Grandmothers always did it, their familiar hands seemingly attached forever to a pair of needles and bags full of sky-blue wool. Mothers did it, especially when expecting or before Christmas. And spinster aunts and other unfortunate females appeared to have nothing else to do. Knit-one, purltwo. It was the anthem of the knitting brigade back in the days when knitting and womanhood seemed inseparable.
Now knitting is back. Craft stores report dizzying yarn and pattern sales to customers ranging across all ages and income lines. They are knitting as a hobby but more often for practical reasons. Fuelling the trend is the growing fashion interest in knitted clothes that began a dozen years ago and peaked this season. Its effects range from the mushrooming growth of knitwear boutiques to a labor shortage of knitters to fill all those orders for handmade socks and
sweaters. Especially sweaters. That allAmerican, all-Canadian sweater-girl look is in.
“Only it’s not just girls,” says Renée Paul, a co-owner of Cobwebs, one of the most versatile of Toronto’s new knitwear centres. “We’re knitting for men, women—and their pets if they ask us. We’re knitting everything from legwarmers to knitted purses and coats.” And sweater-girl no longer means only the golden misty beauties apotheosized by the 1950s. A funky, multicolored “Z” sweater with matching striped leggings was in the window of Cobwebs for one hour before the first customer bought it for $150. “She was about 60 years old,” says Paul, “and she looked at the leggings and said, ‘how sensible.’ ”
Knitwear began its climb to fashion dominance a dozen years ago when Italy’s nonpareil design team of Rosita and Tai Missoni first showed its multicolored knits internationally (with nonpareil prices—currently about $1,200 for a skirt and sweater set) and stores from New York’s Bloomingdale’s to Toronto’s Creeds snapped them up. But fashion is nothing if not democratic when it comes to sales. Soon major Canadian knitwear manufacturers, like Montreal’s Parkhurst Knitwear and Splend’or Industries, were entering the competition with more reasonably priced lines. Vogue called it “The Year of the Knit” in its August preview of the new fall season and Canada’s trade paper Style found it necessary this spring to run a special supplement on knits for the first time.
The knitwear rage seems based on two impulses in society. First, more
practical consumers who no longer look tolerantly at the extravagant follies of ’60s and mid70s clothing. Knits come closest of all to that wishful phrase, “investment clothing.” An out-of-style knitted suit can always have a couple of inches crocheted on to a too-short hemline. “And I can always re-block and update a style,” explains Lola Leman, designer-owner of one of Canada’s most expensive knitwear shops. As well, the mobile society has found that knits travel best of all. They can be pulled out of the corner of a suitcase or unrolled from a duffel bag with minimal fuss or attention. Even more influential, say retailers, is a second impulse—the yen to possess clothes with some sense of
uniqueness and individuality about them. The handmade, hand-knit look is even being referred to as “wearable art.” Says Gail Robb, owner of St. John’s Newfoundland Weavery Limited: “We started out as a craft shop. Now we’ve expanded to Toronto with customers who buy our knits both for their fashion appeal and as an individual, signed piece of craftsmanship.”
Toronto’s Barbara Klunder is taking this wearable-art approach to its logical conclusion. Her fantasy sweaters in the $350 to $400 range, with gardens of irises and surrealist landscapes, began their display at Saks Fifth Avenue and now will be featured at the Ontario Craft Council’s December show. The next step, says Klunder, is to make limited-edition sweaters with the number knitted in as part of the design.
The spin-off of all this consumer interest in knitwear is a new need in the labor market: “Tell me where I can get more knitters,” worries Lina Yankelevich of Toronto’s Lira Fashions who sits behind her cash register with knitting needles in hand. “I’ve advertised, but
you know everyone wants good knitters.” Some Toronto university students work their way through college by knitting their way through assignments for handmade knitwear tycoon Norma Lepofsky of Norma’s, whose 400 free-lance knitters supply her stores in Calgary and Toronto and her wholesale orders to the United States. Every knitwear designer has her favorite knitters, some swearing by English grandmothers and others by Hong Kong immigrants.
It’s not only the professionals who are knitting. Craft stores report a boom in sales. Monica Ries of Ries Knotique and Weavery in Edmonton says yarn sales alone have gone up by $5,000 over the past month. In Halifax’s Knit Pickers yarn shop, owners Alice and James Montgomery have watched sales double in the past year.
The technology of knitting is changing, too. What used to distinguish handknits from machine-knits was the variety of yarn and stitch. Knitting machines couldn’t handle the bulkier fancy yarns or the delicate silk-and-linen blends. But the introduction of computerized knitting machines that can handle up to 15 colors at a time and be programmed to print out a facsimile of an experimental pattern, has revolutionized the industry. For the ordinary consumer it is virtually impossible to tell hand-knits from machine-knits and labels inside machine-knit garments using the phrases “hand designed” or “handcrafted” add to the confusion.
The reigning queens of Canada highfashion knits, Lola Leman and Norma Lepofsky, both have their headquarters
in Toronto, though Lepofsky’s exports to the United States and Japan now constitute about 85 per cent of her business. For the past two years, anticipating the knitwear explosion, her designs have become more sophisticated and the suits less matronly. Now her sweaters include exquisitely made angora-and-wool confections to delight fantasies at $300 a throw.
Some fantasies come even higher. At the Toronto boutique of Lola Leman, a black velour evening coat can cost $1,600 or an organdy-and-metallicthread evening dress $2,200. Even with her high-income clientele, Leman has confirmed a trend other retailers note: “The knitwear customer is getting younger,” she says. The knitted dress as uniform of the matron has changed to knits-for-all-sorts. Housewives, secretaries, waitresses or professionals—one group may be taking the children to the zoo and another spending the evening at a disco or the opera—but chances are they’ll be wearing lamb’s wool. Which should make the lesson of all this knitpicking clear. Sell gold. Buy sheep.
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