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Know Your Knit: A Knitwear Masterclass with Tracey Samuel

Know Your Knit: A Knitwear Masterclass with Tracey Samuel

What inspired you to become a knitwear specialist and what do you love so much about it?

I have always been interested in fashion and, since a young age, I would be drawing and making things. My granny taught me to knit and my nana taught me to crochet, I loved making clothes for my dolls! My sister Julie and I were always dressed in a hand knit of some sort (I especially remember a teal coloured crochet poncho with matching ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ hat, it was my favourite!).

When I went to The Glasgow School of Art at age 18, I specialised in textiles and was drawn towards the knit department. The idea of making a fabric from scratch, choosing a yarn, the colour and the stitch offered endless options to being creative. I loved using the knitting machines and learning a new skill.

Where did you learn your expertise?

I went to The Glasgow School of Art straight from school and studied knitted and printed textiles, then went on to do an MA in knitwear at Central St Martins in London. I was really lucky to be sponsored by a Scottish knitting factory (sadly no longer in business) to do my MA, they covered my expenses in return for working for them during holidays. I learned from the factory floor up. They had me loading up heavy, fully-fashioned knit machines with the knit technicians and linking on the necks with the ladies on the production line. It was a brilliant experience and taught me so much about the craft of knitting.

Once I finished my MA, my first job was with Coats Viyella in Nottingham (again sadly no longer there). They had just invested in 20 million pounds’ worth of brand new Japanese Shima Seiki knitting machinery, and wanted me to be their Development Designer. It was the most amazing opportunity, I got to play on these new machines with the technicians, pushing the technology to try some amazing new things. I learnt things about knitting that I still use today.

"I realised then that I’m quite a technical geek, I love discovering why and how things work."

From Coats Viyella, I moved to Sonia Rykiel and spent nearly 10 years working in my dream job, designing knitwear in Paris and travelling to factories around Europe and the Far East.

What made you want to launch your own knitwear brand?

In 2005, I was designing women’s knitwear at Sonia Rykiel and commuting between Paris and Brighton on a weekly basis. I was pretty immersed in the high-end fashion world, so when I became pregnant with my daughter Alice and the whole world of baby and kids was opened up to me, it was a revelation and a bit of a surprise! I realised there was a huge gap in the market for good quality, well-made knits for babies and kids. Back then there really wasn’t much choice and most baby knits were made from acrylic and were in sickly pinks and blues.

I knew that my time at Rykiel would not survive a Brighton to Paris commute with a newborn, so I began hatching plans to launch my own brand of baby knits and start my own little creative project to keep me busy! I chatted with my factory friends and contacts in the business and we launched a tiny capsule range of cashmere/cotton baby knits.

"One of the sweaters had an ‘apple of daddy’s eye’ motif, which Gwyneth Paltrow bought for her new daughter (along with the rest of the collection) and we were catapulted into the press as the next new thing! It was such a lovely good luck charm, that I adopted the apple motif as our logo."

I was lucky to do a job that I loved and that really interested me. I didn’t want that to stop with a new baby, so I managed to weave my knitwear life into my new mum life and have the two grow and develop together.

What do you love about making knitwear for little ones?

I love the freedom of designing for kids and babies. I’m a real colourist, and there aren’t any restrictions on the shades you can use.

Making knits for little ones isn’t much different to making adults’ knits, the same amount of work goes into the makeup of a knit for children or babies as a knit for women.

What’s your design process and what inspires you when you’re designing a new knitwear collection?

I always start with choosing a palette of colours and then I research a theme. Each collection is created around an idea that makes everything hang together. I’ll then send swatch ideas to my factories (where they knit me small panels of the motifs or stitches) and once we’ve got a swatch I like, I launch it into garment form, and have it made into samples.

messy colours and research on Traceys desk

Where is The bonnie mob knitwear made?

I have the most amazing factories, many of whom I’ve worked with since we started 13 years ago, and who I’ve known since my days at Coats Viyella and Sonia Rykiel. My knit factories are in Hong Kong and I use the same Japanese machines I worked on in Nottingham, all those years ago. The technicians or ‘Shifu’ as they are called are brilliant, I always work closely with them to get exactly what I want.

I have just recently returned from a visit where I was really pushing them to try a new technique – it’s always a two-way thing. The goal is to get a stitch that works, but won’t make the machine run too slowly. I’ve kept the knit production for The bonnie mob in Hong Kong as I really believe that I can get the best quality and the machines I have access to are the most up-to-date technology-wise. By using ‘fully-fashioned’ machines, we reduce waste as we only knit the shape of the garment, we don’t ‘cut and sew’ the sleeves etc – meaning there are no bits of excess fabric thrown away. The knitting takes longer, but it’s much better for the environment – which is really important to me. We always make sure the factories we work with take care of their employees too. All of the staff are treated fairly and there are strict workplace safety standards in place.

Shifu in knitting factory linker in knitting factory Jerseywear factory workers

How do you select the yarns?

I choose a yarn based on its quality. I ask the questions: will it knit well? Will it wash well, wear after wear? Will it last? Is it sustainable? We test the yarns based on these credentials, and if they pass, then we start selecting colours and making the magic happen!

How are the yarns dyed?

We never use AZO dyes, which are made from toxic chemicals and are used in a lot of textiles. They are detrimental to the environment when they are being processed and harmful to the wearer when they are worn.

If it’s an organic cotton, we can choose our own colours, and if it’s a blended yarn, we choose from a shade card of almost 100 different options. Our blended yarn is approved by the Better Cotton Initiative, which ensures fair payment terms and invests in education for farmers to help them improve their yield and teach them how to use water more efficiently. It only invests in areas that are growing cotton sustainably, and are not misusing water.

yarn cards

What makes a bonnie mob knit so special?

The quality, the design and the care that goes into every piece. The fact that they are made to last so that you can pass them down to other little ones.

"I love seeing posts from customers when they proudly show me their third baby wearing a knit that was bought for their first."

Passing items down used to be the norm when I was a kid, but sadly we now live in a world of fast fashion where clothing has a shelf life of a few months! It makes me really sad to think of the wasted resources and mountains of clothes that end up in landfill because they have fallen apart or ‘washed like a dish rag’ (one of my favourite less technical expressions!).

How should you care for a bonnie mob knit?

It’s easy – wash it in the machine at 30 degrees, turn it inside out if you want, try to dry it flat (if possible) and never tumble dry it!! (that's a big No No for any knit). But generally, it doesn’t need any special treatment.

So many people I speak to have an idea that they don’t know how to care for knits. They assume they will shrink them (perhaps it’s because they’ve bought a knit that didn’t wash well and it’s put them off?). But don’t be scared, our knits are made for busy mums, they don’t require hand washing, dry cleaning or special treatment, they just want to be worn and loved.

What should people look for when they buy a piece of knitwear? 

It’s difficult to identify a really good quality knit on first look, but the old saying ‘if it’s too good to be true’ really applies to knit. If it’s very cheap then something has usually been compromised.

It’s impossible to knit a really good quality piece of knitwear, without compromising on either yarn quality or knit quality. If the knit seems very open and a bit thin, then generally it’s been knitted at a loose tension to reduce weight and cost. An open knit will pill more than a more compact knit (pilling is the little bobbles that appear on your knit with friction or wear).

I’m not a fan of acrylic and polyester yarns, as they are the equivalent of knitting plastic, but worse as they release so many microfibers into our water systems each time they are washed. Like plastic bags, they will take hundreds of years to degrade (if ever). Always check the composition labels of your knits, get in the habit of turning those items inside out to check, and if brands aren’t disclosing the contents of their garments online then ‘call them out’ about it, as they will probably be trying to hide something.

fully fashioned marks

What is the difference between a sweater and a sweatshirt?

A sweater is knitted stitch by stitch, on a machine that has needles that work in the same way as a hand knitted garment. It can have integral ribs or trims on the cuffs, a hem and a linked neck. A sweatshirt is cut from a pattern from a large jersey roll of fabric, the cuffs and necks are attached in a quick way and the whole process is much quicker to make. In general it could take at up to four times longer to make a quality knitted sweater than a sweatshirt. That’s not to say that sweatshirts aren’t fantastic, it’s just that they are very different things.

How do you think the UK knitwear industry is changing? Do you think it has been influenced by a fast fashion culture?

Absolutely, I see much less good quality knits on the high street. I think the current high street consumer has been fed bad quality knit that has either shrunk, fallen apart, or worn very badly – so they avoid knit in general, preferring a sweatshirt. It’s a shame as it taints the market for those of us who are doing great knits. I constantly hear comments like ‘oh I couldn’t buy that I’d just shrink it, or I hate wool – it’s so scratchy or itchy’. It’s amazing how many people assume all knit is made of wool.

What do you think the consumer can do to influence this?

Demand better quality, if a garment falls apart or pills take it back. Don’t throw it away, insist that the retailer takes responsibility for its bad quality. Buy better knits and invest in it, a good sweater or cardigan should last for years – so your cost per wear will be well worth it.

Where do you buy knitwear for yourself?

I love John Smedley for merino basics, they last forever. I’m coveting a Bella Freud 1970 sweater, it’s on my Christmas wish list, and I have my eye on a Wyse London rainbow knit. I have a cardigan from Preen that was very much an investment piece but five years on it’s still going strong and looks fabulous. I’m really excited by new brands like &Daughter, a capsule collection of iconic knitwear pieces made in Scotland and Ireland.

And of course Sonia Rykiel, still one of the best knit brands out there.

I’ll be honest, I’ve stopped buying knit on the high street as I’m too picky and they just don’t come up to scratch on quality and wear. Perhaps it’s time to expand our range of mama knits!

And finally, which are your three favourite knits from The bonnie mob AW18 collection?

The GRACE rainbow knitted dress as it’s so fun and colourful, and I love the knit technique I developed for the frill neckline. The WIDGET knitted romper and WOOLEY double pom pom hat have a lovely heritage knit feel.

Grace knitted dresswidget knitted baby romperwooley knitted baby and kids hat

And of course our SOLO and SHALAMAR leopard jacquard mum and baby knits raising money for Refugee Support. I’ve been wearing mine now the weather is getting colder and getting so many lovely compliments.

solo mum grey knitted leopard womens sweater shalamar honey leopard baby playsuit solo baby and kids leopard sweater

 Tracey and her Daughter Alice ( now 13!)  wearing the refugee support sweaters

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