There's Never Been a Better Time to Learn to Knit
Nicole Leybourne is known for two things: her chunky, woolly, sweater designs, which she shares with her 48k followers on Instagram, and not wearing pants.
When she first began modeling her knit pieces in 2016, Nicole's comments section was mobbed by knitting enthusiasts who were scandalized by the latter aspect of her images, calling the self-taught knitter's sweaters-n-panties aesthetic "inappropriate" for the platform. (I can only imagine what they thought about tumblr, where Nicole's images would have been right at home.) As Nicole's star began rising, the haters found a new focus: They came for her career, telling her that her work would be obsolete in a matter of seasons; that her chunky, "ugly" designs would be swallowed up by the trend cycle.
The New Zealander responded to these critiques with archival runway images of Alexander McQueen's avant-garde sheer sweater dresses, Jean Paul Gautier's bridal cable knits, and more designers' use of knit textures in collections through the decades. Her point: Knitwear is not a fad. She would not be wiped out by the Zaras and the Forever21s and other companies that made slow, handmade fashion like hers seem like a relic of the past. Knitwear, in all its shapes and colors, would persist.
Nicole Leybourne was right.
Since 2019, I've watched sweater after sweater go viral. There was Katie Holmes's post-breakup cashmere bra and cardigan set, and Chris Evans's Knives Out cable knit that hugged his biceps with confusingly wholesome sensuality. This year alone, Bernie Sanders's mittens outshone whatever it is that Joe Biden said at the inauguration, and the viral J.W. Anderson patchwork cardigan Harry Styles wore during a rehearsal for a performance on NBC's Today Show courted so much online love that the designer himself released the pattern for free, and the original worn by Styles is now being housed in a museum. If you needed a sign that 2021 was the perfect time to learn how to knit, you've had plenty. Whether your intentions are to crochet an of-the-moment bucket hat or a granny-square suit; to find a soothing, screen-free anxiety antidote; or to participate in the slow-fashion movement, the world of knitting is here to solve your problems. And the items you knit will last long enough to be worth the effort, promise.
At the time of Nicole's online kerfuffle, I was a passive social media voyeur watching the drama of niche knitting Instagram play out from behind my screen, probably wearing an itchier knockoff version of one of her designs. In the years following, her idiosyncratic knits — oversize cardigans and jumpers with balloon sleeves made of thick, cozy yarns — not only spurred her decision to jump into business full-time as The Knitter, but also led to collaborations with Free People, Anthropologie, Karen Walker, and knitting brand Wool and the Gang, which sells kits to home-crafters wanting to give DIY a try but who wouldn't know what to do in a yarn store. Today, knitwear, crochet, and a host of other DIY fashions (quilted pants! Cross-stitch!) are as popular as ever, and you don't need to be the Second Daughter of the United States/art school student Ella Emhoff to be in the know.
And you don't have to wait for beanie season to return — knitwear in its many forms is firmly established as a summer trend for 2021.
Where Leybourne prefers to keep her collections focused on warm staples ("it's always cold somewhere in the world," she says), Myracle, a slow-fashion knitwear brand launched by two New York-based grad students, isn't worried about demand during the summer months. "We asked our customers [what they want for summer] and they told us they love bikinis, swimwear, some different designs," says Beste Tonga, one of Myracle's co-founders alongside Hilal Palacioglu.
Consider, if you can recall a time when crowded deserts and stadiums were a thing, festival season. No cultural staple goes quite as hard on summer crochet and knitwear than Coachella (JoAnn's Fabrics sun and Vanessa Hudgens rising). With its 2021 return, the festival said grab your hooks and needles because this year we're going extra hard on Hot (Vaxxed) Girl Summer. Knit bikini tops, shorts, and bucket hats with floppy brims are all invited! Pack your crochet headbands into your knit handbags and delicate crochet totes. Susan Alexandra, whose itty bitty beaded bags were once on the arm of every It Girl, only wishes! And for those spring nights — say, April 23rd, when it's neither too hot nor too cold — all you need is a light [knit sweater].
Liv Huffman, a TikTok creator and YouTuber, similarly got her start crocheting with a bikini top for a music festival. The 23-year-old went viral earlier this year after crocheting a recreation of Harry Styles's cardigan, which originally retailed for more than $1,000 dollars.
"I didn't know there were — especially people my age and younger than me, that were actually interested in crocheting and knitting," she tells me over Zoom.
"I think a lot of it has to do with, I mean especially for me personally, just not being able to afford stuff, and when it comes to things that are handmade and hand-knitted there's a lot of work and a lot of love that goes into those things so obviously they're a little pricey."
Like many of the knitters and crocheters I spoke to, Liv is self-taught, and is one of a growing handful of Gen Z knitfluencers and crocheters who have captured the attention of thousands of followers with their on-trend designs. Kara Eng is a college student in Los Angeles whose patterns, like the Game, Set, Match cardigan set pattern, have been downloaded hundreds of times on Etsy. The London-based knitfluencer @Vicky.Knits has more than 50k Instagram followers and a collaboration with Wool and the Gang.
"We're bringing back old lady clothes, and I think it's really cool, especially in an accepting way," adds Liv.
Beyond the trendiness of crochet and knit goods, the resurgence of knitting goes hand-in-hand with the slow-fashion movement, a reaction to the gross waste, poor working conditions, and carbon footprint of the fast fashion industry. Call it DIY fashion, crafting, or the 23rd hobby I tried to beat pandemic boredom — the result of the made-to-order structure of these kinds of businesses is a drastic reduction in waste. It also returns a personal touch to the art of making clothing. In the age of mass production, original handmade clothing is as exclusive as it gets. (Sorry, Supreme.)
Last summer, I wrote about the explosion of home-sewing, which created a subsequent shortage of sewing machines at the beginning of quarantine. Yarn and knitting companies have likewise experienced shortages. However, whereas the cost of a sewing machine can be a prohibitive one-time expense for some, knitting is a relatively affordable craft — especially considering the wealth of patterns, tutorials, and forums available online for free. One needs only to go so far as Ravelry.com to find a community of crafters who are waiting to discuss literally anything knit-related you can imagine (except for Trump, whose name was banned from the platform last year. It was a whole thing.).
Stories about knitting always begin the same way: "Knitting — it's not just for grandmas!"
In 2021, this proclamation feels redundant, if not unjustly condescending to grandmas — they bring nothing but joy and I will protect their reputations at all costs. For better or worse, this is the perennial image of the knitter: She is someone's grandmother who, in her old age, knits scarves and hats and afghans for her grandchildren to pass the time. But this stereotype alone denies the colorful and feminist history of the art.
We remember the pink pussy hats synonymous with the Women's March in 2017, sure, but what about the suffragettes who reclaimed the "domestic" task in an appeal to anti-suffragettes on their path to securing the right to vote for all women? Or the life-saving efforts of the knitters of the World War II era? (The time period is also home to my favorite slogan, "Remember Pearl Harbor: Purl Harder.")
Ravelry, the knitting website, is a community with a significant majority of women-identifying users who use the platform to not only discuss knitting, but also to connect on all kinds of topics. A recently opened group on the platform is called "Let's Learn Crypto," and features the description: "A safe place where fiber artists can learn about cryptocurrency (crypto) like Bitcoin, Etherium, and Cardano." In a world where too many forums are dominated by misogynistic anonymous posters barking orders to buy dogecoin stock, Ravelry presents r/WallStreetBets' female-friendly foil.
In 2021, knitting is also still a means of women's empowerment.
"We both come from families where our moms couldn't work and couldn't make money," explains Beste, who, along with Hilal, hails from Turkey. "So we wanted to do something to empower women to work."
What started as a circle of Hilal's and Beste's mothers, grandmothers and other relatives, has grown to 70 women who knit Myracle's made-to-order sweaters, which average $150 apiece. All of the knitters are based in Turkey, and many learned to knit as children in households where making clothing was a necessary life skill rather than a hobby (or wage-earning labor). The pair hope to expand this model, allowing for more contracted knitters who operate on their own schedules to produce their collections.
Leybourne, whose knits retail in the $600 range, also employs women knitters. "My knitters that I work with in Peru also knit for other companies, but it's really great because they just work from home, and mostly they just like to work in the morning for a few hours and then they've got their kids and their family stuff to do."
When I began writing this piece, I had just started my first knitting project that wasn't a simple rectangle. I envisioned modeling the final product in the article, my tireless work immortalized for posterity on the world wide web. Over the course of several podcasts, two seasons of Ozark, and long stretches of sweet silence demarcated by my dog's feeding schedule, I finished the project, a cropped sweater vest I pictured wearing in the summers as a tank top, and in the fall as a layering piece.
The final result was a disaster. The sweater vest was too big, the straps several inches too wide, coming to rest horizontally on my shoulder blades as though I'd sprouted wings. The ends of yarn I wove into the knit haphazardly came loose in sloppy tails. The row of stitches I had accidentally twisted to the wrong side turned out not to be as invisible as I had hoped.
Though I felt deflated, upset that my hours of labor had been wasted on amateur skill, there was an unexpected wash of relief, too. The way you feel sad after finishing a book you'd really loved, only to realize that there's a sequel. Getting the chance to start over, to do it all over again, was more cathartic than you may think. For some knitters, this journey is a part of a sweater's life cycle. When, if a piece is no longer worn, or no longer fits, there's always the option to unravel and start something new. But for me, there's also the reassurance that whenever I manage to make another piece, knitwear will definitely still be in style.