Whenever i think of Bondi in Sydney, I don't necessarily think of its current incarnation of upmarket shops, chi-chi restaurants and babes and dudes galore. I think of a place, which Australian design legend Jenny Kee describes in her autobiography A Big Life, where people felt a spiritual connection to the place because of its natural beauty and that if you know the place well and good, you too would be ingrained with that intangible Bondi spirit. One particular line has stuck with me from Kee's tome: "I come from the land of Oz and Bondi's in my body."
John Macarthur is someone who knows a thing or two about Bondi spirit is all about. He dismisses himself as a "leftover hippie" but that doesn't do him and his knitting prowess any justice. He picked up a pair of knitting needles sometime in the seventies and went profesh as it were, in 1980 when he sold pieces at Paddington Market and then fortuitously had them featured in the pages of Vogue. His business grew and he expanded in the natural course of a burgeoning knitwear label but he eventually decided to reduce it back, working on a custom-order basis and creating a knit haven for himself and for others to enjoy in his beloved Bondi.
Jess Blanch, editor in chief of the inspiring Russh Magazine, who happened to be my Destination New South Wales host for the week when I was in Sydney insisted that John is someone I'd need to meet and right she was. Together we drove down just when Bondi was at its prettiest and I was lucky enough to catch him on a day when Purl Harbour, his shop in Bondi would be open. Call ahead if you want to drop by. John's the kind of man that might decide if the sea is too blue to waste a swimming opportunity, he'll shut up shop. Get him undistracted though and he'll tell a tale or two, knit-related or otherwise.
The point of Purl Harbour isn't though to peruse neat racks of knits, in a boutique setting with ambient music pulsing through. Instead you're advised to rummage through shelves, piled haphazardly with all manners of sweaters, singlets, shorts and cardis and then proceed to discuss with John a bespoke knitwear creation. He'll get you your desired colour, yarn, neckline, size and all-round pinnacle of knit should you have the patience to wait a few weeks, something which John says some people don't understand. There's certainly no easy equivalent in London, a place thriving with knitwear designers but not necessarily artisans who just want to make things to your specifications, unless I call upon my sometimes not-obliging nan in Edinburgh.
In Stevie Dance's piece on the Russh website about the great man she recounts getting her first jumper from Purl Harbour as a teenager. The process reads like an admirable rite of passage. Jess also said it wasn't uncommon to see John's knitted shorts or singlets gracing girls, walking about the parade. It struck me as a real luxury to have someone to call on to create your knit fantasies, a reason why Russh have commissioned pieces from Purl Harbour time and time again for their shoots.
All editorial images courtesy of Russh Magazine
Whilst it's no surprise that Australia doesn't have a multitude of knitwear-specific designers, considering its climate, it's almost ludicrous that a knit expert like John exists about a stone's throw away from the sun and surf of Bondi. This contradiction is precisely what makes this a treasure of a place to visit. I'm pleased to find that John has rolled with the times with an email address so that i can hit him up for a knitted short and matching t-shirt variety – something similar to the stripy short and vest ensemble which John very graciously gave me. It's my 1920s bathing suit moment that I'll be enjoying in the Hampstead Heath bathing ponds this summer – a far cry from the crystal blues of Bondi.