Renee Callahan of East London Knit

12 April 2014

One of the many vintage knitting machines at the East London Knit studio.
A day and an age ago (last October in fact) I donned the wellington boots and sensible waterproof coat and strode forth for a soggy amble along the Regent's Canal and Hertford Union Canal. The aim: to reach Hackney Wick.

And what a superbly bracing and beautiful amble it proved to be, enhanced by the fact that this raucous corner London was virtually silent. No mean feat for a city of eight million. Rain muffled all sound and the sheen of water on all the autumn colour on display in Victoria Park gave it an intensity rarely seen.

Ah! If only I hadn't had a toddler strapped in a sling to my torso! I would have taken some photos.

As it was I had to save my photographic energies for what lay ahead in Hackney Wick.
A freelance knitter had generously allowed me and the aforementioned toddler into the natural habitat of her studio.

Freelance Knitter, Renee Callahan of East London Knit.
I shall repeat that. A freelance knitter.
Yes, such people and such professions do exist.

Let me introduce you to Renee Callahan of East London Knit. An American expat in London, Renee (like my goodself) originally studied the History of Art. In her case Early Modern German woodcuts. You know, Albrecht Altdorfer et al. Anyhoo, one MA dissertation later she wisely jumped ship... onto a foundation art course at Camberwell before taking the BA (Hons) in Fashion Design with Knitwear at Central Saint Martins.

Apparently this seeming chaos of yarn and twiddly bits on a knitting machine do make sense. Thanks be for the likes of Renee who understand such things.

Soon after graduating Renee had the chance to acquire the contents of knitting studio belonging to a textile artist in Hampstead. That meant many spools of yarn in a vast spectrum of colours and a number of knitting machines came under Renee's charge. And, she freely admits, a spool or two of mystery yarn whose provenance is excitingly dubious.

So much yarn. Here the greens are gathered together...

Thus armed, Renee began her career as a freelance knitter.

But what, precisely, does that entail?  Picture the scene: A designer has a bolt of inspiration. THE VISION, a key piece for their next collection. A jumper! Some sort of melange of yarns, colours, texture the like of which has never been seen before. Which is all very well and good but said designer isn't quite sure how to make it a reality. Knitwear is a very different beast to fabric garment construction. There's all that technical, well,  knitting stuff to deal with. And what about sourcing the perfect yarns that would produce the closest drape or sheen to that in THE VISION? 

Cue Renee. Or rather, cue phone ringing or email arriving in the studio and much discussion about THE VISION; the practicalities, the technicalities, the sourcing the yarn, the deadline and the cost. Renee then has a ponder, a play, occasionally dismantles and then develops the piece. As well producing as the completed knitwear required for a collection's show, she also has a role as a teacher of sorts to the designers. Explaining how this knitwear malarky works, why something may look stunning in a fabric but somewhat meh once knitted if not completely impossible to construct... in effect how to make any future VISIONS as feasible as possible.

That's the main part of Renee's freelance knittery life. A pretty varied and terribly interesting one, wouldn't you say? Some of her past work is also rather fascinating as it gives a glimpse of how the intellectual property of a design is bought, sold and distributed around the world. Have a look at Renee's swatches.

Clearly, I'm not talking about about those Swiss watches that almost all of us wore in the 1980s and 90s. No, no, no.

These knitted swatches are unique combinations of stitches, colours and yarns put together to make the front half of a small jumper. The rights to these combinations are sold - through independent swatch companies who commission the swatches' development - at trade shows like major knitwear fest Pitti Filati or directly to fashion labels. The freelance knitter is paid for their efforts if a swatch is chosen and the swatch then goes on to become legions of completed jumpers or maybe the pattern inspiration for other pieces that in-house designers can use.

...whilst the yellows congregate next door...
It's captivating stuff, seeing the network / economic behemoth that brings the creative and technical developments of one person in a studio to an awful lot of consumers.

Now from the macro to the micro and a return to the studio where Renee creates her own work and designs. The East London Knit personalised scarves have a corner of Not On the High Street. All of these activities are based around her knitting machines but a recent foray into the world of hand knit design is proving exciting.

For example, there is Renee's Asterisks shawl, * the first of what will be a monthly release of new patterns. Her blog, EastLondonKnit Shows & Tells, is also a space for musings, observations and takes her teaching to an audience beyond fashion designers. Say hello! to her very useful tutorials on more complex techniques like a Tubular Cast On. Oh, and when she finds herself at a lose end (!) there's a bit of tech editing going on, essentially proof-reading other knit designer's patterns and ensuring the final work is indeed what was intended in the written pattern.

I feel quite dizzy at the variety.

... and the purples lurk happily together in another corner.
But, but, but... unless one happens to be part of the Missoni dynasty, the sort of knitwear and textile development that Renee loves is not the easiest to make a living out of. And this after many years of study as well as technical and creative experience. As Renee comments,

"The skill and time involved with actually making things with your hands is very much undervalued today."

A sample of Renee's work. A multimedia knitted dress incorporating a polaroid photograph.
This is a theme that has been popping up on the blog; modern society's seemingly relentless push for immediate and cheap consumer goods - usually, but not limited to, fashion - that undermines much of what makes a cohesive and healthy society. Or indeed, undermines the possibility of skilled and creative individuals to survive and thrive. So why struggle on?

"I think having people who make things is important in general for the facilitation of skill and understanding, and specifically for me, making things is paramount to my understanding of the world and what it is to be human." 

Hear, hear. When that creative force, that need humanity has to make, is snuffed out... then we are truly stuffed. Let's try and avoid that eventuality and be a bit more supportive of those with a breath-taking depth of knowledge, skill and expertise. All those in favour!


(Images: Zoë F. Willis)

* What an appropriate moment for an asterisk and an observational aside. It seems to me that shawls are making A Come Back. I think there are two reasons for this. First, they are a much larger canvas than a scarf upon which to show off patterns, colours, lacework and (obviously) your superior knitting skills.

Second, they are so dreadfully useful. Cold neck? The shawl becomes a bundly scarf. Cold shoulders? Cue warm shoulders covered in something more elegant than a jumper. Unexpected sleeping child whilst out on a jolly? Shawl becomes a blanket. Oh no! It's raining! I've just had my hair blow-dried but forgot my umbrella! Drape shawl over recently coiffed tresses and then you look like Audrey Hepburn / Sophia Loren / Jackie O sporting a woolly sort of foulard.

See what I mean? More shawls for all, please.


Linda - Kettle Yarn Co. said...

Loved reading this Zoe!

So amazing to learn more about such a talented friend. ;-)

Zoe F. Willis said...

Ah! Glad you enjoyed it, Linda. Renee's work is so terribly interesting, a wonderful mix of the creative and technical. And there never seems to be a dull moment. Brilliant stuff.