When a fluoro highlighter penned picture of a woman in a cream Aran knit jumper dropped into my inbox from a label called K2TOG sometime back in December, I knew it would be a good un’. Turns out I was already familiar with the designer Katie Jones, as I had written about her Central Saint Martins MA collection last year. In lieu of Fashion Revolution Day being just around the corner (24th April – mark it in your calendars), it seems appropriate to explore Jones’ very specific “waste not, want not” approach to knitwear, which earned her a place as part of Esthetica’s new designers this season.
What started as a creative (and pragmatic) exercise to use up all of the excess yarn from her BA and MA collections then spiralled into the beginnings of K2TOG. Katie had already had a plethora of knitwear production and design experience at the likes of Mark Fast, Diane von Furstenberg and John Galliano under her belt but she was yearning for a project to get “handsy” with and to escape monotony. That’s when she got talking to Orsola de Castro, who as you’ll know from my “Half Arsed Ethics” post is the founder of Esthetica and arbiter of opinion on all things ethical and sustainable. “I shot her an email about sourcing yarn from people’s excess and their waste,” said Katie. “Then it became a project that was about producing pieces that can retail at a reasonable level with enough embellishment of colour. So I thought to work on jumper bases that were already there. It then steamrollered into a collection. She was very positive about it and I thought ‘ Why not?'”
There’s definitely little objection to what Katie has set out for K2TOG, as she firstly addresses her own aesthetic values and then as a bonus, also solves the problem of waste yarn. “There is so much waste yarn – especially when there are specific dye batches,” says Katie. “It either rots and they do recycled yarn but it’s sustainable in one aspect but they also strip it with so many chemicals. It’s normally better to use it in its original state.” For the first K2TOG collection, Katie sourced her waste yarn from design studios and other people’s attics as well as a company called Fairfield Yarns in Manchester, which specifically deals with surplus yarn. They would be put to use on blank canvases sourced from charity shops. Katie set about securing ever second hand Aran knit jumper she could possibly find in charity shops as well as old leather skirts and shearling jackets to bulk out the collection. These would be her foundation garments on which to work the yarn with her own innate methods of technicolour-manifestation. “You have a design process where you’re limited by what you can source. It pushes you with what you’re going to make. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”
Katie’s love of knitwear runs deep. “I had an old lady for every skill. A nan that crocheted, a ran that knitted and a great aunt who gave me a sewing machine. It was my granddad that could knit in a round. He learnt to knit to make socks for prisoners of war. They’re skills that are very normal in my family.” Similarly the collection can be traced to family roots. First is Katie’s half-Polish boyfriend and his grandmother who lives in the mountain village of Zakopane. “I’m always drawn to traditional textiles and the fact they’re out of the fashion bubble but they wear such adorned clothing and their patterning is so bold. I like the fact that there is this a fundamental instinct to want to express something in folkloric costumes. Second is Katie’s granny, who had a penchant for constantly customising soft furnishings. Combine the two and you get floral motifs cut from leather off-cuts and inlaid into skirts and jackets and a cacophony of coloured yarns filling in and weaving their way in and out of the cable knit on the Aran jumpers, augmented, reshaped and reconfigured with bands of crochet. The effect is exactly like that of the initial doodled photograph – except replace coloured felt tip pens with rainbow yarns running amok. “It helps to be a colour magpie when you’re hunting for yarn because you’re not too hellbent on specific colours.”
I could yak on about the mountains of wool rotting away or the do-goodery of charity shops but the honest truth is the first thing that strikes you about Katie’s work is “That’s a great piece of knitwear. I want that.” In fact, when she was exhibiting as part of Esthetica’s selection of young designers at Somerset House, as K2TOG was positioned on the edge of the Esthetica area, onlookers didn’t even realise that her knitwear had any sustainable or ethical ties. “I much prefer to work on the aesthetics first and then solve the sustainability thing later,” explains Katie. “People like the individuality of each piece and the hand-crafted elements. Buyers like the fact they are getting a one off piece.”
K2TOG will be supported by Esthetica for a further season and as spring summer 2015 looms with its potential pitfall for knitwear designers, Katie has already looked at the possibility of using coating yarn knitted up to a finer gauge and working in second hand denim so that she’s not encumbered by a tag that says “I’m the girl who customises Aran jumpers.” She’ll also be looking at using the excess yarn to knit the garments herself rather than relying on charity shop stock. It’s hard to ignore the thinking and methodology behind K2TOG. It makes for feel-good story telling and weights well on the fashion conscience. Still, the final takeaway from K2TOG is exactly what I saw in that initial felt-tipped sketch – a fun-fuelled and individual approach towards knitwear that will stand on its own two feet – with or without the waste yarn management.