Drapers spoke to knitwear designer Genevieve Sweeney to find out how she is using her eponymous brand to support UK manufacturing with a hidden network of British knitters.
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Knitwear designer Genevieve Sweeney founded her eponymous brand in 2015, after a career working with some of the most prestigious global designers. Inspired by heritage techniques, the brand manufactures entirely in the UK with a network of knitters ranged across the country. With stockists including Fortnum & Mason and Young British Designers, the jumpers retail from £140 to £400, and accessories start at £15. Drapers speaks to Sweeney about her mission to keep knitting alive.
What’s your background? How did you first become interested in fashion?
I have knitted since I was five years old and have never stopped since. I grew up with my grandparents, who taught me to pattern-cut and sew. It was a very creative home, so I naturally fell into fashion.
After graduating from Nottingham Trent University in 2011, I moved to New York and worked for the Rag & Bone knitwear department, then was headhunted by Hugo Boss in Switzerland as a creative developer for the men’s sports knitwear collection. I moved back to England a couple of years later, to work for Burberry in their children’s knitwear department, and finally at Lyle & Scott developing men’s knitwear.
My career has been a mixture of design, development and production as I wanted to experience every process of the fashion chain. This was a huge asset when starting my own label.
What is it that drew you to knitwear?
I love the combination of creating a fully fashioned garment as well as a textural fabric all in one. I really embrace traditional artisanal skills and innovation in machinery, as you can create such unique fabrics and styles by mixing contrasting yarns and colours. I find hand-knitting very relaxing and meditative, so even after a hard day I can switch off with a glass of wine and a film and not even look at what my hands are doing while knitting.
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What prompted you to set up your own label?
When I returned to the UK, I rented a studio and started buying old knitting machines to restore and knit design ideas in my spare time. I once drove up to Scotland to meet someone looking to sell his old machine that had been stuck under his stairs for over 15 years.
During my trip, I met the machine-owner’s nephew, who once worked in the knitwear industry in the 1980s before the factories closed down. He introduced me to a hidden network of knitters and I really fell in love with their high-quality skills and extreme attention to detail.
They used techniques you hardly ever see in the industry, knitted them by hand. I became very concerned that these skills would one day die out so started working on projects with the knitters
After a few months, I realised I had the start of a collection forming, so I took the jump and decided to launch my own label.
How do you find balancing the business and creative side of things?
I do sometimes find it hard to split my time between designing the collections and running the day-to-day business. I try and plan in a few of days of pure knitting and designing every month without any distractions. I really enjoy working across different roles, being involved in all the processes does allow me to be more reactive to customers and changing markets.
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You describe your label as taking an “innovative” approach to knitwear – what do you mean by this?
I work with techniques and processes to make the collections as sustainable as possible. One of the yarn mills I source my yarn from is completely run by solar power and the excess fibres created from the spinning are turned into paper. The dye house uses low-impact dyes and feeds good bacteria to the wastewater to “eat” the dye – after the process is finished the water is clean again to use for agriculture.
For the childrenswear collection, I am working with seamless technology that creates a whole garment in one piece. This hugely decreases wastage and reduces lead times as there are fewer processes. The jumpers are then digitally printed with harmless residue-free inks to give clean fine lines to an illustration.
How do you keep yourself motivated and creative?
A couple of times a year, I escape to a spa and switch off my phone. I find it such a perfect place to recharge and reset my mind, by the afternoon I find myself taking notes, feeling incredibly motivated and sketching new ideas.
What’s been you highlight from running the brand so far?
I have so many highlights of the brand so far: seeing my menswear collection in Fortnum & Mason, my first piece of press in Vogue, bumping into someone wearing Genevieve Sweeney knitwear and the wonderful messages I receive from my customers.
Favourite clothing brand
Dries Van Noten and Dear Frances
Favourite places to shop
Liberty and local food markets
Last fashion purchase
Black suede Topshop boots.
Bordeaux – at a friend’s house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by vineyards
Last book you read
I never find the time to read, unfortunately, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks.
Last film you watched
The Big Short
My first job was (at 13 years old) working as a chambermaid for a local spiritualist college. I found the job terrifying at times as it was so quiet and eerie I was sure it was haunted, but it funded my passion of making clothes and revamping pieces found in Charity shops.
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What would we find you doing at the weekend
Most probably knitting at my studio or taking a long walk in Cambridge ending at Quayside with take-away pizza and wine watching the punters.