Kiwi 'extreme' knitters taking on the world


Extreme knitting. It sounds like an oxymoron but it is a hot fashion trend sweeping the world, with Kiwis right at the forefront – giant knitting needles and skeins of oversized wool in hand.

Devotees are taking this traditional handcraft and exploding it, making jerseys, scarves and wall hangings that are oversized, deliciously textural and beautiful. You see them in fashion mags, home decor blogs and all over social media.

And no, they are not just for winter. People are knitting these pieces all year round, heat be damned.

Nicole Leybourne's year has been defined by the chunky knit. The Auckland-based knitter has seen her nascent business take off this year, thanks to an Instagram image of her soft pink "Bubblegum" jersey, which is admired by some seriously influential people.

In March, instead of returning to university to continue study towards a Bachelor of Natural Medicine, she plunged into knitting fulltime, to see where it might take her. It's a gut decision that's starting to pay off.

"I thought I've really just got to ride this thing and see where it takes me," she says.

Around the same time, she was at home sewing labels onto jerseys when her phone lit up with an email notification. It was Kylie Jenner's stylist asking if she would make a Bubblegum jersey for the influential style-setter who had "fallen in love".

Leybourne offered to give Jenner one, but hasn't had time to make it yet. She has more orders than she and her network of 15 knitters round the country can cope with.

"It's alright, I just have to find more knitters. I need 100 knitters!" she says.

In April a buyer for high-end UK department store Selfridges got in touch and asked if she would bring her collection to New York for a meeting. "I didn't even have a collection at that point," Leybourne says. "I would never even imagine taking my knitting to New York."

But last month she took that meeting and while she was in New York she also showed her collection to editors at Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. Both are doing small features on Leybourne and her line, all made with thick mohair from South Africa or "super bulky" wool from Peru.

They are like story-book characters: Mr Ribbly, a turtleneck with bulbous sleeves, Happy Hearts bearing a massive love heart, and Dandy Andy, which looks like something a grown-up Charlie Brown would wear.

"You're paying for the maker's specialist skills, their time and materials when something is handmade to order, so the production cost is naturally always going to be high," explains stylist Kylie Cooke.

"There has always and will always be a market for one-of-a-kind items. I think with the fast-paced lifestyles we now all lead it's natural to reflect on when things were simpler and knitting has a beautifully nostalgic appeal. It's delightful to know there are still people dedicating their time to hand-making one off pieces," says Cooke.

Christchurch creative Jacinta McLaughlin of Plump and Co, which runs workshops for extreme knitters and sells materials online, says the popularity of handmade chunky knits is growing.

"I keep thinking, when is this trend going to have its heyday, because it's getting more and more popular," says McLaughlin. "I don't see it going anywhere."

She puts that down to the beauty of the finished product, the joy of working with natural materials and the speed with which some items can be made.

"We are such time-poor people. It's like instant gratification. You can achieve something in an hour or two. Some people pick it up really quickly and for some people it's about slowing down and taking time," says McLaughlin.

"We encourage people to relax. If they drop a stitch, that's okay. The imperfections, we encourage."

Leybourne is currently filling an order for American fashion brand Free People, and had to decline one from online boutique Net-a-Porter because, at 600 units, she had no hope of fulfilling it in time.

It's an exciting time and an unlikely turn of events for someone who first knitted at age 11 to make a scarf for school, but didn't bother with the craft for years afterwards.

Her interest in knitting was awakened by a "big yellow jumper" she bought as a student. Really bright ? the colour of egg yolk, or a banana, or a buttercup. "Every time I wore it I felt really happy."

She bought herself some chunky wool and started watching YouTube tutorials, building on the skills she had picked up from her nana back at primary school. Her first efforts weren't particularly good, she says, but she persevered.

"I thought other people would be happy wearing them too."

She personally likes to wear her big knits with a simple mini skirt or dress with minimal accessories, and models them for her Instagram and website.

"The pieces are really fun and bright and I don't feel like you need a whole lot else."Read more at:formal dresses online | formal wear melbourne