You might have thought that handmade knitwear was all chunky jumpers and cardigans – not so. As Catherine Scott discovers
Yorkshire knitwear designer and maker Kitty Pennybacker is now turning her hand to making knitwear for our homes, too.
With a background in fashion, Pennybacker spent years designing and making knitwear for top high street brands.
“I had always loved working in cashmere and thought that was the most luxurious yarn to work with. But when I was working in retail I realised there was far more to it than that and that there were different grades of cashmere and that’s when I decided to look at other yarns,” she says.
Although she has spent the last few years in New York, it was her Yorkshire roots that have inspired her textiles and her knitwear for the home range.
Pennybacker grew up in a small village near Castle Howard and always had an interest in art and fashion.
She attended Leeds College of Art and did an art foundation course before embarking on a fashion textile design degree at Brighton University – specialising in knitwear – and then moved to London where she worked in fashion styling.
She then spent some time working on costumes for television series such as Horrible Histories and Emma.
“I had really wanted to work in couture but was constantly told it was very difficult to get a job so I was exploring other worlds. But I soon realised that I really missed being in knitwear.”
Pennybacker took a job working for a knitwear supplier who made jumpers for White Company, Whistles, Hush and Paul Smith.
“I learnt so much about yarn,” she says. “We had a big order for cashmere jumpers but the quality of the cashmere coming from Mongolia just wasn’t good enough. It was then I realised that there were different grades of cashmere. The goats were being over-farmed and that adversely affected the quality of the wool – my whole perception of cashmere changed.”
It was at this point that her husband got a job in New York and they decided to move to the United States. “It was a great opportunity for me to get back into design.”
She did a MFA in Fashion at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York.
“I really wanted to get into luxury fashion and I got the chance to intern with Stella McCartney during my Masters.”
But it was during this time that she started to question what she really wanted to do.
Her creations were high-end and expensive and she realised that the majority of fashion now is worn only a couple of times, rather than a statement piece which would last years.
“I was developing my own textiles and I started to think what it was that shaped me as a designer,” recalls Pennybacker.
“I grew up in this little Yorkshire hamlet surrounded by nature and I realised I wanted to get back to nature.
“From the floral prints and tapestries of William Morris, to Liberty-printed head scarves worn by my grandmother, wool twin sets with pearly buttons, British country life and the uniform of the people who inhabit this world, are a constant inspiration to me.”
She started experimenting with different yarns, importing some from Hinchliffe and Knowles, from her home county.
Hinchcliffe have been producing yarn on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales for more than 250 years. “I had a cording machine used for making shoelaces and rope and I started experimenting with the yarns to make a cord that I could then work into the fabric by hand on the knitting machine.”
The end result was a twist on a tartan, but in texture rather than colour, but it was also extremely time-consuming.
“I then wash the fabric so that it felts and comes out as soft as cashmere although it is merino wool.”
But despite creating the fabric she loved she felt that fashion wasn’t the right way to go.
“I realised that people would invest more in a piece for their home and live with it for a long time compared to a garment they might wear just a few times.”
She still makes scarfs (which she sells on her website for £98) but has now branched out into throws, cushions and wall hangings.
Then last summer the couple decided to move back to Yorkshire and are now living with Pennybacker’s parents near Castle Howard, with her husband spending three days a week in London.
“We had an amazing time in New York but there is something very special about Yorkshire, especially as it is the inspiration for my work.”
She set up a studio in an old chapel near her home but it was cold and damp, so she decided to rent a space at PICA, the artist-led studios based in York.
“It is great being here surrounded by so many different artists doing different things, although I do worry that a lot of my machinery is quite loud, in fact my cording machine is really loud and so I do that at home.”
There maybe some machinery involved in Pennybacker’s work but it is still very much labour-intensive. “A scarf can take two days to make, a throw a week and cushion covers a couple of days.”
Her work is only available from her website, or directly from her during York Open Studios next month and a number of textile, gift and pop up fairs she attends throughout the year.
“I don’t really want to sell into retail stores, I just don’t have the capacity to make the quantity of products they would want, and I don’t want to compromise what I do.”
She would like to expand her designs possibly moving into lighting and maybe getting back into fashion as demand for a Kitty Pennybacker jumper is high.
“People keep asking me if I would do a jumper using my corded wool design. It would probably have a simple crew neck with the cord pattern on the front. I also want to work in a more sustainable way.”
She is also happy to knit to order working with her customers.
“Everything I knit is knitted to size, it’s called ‘fully fashioned’ so there is no waste in the way with a woven fabric you would cut it into a piece and then have the rest of the fabric as scraps.”
However, she is expecting her first baby in May and, being self-employed, she can’t afford to have too much time away from her knitting machine, but realises she may need some help.
It’s something she would like to nurture. “I would love to pass on the knowledge of what I do,” she says.
“I am doing a talk at Skipton College and I would love to employ some local young people who can’t afford to go to university but are passionate about learning a craft.”
Journey of discovery
Kitty Pennybacker is one of nearly 150 artists taking part in York Open Studios. The event takes place on Sat April 6, Sun 7, Sat 13, Sun 14, 10am-5pm. Take a look behind the studio doors of artists, crafts people and designers at this popular free event. Discover creative talent whilst wandering around the historic streets and leafy suburbs of York in search of artists’ studios. Plan your route with the help of the free event guide or online www.yorkopenstudios.co.uk
Various venues throughout York area / www.yorkopenstudios.co.uk / Free entry, email firstname.lastname@example.org Opening times: 10am-5pm.