For me, Louisa Harding and her Yarntelier brand is synonymous with gloriously delicate, feminine, intricate-looking designs using her sumptuous cashmere yarn. Floaty, lacy garments of gorgeousness, which I adore. So I was honoured that she found time to talk to me at the Knitting & Stitching Show a few months ago.
I began by asking when Louisa’s fascination with knitting started.
‘I was taught to knit by my grandmother when I was very young, but, at that time, I just made basic things like scarves for dolls and teddies in garter stitch. However I then took up sewing and dressmaking and that’s what I initially became more interested in.’
And the interest in dressmaking continued, as Louisa went on to take A-levels in art, textiles and dressmaking. During this time, she learnt how to cut patterns, which would come in useful in her future knitwear design.
College in Camberwell, then Brighton followed, and during this time studying Textiles and Fashion, Louisa finally picked up her knitting needles again, and luckily, found she still had the knack.
‘I think knitting’s like riding a bicycle, really. Once you know the basic knit and purl stitches, it quickly comes back to you when someone shows you again. And if you’re technically minded, you soon get quite addicted to discovering how the stitches work together, thinking, “If I do this, the fabric will go in this direction”, or “That will make a hole”, and that spurs you on to pick it up and take it further.’
Into the 80s
During the 80s knitwear saw some innovative moves in the fashion world and this proved a spur for Louisa, persuading her to move towards knitting as a chosen design medium at college.
’It was the influence of the catwalk while I was at college that led me to turn to knitting again,’ she says. ‘The likes of Kenzo and Comme Des Garcons were sending big knits and T-shaped knits down the runway. Although my work has never looked anything like their garments, it was inspiring!
‘Also, from a fashion perspective at that time, there were companies like Artwork, who were showing at London Fashion Week, so knitwear definitely had a better presence.
‘For the first time, it wasn’t viewed as simply something homemade. Instead there were 600- and 700-dollar sweaters going down the catwalk, which showed that knitwear didn’t have to be fuddy-duddy or have that homespun feel. It gave knitwear more of a cache.
‘On my course, those of us who went for knitwear tended to major in machine knitting. But I did my placements in hand knit as my tutor was Sandy Black, who had a hand-knit company. In fact, Sandy had a strong connection with Rowan, which is how I ended up working there eventually.’
After college went Louisa first went to Canada and worked with a designer on a handknit collection, but by 1990 she was back at Rowan, initially to help over Christmas, but going on to stay for 11 years.
‘For the first four or five years, I wasn’t employed as a designer. I worked at getting ready-to-wear sample garments knitted. I’d send out yarn to get knitted up, mainly in Hong Kong and China, then reimport the finished garments.
‘All the designing I did then was done in my spare time, finding little bits of space when I could experiment.’
During the late 90s, however, the tide turned as far as attitudes to hand knitting in the UK. With the power-dressing styles in fashion, a ‘granny knit’ mentality resurfaced, and knitwear became very traditional on the whole.
‘With Rowan Yarns, though, I must say that they, as a company, were always all about the designer,’ Louisa says. ‘They were never just about selling yarn. The company always gave you your own voice as a designer, which is why they stand the test of time. The early books were so innovative and creative, even looking back at them now’.
In fact some of Louisa’s early patterns are now available as part of the Rowan archive in the Rowan 40 Years book
At home and abroad
In the early 2000s Louisa went to US as part of design team with Kim and Kathleen Hargreaves, designing for Patons and Jaeger yarns.
I wondered if Louisa found a difference between working in the UK and the US,?
‘I must say that during some publicity work in America, I walked into a yarn store and found that there was such variety available. In the UK, there wasn’t such a choice of yarn. In the US, there seemed to be an awakening, energy and enthusiasm about knitting. They were embracing knitting and taking it on and making it exciting, and the US was very welcoming from a design perspective.’
Now, however, Louisa is very much back working on home ground, with her totally independent brand Yarntelier.
So what, I wondered, is the inspiration for her beautiful floaty, delicate feminine designs?
‘I think there’s quite a natural element to my designs. I like the stitches to behave and I like to leave them to be very naturalistic. If stitch pattern undulates, I like to use that as part of the design. I tend to use lots of lace stitches and there are a number of reasons for that. Our yarns are 100% cashmere so you want it to go as far as possible, to get as much of a garment as you can out of it, as it were, so by using lacy stitches with big needles, you get more project for your money.’
Knitting for women
This consideration for the ultimate customer runs throughout all of Louisa’s work, it seems, and in talking to women and knitters, she came to a realisation.
‘I’ve realised that there’s a big group of women who get left behind when it comes to knitting patterns – the petite women, who don’t want to be enveloped and swamped. People come to my stands at exhibitions, try the pieces on and say, “It’s so nice that this really fits”.
‘So I’ve listened to that, and, with this brand, I’ve stuck to my guns, as I think the petite women are undervalued and deserve to have designs tailored to them.
‘A couple of years ago, people were asking me for bigger sizes, but designing for larger sizes is a completely different discipline. Scaling up shapes doesn’t necessarily work, as where you need fullness on a larger size is not the same place as on the smaller sizes.
‘So I ran a questionnaire on my Ravelry group. What came out of the survey was an overriding desire for smaller sizes, even though we already went down to an 8 and 10. The smaller women were wearing children’s clothes, as there was nothing specifically for them.
‘Also, as ladies get older, they lose body mass on their hips and shoulders, etc, and normal shapes of garments don’t fit them as well. This has all been highlighted from talking to knitters over the years, and going back to my original sewing skills.’
‘My muse is all the women I hear in my life and I think that’s the way to take the Yarntelier brand forward. I do think it’s lovely when people have spent time making something and it fits and they visit our stand and bring photos of things they’ve made, or they’re wearing the garment I’ve designed and they say, “It fits me perfectly, its the best thing I’ve ever knitted” . They’re so pleased, it makes me so pleased, too, which is lovely.’
Talking of people showing off their handiwork, I wondered whether Louisa thought there seemed to be more value given to homemade knits again?
‘I think, when engaging in craft, it becomes your time – if you make something, you feel you’ve used your time well. We all want a bit of TV knitting, but we love it when people compliment us on what we’ve made, saying, “You didn’t make that, it’s too intricate!”
‘However, that all comes down to clever pattern writing. Though my designs may look intricate, I don’t do anything particularly complicated – it’s just the way you structure it, so that it looks more involved than it actually is!’
Yarntelier yarn – beauty in cashmere
The gorgeous Yarntelier yarn itself is a beautiful medium to work with and gives anything knitted up from it an extra element of luxury.
Happily, all the yarns are produced within driving distance of Louisa’s home.
‘We’re working with mill just miles away. What I love about that is that I can take it to twisters and ballers and it’s a 25-mile round trip. As it’s cashmere, we can’t hold a huge amount of stock, so we’re enjoying and developing what we’re doing with the range we have now, which I love.’
Louisa still works closely with her husband Steve, who takes the beautiful photography you’ll see on the Yarntelier patterns, books and on the exhibition stands.
I still find it lovely working with my husband, even after all these years. However he’s a bit of a clutterist, whereas I like a tidy mind, so I’ve started working in a new studio. And being in business for 30 years, I think it’s about time I had a studio space of my own! People walk into my studio and say it’s like someone’s living room, which I think is a biggest compliment as I know it means they feel comfortable there.’
Finally, I wondered, does Louisa still enjoy knitting after a life spent working in knitwear?
‘I’m always designing, but I find the doing of it pleasurable too. My studio is a 45- min bus journey away. I knit on the bus and find it really pleasurable. It’s my time. I could drive to Huddersfield, but the journey takes me up and down hills, from country to town and the scenery’s beautiful. I do complicated things on the bus, as well. In fact, my daughter asked if people talked to me, and I told her, no, I look too scary! If I don’t get that 45 minutes in morning I feel I‘ve really missed out. I really didn’t know I’d feel like that about my own knitting!’