Fashion: The extraordinary lightness of knitwear

Joan Murray's knitwear is like nothing else you'll find, and it's likely to be inspired by anything from waves on a beach to dancing dust. She talks to Sheena Hastings.

Patricia Stienstra modelling a mixed blues and navy merino wool Sea Waves dress - photo taken by Jo Dennison

As Joan Murray herself says, people don’t come to her with a commission for a piece of bespoke knitwear because they want the predictable or ordinary.

No, what they’re after is a garment that behaves as though it’s in tune with the wearer’s body, a living piece of art that is arresting in some way (without shouting about itself), but nonetheless practical.

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Whether European princesses or students who’ve saved for months for a piece, Joan’s clients seek a touch of drama, a swirl of fullness in a multi-coloured fan-tailed skirt, shimmying back and forth and revealing geometric rays of finely worked wool and silk as the legs move.

Emily Simpson wearing a dress from designer Joan Murray. James Hardisty

In a small studio in Skipton, she conceives and crafts with her knitting machines clothes that are stylish, intriguing and based on geometric shapes. They flatter the body by working with and enhancing the curves and planes. The human form is not so much dressed as carefully and beautifully wrapped in fine yarns that allow maximum movement.

Joan, who still speaks in the warm lilt of her native Northern Ireland, plays with colour combinations – sometimes arriving at startling juxtapositions by juggling rainbow stacks of yarns, and consulting a mood book of ideas from her travels.

A relatively recently conceived passion for dancing tango with her artist husband Chris has worked itself into her collections, with sinuous flicks and swirls of fabric suggestive of the twists and turns of the female dancer around the male. Where the body goes the fabric follows, light as a feather and adding a flourish to every step.

Originally trained in weaving, Joan moved on from Winchester College of Art to the Royal College of Art in London. At one stage she turned down a job in Zandra Rhodes’s design studio, preferring to plough her own furrow and move north.

Patricia Stienstra modelling a fine grey and pink jumper with sea shell drape taken at a beach north of Scarborough - by Jo Dennison.

She also has a passion for education, sharing her knowledge, skills and sideways look at life with students at Craven College in Skipton. They sign up for the fashion and clothing BTec course and learn textile techniques and garment construction skills from a virtuoso. “It’s wonderful when the students see how far they’ve come, how hard they’ve worked. They design and make everything for the end of year show themselves – from sandals and bootees to belts, hats and gloves as well as the garments.”

Her students may go on to one of the major art colleges then a designer’s studio in London – or they might go for the marketing or buying side of fashion.

In Joan’s opinion, concepts for fashion don’t come from looking at what’s already on the High Street. “That’s the last place to look. Good ideas come from everywhere but the High Street.”

She tells the story of how her daughter, a lingerie designer, rang one day and complained that she was fresh out of ideas. “I told her to look at the motes of dust in the sunlight through her window. Ideas are everywhere, if you are really looking. But fashion is so short of good ideas at the moment.”

Sea Water Dress modelled by Patricia Stienstra wool cotton and raw silk - photo by Jo Dennison

Perhaps the dancing dust is the basis for the knitwear Joan designs to bathe the body with its lightness.

She recently cut back her teaching work to three days to spend more time on her own collections and bespoke work. She plans to go back to her love of weaving, and will be installing a loom in the studio soon.

Joan is working towards an exhibition next year at Woodend, the Sitwell family’s former home, near Scarborough. She is taking the name of the mansion as her theme and is studying the famous literary family’s style to inform her designs.

Joan’s website accentuates her love of music and dance, with regular new videos by Steffen Goeschel capturing dancer Patrice Stienstra in Joan’s 
flowing, billowing silk and wool dresses dancing on the beach, moving almost in a trance-like state through a mysterious garden in the Dales, or exploring elements of Argentinian dance in the tango studio.

Knitwear designer and college lecturer Joan Murray wearing one of her creations at Carleton near Skipton

“I don’t think I’m a revolutionary but I am a risk taker. I see design as about knitting, wearing and manipulating fabric around a body. I love ballet and tango and seeing Patrice dance in my pieces they seem to come alive.”

Joan Murray Knitwear Design (prices for pieces range from £200-£1,000) is on www.joanmurray.co.uk.

Patricia Stienstra modelling a silk and wool lichen and stone dress in a garden in N Yorkshire, photo Jo Dennsion.
Patricia Stienstra near Kettlewell modelling a fine merino wool sleeveless dress. Photo taken by Stephen Garnett.
Emily Simpson wearing a dress from designer Joan Murray. James Hardisty
Patricia Stienstra modelling a fine grey and pink jumper with sea shell drape taken at a beach north of Scarborough - by Jo Dennison.
Sea Water Dress modelled by Patricia Stienstra wool cotton and raw silk - photo by Jo Dennison
Knitwear designer and college lecturer Joan Murray wearing one of her creations at Carleton near Skipton
Patricia Stienstra modelling a silk and wool lichen and stone dress in a garden in N Yorkshire, photo Jo Dennsion.
Patricia Stienstra near Kettlewell modelling a fine merino wool sleeveless dress. Photo taken by Stephen Garnett.