From the family-knit cardigans of infancy, to the House of Sunny ‘fits of today’s Tik Tokers du’jour, society’s enduring love of knitwear transcends generations. But while the ways we choose to style our knits are ever-evolving, the design of knitted garments themselves hasn’t changed nearly as much as one might think.
Take “ugly sweaters” from the 1970s, photographs from the Missoni and Alaïa runways of the 1980s, and screenshots from the latest Paloma Wool and Ganni sites, and you’ll notice that the same few things appear again and again: vibrant color blocking, focus on texture, eye-popping geometry, and a psychedelic pattern. If there’s one demographic that has always stood by dressing like life is a game of human tetris, it’s the graphic arts community. From art directors and animators, to illustrators and graphic designers, there’s a whole industry of people who are fond of mirroring their poster and print designs in their everyday attire. And unlike trends in graphic design that come and go, the design of knitwear is actually quite timeless and trend-impermeable.
Fast fashion might have a tight grip on much of the world of style, but due to its technical and material limitations, knitwear design more often finds itself beyond the grasp of next-day-delivered retail, and subsequently, its trend cycles. While many fashion designers are forced to adapt to changes in tastes in an instant, those producing knitwear usually spend years refining their craft and doubling down on whatever nuances differentiate their work from the next person’s.
Annie Larson is the person behind All Knitwear, a New York-based independent brand that comprises Larson and Larson only. Referring to herself as an artisan, she designs and produces all of her pieces manually on a domestic knitting machine, with each garment made-to-order. She began her career in mass-market production, working as an assistant designer at Target Corporation. According to the popular retail chain’s website, there are 1,934 Target stores in the US alone, making Larson a tiny cog in a big machine at the time. She had relatively little input into the final version of the classic men’s knits and sweaters she worked with, and it wasn’t until she happened upon a slower method of production that she found her path to complete creative ownership.
“One of my coworkers let me know that there were knitting machines that you could buy, that were primarily made in the 1980s, and I went to see one — some woman was selling them out of her basement — and I just fell in love with what I saw at work,” said Larson. “I saw it actually create fabric, and I just was so amazed by the machine and what it could do that I basically bought it on the spot, and then I left my job at Target.” She taught herself how to use the machine, describing the process as “a sort of instantaneous falling in love with a piece of equipment, even before knowing what was possible.” Realizing that there were possibilities was hugely inspiring.
Since 2010, Larson has been running All Knitwear alone, designing and making every piece herself, offering a unique one-on-one relationship to her loyal customers. As with the rest of the industry, her tools and processes have remained unchanged throughout the last decade. “It’s always been a made-to-order sweater business. I’ve always used Brother domestic knitting machines,” she said. “It’s very slow and very small.” Despite the size of her business, her popularity has grown to 58.8k Instagram followers, who are highly engaged with posts documenting her acid-hued graphic styles, created for clients of all ages.
At first glance, it could be suggested that the use of primary colors, sharp lines, blocks, and repeating patterns found in knitwear through the ages has been inspired by similar styles in illustration and graphic design, but conversations with designers such as Larson reveal that knitted forms are almost entirely dictated by manufacture and design functionality.
“When I first started, I used an old knitting software programme called DesignaKnit — I believe it was created by a UK software company,” Larson explained. “There are a few programs like that you can use in conjunction with your machine, I mainly use it to plot out different graphic patterns that I wanted to make on the knitting machine. When you think about a sweater, if you think about one individual stitch, that’s the unit that you have to work with. Some sweaters are chunkier, and some sweaters are more fine gauge, and that can allow you a different level of sort of detail, but at the end of the day, what you’re dealing with is basically a grid. Regardless of what technique you’re using, that’s ultimately the sort of canvas that you’re dealing with.” These programs are, as Larson said, “as good as it gets,” and there are no updated versions — she had to downgrade her computer at one point to even be able to continue using the software.
Technology’s lack of development has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in defining knitwear’s timeless designs, but there is a nostalgia and visibility of craftsmanship that has cemented its position as one of fashion’s most coveted and collected styles. Born in a small town in the north east of Bosnia Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia) in 1975, Slobodan Mihajlovic is a knitwear expert, designer, and consultant to fashion houses such as Roberto Cavalli and Mugler, to name a few. He also teaches at the renowned Polimoda fashion school in Florence, Italy, where he resides. Musing on the enduring popularity of knitwear, he said , “First of all, it’s comfortable… It’s not an item that you’re trashing and buying each season. I have a huge private archive of clothes, and most of it is knitwear, not because I’m a knitwear freak — I mean, yes, I am, in some ways — but because I give up on jersey and I give up on some shirts. Knitwear is just more timeless.”
As is the case with many timeless crafts, knitting is often passed from generation to generation, by patient teachers who share their life-long learnings and skills with a select few protégés. Mihajlovic is a product of familial tradition. “For me, knitwear was a very natural thing,” he said. “Since I was a kid, my aunt had a very small tiny atelier in the 1980s and 1970s and she had two little machines that she was knitting with. She would receive ladies in the atelier and then she would knit for them, in order to make their wishes come true. I was very impressed by that.” He also cited his mother’s pattern-making skills, adding, “My mom comes from those generations that were doing handcraft since they were three years old. She would go and take the sheep out with her sister, so she would show her how to do embroidery and how to do crochet. She was also always very crafty in a way, always customizing clothes for me.”
Caught in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars, Mihajlovic and his family were forced to relocate to Belgrade, Serbia, as refugees. There, he studied at an experimental college for design and textile technology, before eventually applying to study at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. “I think it was the right decision because it was totally different — not a knitwear-forward university at all — but this was something that helped me a lot to work on many other aspects. I was always like an alien. Knitwear designers, they’re always like aliens a little bit in the fashion industry, and that’s probably why there are so few of us. You have to have a mindset that is totally different to designers that do woven stuff, because it starts totally differently, and the development is different, and takes more time. It’s between nerdy and creative. It’s not for everyone.”
Evidenced by Mihajlovic’s lengthy career working collaboratively with high-end fashion houses, knitwear is at its best when its value is respected. From the loyal made-to-order customers of independent makers like Larson, to the showroom-shopping clients of the luxury fashion elite, there is an acceptance that quality costs, and those who can, don’t mind paying for it. While social media and online shopping has created an unprecedented demand for fast, cheap clothing, some makers like Larson have accepted that certain brands will always attempt to replicate their designs, but will never succeed in offering the same quality or experience, as it is impossible to reproduce them fast enough or on a large enough scale.
“Very early on in my career, probably in 2011, Urban Outfitters did a very, very direct copy of one of my designs, and I remember feeling just devastated,” said Larson. “I started going down this whole legal process, but then someone gave me advice that I’ve sort of lived by since then: instead of spending my time trying to fight this legally, the way that I want to spend my time is just moving on and creating new work, and executing ideas that like I feel good about, not letting that process be interrupted, because I think ultimately, unfortunately, that’s what ends up happening.”
Mihajlovic stated that the biggest challenge to knitwear’s appeal in recent years has been the way social media and a homogenized online shopping experience has allowed materials such as jersey to be judged as an equal alongside its hand-crafted, knitted counterpart. “There emerged a war between knitwear and streetwear,” he said. “Big streetwear brands appeared and I think that was, and still is, the biggest enemy to knitwear.” He also noted that customers would compare knit and sweatshirt, where a sweatshirt with a print would cost €800, and they would then question why a knitted equivalent would cost €650. “Something becomes hype and nobody just asks themselves how much work you have to put in to make knitwear. It was very frustrating for all in our industry, and sales went down. Luckily, that was just a period of maybe four or five years, and now knitwear is coming back.”
Something designers in other industries can take away from the timelessness of knitwear designs is its resistance to instant gratification, and the reminder that good things really do come to those who wait. Want to enjoy the quality of something thoughtfully hand-crafted for years to come? Pay with patience. Searching for a style that won’t lose its appeal at the next turn of the season? Learn to value skills over speed. Education seems to be the secret to knitwear’s generational endurance. While Mihajlovic teaches at Polimoda, Larson also takes pleasure and inspiration from teaching at the world-famous Parsons School of Design. As they teach patience and respect for their craft to the next generation of designers, an understanding and respect for the unique value of knitwear is ultimately preserved for another few decades to come.