July 12, 2007
The Knitting Circle Shows Its Chic, By RUTH LA FERLA
TEVA DURHAM is an unlikely idol, a soberly outfitted, plain-talking mother with a passion for quirky yarns. But to her fans, who snap up her how-to-knit books by the tens of thousands, Ms. Durham is the undisputed mistress of stitchery.
Those admirers, often young and aesthetically inclined, follow her patterns — casting on, increasing, decreasing — with unwavering fidelity. As well they might. Ms. Durham’s artfully crafted stockings and skirts, open-work dresses and cardigans vie in style and intricacy with many of their counterparts on the fashion runways.
Just a few years ago, the assertion that hand-stitched garments could compete with designer wares would have raised derisive hoots from the fashion set, which viewed the needle crafts as the domain of ladies in buns and harlequin glasses. As Ms. Durham acknowledged mildly, “People still think of knitting as, you know, a homey hobby.”
Well, no. Formerly neglected domestic arts like knitting, quilting, sewing and embroidery are being eagerly embraced, especially by the young. Their passion kindled by the abundance of handcrafted looks on the runways, they are blowing the dust off these folksy skills and lending them the bright sheen of style.
“It wasn’t that long ago that people would cringe at the word ‘craft,’ ” said Melanie Falick, who developed a crafts imprint at Stewart, Tabori & Chang. “Ten or 20 years ago, there were far fewer crafters and knitters, certainly fewer who ‘outed’ themselves. Now it has become a badge of honor.”
And an insignia of chic. The new generation of needle hobbyists, nimble-fingered women in their 20s and 30s, is growing ever more sophisticated, seeking out novel yarns imbued with bamboo or fur, working confidently with elaborate patterns, swapping tips online and emulating styles by fashion designers like Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga and Michael Kors.
If needlework has been transformed from a homely pastime into a legitimate fashion pursuit, is it any wonder that some artisans are marketing their handwork online and at cutting-edge boutiques? And influencing designers in turn.
“I do think the runways were inspired by people doing crafty things at home and by how inventive this generation is,” said Ruth Sullivan, an editor at Workman Publishing, which publishes large numbers of crafts books. She added that designers may also be looking at the Internet, where rafts of people are designing their own patterns and posting them on blogs.
Visiting an exhibition of quilts from Gee’s Bend, Ala., at the Whitney Museum, Marc Jacobs was sufficiently impressed to introduce whimsical patchwork skirts and dresses into his secondary line for spring 2007. Fashion titans like Fendi are offering bags that might have been stitched by your Great-Aunt Fanny, albeit with a tribal twist. Fendi’s coveted Voodoo bag is a bestseller at Bergdorf Goodman, as are open-work cashmere wraps from Loro Piana and hand-embroidered flats from Emma Hope. Even at the luxury level, shoppers are craving a handcrafted look, said Ed Burstell, senior vice president for beauty, accessories and footwear at Bergdorf.
The revival of these arts also owes a debt to a clutch of needle-wielding superstars: Ms. Durham, whose first book, “Loop-d-Loop,” was a best seller on Amazon; Wenlan Chia, a knitwear designer with an avid following; Diana Rupp, a youthful doyenne of home sewing; and Debbie Stoller, the founder of the popular Stitch ’n Bitch knitting circles across the country, who has been credited with jumpstarting the knitting rage with her popular series of Stitch ’n Bitch books. (Some four million people in the United States have taken up knitting since 2003, Ms. Sullivan said.)
The women — and a few men — who are buying these books march into crafts shops, eager to follow their patterns or to improvise. They also arrive with magazine tear sheets in hand, hoping to copy the styles of their favorite designers.
Ms. Rupp, who teaches a popular sewing class at Make Workshop, her studio on the Lower East Side, cheers them on by displaying fashion magazines and Barneys New York catalogs on cutting tables throughout her workshop.
Needlework hobbyists have become more savvy, said Joelle Hoverson, an owner of Purl and Purl Patchwork, neighboring yarn and fabric boutiques in SoHo. “A lot of that is driven by fashion,” she said. Ms. Hoverson has noticed that designers like Mr. Jacobs inspire her customers. “But they’re also looking at clothes from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” she said. “And they’re looking at each other. It’s very cool.”
The ardent pursuit of the needle arts has fueled a $1.07 billion industry, according to the National Needlework Association. That figure does not take into account mass merchants and chains. “This is no mom and pop retail phenomenon,” said Sherry Mulne, a marketing consultant for the association. “This is big business.”
Sewing is the latest of the domestic arts to be touted as a hipster passion, the rock ’n’ roll of the crafts world. Inspired by television hits like “Project Runway,” aspiring designers have re-energized the industry. The Home Sewing Association says that there are about 35 million sewing amateurs in the United States, compared with 30 million in 2000. And Singer reports that annual sales of its machines have doubled to three million since 1999.
The mushrooming of the needle crafts, which extends even to arcane pursuits like shoemaking and hat design, is also driven by a growing aversion to cookie-cutter mall fashions, by a desire to connect with like-minded sisters and reinforce a sense of community, and by a wish to handle solid, tactile materials in an increasingly virtual world.
“There is a natural need to do something low tech, to get your hands involved,” said Ms. Falick, the crafts editor. Ms. Stoller, an advocate of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, added: “It’s so nice to have something in your life that’s not just about self-improvement — that is, losing weight or advancing your career.”
Needle arts have also received a boost from hobbyists determined to market their one-offs and few-of-a-kind designs. Rachel Antonoff and Alison Lewis, the designers behind the indie label Mooka Kinney, comb flea markets and estate sales for vintage clothing and fabrics.
“We couldn’t get over the wealth of amazing fabrics we found,” Ms. Antonoff said, “so we just started making these dresses.” Today they sell their brightly patterned pieces at stores like Barneys and Satine in Los Angeles.
Sydney Albertini, a painter and ceramicist, sells her whimsically patterned tunics and wrap skirts from her studio in East Hampton, N.Y. “I think to myself, ‘Maybe one of the little girls whose portrait I’m painting would wear this skirt,’ ” she said of the designs she hopes one day to place in progressive boutiques.
Etsy, a two-year-old online marketplace for craftspeople, has 50,000 sellers, many of whom are independent artisans trying a hand at fashion. The online crafts market, initially built on sales of toys and dolls, has shifted to clothing in the last year or two, said Robert Kalin, Etsy’s founder, growing from 2 or 3 percent six years ago to as much as 30 percent.
Online marketers showcase handiwork that can be surprisingly refined, surpassing the cable-stitch sweaters, wrap skirts and tote bags that are the bread and butter of older crafts primers.
The wares include items like fishnet funnel-neck tunics, ruched camisoles, intricate cocoon wraps, cobwebby disco dresses and even tulle-edged corsets.
Designers and mass apparel makers keep an eye on the independent craftspeople, Mr. Kalin said. “This is where fashion comes from. The big companies tend to be a couple of years behind in poaching ideas from these little guys, who will always be on the cutting edge.”
Vashti Valentine has yet to explore the opportunities of Etsy, but Ms. Valentine, who attends Make Workshop, has dreams of her own. She inherited a desire to sew from her mother, who died last fall. “In August she was supposed to make my wedding dress,” she said, “but she was so sick that she couldn’t.” To honor her mother’s legacy, she is learning to use a machine and hopes eventually to design a line with a friend.
Vivian Pan, her classmate and a graduate student in psychology, plans only to acquire enough tailoring skills to whip up decorative pieces for her home. “I have expensive tastes and a grad school budget,” she said. “But that’s not going to get in my way.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company