It really comes as no surprise that so many knitting designers and yarn companies have developed from other creative industries. If you attend a trade show (say, The National Needle Arts show, which happens every year) and ask almost anyone on the floor how they started working in the yarn industry, chances are they are from some other creative field originally. Some jumps are easier to make than others (textile specialists, fine artists, and tailors seem to be in abundance.) Architecture might seem like a surprising connection at first, but after interviewing two architects who have branched into wool and yarn, it becomes easier to understand.
Antonio Gonzalez-Arano is the creative director and production team lead at Malabrigo Yarns, a favorite yarn brand famous for bright color and ultra-soft merino wool. Kirsten Johnstone, one of our favorite designers, is known for her simple and well-constructed garment aesthetic. I was able to ask them some questions about the parallels and process in transitioning from constructing buildings to creating garments and yarns.
How did you get started in the knitting industry, and how did you transition from being an architect?
Antonio: I went to school in Montevideo, Uruguay to study as an architect—at UDELAR (Universidad de la Republica), the Facultad de Arquitectura (School of Architecture.) My wife, Carla, and her family have a long history in architecture and are all active architects. I was looking for something different to add into my work. At the time, I didn’t know it would be yarn. When I started to join the yarn world I couldn’t find all of the colors and textures I was looking for. I knew Uruguayan wool was of the highest quality, but didn’t see it very often—it wasn’t being used to it’s full potential. So I started using it and dyeing it.
Kirsten: I have always sewn my own clothing and have created my own sewing designs for years. When I took up knitting in 2007, it was only a matter of months before I was creating my own knitting patterns. Initially, it was purely to create knitted garments for myself. My first design was my Paper Crane cardigan, using Habu Textiles’ Linen. I sent a photo of my design to Takako at Habu Textiles, and she was extremely enthusiastic about it. It wasn’t a huge leap to realize that I could get the patterns profesionally sized and technically edited, and then release them as a self-published design.
How are architecture and knitting related/similar?
Kirsten: I’m laughing here as I’m sure some might suggest being anal with a meticulous attention to detail! And I am sure elements of this are indeed beneficial! However, in all seriousness, I personally prefer to seek an appropriate design response to the particular materials I happen to be using to provide an elegant yet timeless design that can be enjoyed for years to come, regardless of the design field. In addition, I always aim to stretch myself creatively each time I embark on a new design.
Antonio: The design process has a very important step, which you really don’t realize is happening until it does—you evaluate without all the elements in front of you, because it’s not finished, so it’s a more intuitive process, a moment of decision making without all the pieces. That part is similar—but the technical problems that arise are still very different.
For Antonio, what is your architectural style, and what is the Uruguayan architectural style?
Antonio: My style used to be minimal. Architecture, in my opinion, is a very unique problem, in which you have to solve a multitude of problems within the same action. Buildings need to be functional, structurally sound, and fulfill many needs—aesthetic, economic, and environmental, to start. Uruguay has a very rich and varied cultural heritage when it comes to architecture. There are more European influences than anything else—Spanish Neo Colonial, Art Deco, French Academic, Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Modernist and Modern are all found in buildings around Montevideo and Uruguay. My favorite style is Modern architecture. It is the best way to solve the whole of human architectural problems. It has a consistent aesthetic and it focuses on sustainable development.
In the end, materials are at the heart of any construction decision. In many ways, knitting is similar—while Antonio builds the yarn, choosing materials and colors that will entice use, designers like Kirsten are almost the “architects” of the industry, building blueprints that can later be used by the knitting “craftsmen” who will create finished garments with them.
Do you feel that your business history also influences your work as a designer and the way you approach building a garment?
Kirsten: I believe it does, yes. I keep a sketch book and magazine clippings/photos for my Architectural designs and another for my knitting ideas. I work hard to nut out the sketch design similarly to a building with sketches, drawings and sometimes mini paper models in addition to the swatching component. I draw up my knitwear design using Autocad, the same Architectural drafting program on my desktop computer. At this point, I sometimes print out the design at a full scale and make a prototype using fabric and my trusty old sewing machine. This helps with fit and proportion for my innovative garment designs. Only then will I cast on and get busy with the needles!
Do you choose building materials and knitting materials in a similar way?
Kirsten: To some degree, yes, I think I probably do. I really enjoy exploring a material or a yarn in ways to enhance or perhaps celebrate it’s own unique and inherent features or properties. And it feels like I give the yarn or building an integrity or honesty—not by being showy or flashy, but quietly considered. I want my designs to not necessarily be “of the moment” but transcend time or a current fad.
I prefer to use high quality materials that are natural with beauty and timeless features or characteristics. I am currently exploring more environmentally conscious materials to also limit the environmental impact of my choices. My recent travels have confirmed my desire to use quality over quantity in all areas of my professional and private lives. I abhor waste and try to make my own buying choices based on the old “less is more” principle. And in terms of knitting, I design garments I genuinely want to wear myself and as I know I develop such an attachment to things I have made, these are going to be in my wardrobe for many years so they need to be able to go the distance in both quality and style.
Do you seek yarns that are structural or determine structure based on stitches?
Kirsten: I would say usually the latter. I explore garment design options after swatching and the subsequent consideration of both the stitches and the knitted fabric these stitches have created. That said, I am genuinely intrigued by structural yarns and the challenge to provide a garment that can utilize this property but in a wearable way.
Occasionally, a project comes along that seeks to combine both architecture and knitting. For Antonio, this project was Malabrigo Book 4. While the garments were varied, all of the images were taken in front of various architectural elements found throughout Montevideo. Antonio’s expertise and knowledge of various types of architecture throughout the city aided in selecting the best location for each garment.
Kirsten’s architectural background comes out often in patterns she constructs, including those that have been included in several recent Shibui Knits collections. Geometry, a collection that focused on the angles and construction of garments, features Radii and Trapezoid. And the newest collection, Monochrome, was entirely constructed by Kirsten, featuring a variety of structured and angular shapes offset by softer lines and materials.
Neither talent has walked entirely away from the architectural field. Antonio shared that whenever he misses creating beautiful buildings, he simply stops by his wife’s studios (located in the same building as Malabrigo’s order offices.) Kirsten still works as an architect, and has a current project, Eco/Edge.
Kirsten: My own Architectural practice originally began from a dissatisfaction with working in Architecture. Not from an ideological perspective; more because after 6 years of study and another 2 years to become a Registered Architect, I felt creatively dry. Working for myself allows a direct connection with the Clients and an exploration of their design needs and then my design response. I strive to provide a hands-on service, with a focus on elegantly modern Architecture. This means a very personal design response that is tailored and unique to each project.
It’s no wonder that architecture and knitting have so many parallels. While it’s interesting to delve into the past of both Malabrigo Yarns and Kirsten Johnstone’s work, like all architects (and knitters), our interest also lies with the future. I’m excited to keep following the development of both of these talented individuals and the brands they represent—and to see what they keep building for many years to come.