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Fresh Design Ideas for Knits

Fully fashioned comfort from the workshop of Joaquim Verdu
Threads #33, Feb/Mar 1991

When it comes to fashion design ideas for knits, three consider­ations come into play: color, texture, and shape. The potential of each is so vast that design­ers tend to choose one as their signature, and keep the others in supporting roles.

What makes me tick as a professional hand knitter is a shape. I was encouraged by the discovery of some 1930s sketches for knitwear by Paris designers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Anny Blatt, Patou, and Kostio de Wait. In the 1930s, knit­ wear, much of it handknitted, was at the forefront of fashion, with a cut that closely followed woven garments. In the hands of the Parisians, the results were flawlessly chic and wittily cheeky.

The problem was that I didn’t know of any contemporary designers on par with the Paris designers of yesteryear from whom I could learn. Those who were ex­perimenting with shape were mainly con­cerned with art-to-wear. By contrast, I was drawn toward couture.

Then, on a trip to Barcelona, I went into a Joaquim Verdu shop and knew that here was the designer I had been looking for. Although Verdu uses industrial knitting techniques to construct his high-end knit­ wear, such as the outfit shown at left, and I knit by hand, we spoke exactly the same language. He has generously shared his de­ sign and construction methods for shaping and embellishment.

If you are a machine knitter and own a double-bed machine and a linker, you’re in luck because you’ll be able to use some of his techniques in your own work (see “A machine knitter looks at Verdu,” pp. 77-79). If you sew or handknit, Verdu’s mastery of fabric will open a whole new world.

Design ideas for knits approach

Asked whether he would like to market his own perfume, Verdu once replied that it would be like a man’s cologne because he hates the heaviness of women’s fragrances. His collections are like his ideal scent: fresh, light, and unconventional. Verdu is convinced that the future of fashion lies in having the confidence to put together items from a variety of sources.

He knows that women will not dress to the nines to catch the bus to work, even if they can afford to. He designs for women over 25 who like to be comfortable in their clothes. For them, knits are ideal. Verdu appreciates the flexibility and elasticity of knits and takes maximum advantage of their properties with fluid lines, soft pleats, drapes, and styles that skim the body, deli­cately revealing contours without ever fall­ing into a provocative and constricting fit.

“Knitted fabrics, unlike woven ones, move with the body like a second skin,” he says. Combinations are layered and details abound: Collars, hoods, and wraps frequent­ly add visual richness. You can mix and match his pieces to suit your own prefer­ences. Or you can wear one piece with jeans.

Verdu works with solid colors, but he ar­ranges them boldly together and has them cut and sewn to suit his needs; you won’t find any prints or jacquards in his collec­tions. Most of the fabrics are plain, smooth jerseys and double knits. But he also likes to tease his clients with knit fabrics that look like wovens. His Fall/Winter 1990/1991 collection, for example, included some knit garments that one would swear were made with woven flannel, duf­fel cloth, finely pleated georgette, or velour.

Any woven fabric garments Verdu creates are designed to show off the knitwear. Rather than creating a woven suit, then a complementary sweater, he starts with a knit coat and tunic and finishes with a woven skirt.

To see how Verdu works and to begin to appreciate his detailing, let’s look at the evo­lution of one of his outfits, shown at right.

Verdu wanted to add a Greek keys pattern to a sweater. It would have been simple to have the sweater knit in two colors, but he didn’t like the fabric’s flatness or the lack of color density in the patterned areas. His so­lution was to have the keys cut from knit fabric and stitched to the sweater with flat­ lock stitches, which are similar to overlocking. This applique approach gave the keys a raised appearance and an even density.

In sketch #1, the keys were placed at hip level; the sweater was complemented by a woven tweed skirt. Does everybody want to wear a mini? No. Does everybody want to emphasize their hips? No. Is a glamorous floating coat the best garment to wear for a walk in the country? No. Enter the outfits in sketch #2.

The sweater has kept its length, but Verdu has made it black to de-emphasize the hips, and he’s placed the keys at the shoulders; the keys make the shoulders look broader and the hips smaller by comparison. The skirt is long. The coat has been replaced by a tweed parka with a double-knit trim at the neckline.

Would such a long sweater look good with pants? No. so Verdu created the outfit in sketch #3, a short sweater tucked into narrow, tapered pants with a short bomber jacket.

Each design may be developed into eight or nine versions in two or three contrasting colors; in a range of closely related colors; or in different but harmonious colors.

Sketches and a garment reveal the evolution of a Verdu design. Not satisfied with intarsia-knit Greek keys, Verdu specified that they be cut from knit fabric and applique in place. (Photo by Alain Richaud)

Manipulating knits

Verdu had not planned to become a fashion designer, even though his mother had been a designer with the couture house, Santa Eulalia. He had an aptitude for drawing and painting, however, and it was during his work towards a fine arts degree that he felt the urge to dress the human body. Verdu creates his designs on paper, rather than by draping, but he knows instinctively what the fabric will and won’t do. This instinct owes much to the two years that he spent sketching for one of Spain’s most accomplished couturiers, Pedro Ro­driguez. Rodriguez was renowned for his exquisite tailoring and his evening wear, especially his beaded gowns and impeccably draped tunics. Up to this point, Verdu’s training had emphasized design with pen­cil and paper; Rodriguez worked with fab­ric and pins.

After Verdu finishes his sketches, his talented patternmaker, Angeles, takes over. She begins by questioning Verdu on the designs: how close to the body, how broad the shoulders, how slim the silhou­ette, how deep the neckline, etc.

For knitwear, Angeles develops a basic block, and then proceeds to fit the gar­ments onto a mannequin, first in fine brown paper and then in fashion fabric to get an accurate impression of weight and drape. If a knit shows signs of stretching when it is handled or after it has been hanging for a few days, the pattern’s size is reduced and another garment is made.

The pattern is transferred to durable cardboard from which the collection pieces are cut. These patterns are made for tall, slim models; for mass production, they are recut for shorter, broader figures.

Where knits are different

What I find most interesting about the de­sign process is Verdu’s careful selection and use of single- and double-bed machine-knit fabric. Double-bed, the double-layer fabric is used when a flat or firm fabric is required; it is versatile because textures can be knit­ ted into one or both sides. Single-bed fab­rics are used in drapey sweater tops, de­tails, and wraps.

A single-bed fabric, like a jersey, curls toward the right side at the top and bottom be­ cause all the stitches on the right side are knit and on the wrong side is purl. Knit stitches have a built-in tendency to push forward at the top and bottom and push back at the sides. Fabrics with a balanced number of knit and purl stitches, such as a rib, stay flat. Even a double-bed fabric will fold forward or backward if two knits or two purl stitches are next to each other.

Verdu has an excellent sense of knit fabric structure and applies this knowledge in his designs. For example, many of the soft pleats in his skirts and culottes are made in dou­ble bed fabric by placing two knit stitches next to each other for a wrong-sides-together fold, and two purl stitches next to each other for a right-sides-together fold. If you’re a hand knitter, you are more likely to pleat stockinette fabric. To work the pleats, sl 1 st purlwise on knit rows, with the yarn in back for a wrong-sides-together fold, and with yarn in front for a right-sides-together fold.

Other textures created by manipulating knit fabric include the ridges in hems; ribs in sleeves; pin tucks in jackets; or herring­ bone-patterned collars. Tubes or strips of tubular-knit fabric, which Verdu uses as piping and binding, are just double-bed fabric in which the front and back layers are not interlocked into one.

This dress might be in only one color, but the deep texture of the pin tucks in the top, and the embroidery on the plain sleeves, stitched with an industrial Comely machine, makes a rainbow of textures. (Photo by Alain Richaud)

Attention to detail

In handknitting or domestic machine knitting we can shape garment sections with short rows or darts. Sewers can cut and sew woven fabrics for an exact shape and hide hems and facings with fine stitching. In industrial knitting, short rows and darts are too time-consuming. So Verdu shapes his garments by having knit fabric cut and expertly seamed with a linker, which chain stitches sections together, or by having details like hems knit in as part of the garments.

Seams and edges: Verdu is a perfectionist in handling seams. Some seams are simply overlocked together on the wrong side, but others are turned into design features; trims and bindings are generously used.

One typical seam that looks like piping is a tubular piece of knit inserted between seam allowances. The layers-two seam allowances and the two edges of the tubular knit are linked together on the gar­ment’s wrong side. If you are a home sewer, you can make a seam that mimics this one but you are limited by the knit fabric’s width: be sure to cut the tubular knit fabric on the cross-grain. Fold the knit on the cross-grain with wrong sides together to form the piping and stitch it to the right side of one seam allowance, stitching inside the seam allowance. Then stitch the seam of the garment using an overlock or a stretch stitch.

In another seam finish (teal garment at right), the seam allowances are serged with wrong sides together to the right side of the garment and covered with a piece of tubular knitting. The tube is chain-stitched over the seam allowances. This technique is also used to finish the edges of the knit fabric before a zipper is applied; the tubular knit creates the look of a placket.

In handknitting, pipings and bindings often can be knit as part of a piece. The first row can be knit up where needed, and the last row can be woven in position by grafting.

Besides using flatlock stitching to appli­que pieces in place, Verdu also uses it to eliminate bulk, as in sleeve seams. One seam allowance is laid flat, while the second is folded and stitched on top through all lay­ers. The stitching looks like zigzagging.

Patch pockets, waistbands, and collars are also attached neatly with the linker, which is very time-consuming considering that the knit fabric might have 15 or 16 sts/in. However, this fine detailing has definite advantages. The stand-up collar of a jacket, for example, can be turned down with complete impunity and either side of the front edge of a jacket can be shown because they are both equally neat.

Knit-in features: Hems on Verdu’s gar­ments are always knitted in. Avoiding the otherwise necessary stitch line gives maxi­ mum softness and fluidity to the garment. The hem is actually a very wide and very short tube; if folded flat, each layer has half the number of stitches of a double-bed fab­ric. The crisp hem fold is a cast-on row, which closes the bottom of the tube. When the tube length matches the desired hem depth, the two layers are merged into a double-bed fabric to make the rest of the garment panel.

Texture: Although  Verdu uses solid colors, he will specify textures or add surface embellishments for added interest. The circular embroidery on the garment at the left was added to the plain sleeves with chain stitching using an industrial machine. 

Previous: Professional Tips for Embellishing Knits with Machine Embroidery Next: There’s Fabric in Your Sock Drawer

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