Hand-knitted cardigan (worn as scarf) by, Malvika Ruparel; cropped jumper (worn inside), by Who Saloni; suit and tie from Dior
When I was a child, around eight or nine years old, I had this one sweater with a unique chevron design in fuchsia, black and white wool. It was a flashy colour scheme, something I wouldn’t even wear in my dreams now, but back then it was my favourite sweater. The reason it was so special was that I had seen it come to life – my mother had woven it with these coloured yarns that I helped untangle. She knitted for days and days (her hands moved deftly even while she was talking) and made me this sweater, which I ended up wearing until I was almost 15. Like me, many of my friends and relatives own treasured knit or crochet heirlooms. That’s the beauty of knitwear; it stays with you and holds the handprint of the creator – in its design, in the interwoven knots and the minor irregularities, which make it more special.
Jumper, from Arushi Bharti; knitted pants, from Divik Sharma; plaid lungi as scarf, from péro
I remember how, back in the day, ladies in the neighbourhood used to exchange notes on their progress. Knitting was a community exercise, and women were so adept at it that they could identify knots simply by scanning a piece with their naked eyes. It was also a craft that was passed down the generations; my mother learnt it from hers and my grandmother, from hers.
So, who invented knitting? According to researchers, there’s no precise evidence that could pinpoint its exact beginnings, but it has been proven as one of the earliest craft forms. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London claims to have one of the oldest woollen items – a pair of socks – from Egypt dating back to between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.
From the Middle East, knitting made its way to Europe via the Mediterranean trade routes. In the painting Visit of the Angel (1400-1401), German artist Master Bertram of Minden has depicted the Virgin Mary knitting. There was even a Cappers Act of 1571 passed in England, which stated that every English resident over the age of six and below the rank of “gentleman” must wear a wool cap on Sundays and holidays. This law was introduced to protect the interests of the local cap-making industry. A neat example of the 16th century’s very own “Vocal for Local” campaign.
Moving forward to the mid-1920s, fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel launched knitted jerseys in her collection after perceiving the popularity of knitwear across social classes. She is also credited for bringing knitwear out of its “dowdy” past. In 1926, she designed a “cut-and-sewn” little black jersey dress with a knee-length hemline (a first for that decade). In 1927, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli launched her debut collection with a line of graphic hand-knit sweaters. And over the decades, industry influencers like Missoni, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs have put a glamorous spin to this craft and brought forth classic knits and cashmere designs, which are an aspirational commodity even today.
Hand-knitted cardigans, from Peoli Design; shirt, from péro; socks, cap, and gloves, stylist’s own
On the heels of knitwear turning fashionable, the art world also began developing a close affinity towards this highly flexible craft form, mainly because of its malleability and fascinating surface textures. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, producing high-quality yarn was an expensive and laborious process, and so knitting was largely restricted to clothing and household items. Though power looms did streamline the process, it was still considered to be “women’s work”.
Knitted top as headgear, from Malvika Ruparel; jacket, from Lovebirds Studio; knitted top, by Shradha Kochhar; knitted cardigan as skirt, from Malvika Ruparel; midi skirt, from Dior
Perceptions were altered as late as the ’60s and ’70s, when female artists like Louise Bourgeois, Sheila Hicks and Rosemarie Trockel reclaimed the textile art space and displayed knitting or crocheting with the highest levels of craftsmanship. In 1979, Japanese artist Toshiko Horiuchi-MacAdam created her first crocheted children’s sculptural playground for the Marine Expo Memorial Park in Okinawa. Since then, she has designed many similar textile parks.
Chunky knit sweater with detachable sleeves, from Deeksha Bhamidipati; pants, from péro; cap and shoes, stylist’s own
At the turn of the millennium, artists truly started innovating with yarn and fibres. English artist Lauren O’Farrell is widely known for her significant role in the UK graffiti knitting scene. She is also attributed as the creator of the term “yarnstorming” – a gentle way of adorning public spaces with colourful yarn fibres. Contrary to yarnstorming, there is yarn bombing, a satirical art movement practiced by Polish artist Agata Oleksiak, in which she unleashes her crocheted installations over public spaces to highlight political and cultural issues. In 2013, Danish artist Inge Jacobsen created splendid needlepoint works of high-fashion magazine covers using cross-stitch and embroidery. Today, artists are also trying to push the boundaries of moulded artwork by experimenting with non-traditional yarns. Canadian-American sculptor Carol Milne creates unusual, knitted sculptures with glass fibres.
Knitted jumper, by Shradha X Marshal; scarves, from Peoli Design; shirt, from 11.11; pants, from Lovebirds Studio
In India, too, there isn’t a definite time in history to when one could trace the origins of knitting. The earliest instances of this heritage date back to the early 15th century. Under the reign of Zain-ul-Abidin, Persian craftsmen were brought to Kashmir through the Silk Route to develop the famed hand-knotted Kashmiri carpets. Zain-ul-Abidin also established the first karkhanas or factories where carpet-making was practiced in an assembly line fashion.
In the mid-19th century, a Protestant organisation known as the Moravian Mission was established in Keylong, Himachal Pradesh. They were credited with popularising the craft of knitting gloves and socks among the womenfolk of the region.
Plaid suit, by Rajesh Pratap Singh; bamboo and knitted top, from Shradha Kochhar; undergarment, from Dior
Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, started with the production of inexpensive cotton hosiery items during the ’30s, and the city gradually emerged as a prominent centre for knitwear in South India by the next decade. It is now known as the knitwear capital of India. During the Indo-China war in 1960, the craft witnessed noticeable growth as women knitted accessories for the troops stationed in the Himalayas. With the rise of power looms in the knitting sector, manual knitting took a back seat. In recent times, however, people are rediscovering the luxury of a handcrafted product, and knitting has once again found favour. And thanks to the current pandemic and subsequent lockdown, many have even gone back to reviving this hobby while they are at home.
On Elizabeth: Jumper (worn inside), from Muskan Soni; Jumper (worn on top), by Who Saloni.
On Neeraj: Knitwear made from knit waste, by Deeksha Bhamidipati; Scarf, by Akaaro by Gaurav Jai Gupta; shoes, by Ingrayed by Vidhi Thakur
Knitted fabrics are constructed by interlocking a series of loops made from one or more yarns. Loops that run lengthwise are called “wales”, and “courses” are crosswise. Due to the interlocked pattern, a knitted fabric has substantial elasticity, and it can be moulded according to the creator’s fancy. In India, needlework on woven cloth already had a strong foothold in the country’s craft communities, so people started referring to knitting as “bunaai”, from the vernacular expression “silaai-bunaai” (stitching-knitting). This term was commonly used to describe the skills that a “homely” woman should have.
Knitwear made from knit waste, by Deeksha Bhamidipati; Scarf, by Akaaro by Gaurav Jai Gupta
Today, knitting is not merely a woman’s craft but a professional skill that you learn, hone, and develop over time. Knitwear designer Tanya Maheshwari creates quirky, inspiring embroidered pieces that she calls “wearable art”. Her stunning self-portraits are a lesson in gender roles and feminism, through which she is continuously trying to subvert the male gaze. Designer Rimzim Dadu works with steel-wire loops and ripple corded saris to display persistent innovation, breaking apart materials to create unique textiles for her silhouettes. In a recently published piece, fashion commentator Varun Rana described a sweater that “set the mood at Lakmé Fashion Week Festive 2020”. He spoke about the “simplicity of a single indigo-dyed jumper, shown being made by hand from scratch” that had stuck in his mind. It depicted the simple luxury of a handcrafted piece, of a yarn being knit into a sweater, which pulled me back to the childhood memory of my own favourite sweater.
We chat with three Indian-descent textile creators who are pushing the narrative of knitwear forward with their unusual perspectives.
Excerpts from the conversations….
Sagarika Sundaram, New York and Bengaluru
THE YARN OF CREATIVITY
As an artist, my primary medium is textile, and within the canon I am endlessly fascinated with the way knits move and stretch, pull and perform in angles that woven cloth typically does not. The possibilities that knits offer, create a world and language of their own.
I like to source directly from small-scale farmers or as close as I can get to them in the supply chain. I avoid sourcing from industrial farms – it’s harder to be privy to growing and farming practices at that scale, and it’s important to me that the animals and environment my raw material comes from are treated with respect. At the moment, I have a relationship with an alpaca farm in the Hudson Valley that follows farming patterns that sequester carbon back into the soil. I also source two kinds of indigenous wool from Himachal Pradesh.
My favourite part is when I look at what I’ve made and assess it; sometimes this involves cutting open the cloth to reveal an inner pattern. I enjoy research and discussion – I love meandering, questioning conversations with friends.
Photographed by Inaki Vildomat
Peeling, slicing and exploding textile surfaces recur in my original felt vocabulary. I’m interested in rupturing flat fabrics into the third dimension, a metaphor for the difficult journey of opening oneself up and travelling inwards. I’m interested in uncovering what lies beneath the layers – the psychedelic, sexual, painful, ugly-beautiful – and the potential of sound to instigate transformation and manifestation.
I primarily make felt, one of the oldest ways of making textile, arguably predating woven technology. Historians have found evidence of felt-making from 6500 BC, and today we have modern laptop sleeves also made from felt. When a technology remains relatively unchanged over millennia, I consider it sophisticated. This is why I’m drawn to felt-making. Responding to an Earth ravaged by overconsumption, my work explores the relationship between felt-making and pastoral nomadism, which is the lifestyle this cloth is born from. I’m inspired by the values reflected in traditional nomadic hand-felted artefacts: one does not need more than one can carry.
THE SUSTAINABILITY FACTOR
I’m drawn to circularity, working with materials that come from the earth and harmoniously go back to the soil, such as wool, jute and grass. I believe one of the reasons the mainstream textile sector finds itself in the current environmental mess is that the relationship between soil and cloth is abstract and disconnected in most people’s consciousness. Reinforcing this connection is key if we want to move in sync with the carbon cycle. I like to look for fibre that is local and indigenous, with unique colour and texture determined by geographical origin. I use these textures like different paintbrushes in my palette.
Photographed by Ney Mila
I’m trying all through the process to minimise waste and make sure that whatever is generated is non-toxic and can be disposed of safely. I’m always reluctant to throw away fibre. It’s painful, like wasting food. I have Ziplocs of tiny bits of wool smashed together; the randomness of colour and texture is new information that I put back in my work.
Textiles can even be created in partnership with nature, like with the Khasis in Meghalaya. For centuries, they have trained Indian rubber tree roots to braid and fuse into bridges. There are artists in Europe and China using similar principles to make textiles from woven plant roots and architectural spaces from woven bamboo treetops. In short, textiles are so much more than fashion.
THE INDIA CONNECT
In India, as a felt maker, I’m interested in the histories of current practitioners as there are relatively few engaged in this work in comparison to weaving. I’ve been told that there are fewer than four people who make Namda felt in all of Gujarat. I’ve been experimenting and innovating with a semi-industrial felt-making unit in Himachal Pradesh. I long to study chikankari and the languishing badla craft. I’ve also been researching grass mat-weaving traditions in and around the villages of Tamil Nadu, where my family comes from. Basketry, brooms, fish traps, hats: everyday objects from different parts of India keep me in awe of the quiet, wise sophistry of the handmade. In and outside of India, I keep returning to batik and resist-dyeing – beautiful, methodical practices.
Currently I’m looking at our history of integrating board games like pachisi/chaupar into woven floor coverings like Navalgund durries. I’m intrigued by their mix of utility and recreation, their position in history and myth, and that’s going to rear its head in my upcoming work.
A DREAM PROJECT
I’m planning a monumental work of land-art in the landscape I feel most connected to – igneous rocks of Southern India. It would be fun to bring together school children from across the country through a collaboration.
VISION FOR 2020
The year 2020 in my universe is an exploding monstrous flower peeling open and eating itself.
Sirat Kaur, Houston, Texas
THE YARN OF CREATIVITY
The first time I ever picked up a crochet hook was about seven months back, and I haven’t stopped since. Before that, I had some experience with weaving small pieces of fabric. My primary focus is crocheting. Instead of looping yarn with two knitting needles, loops are made using a crochet hook. It’s the method that I learnt first and comes very naturally to me.
My first creation was a dress that took about 25 hours to complete. When I have an idea, I become obsessed with its execution. I end up working all day long with short breaks.
In the beginning, I was using solely cotton yarn for my projects. The basic idea of crocheting is intertwining loops of a material to create a textile. When I thought about this, I started to view all fabrics and materials as something I could use to crochet.
There is very little waste when I’m working with materials like yarn or fabric. I try to use everything. Whatever is not used, I save for future projects.
THE SEED OF INSPIRATION
The reason I decided to crochet was that one of my friends was into knitting. They saw how excited I would get by their work and gifted me tools to begin my own journey.
A textile is something that allows people to express themselves visually. I spent about a decade of my life growing up in Chandigarh. As a child, I was always fascinated with textile markets in Patiala. The vast world of textiles that I was able to experience in India has inspired me throughout my life.
As I am still experimenting and figuring out my style, there isn’t a specific way to describe my pieces. I’m always trying to create something that I would be proud to wear. Recently, I’ve been passionate about getting people around me to vote. To spread that idea and have more conversations, I created a shirt with the letters “VOTE”.
THE PROCESS OF CROCHETING
I’ve always been someone who needs a creative outlet, whether it be writing, drawing or creating visuals. The inspiration is about wanting to express myself without having to talk. The process of crocheting is my favourite as it requires patience and has been acting as a form of meditation and healing for me this year.
I want to communicate my idea of beauty through the things I make. I would also like to believe that my work inspires others to have their own creative outlet.
Sometimes, I feel like people underestimate the time and effort that goes into every piece. Knitting and crocheting are wonderful forms of art that require exceptional patience and time.
A DREAM PROJECT
Because I didn’t go to design school and am young, there are many resources I’m lacking or can’t afford. My dream project would be having a full collection without any limitations. Right now, I would love to collaborate with other upcoming designers who like to push boundaries.
VISION FOR 2020
The year 2020 has been one of isolation, but it has also been a time where people have come together for each other. Some elements I would have to include in this year are self-reflection, love and unity, but also anger and sadness.
Namita Khade, London
THE YARN OF CREATIVITY
Truthfully, I don’t really have a knitwear background. I was always interested in fashion, and my work was quite experimental and tactile. I was hand-knotting a lot of found materials. I hadn’t realised that these textiles I was creating were a form of knitwear until I applied to Central Saint Martins. I taught myself how to knit traditionally a week before my interview.
I think it’s all to do with creating textiles and every part of the garment. There’s a greater awareness of where things come from and how things are made. The whole story of a garment is yours; knitwear just feels more personal. It is also a longer, more time-consuming process, and you can see the craftsmanship and labour in a finished piece. It is a traditional process, and that’s something I’ve always admired within the fashion industry.
I always use whatever I can get my hands on, a lot of dead stock yarns; but I am drawn to natural materials and natural dyes. I try to be conscious and sustainable, and in the future I’d like to explore the technical side by producing my own yarn out of alternative natural fibres made from agricultural waste.
I think the good thing about knitwear is that everything is fully fashioned; each panel of a pattern is knitted opposed to cut out, and so there’s not really a lot of waste. Any yarn scraps or anything left over will always find its way into one of my other projects.
Making a textile is like a blank canvas; you start from scratch and can work layer by layer. There’s so much potential, and it can be intuitive or meticulously planned. Any textile comes with a great deal of cultural heritage, and the relationship between India and the textile industry is something I appreciate. I really admire the labour, craftsmanship and handwork, which is what I think is crucial to textiles. I’m fascinated by the ornate and elaborate, and I’d hope to create such a layered textile someday. But at the moment, my work is a bit simpler and more raw, and it explores the fundamentals of knitting and what textiles can be made from.
I love Mary Ellen Mark’s picture book Indian Circus. It’s a series of documentary images that are really aligned with the stories my dad told of growing up in the village. There’s a cinematic or dream-like quality to the images, as well as them being gritty and real. The artist described them as “uncorrupted, honest and pure”, and this has inspired my creative process time and time again.
I’d say the first thing I created that was authentic and had elements of what I wanted my brand to be was the Clip Top. The project started from memories of visiting my grandparents’ house in the village and the long drives between there and Mumbai. The car journeys are what really stood out, especially in comparison to those in the UK, they were so chaotic but visually important. I was inspired by truck art and the labour of making those trucks a home, finding peace within the chaos and the stark contrast between an industrial truck and the softness of garlands, shrines and religious iconography. The process of making was instinctive, with a focus on colour tones and ways in which to mimic this contrast. I experimented with incorporating hardware with knit, in a way that wasn’t gimmicky and managed to still be soft.
With research, I am drawn to narratives of marginalised people; there’s always this thread of the migration of communities and travel and untold stories. So I guess the process is finding a way to translate the impact of these stories visually.
I’m always researching and learning more of these stories. When my parents first came to the UK, my dad bought my mum “Western clothes,” which was essentially just menswear. I have a photo of her in my room in a knitted polo shirt and men’s suit trousers in an attempt to fit in, and that compelled me to think about the relationship between clothes and identity and culture.
Growing up in North-West England, I rejected so much of my Indian culture just to fit in, and it’s a common story for first-generation immigrants and POC. My work reconnects me with my family and my heritage, almost making up for lost time, whilst also referencing my British identity and experience and my community of friends in London.
A DREAM PROJECT
I think my dream project really comes down to being able to work and collaborate with communities of makers – both my friends and the marginalised communities my work converses with. It’s important that my work is sustainable and ethical in a way that is authentic and people orientated.
VISION FOR 2020
I mean, 2020 has been a difficult year, but there’s been a lot of learning. If it were to be translated into a piece of work, it would be textural and rough, but in some ways humbling.