the designer changing the conventions of knitwear
“There is a definite lack of beautifully crafted, playful and modern knitwear.” In the next in our series with 1 Granary, we meet CSM grad Laura Newton.
Photography Maxime Imbert
Laura Newton loves a challenge and thrives on pushing knitwear to its limits. Her work ambitiously explores and celebrates the complete freedom that creating your own materials offers, both within and outside the confines of creating clothes. “I want to show that knit isn’t this old fuddy-duddy gimmick jumper that is the only piece of knitwear in a collection,” she laughs. “There is a definite lack of beautifully crafted, playful and modern knitwear, and due to the advances in technology you can literally do anything you can imagine; it really excites me.”
The half-British, half-New Zealand designer grew up in and around York before relocating to London, where she has lived and worked for the past six years. With every intention of pursuing painting, Newton enrolled on the foundation course at Chelsea College of Art. Open to suggestion and wanting to learn a new skill, she took heed of the advice of a tutor who recognised her sensibility towards line and texture, and chose to undertake a BA in fashion design at Central Saint Martins specialising in knitwear. Enviable internships followed at J.W.Anderson, Proenza Schouler, Craig Green and Agi & Sam, for whom she developed, designed and produced the knitwear for spring/summer 15. Enabled by the support of the Pringle of Scotland scholarship, she is now a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion course.
Despite moving into fashion, Newton has maintained her artistic sensibilities. Sculptural is perhaps the most fitting adjective to use to describe her work. Both Newton’s explorative undergraduate and postgraduate collections utilised a variety of knit techniques, seamlessly integrating unusual materials to experiment with distorting the fabrics and creating areas of tension and release. “I’ve always had an interest in combining or playing around with opposing things,” she says, brushing her fringe out of her eyes with one hand and holding up a colourful maquette-like sample with the other. “Using unconventional materials also challenges knit to be something more than you’d expect – it gives it structure, and it becomes sculpture.”
“After all these years of studying knitwear, I wanted to push myself and celebrate and show what all the unique qualities of knit are."
In Newton’s graduate collection, hand-carved ply wooden birch pieces resembling large embroidery hoops float and hold the fine gauge knit open in areas. Fabricated from cotton, lycra and viscose, the majority of the earthy-coloured collection was painstakingly programmed and produced using a modern industrial knitting machine. The ‘pod’ dresses, in which sheer oval-shaped patches repeat throughout the fabric, are an exception; these are crafted on domestic knitting machines, using copious amounts of hand engineering techniques.
“After all these years of studying knitwear, I wanted to push myself and celebrate and show what all the unique qualities of knit are,” she says whilst gesticulating towards the many samples that are precariously tacked up on her studio wall. “With knit, you literally start with nothing and construct your own fabric, building it from scratch. I wanted to minimise the amount of pattern pieces needed for each look and put all the focus on the fabric and form; for it to just be about the girl and the dress, to show off the fact you can do all of these techniques and explore the possibilities of the medium.”
Fashion did not inform the collection in the most obvious, literal and derivative sense – instead, Newton considers the ways we wear and connect with our clothes. “The starting point was how clothing folds or crumples as we live in our clothes.” She fanatically points to the creases that form a fan-like shape in her brown trousers around her bent knee and surrounding the armpit of her faded Crystal Castles T-shirt. “Clothes aren’t designed like that; they are incidental, and putting my body inside the material creates them. My fabric development came from trying to engineer these little moments of creases and crumples.”
“When my work isn’t interacting, it’s really not functioning as I imagined.”
Always friendly and forthcoming, when discussing references she exudes a particularly intense and infectious enthusiasm, talking a mile a minute. Newton explains that, aside from clothes, inspiration also came from images of the performances and sculptures of Erwin Wurm and the fabric works of Jorge Eielson, which sit alongside imagery of more contemporary textural pieces by Sergej Jensen and Enrico Castellani in Newton’s carefully compiled volumes of research. “The collection became an organic culmination of everything I’m interested in. I especially like abstract art because the narrative is not prescribed – the meaning is found via your own interpretation”
The craft, texture and colours of her clothes can be more easily appreciated when displayed on her specially commissioned wire hangers, which are shaped in the two-dimensional outline of a body – but it is not until the pieces are worn that the designs truly come alive. Newton’s clothes are the canvas, and it is the body which acts as the frame stretching them into shape. “I wasn’t really designing as if they were clothes to start with, it was all about the fabrics and how they were going to look when they were on the body,” she explains. “When my work isn’t interacting, it’s really not functioning as I imagined.”
In the majority of the pieces, one of the armholes is lowered to just above and below the elbow so that the stretchy lycra-blend knits are pushed out over the shoulder and pulled into shape. Likewise, the dresses are anchored down with stirrups under the foot. “After graduation, wearability is becoming increasingly important to me, but I also don’t want to limit my designs by the fact that I am creating clothes,” she continues. “There is a playful element in how it is a bit difficult to move in the collection – it’s like you’re battling with this art thing I’ve made. Maybe they’re not that easy to wear and not fully functional, but that’s part of the beauty of them.”
Post-MA, Newton spent her summer working as an assistant knitwear designer at Burberry on a three-month contract. Most of her limited free time is taken up working in her Seven Sisters studio, which she shares with an array of young creatives. In tandem with creating collections, she plans to continue exploring her artistic pursuits: “I would love to put on an exhibition with all the drawings I’ve done, and I really want to create some bigger pieces that aren’t garments alongside my knits. I feel it would bring everything together.” Whatever the future holds for Newton, she will be sure to carry on creatively challenging the conventions of contemporary knitwear.