Today I’m really pleased to bring you an interview with Jean Moss, as part of the blog tour for her new book, Sweet Shawlettes, which has just been published. With twenty-five different designs, this book is a veritable showcase of cowls, shawls, capelets and collars. Small projects provide an ideal canvas for exploring new techniques, and one of the most distinctive things about Jean’s book is the sheer range of knitterly styles and techniques it covers. So if you have never tried entrelac, intarsia, or shadow knitting, there’s a nifty project or two in here for you.
Perhaps contrarily, given its impressive technical range, my favourite design in Sweet Shawlettes is possibly the simplest – Enigma – a dramatic and contemporary two-piece shawl. Knit in plain stockinette with two sweet-shop shades of kidsilk haze, it has a truly elegant simplicity.
Working with Rowan, and Jamieson and Smith, as well as international brands like Ralph Lauren and Benetton, Jean has been at the forefront of British knitwear design for more than three decades. Based in the UK, but traveling all over the world, the trajectory of her career really interests me, so I began by asking her how it all started.
Could you tell us a little about how your design career began?
Originally I learned to knit before I went to school because I wanted to please my beloved grandmother who spent hours teaching me. A fallow period ensued but my interest was rekindled in my teens when I started to make my own clothes. It was the swinging sixties and I loved what I was seeing on the street and in magazines, but had no way of achieving anything similar other than to pick up my needles again. From then on I was hooked. It never occurred to me that I’d ever be able to make a living out of it, especially as I had no formal training in design, but after getting requests for sweaters I’d made for the kids, I decided that it might be a way of making some extra cash from home. No-one was more surprised than I was to find that very quickly I was presenting my designs to luminaries such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and they were placing orders! It was a meteoric learning curve!
. . .and how you began to create designs for hand knitting?
When I started, I was living in an ramshackle old farmhouse with my husband, two toddlers and a menagerie of pets miles away from anywhere. My husband was commuting daily to teach miles away, so we were wracking our brains to find another way of making a living, which involved less travelling. So… we bought a knitting machine! My designs sold well so we quickly had to get more people to knit them. At a London show an agent for Ralph Lauren asked me to do some handknits for him. I jumped at the chance although at the time I had no production capacity and handknitting was definitely not my forte, but within six months we had 2000 knitters in the UK producing handknits for the Polo/Ralph Lauren label as well as selling my own collections to boutiques in the US and Europe. Obviously, as I had no design training whatsoever, there’s a certain amount of luck involved, but this was the eighties when the ethos was go for it and anything can happen.
From your perspective, how has British knitting and knitwear design changed since the 1980s?
The internet has changed everything. When I started I saw myself as a fashion-led knit designer, producing fair isle, aran, lace and intarsia sweaters which were difficult to knit, had limited production and therefore had a very high price point. However, the cult of the knitted stitch has superseded the fashion angle now. Knitters are into techniques, relaxing with their knitting and sharing the fruits of their labours with their friends and the web is a fantastic tool for facilitating this. If you look at the most successful books on knitting right now they are all about techniques – there are far fewer book which are purely collections of designs. This is fine with me as I’ve always been interested in both – I love fashion, but I’m also a technique junkie, so I try to make each design a mini tutorial for at least one technique.
How would you describe your style? Do you feel this has evolved over time?
My signature style has always been a combination of colour, texture and form. However, I’m interested in exploring as much of the art of knitting as I can and I like to think my designs are ever-evolving as I learn more and more. I keep my camera to hand and I take many pictures of interesting objects, people and places – looking back over them often sows the seeds of new patterns. Fashion is essentially ephemeral, and what gives me a buzz is creating timeless pieces that transcend fashion, which hopefully will look just as good in twenty years time as the day they were knit.
You have a great knack of selecting exactly the right yarn for a design. What’s most important to you in a yarn?
I’m flattered that you think that as I do try hard to find beautiful yarns for my designs. I make a list of the yarn requirements for each project and then try to find one that fits the bill. Having said that, it’s become impossible to be au fait with every yarn on the market at any given time, so I always start with yarn companies I love like Rowan, Sublime or Jamieson & Smith. You can never know how a yarn will behave until you’ve swatched it, some projects demand drape, others need stitch definition and every pattern is different, but for me it’s important for the yarn to feel good in the fingers whilst being knit.
Some of the most distinctive of your “Sweet Shawlettes” are inspired by vintage fashions. Do you have a favourite era of fashion history? Or a favourite fashion icon?
I love the glamour of the 1920s and 30s. Poiret’s orientalism, Fortuny’s sumptuous pleats and the fashion drawings of Erte and Iribe are all hugely inspiring. Women were trying out all sorts of new ideas as they threw off the shackles of the Victorian era and fashion design was innovative, outrageous and chic – all the things I love. It’s hard to name one fashion icon, but having done a whole book on Audrey Hepburn, I must say the research was a delight. She was the perfect muse, as Ralph Lauren famously remarked: “Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and design for Audrey Hepburn?”
Your work takes you all over the world, but is there a particular place that you love to visit again and again?
Definitely Morocco, but I love the theatricality of Venice too. I’ve been hosting knitting holidays with my partner Philip Mercer for ten years now, mainly in the UK, but our trip to Morocco last year was one of my favourites – design inspiration wherever you look.
Your love of plants and flowers has inspired many of the designs in “Sweet Shawlettes”, and your garden is clearly very important to you. Do you see any similarity between the processes involved in knitwear design and gardening?
Yes I do find many similarities. At the start of each book I have to have a couple of weeks of cooking time, when I do nothing but displacement activities like gardening, cooking, playing guitar or going on long walks. This gives me a chance to mull over and crystallise ideas and it’s amazing how the seeds of designs are often planted years before and given the right conditions they spring forth – much like growing plants.
Now, a giveaway! Courtesy of the nice people at Taunton Press, I have a copy of Sweet Shawlettes set aside for one of you. Following Jean’s remarks about gardening and knitting, to enter, please leave a comment on this post telling us the name of your favourite garden flower. We’ll (randomly) select the winner on March 21st, the date of the final stop on Jean’s world blog tour.
Good Luck, Everyone!
If you’d like to follow the Sweet Shawlettes world blog tour, here is the full list of destinations:
Wed 7 Mar Jen Arnall-Culliford Knitwear Jen Arnall-Culliford
Thurs 8 Mar Yours Truly
Fri 9 Mar Rock and Purl Ruth Garcia-Alcantud
Sat 10 Mar Woolly Wormhead Woolly Wormhead
Mon 12 Mar Yarnscape Alison Barker
Tues 13 Mar Confessions of a Yarn Addict Anniken Allis
Wed 14 Mar Joli House Amanda France
Thurs 15 Mar This is Knit Lisa & Siobhan
Fri 16 Mar The Knitting Institute Katy Evans
Sat 17 Mar Life’n Knitting Carla Meijsen
Sun 18 Mar ConnieLene Connie Lene
Mon 19 Mar Just Call Me Ruby Susan Crawford
Tues 20 Mar Tiny Owl Knits Stephanie Dosen
Wed 21 Mar Ulla-Bella Anita Tørmoen