Time and again at the autumn shows, there’s a prickle of excitement at the first sight of something instantly desirable – the clear hit. This time round, it was big, boldly embellished cocooning knits. But what makes this season’s offering different is not just the beauty and originality of the knits; these imposing pieces, traditionally heavy enough to grow longer on the hanger, have really lightened up – as I discovered when I picked up the object of my affections from the new Peter Pilotto collection, a heroically oversized statement jumper (£775). Black with tufty, white zigzagging fringes and occasional patches with bright animal motifs, it was the perfect blend of quirky and cosy – but unexpectedly featherlight too.
Knitwear, even in natural fibres, is now benefiting from painstaking production techniques and modern yarn mixes that create an airy volume without adding pounds – to the clothing or to you. These pieces, which demand to be touched – the Peter Pilotto jumper feels like thistledown – are a result of creative synergy between designers and yarn producers.
“We love pushing boundaries and exploring techniques that are only possible because of the latest technology,” says Christopher De Vos, Pilotto’s co-creative director and designer. “We combine natural and manmade fibres to achieve the right effect, and lightness and wearability in texture – in this case, a mix of wool and cashmere for the soft feel, and synthetic yarn for the vivid colour. We also use high-tech machines that mix weaving and knitting,” he explains, citing a geometrically patterned, partially woven coat (£2,695) with a knitted fringe trim.
There is a new freedom in knit design and craftwork too. Pieces are over-embroidered or beaded, or are complex intarsias – a knitting technique that creates patterns with multiple colours – that masquerade as fabric. Look closely at Gucci’s floral intarsia jacket (£3,230), embroidered with old-gold sequins and edged with a Lurex ruffle, to see that it is a soft, snug knit, and not the same smooth silk as its lining. Dorothee Schumacher’s jacquards and intarsias mimic different effects: a monochrome “tweed” coat (£690), graphic intarsia cape (£756) and fuzzily teased sleeveless coatigan (£582) are all unlined in order to be super-comfortable and show the contrasting reverse. Then there’s the “tartan” intarsia cashmere pieces, such as a loose, almost tabard-like coat (£1,941), from Scottish knitwear label Barrie, where the injection of investment and know-how from Chanel – who acquired the brand in 2012 – is creating a bold approach to design and technique.
“We have been working with high fashion couturiers for over 20 years,” says Clive Brown, sales manager of the label, based in the Borders since 1903. “Since Chanel took over, we have had a Paris design studio that recognises no boundaries and, in Hawick, the most high-tech Japanese machines – the best for complex patterns – alongside our traditional ones.” It creates its tartans by working yarns of different weights and colours into complex intarsia patterns – and there are also bold landscape designs and intricate floral panels that look like embroidery.
“The design studio challenges us to find solutions to their ideas – the aim is ‘knitted art’,” says Brown. Here, a single jumper (£1,095) takes over 14 hours to complete. “These involve a great deal of handwork, including hand-cutting the neckline and then catching each stitch to the trim so it does not unravel,” he explains. The lightness and softness, he says, comes from washing the yarn in soft water; from the use of a mould, fashioned to the exact form of the finished garment, so that it takes shape and flows with wear; and from new, labour-intensive 3D-relief techniques that create “weightless volume” in patterning.
Italian cashmere pioneer Brunello Cucinelli, never averse to a decorative highlight – its trademark is a scatter of hand-sewn sequins that give a subtle gleam under knits – is producing its signature knits in alpaca, or advanced “featherweight” cashmere, where 10 fine threads are made into a tubular yarn that enhances bulk but remains light. Cucinelli’s pièce de résistance, though, is a hand-knitted jumper (£3,210) that blends featherweight cashmere with a high-tech mix of mohair and wool; it has a baroque pattern traced out in a contrasting, metallic-coated yarn, using a jacquard technique – this is then over-embroidered by hand, creating a light but “full” 3D effect.
Loewe’s soft, super-light jumpers (£895) cleverly combine its logo with Fair Isle effects and motifs inspired by designer Jonathan Anderson’s Northern Irish heritage and interest in Celtic design, in rich autumnal shades. Chanel gives knit a metallic glint with its space-age theme, teaming a handworked cashmere dress (£1,720) with silver boots; and by printing moons and planetary rings onto a wool jumper (£2,955) worn with iridescent lambskin trousers (£6,090). Pringle is also printing on knit. “It’s a technique we pioneered in the 1960s,” says Fran Stringer, the label’s design director. “We have revived it in a contemporary form [dress, £2,495], with complex florals digitally printed on ribbed viscose, that gives visual depth.” Looped, felted finishes (jumper, £995) also help create a richly textural collection.
Unlikely inspirations, combined with the latest technical yarns, are also helping to bring design to a new level. The animal motifs at Peter Pilotto came, De Vos explains, “from some 1950s tile mosaics we found in South Tyrol.” At Sonia Rykiel, known for its statement knitwear, designer Julie de Libran was inspired by the sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle and parallels with the house’s late founder. “They were born in the same year and there’s a synergy between their respective creative platforms,” she says. “We used eccentric shapes – peplums [£785] or attached sleeves – like a new-style twinset, and bright mixes of colour and craft, such as jacquards with embroidered threads [jumper, £785] left loose to give a certain ease; or handworked cross-stitch on cabling [£785].” The pieces are light yet voluminous – using wool yarn with an airy, round yarn cotton/polyamide-mix, or techniques like cabling, fringing, overlaying and jacquard, in light gauges for volume without weight.
At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, it’s first female artistic director, demonstrates her feminine touch with soft cashmere knits, in two shades of deep blue, with a metallic Lurex jacquard design (£1,300) of female figures emerging from the moon, surrounded by stars. “The image refers to the place of woman in the universe,” she says, “with sumptuous blue tones and lunar dust.”
Enigmatic Miuccia Prada leaves the cultural context to her audience: this season, her knitwear, which has an intriguing 1950s-meets-1970s vibe, includes hand-beaded “triple knit” outfits (cardigan, £2,915, jumper, £2,535, skirt, £2,055) in softly teased mohair and unexpected colour mixes and knits blended with fluttering ostrich feathers (skirt, £1,890) or leather (jacket, £3,010), or trimming a silk dress (£2,795).
Angela Missoni’s show, full of supercharged 1970s colours and high-tech patterns that are strictly 2017, was noted for her impassioned catwalk plea for the industry to defend women’s freedom. But, Missoni explains, her inspiration was her early archive: “I feel far freer and more confident now, so we pushed the boundaries of those ideas with texture and technology: we’ve worked with fil rouge as light as lace [trousers, £970] and mohair, and effects such as bouclé, pleats and macro-ribbing, creating snug, oversized jumpers [jacquard, £1,110] and cardigans [£1,305] over linear dresses and skirts.”
Ultimately, the lightness of the new knits makes them eminently wearable. “Women should wear knit throughout the day and on every occasion,” says Chiuri, whose default style is a fuzzily soft jumper over a long, very light skirt. “I use knitwear extensively because I find it comfortable, but with a strong character. It’s becoming increasingly centre stage in a contemporary evening look.”
And it’s simple to wear. Beaded and metallic styles team with plain or velvet trousers; expansive, soft designs, worn with jeans, enhance the weekend; and for work, a soft jumper has become the new staple for wearing with a tailored skirt or trousers.
Victoria Beckham’s easy, soft merino wool jumper (£355) with three Modigliani-esque silhouettes has a sporty insouciance that chimes with today’s more relaxed dress codes. Both Rykiel and Missoni have soft, knit suits (Rykiel, £2,125; Missoni, from £520) – curvaceously peplumed at Rykiel, an easier fit at Missoni. Raf Simons’ influential first collection for Calvin Klein 205W39NYC proposes wearing a geometric motif jumper (£595) with boardroom-friendly tailoring, or a slim, rib-knit skirt (£980) and oversleeves (£445). Meanwhile, Madeleine Thompson’s cashmere pieces – hand-machined designs with bright, asymmetric stripes (£280) or a shoulder ruffle (£290) – go beautifully under a working blazer. As alternatives to the shirt, these light knits propose that a statement jumper is for life, not just for weekends.