By Chere Di Boscio
It all started with Lisa Wilson in the fifth grade. She walked into class one day in a pink angora sweater; a smiley little ball of dandelion fluff that gave her an air of femininity. Girlishness. Kindness, even. She just looked so…soft. So…fluffy. So unlike any of the rest of us stuck in our scratchy, cheap woolens or static-attracting acrylics.
Since then I’ve learned about the cruelty behind angora, but my obsession with the transformative power of great knitwear remains. It can be snugly and comforting, like a warm blanket in front of a fire, but knitwear’s semiology goes far beyond that.
I remember my father – a big, Ukranian bear of a man – wearing thick, heavy Starsky & Hutch style knits with those open 70s collars. Watching TV cuddled up beside him, head cradled by one of his besweatered arms, I felt nothing could ever harm me in this world. No wonder I insist on buying my husband sweaters in that same style for his birthday – and like a good husband, he wears them, too.
Growing up, I became obsessed with how cool Johnny Rotten and Paul Simonon from the Clash looked in their deconstructed, ‘fuck you’ punk knitwear (a style Vivienne Westwood would later rip off and call her own). I bought second hand sweaters in charity shops and tried to get the look myself. Somehow, knitwear had gone from ‘sweater set’ to ‘mosh pit’ – and it was so easy to DIY.
As a young adult entering the world of work, I developed something of a fetish for unusual knits – particularly those will mutton chop or bell sleeves. I also realised what quality knitwear looks like, and bought pieces by Brunello Cucinelli, Chinti and Parker and Daniel Andresen whenever my meagre wages would allow.
Later, when I entered the world of fashion professionally, I learned about knitwear as art, via designers like Portuguese label Bettencourt, whose explorations of the tangles of experience translate into her use of the intertwining threads. She addresses questions like “What connects us all? How do our journeys cross?” in her artistic work, which is often inspired by African tribes.
Paula Cheng, awarded with the prestigious McQueen Savage Beauty prize, is another conceptual favourite of mine, thanks to the beauty of her deconstructive knitwear which express a unique theatricality with their intricate build up of roped layers, and dramatic shapes. But then, paradoxically, when my 90 year old aunt Martha makes me a pair of handknit slippers (in the same style that baby booties come in), I’m just as excited to slip into them as I would be to wear some of Cheng or Bettencourt’s designs.
Today, I am far more aware of the ethics behind knitwear. Whilst I do understand the vegan arguments against wool (sheep take a lot of space, land and water to raise; shearing is not always kind to the animal; the sheep are just killed after their days as a living wool factory end), I believe that on balance, the ecological factors outweigh the detriments (drilling for oil for acrylic and other polymers is far more damaging to the earth; at least wool is biodegradable). Sure, organic cotton is more cruelty free, but it’s not as warm and takes more water. Bamboo fibres need a lot of chemical processing to be made soft. And so on.
Some knitwear brands, like Argentina’s Nido, for example, make their fashion with pure sheep’s wool that’s handspun and hand dyed. They choose wool because it’s what they call “a natural and noble material with very valuable qualities which just needs a few steps to suit our bodies and fulfil a need as basic as warming us up. We choose to work in the traditional way, with the tools and knowledge that local women have inherited from their grandmothers. As a result of this artisanal process, every Nido garment will be imperfect, special and unique because it is handmade from beginning to end.”
Nido isn’t alone. There are loads of great ethical knitwear companies ensuring their wool is ethically sourced – check out Myrrhia, Maxhosa by Laduma or Nanna van Blaaderen, for example. And then there’s Wool & The Gang, providing eco friendly raw materials for you to make your own sweaters, scarves and wraps.
And that’s another beautiful thing about knitwear – unlike most clothing, you can easily make your own knits, for yourself, or for those you love. Giving someone something you’ve hand-knit from natural materials is a bit like giving them a hug – and it’s something that’s sure to make a serious impact on them for years to come.
Images: Main: Daniel Andresen 1. Nido 2. Pinterest 2/3. NotJustALabel 4/5. Nido