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IN CONVERSATION WITH GENEVIEVE SWEENEY

MARRYING CONTEMPORARY DESIGN WITH EXCEPTIONAL HAND FINISHES

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In Conversation with Genevieve Sweeney

We recently stumbled across Genevieve Sweeney knitwear and were blown away by the quality and strikingly cool designs on offer. Genevieve launched her eponymous knitwear brand in 2015 and it is made exclusively in the UK. She is writing a new chapter for the knitwear industry, marrying contemporary design with exceptional hand finishes. Indebted to the time-honoured techniques of artisan makers, the brand has reimagined the possibilities of knitwear. Here we sit down with Genevieve Sweeney herself to find out where the brand is heading.

Tell me about how you got started with your brand? 

“After working abroad for international design houses for a few years, I returned to the UK and rented a studio to house my hoard of yarn and domestic knitting machines in East London in 2014. Wherever I lived or travelled to, my knitting always came with me. In the first month, I bought an industrial knitting machine on eBay which started my interest in large machinery. After this my holidays were spent travelling around the UK buying old knitting machines to be restored for my studio. During my time in the Scottish Borders, I met a hand intarsia knitter who showed me his archive of knits and gave me a quick lesson on how to knit this technique. After learning his story and background in the knitwear industry, I was so saddened that he had to stop knitting in the 1990s when factories started to close, and manufacturing moved to China."

"I had never met anyone so passionate and so skilled in one technique that I couldn't get it out of my head for weeks, I wanted to help him knit again full time. I started working on a couple of projects with the hand intarsia knitter, to introduce him to a more contemporary handwriting, and a few months later I realised that I had a collection forming and it was the start of my brand. Through the hand intarsia knitter, I met a secret network of knitters and linkers in the Borders and began to work with them on my collection. I then dragged my husband to Scotland and the Midlands in search of manufacturers to knit my core styles. Most of the factories I met with said no and turned me away or advised incredibly high minimums of 500 pieces per style. It was very frustrating, and it took 18 months to finally bring everything together and find the right manufacturers in the UK that would take a chance on a new designer. In September 2015, I launched Genevieve Sweeney Limited”

Where does your love for knitwear come from? 

“I have always loved knitting and find it incredibly therapeutic and hypnotic. When I was five years old, my mother passed away and due to my father’s work, I spend the next two years in the back of the car. My grandmother taught me to knit to keep me entertained during these long journeys and I would knit a ball of yarn, unravel it, and re-knit all day long. At 6 years old I was fashioning and making up patterns for my toy's clothes, so this is where I think my interest started. At 8 years old I lived with my grandparents which was an extremely creative household, so I knitted every evening (secretly as I didn’t want my friends to know). Finally, at 16, I met a girl who was in her 2nd year at Nottingham Trent University studying Fashion Knitwear BA. This was a huge turning point for me as I realised my hobby could be a career and so my path was set, I headed out that weekend to the pub wearing my hand knitted jumper proudly. I studied at Nottingham Trent University on a 4-year degree in Fashion Knitwear.” 

Where is your knitwear designed and made? 

“My studio is based in Little Hadham in Hertfordshire where I design the collections. I relocated out of London nearly two years ago which gave me so much more space for the money and I love being in the countryside in the fresh air. My collections, both apparel and accessories are made across the UK, from the Scottish Borders to Derby, to Oxford to Hertfordshire. I work with small cottage industries, freelancers and small family run mills, each maker is highly skilled and have worked in the industry all their lives. I have a very close working relationship with each knitter and will visit often to develop new designs and work on production runs. There is a huge family feeling with everyone I work with.”

Where do you get inspiration for your designs?  

“My inspiration comes often from a few sources, firstly heritage techniques such as hand intarsia knitting which is a very rare technique and very time-consuming. By working with unusual yarns to give a modern twist to a traditional skill, it really brings the techniques to life. I take a lot of inspiration from fine art, especially 1930s geometrics as well as repetitions in my surroundings, such as architecture. My AW17 collection was inspired by the fading and weathering pargetting on the old buildings in the nearby villages and towns, a very typical pattern making found in East Angela in 1600s.” 

Any exciting things in the pipeline for 2018?  

“I am very excited to have launched two new products for 2018. My Sock Subscription, every month the customer will receive a surprise pair of socks delivered directly to their door. I have been developing some really exciting patterns exclusively for the subscription with my sock manufacturer in Derbyshire. Luckily, he allows me to take over the factory for the day, spinning new colour mouline blends and programming new geometrics. The second product is my first T-shirt collection which is launching in June. I have collaborated with a fantastic illustrator, Joe La placa who has a very intricate yet dark aesthetic. We have worked on a zodiac collection for the launch which has had a great response with pre-orders so far. The T-shirts are made from start to finish in Nottingham; a high-quality heavy cotton is knitted on a circular machine then cut and sewn, all by a small family run manufacturer. The quality is amazing and washes so well.”

What aspirations do you have for the brand? 

“My aspirations for Genevieve Sweeney is to educate the customer on the importance of slow fashion through my journey and collections. As well as to help reinvigorate the UK knitwear industry. So far, I have managed to re-employ a few knitters back into the industry and we are now working out a solution to continue these incredible skills when my knitters retire. I am working on setting up apprenticeship schemes to teach a new generation as currently there is a huge shortage of highly skilled knitters and linkers in the UK. It is wonderful to have an opportunity to bring work to the fantastic knitters with every jumper sold.”

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