Designer Q&A: Catherine Lowe, the Couture Knitter
Catherine Lowe is known in the knitting world as “The Couture Knitter.” Her designs, her reputation as a teacher, and her deeply technical knowledge all reflect this designer’s love for the craft. Her small collection of luxury yarn, bespoke, is less exclusive than it is thoughtful, and it is custom prepared for each knitter that places an order.
In this Designer Q&A, Lowe has a conversation with TKGA Master Knitter Charles D. Gandy. Read on to learn more about Catherine’s evolution as a designer and her continuing drive “to provide the means to create a garment that will be admired and cherished and worn for many years.”
CG: You call yourself “The Couture Knitter.” Did your knitting career stem from the fashion world? How did that brand come to be?
CL: I never imagined a knitting career. I spent almost twenty years in academics. The knitting career was entirely unplanned and serendipitous, the consequence of hanging out in a yarn store and wearing the garments I had made for myself. The term “couture knitter” is equally coincidental. In the late 1990s, Trisha Malcolm asked me to write a series of articles for Vogue Knitting about my construction techniques. The articles appeared with the heading “couture knitting.” When I later needed an apt and efficient way to distinguish my knitting practice, I borrowed Trisha’s coinage. The term stuck and became a brand. Nonetheless, I admit to some -discomfort with its pretensions and use it with great reluctance and only for convenience.
CG: When and where did you learn to knit?
CL: As a young child, I would sit next to my mother and watch silently as she knit. After some years, she explained what a knit and a purl stitch were, but never actually put needles in my hands. Finally, I picked them up myself. The rest came from books. And from watching anyone I saw knitting, especially when I lived in Europe. I had been knitting for decades before I discovered and made friends with other knitters. I think not having a knitting context freed me from a sense of obligation to tradition and allowed me to develop original techniques to compensate for what I found missing in patterns and in our tradition of garment construction as I came to know it.
CG: Could you elaborate a bit? What was missing?
CL: For many years I would finish a sweater, look at it and feel great disappointment. Regardless of the care I took, the construction was always clumsy and suggested poor craftsmanship. Pattern directions never elaborated on technique, saying only, for example, “sew back and front together at shoulders.” Knitting manuals were no more helpful, offering handsewing techniques taken directly from dressmaking. Wherever I looked, in terms of garment construction, knitting appeared to be dressmaking’s poor step-sibling. I wanted something more knitterly. There was a bit of trial and error at first, but I soon arrived at what has now become my signature joinery: worked entirely on the needles and subtly decorative as well as functional. Once I started down that path, I began to look closely at the myriad tools and techniques dressmakers use to create finely crafted garments with the aim of finding or developing a handknitting analogue. My entire knitting practice has now taken on this single focus of providing knitters with the means to change the look of their finished garments.
CG: You use the word “construct” often. Am I correct that you never seam a garment?
CL: Seaming is traditionally realized by sewing two knitted pieces together. My preference is to knit them together using a nontraditional stitch pick-up technique and joinery bind-off. Thus, my patterns give directions for a “join” rather than a seam. “Construct” also reflects my sense of the similarity between designing a knitted garment and designing a building. In both instances, the designer/architect must remain keenly aware of the suitability of the design or building to its use, of the materials to the project, and of the project to those who will wear it or live/work in it. Recently, I learned that costume designers refer to their process as “building” a garment, so I’m not alone in using the metaphor.
CG: Your work is strong and simple in silhouette, but filled with thoughtful details. What inspires this approach?
CL: What a lovely description! Thank you. It has always been the details that mattered to me. Something so small and subtle that it risks going unnoticed, yet transforms and elevates the design. The mark of the hand that made the piece.
CG: Do you have a favorite style, silhouette, or garment that you like to design?
CL: Understated, elegantly casual, versatile. Above all, flattering. One of my most important design principles is that the garment should flatter the person wearing it. Obviously, not all styles and silhouettes will flatter every shape, but I spend a great deal of time trying to ensure that each design will complement as many body types as possible. We can lose or gain ten pounds instantly depending upon what we wear and how we wear it.
CG: Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist?
CL: Yes—to a fault. And it likely makes me a very difficult person to be around at times.
CG: You have your own line of yarns. How did this happen? What distinguishes your yarns from others?
CL: When I established my own business in 2002, I sketched out on a piece of paper what, from my point of view as a knitter/designer, the ideal yarn collection would look like: a small collection of natural fibers of the finest quality I could find; a consistent color palette across the yarns; the ability to mix different yarns in a single strand; and the ability to build the yarn on demand. In other words, the ultimate bespoke yarn for handknitting. After a good deal of research and testing, the collection launched in 2005, and for the first time, knitters could quite literally design their own yarn. Each order is custom prepared; the strand is built as a parallel ply from cobweb laceweight singles to the weight and in the mix of yarns and colors specified by the customer. The concept has been daunting for some—so many choices—but for those knitters and, especially, designers who have embraced it, it has allowed them to rethink completely their approach to yarn choice and garment design. My hope is that knitters will be inspired by the concept and begin building their own yarns by keeping a small inventory of singles that they can pull from and combine as they choose.
CG: Can you talk a bit more about your preference for parallel ply?
CL: The singles that make up a strand of my yarn are twisted, but the strand itself is not. The individual singles are laid parallel to each other in the strand, and there is one principal reason for this. All knitters, to some degree and irrespective of their individual technique, twist the strand of yarn as they knit. Some twisting also occurs when yarn is wound into or rewound from a skein or ball. In each instance, the original twist of the yarn is either tightened or loosened, affecting the diameter of the yarn as well as the angle of the twist. The diameter of the strand, its twist and the angle of the twist, all have a critical influence on the gauge and the look and hand of the knitted fabric. Equally significant, stitch manipulation further alters diameter and twist. For example, working a decrease in one direction at the beginning of a row and in the opposite direction at the end of the row clearly manifests the consequences of altered twist. In one case, the twist will be tightened and the decrease will appear firm and neat and sink into the fabric; in the other, the twist will be loosened, and the decrease will appear large and open and sit on the surface of the fabric. By eliminating the twist put into yarn as the strand is built from singles, parallel ply obviates this effect. Because there is no twist to tighten or loosen, the result is a more consistent and evenly worked fabric with matching stitches.
CG: Do you have any sage advice for the new knitwear designer?
CL: More often than not, the motivation for the new designer is “I love to knit, so I’ll become a designer and then I’ll be able to knit all the time.” Alas, exactly the opposite happens; designing is about designing, not about knitting. Unless you are lucky enough to become part of a yarn company’s regular design team, much of your time is spent dealing with the business and professional aspects of the industry. Even as part of a design team, your knitting will largely be limited to swatches for your design proposals; it’s the sample knitters who will produce the garments. If you knit the garments yourself, there is usually a deadline that may give little time to enjoy the process.
But to address one specific -element: the design aspect of “new knitwear designer.” Be thoughtful and considered: a design is not an occasion to demonstrate how many different and difficult techniques you know, nor how complex a design you are able to create. A successful design is more often about subtracting elements than adding them. Quite personally, as a designer, I consider that my obligation is to the knitter, to provide the means to create a garment that will be admired and cherished and worn for many years. How to go about this, how to begin to think about designing for others, and no longer just for oneself, is a difficult thing to teach and all but impossible to put into a persuasive argument. It requires experience. Lots of experience, both positive and negative. One great regret is that here in America we have no history of formalized apprenticeship in the handknitting industry. Technical skills can be transmitted through tradition and workshops—experience cannot.
(Find out more about Catherine Lowe at www.catherine-lowe.com.)
Charles D. Gandy a TKGA Master Knitter, learned to knit at the age of four and designed his first sweater three years later. His striking book, The Embellished Sock: Knitted Art for the Foot (Acorn Creek Press, 2012), features eighteen creative socks and numerous techniques. He is a popular lecturer and instructor at conferences and workshops nationwide.
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