5 creatives making colourful knitwear to brighten up your winter

From Sophia Khaled's playful pony sweater vests to Sazquatch’s Slowthai-approved balaclavas – meet the people making knitwear fun for 2021.

by Frankie Dunn
|
26 January 2021, 9:00am

L: @sophia_khaled R: @sazquatch_

If the icy cold weather, or indeed Bernie’s mittens, have stirred something within you and inspired a sudden urge to invest in knitwear, well, same. While the inauguration’s fashion icon went for a traditional brown and cream pair of Fair Isle gloves -- hand knitted by a local teacher from repurposed wool, no less -- we’re after something a little more fun, something colourful, something to lift the spirits even more than the adorable image of a cosy US senator transposed into tens of thousands of amusing situations. A hard task.

Breaking tradition, the designs we’ve selected are not by recent graduates. Their creators didn’t all study at top fashion colleges. Instead, the five individuals are united by a DIY approach to knitwear that shines through in the at-times imperfect, playful pieces they dream up. In fact, many of these multitasking multi-hyphenates work predominantly in other areas of the creative industry.

There’s New Zealand photographer Harry Were, who, when she’s not shooting the likes of Lorde or BENEE, is working with local craftswomen on rainbow jumpers; London casting director Sarah Small who began knitting abstract balaclavas under the name Sazquatch just last year; and Lulu Kaaland, whose crochet dresses have been embraced by Copenhagen’s art scene. DEGEN, meanwhile, is an American artist whose wares also span glassware, and Sophia Khaled’s felted intarsia horse sweater vests are evil incarnate disguised as the prettiest things you’ll ever see.

We caught up with this lot to discuss their early experiences of knitting, breaking the rules in an age-old craft, and their go-to stitching soundtracks.

Lulu Kaaland

Five years ago, Lulu Kaalund was working in the kitchen of a Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen when a head injury resulted in a serious, year-long concussion. While Lulu was in recovery, she spent her time learning to crochet, and now makes beautiful rugs, blankets, dresses and sweaters covered with geometric shapes in beautiful colours. Existing more in the local art world than she does the fashion sphere, she exhibits her unique designs at the very cool V1 Gallery in the city’s Meatpacking District. 

What inspires your work?
I can bring my work everywhere and I always do! Is it a cliché to say that I find inspiration in everything? 

Do you design with a particular person or goal in mind?
I do sometimes but it's very personal. I never take orders, and I can't make the same thing twice. There is also no recipe, so it can happen that it won’t fit.

You bridge the worlds of art and fashion. Is that a confusing or conflicting place to sit sometimes? 
It gives me more satisfaction to do bigger pieces! But I like to think that I can do both :)

Do you create to a particular soundtrack? 
I always crochet to Seinfeld when I'm bored.

What are you working on for 2021?
I'm working on a new show for V1 Gallery, and I just finished a two-year project with Anne Sofie Madsen -- we actually just finished shooting the campaign yesterday! I’ve made a collab with a swimwear brand called Sian Swimwear too. 

You can view and buy Lulu’s work at V1 Gallery in Copenhagen.

Sophia Khaled 

Copenhagen-based Sophia Khaled once found knitting extremely boring. Upon realising the positive meditative impact it could have, however, she fell in love with the craft. The resulting designs -- candy coloured sweater vests and matching skirts adorned with motifs of white horses, demon cats and space dolphins -- scream of childlike innocence with a dark streak. Sophia uses her work as a platform to explore her emotions: the checkerboard sleeved space dog jumper, knitted seven months into the global pandemic, was a reflection on feeling as lonely as Laika the Soviet space dog, the first animal to orbit the earth.

What’s your earliest memory of knitwear? 
My grandmother has always been a very well dressed lady and as a child, I loved looking at her clothes. She has always worn beautiful wool sweaters and cardigans.

Tell us about your aesthetic and what you’re inspired by.
My aesthetic is based on a combination of innocence, melancholy and darkness. I am inspired by a childish universe and intarsia knitwear from the 60s and 70s, but also by something demonic from both the outside world and from within me -- like the horse with three front legs. My motifs often spring from my own moods.

Do you design with a goal in mind or is it more about experimentation?
For me, it is very much about experimenting and exploring what knit can be. When I started knitting it was for my own sake and hopefully it will continue to be so, because when I don’t speculate too much about the reception, what I do becomes more authentic and original.

Your work is very playful, do you feel like you're breaking rules in a traditional craft?
Absolutely! I am actually not very technically skilled, and I believe that this is giving my knit a certain naivety. That naivety is contributing to making the knit more special in its aesthetic. I also felt my knit so it becomes more firm in its structure — it can be compared to washing your knit sweater the wrong way in the washing machine. I try, in my work, to use both knit and felt in new ways. 

If you could have anybody wear one of your designs, which look and who would you pick?
Paris Hilton. She is just an icon and I have been a huge fan of her my whole life. I would love to make her something special. Maybe something with a dolphin? 

Sophia makes clothes to order. DM her if you’re interested. A capsule collection of her designs will soon be on sale at Maimoun Store in NYC.

Sazquatch

Londoner Sarah Small can usually be found putting great faces in killer campaigns for the likes of Stüssy, Carhartt WIP and ASAI with Good Catch, her street casting agency. Over the past 12 months, however, a new hobby has evolved into something of a side project. A few years ago, Sarah’s mum taught her the basics of knitting and the foundations of the well-named Sazquatch were laid. The rest, she says, she picked up from the font of knowledge that is YouTube. After starting out making masks early in the plague year of 2020, Sarah quickly pivoted to balaclavas and the commissions began rolling in. Friends and fans -- including musicians Slowthai, Bakar and Jeshi -- begged the creative to make them custom versions of her signature ballys. Is there anything you’d rather wrap around your head right now? We think not.

What’s your earliest memory of knitwear? 
Wearing itchy school jumpers.

Tell us about the Sazquatch aesthetic and what you’re inspired by. 
Honestly, I've never really thought about Sazquatch having an aesthetic. I'm a very visual person and have loads of folders of research and references that I look at if I need ideas.

Do you design your balaclavas with a goal in mind or is it more about experimentation? 
A lot of them are commissions, so that person will already kind of know what they want when they come to me. But because I'm self-taught, every time I try something new it's an experiment. I made a couple ballys for my friend Dan and they had super intricate designs. I've still never made anything as detailed, but I'm really happy with how they turned out.

Do you create to a particular soundtrack? 
Luckily I can knit without looking, so I'll watch something while I knit. Most recently Freaks and Geeks.

If you could have anyone wear one of your balaclavas, who would you pick?
Probably 3 stacks.

And what are you working on for 2021? 
More one-off experimental pieces other than ballys.

DM Sazquatch for commissions.

Harry Were

You’ve probably already pre-ordered Harry Were’s book. You see, the New Zealand creative is best known for her photography — she’s shot fellow Kiwis like BENEE and Lorde, ultimately going on to collaborate with the latter on their joint Antarctica book project Going South. Harry’s other love, though, is knitting. She learnt how to do it aged eight, around the same time she started taking photos, and has spent the past five years working with a group of hand-spinners and knitters in her native Auckland. Harry designs beautiful, well-made sweaters and cardigans -- cosy classics turned interesting via rainbow colourways, or the addition of a knitted self-portrait of her and her twin on an oversized beige number, for example -- all hand-knitted from local yarn by a small team of her friends.

What’s your earliest memory of knitting? 
My Ma taught me how to knit when I was eight. I knitted the longest, widest, heaviest scarf. She would help me with all my mistakes and I made it perfect. I gave it to her, and she threw it out. 

And how did you start designing knitwear seriously? 
When I was 17 and finished school, I worked in a takeaway food spot that I didn't enjoy. Every lunch break I would go across the road to this wool shop. I would look at yarn and the old, old patterns they had. I made friends with a few of the women who worked there. They would help me with my knitting, and I asked if they would knit a jumper for me. 

Do you design with a particular person or goal in mind?
No goal, but I do think of my twin sister Carter. It's cheerful, not super serious, wearable, well finished. But it isn't just about the end product for me. It’s the whole process, the relationships that develop with each piece. Sometimes I source wool directly from the farmer and work with a hand spinner to process the wool. Those pieces are my favourite. 

What’s the story behind your unique frog and twin vests?
The frog just popped into my head, they remind me of my childhood. The twin vest is inspired by a wonderful jumper by Survival of the Fashionest. I wanted to make a vest with me and Carter on it. It wasn't for sale, it's the first hand-knit I own. Rosemary is an incredible knitter and she just went for it, making up techniques for hair as she went.

Tell us more about the craftspeople who knit for you.
I work with six hand-knitters around New Zealand, and one hand spinner. Most of them live in Auckland, so I see them often. They are very inspirational to me — their level of craft, patience and attention to detail. I feel very honoured to be working with them. They share their knowledge with me and I really value our friendships. 

You can buy Harry Were’s creations here.

DEGEN

Lindsay Degen has a photograph of herself aged just three, sitting next to her grandma on the couch, holding a ball of yarn and being taught how to knit. This was clearly a defining moment in her life. Lindsay would go on to study at RISD and launch DEGEN, a craft-centred brand making garments slowly and by hand: wooly hats topped with mood-altering smiley faces, the perfect rainbow socks and teeny tiny custom booties. There’s now a DEGEN sub-brand too, FACEVESSEL, for which Rhode Island-based Lindsay collaborates with artist Neal Drobnis on hand-blown drinking glasses decorated with abstract colourful faces. It’s all about fun, basically.

How did you end up designing knitwear? 
I think it was more of a response to mistakes I was making. Instead of un-doing (or "frogging" as knitters say), I would turn it into a design feature. I guess I consider myself more of a maker than a designer, because a lot of the interest happens as I go, rather than planned ahead of time. I did go to school for textiles at RISD but only worked on machines there. Combining scales of knitting through using both machine and hand techniques is something that still interests me.

Tell us about your aesthetic.
It’s about exploring high craft and not taking myself too seriously. Ultimately, if I am going to spend hours and hours making something, it’s got to be fun during the process which means more colour, more texture, more is more.

Your work is very playful, do you feel like you're breaking rules in a traditional craft?
I don't really feel like I am breaking rules (think 80's knitting -- that stuff was playful and fun and well before my time) but I do hope that I am breaking stereotypes of what a knitter needs to be. Anyone can knit and everyone should knit. I think knitting or any craft that speaks to you is great for your mental health and I am all about that. I have never felt welcome within the knitting community, the art community, the fibre arts community, or the fashion scene because my work is within a grey zone.

If you could have anybody wear one of your designs, who would you pick?
Right now, I'd want some random youth in a conservative part of the country to find personal expression through my work. But if we are talking celebs, then maybe Lebron or Björk or Juno Birch.

What are you working on for 2021?
My friends are having babies so I'm bringing baby DEGEN back. I also aim to announce an artist residency program at my cabin in upstate NY.

Buy DEGEN and discover more about the brand here.

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Knitwear