“It isn’t enough to say that you’re setting up a sustainable knitwear brand,” explains Jo Storie, head of design and development at KnitLab North. “You still need a USP and you need to know your customer.”
Fashion designers face the challenge of balancing their creative ideas with the wider business and manufacturing knowledge they need to build a viable brand. Based in Northumberland, KnitLab North helps to bridge that gap with a combination of design and commercial consultancy.
With over 30 years working in knitwear design around the world, Jo supports brands to develop their look and design their new collections. Jo Lennon, the company’s commercial lead, shares her expertise in marketing and brand development. Collectively, the KnitLab North team supports businesses from the initial creative idea through to commercial production.
Jo’s design expertise means she can advise businesses on the practicalities of manufacturing, and even where a small design tweak can make a big difference to production costs. KnitLab North can even support brands in negotiating with manufacturers.
But the team also seeks to bridge one of the biggest gaps in the road from design to commercial production: with investment in specialist knitting machines, the team offers in-house sampling and prototyping. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign and an additional grant from the Rural Growth Network, the team has already brought a range of machinery into their dedicated space in Cramlington.
With them came new Apex 4 digital design and programming software, in which garments can be ‘worn’ by a digital avatar and designed in real-time before a physical sample is made. While the technology speeds up product development, it also ensures the KnitLab North team only makes the samples they need to refine a design, supporting a low-waste, small-scale approach to manufacturing.
Combining design and manufacturing capabilities has led to new opportunities, including a new collaboration with Yorkshire countrywear brand Glencroft.
Sourcing fleeces from farms within five miles of its Clapham home, Glencroft is creating a fully traceable, local ‘Farm to Yarn’ Dales wool collection in 2022. KnitLab North will handle the design, development and production of the new pieces, which should be available this year.
The exact provenance of each piece will be set out in the labelling, including the breed of sheep, the farm, the mill in which the yarn was spun and where each piece was made. By demonstrating the possibilities of making knitwear sustainably through close relationships with suppliers, the project hopes to pave the way for more local, traceable production in the UK.
KnitLab North’s location in Northumberland, close to motorways and rail links, was deliberately chosen to ensure brands can visit regularly. The site is a valuable resource for them, too. As well as the opportunity to watch prototypes being knitted in-house, they can make the most of the on-site yarn library with mill cards and samples from trusted suppliers. As KnitLab North builds up its database of British suppliers, it will be able to support more and more local, traceable production for UK knitwear.
“We got the keys a year ago and we’ve only just been able to start having visitors,” Jo explains. “It’s so useful for building up clients’ understanding of yarns and production, which they need to get the product right but which is rarely part of their training.”
This knowledge gap among emerging knitwear designers is part of the challenge KnitLab North seeks to address, but is ultimately part of a wider conversation about skills in the fashion industry and the breadth of careers available to textiles professionals.
“Technical skills give an edge to the designers who have them, but they’re also needed for so many different jobs,” says Jo.
“We need to train people in digital skills too. For example, there is huge demand for programming skills but students don’t even know that it’s a viable career.”
With an eye on the future, Jo is keen to expand KnitLab North’s capacity to train new designers, partnering with universities to provide access to equipment unavailable on campus. The company is also considering the new machines it may need to invest in to provide a full prototyping and sampling service across every gauge, as well as setting up on-site washing facilities.
“We’re already filling the space we have,” Jo smiles. “There is still so much more we could do.”