A return to simplicity: meet the brands championing the knitting needle

7 April 2022
By Courtney Joe

These local makers are bringing back the importance of tradition, care, and joy in woollen ready-to-wear.

Image: Gallerystock.

Knit one, purl one is a tune we may all be familiar with, but while for a long time it’s been associated simply with Gran’s toasty, yet sometimes itchy, jumpers and scarves, the wonder of wool is making a vibrant and stylish comeback. In Aotearoa, we are surrounded by the raw material, and can spot it shuffling about in large fields throughout the country. Combine that with the classic Kiwi entrepreneurial spirit, and you’ll find three homegrown female-owned businesses making a cosy splash in the world of knitwear.  

Through exploring and developing different yarns, wool, styles, and colourways, the Knitter, Dorothy, and Frisson Knits are all assisting in the evolution of this traditional craft, believed to have originated in the fifth century. Crossing cultures, generations, and continents, the simple act of knitting  is one that can be shared, understood, and worn by all. “Humans are innately makers, and creators, and doers,” says Nicole Leybourne of the Knitter. “Knitting is an extension of these human tendencies. It’s a neat feeling being able to make something for yourself or for your loved ones.” 

In a world whose terrifyingly fast fashion often now collides with the climate’s cry for conscious consumption, it’s no surprise that we have seen a resurgence of the humble hand-knitted sweater. In the past five years, local knitters have embraced a return to simplicity, seeking the joy and satisfaction that comes with creating something of value from scratch. It’s fashion at its very slowest, says Frisson Knits founder Charlotte Jennings. “But you have it for life”. 

Honest work

Nicole Leybourne in one of her hand-knitted the Knitter pieces.

For Nicole Leybourne, aka the Knitter, reaching for her needles was a break from the day-to-day monotony. The former model and natural medicine student started knitting cardigans and scarves in 2015, during any downtime she could find. Two years later, after selling a handful of knits to others who admired her vibrant, joyful designs, Leybourne decided she would turn her attention full time to this passion. “I just threw the life I didn’t want, right back at the universe, and in March of 2017—the same week I was supposed to head back to uni, my life changed. It all took off, and the Knitter became my full-time job overnight,” Leybourne recalls. 

A self-described hands-on creative, there was a lot of joy to be found from the limitless possibilities that came from what at its most basic could be described as forming connected loops of material.  “The possibilities are endless. So many fibres and colours to choose from. The tangibility I could give to my imagination, making something I could wear, made me so happy,” she smiles. Self-taught, Leybourne has now reached global status with her larger-than-life, statement knits, amassing a loyal following online. With local and international stockists, Leybourne has fans right around the globe, with designer Karen Walker and fashion icon Grace Coddington being two of them. 

The Knitter patterns are all created  and sampled in Tāmaki Makaurau, and constructed by knitters based in Aotearoa and in Peru, where Leybourne has spent a considerable amount of time educating herself on how her yarns are dyed and spun, She has also ensured she’s spent time with the women who bring her magical designs to life. Leybourne explains the importance of knowing, and observing, the entire process and supply chain of her wool supply firsthand. “I went over to Peru to educate myself. And it was my responsibility to do so…we should be, naturally, making things honestly and morally. This is what should be the norm.”

When asked about the future of the Knitter, Leybourne simply says, “I try not to look too far ahead…I have found that thinking ahead into the future only bores me out of my present moment. Too much to do today to worry about tomorrow.” It’s this go-with-the-flow attitude that has likely attributed to Leybourne’s success. “I make things that make me happy, and if they make others happy too, then that is magical” she says. 

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One of a kind

An array of the bright and cheerful hand-knitted creations created by the mother-daughter knitting duo, Dorothy.

No jumper by Dorothy is ever the same. “I had been having visions of these one-off handmade knitted jumpers—like abstract art pieces that you could wear—and having seen many photos of mum’s creations in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I knew she had the skills to bring this vision to life,” says co-founder Lucy Aitchison, one half of handmade knitwear duo Dorothy.

After having this vision in 2017, Lucy said to her mother, Anne: “You can knit, right mum?” Anne’s answer was yes, and one jumper later, their business was born. 

“We felt that people were more and more appreciative of handcrafts that take time, and it [starting a business] was something that I felt confident we could do. With Lucy’s design ideas and my knitting skills we could create garments that might be something people may like to buy,” says Lucy’s mother, Anne Aitchison. Inspired by each other’s respective skills, it wasn’t long before Dorothy became a reality. Dorothy was Anne’s mother, Lucy’s grandmother, and the inspiration behind their brand.

A creative woman, Anne attributes her crafty streak to her mother: a seamstress, florist, cake decorator, and more. Although knitting wasn’t quite Dorothy’s forte, it was her who taught Anne the very basics of the traditional craft.

Each Dorothy knit is hand-knitted by Anne herself from locally sourced kid mohair and merino. Lucy supplies her with hand-drawn designs, often inspired by art, architecture, interiors, and nature, and from there, a pattern is conceptualised. “There is a lot of trial and error transforming the designs into patterns. It’s an ever-evolving process and contently being fine-tuned,” says Anne. The pair work hard to maintain their standards—take one look at the duo’s website and the intricate detail that goes into each design. “I like to push mum’s boundaries as I know she is super capable,” says Lucy. “If something pops into my head I will ask if we can try it. The single stitches on a field of colour are a personal favourite. I like how they look like a little mistake!”

With each knit bespoke—and often made-to-order (Dorothy’s ready-to-wear capsules are known to sell out within days of release)—there’s almost always a waitlist. But this demand doesn’t mean that Lucy and Anne wish to keep expanding their brand. “We feel like we will continue as we have been doing—keeping the brand small and personal. We think people are increasingly becoming more aware of where their purchases come from and are making a conscious effort to support smaller companies producing things in an ethical fashion… [they] are happy to wait in patience for the slow production of a handcrafted garment,” the duo says. 

As for the future of the craft, Anne and Lucy predict a continual rise in return to the knitting needles. As the climate, and consumers, start to push back on over consumption, the mother-daughter duo are seeing more people champion crafts in a positive light—finding the delight in creating things for themselves and the satisfaction that doing so provides. Satisfaction is exactly it, Lucy explains. “Seeing ideas come to fruition gives me great joy. Especially the weird ones I come up with that mum manages to bring to life.”

A serendipitous business 

A Frisson Knits creation.

Charlotte Jennings always knew she would work in fashion, so she left school at age 16 to pursue just that, juggling multiple roles over many years at some of Aotearoa’s leading designers and retailers, as well as embarking on her own business ventures, one of which is now Frisson Knits. It was a rather unconventional career trajectory, she laughs, and when asked how she founded her knitwear label, she takes me back to the moment where Jennings and her mother, Belinda, were sitting in front of the television, knitting. “Mum’s always done a lot of knitting, she taught me how to knit, and we just kind of started knitting in front of the telly,” Jennings says. Not knowing they would soon have a burgeoning brand on their hands, they began thinking about garments and styles to knit, and how exactly they would create them. The mother-daughter duo settled on five unique sweater designs, set out to make them, photograph and style them, all for fun. 

The following year saw Jennings knit and share even more of her work. Slowly and consistently she did this, until her Instagram posts caught the eye of designer Vicki Taylor, of Taylor Boutique, who suggested Jennings do a pop-up shop at her Ponsonby concept store, The Shelter. “I said to mum, ‘Well, we may as well!’ And then, me and mum, for three weeks straight sat there for eight hours a day, just knitting our little hearts out [in preparation],” Jennings recalls. Frisson Knits was born, and so was the customer demand. 

It wasn’t long before Jennings and her mother needed the help of other knitters to support them with production, which is no walk in the park, Jennings explains. “We had to trial them. Each knitter, you kind of have to adjust the pattern to them. A lot of knitters will knit a lot tighter, or a lot looser, or they just knit in a different way, because it’s a handcraft. Every stitch is different”, Jennings says, showing me a handwritten knitting pattern in all its mathematical glory. “And you’ve just gotta keep counting!” she laughs. 

Now Jennings has a solid number of knitters nationwide to assist with production. “The first couple we actually found were through my grandma! My grandma went to a knitting group, and she helped us find some.” And as for the mohair? It’s all 100 per cent Aotearoa-sourced. Frisson Knits’ supplier
 is the grader for all mohair in the country, so every yarn is traceable, right back to each goat farm. 

Jennings’ designs have since travelled worldwide, and been seen on the industry’s leading influencers such as Courtney Trop of Always Judging, Reese Blutstein of Double 3xposure, Matilda Djerf, and Kate Bowman of Kate Official. Not to mention many a stylish women across the country—a sight Jennings will never tire of. “It’s amazing!” she gushes. “Whenever my friends see someone wearing one on the street they take a photo and send it to me. It’s so sweet. I love that.”

This article was originally published in Fashion Quarterly winter 2021. 

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