yarn, two very washed-out shades of turquoise and yellow cotton that perfectly achieved the contrast I was looking for, against the red of that Jaeger red merino. The cotton yarn is by Patricia Roberts, who apparently has a shop in London. I am going to investigate.

Back to the Drawing Board

Go back to the sketchbook, with all your early sketches, inspirational images and swatches around you, and draw the garment designs you now want. Don't sweat it, don't agonise over the details. Give yourself 15 minutes to draw 10 garments. Also, don't worry if you can't draw. I was delighted to learn that, duh, there are lots of useful resources around for fashion illustrators, which include pics of model-shaped naked bodies and torsos that you can trace over! Genius. Colour in your sketches, if colour is important to you. Then, keep drawing & swatching and drawing some more until you find yourself taking notes about finishing, stitch details and exact garment measurements. You are now ready to produce either a technical drawing which will meet the needs of a machine knitting factory, or a written pattern for the hand knitter. Et voila! One knitwear collection, designed from scratch.

  1. Short-sleeved knit top, chocolate brown & blancmange pink. Empire line under the bust, lower body knit in brown/pink 1x1 rib creating a vertical stripe effect.

  2. Long-sleeved sweater in a charcoaly almost-black and dirty off-white. Round collar in white, white hoops on sleeves.

  3. Short-sleeved sweater with bolero-effect top. A variation on Myrna, but done in a new 1950s colour palette, a finer gauge and a silkier yarn. Added a heavy band at the bottom: could even think about adding a low-slung knitted belt with a wide buckle.

  4. Dark chocolate and blancmange pink sweater. Note brown stand-up collar and brown zip which extends only down the centre chest, to the point where the yarn changes colour.

  5. Roll-neck sweater with graphic design, blue and brown. The colours are not quite right here, but I like the graphic design. I might consider making it more fitted.

  6. Zip-up jacket with stand-up collar in sludgy khaki with pale turquoise or green circle design in the centre of the chest.

  7. Wrapover top in pink and red. I could have included a tie feature in the wrapover, but I don't want the extra bulk of a double layer of fabric around the abdomen, so we'll stitch the fabric to the waistband instead.
  8. Asymmetrical jacket with stand-up collar & side fastening. I haven't decided whether to fasten this with a zip, velcro, and or a couple of decorative buttons.

  9. Purple zip-up cardigan/jacket with yellow stand-up collar & yellow graphic design. Another nice of piece of intarsia that will look great if designed and executed with mathematical precision.

And that's what I learned at school this week.


Aberdonian said...

Oh wow! That's so cool and interesting! I'm really liking some of your designs and would definitely consider knitting some for me.

ContinentalCat said...

It is very interesting to read about the designing process, thanks for sharing. It must have been a great opportunity.

Good luck with your designs!

DianeM said...

Awesome - I wish I'd known about it. I was so chuffed when I discovered those line-drawings too :-D mine's called Jane!

Might have to keep an eye on it for when it comes up again :-)

cb knits said...

That class sounds great, and is very much like a book that I read,called Designing Knitwear by Deborah Newton. I seem to have a hard time going thru all the steps. It would really be nice to dedicate a chunk of time too design! Good Luck with it - you really seem to be on the right track. Since I don't exactly live in a fashion mecca, I might have to make a vacation out of it.

Aberdonian said...

You've really inspired me you know. I spend last night trying to get to sleep while designing two pieces of knitwear!

Ahna said...

You have really put a lot of work into that post! That is a lot of great info.


RachelL said...

Thanks everyone for your lovely comments! I will keep you updated on how the collection progresses, alongside all the other knitting projects.

Ahna said...

Thanks, RachelL! I'm definately keeping up on your blog (or should I say blogs? You have many!) especially because I'm in the U.K a lot and like to know what people are up to and what they're knitting over there!

Anonymous said...

Oh, awesome. That'd be a fantastic course to take, and those sketches are awesome.

HeyYeah! said...

I really like your designs! I'm thinking about doing the course over 9 weeks in the evenings and it's great to see some positive comments about it.