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Rebecca Marsden — athleisure isn’t a limited market for merino wool yarns

The future of knitwear and knit products does not sit in the heritage field. In conversation with knitwear designer Rebecca Marsden on the crafting of wool items with machine knitting

Zofia Zwieglinska: How did you start in knitwear and what moved you over from Ireland to your MA at the Royal College of Art?

Rebecca Marsden: I am based in Ireland myself and studied my BA at the Limerick School of Art & Design. Knitting had not been what  I was intending to focus on as a pathway. The tactility and the materiality of it drew me to it. I developed a knitwear-heavy portfolio of work that carried me through a few years of building the brand and selling here in Ireland and online. I wanted to explore it further so I pursued an MA at the Royal College of Art. I have not had access to the machinery available for knitwear production. 

ZZ: How did activewear influence your work?

I reached out to a community of aerial dancers in London. Dance is a passion of mine and I began to put out feelers, linking with aerial dancers so I could try some of the garments on them in an active space. I was drawing from home as I was far away from everything that I connect to here. 

Through that development I wanted to design pieces delicate enough for high fashion without the seams distracting from the line of the garment. This led me to discover the Italian brand Santoni, who is based in Italy but have production in Shanghai as well. The Santoni Pioneer Program allowed me to go out to Shanghai for a number of months and develop the garments. This idea of pushing pressure and release through aerial dance was moving into knitted garments that were created on circular knitting machines. 

ZZ: You stepped away from the Dubied knitting machines you knew. What was different with circular? 

Once you get through the initial trial and error and when you know how the clothing envelops the body, there is very minimal waste. The garments can then be re-worked through these tubular structures. For shoes, I worked with circular machines to generate pieces that are programmed and knitted from toe to top with no waste yarn. It has been a fascinating journey looking at how I can continue working in that way. It is valuable to look at a mode of production that looks to the future where waste will be eradicated. 

Although the majority of my work is with performance yarns, I explored the performance qualities of natural yarns too for the Woolmark Performance Challenge with Adidas in 2019 that led on from the Santoni Pioneer program. The contestants were tasked with harnessing the properties of Merino wool — I chose to focus on yarn that would help aerial dancers, linking with sustainable production. I visited the spinners and yarn producers in Australia that were behind the Woolmark merino wool — I come from a farming background and I understand the stages of cleaning the wool and processing it, but seeing it done by tens of thousands of farmers there brought it home. In Australia, it is produced at the highest standard with vigorous laboratory testing and traceability down to the farm of the licensed Woolmark producers. 

'KNITWEAR ON AIR' DETAIL, REBECCA MARSDEN
‘KNITWEAR ON AIR’ DETAIL, REBECCA MARSDEN
'KNITWEAR ON AIR' SKETCHBOOK, REBECCA MARSDEN
‘KNITWEAR ON AIR’ SKETCH, REBECCA MARSDEN

ZZ: COVID has affected production for fashion companies as designers realised that they were not able to source materials. How has COVID affected your work as a knitwear designer?

I spent time out of the country and out of Ireland and the UK last year. For the Santoni program, we were brought to Shanghai and the Woolmark prize brought us all back to Shanghai and to Munich. I travelled to countries, meeting people from all over the world. Even with the flight bans, I am still able to contact the networks that I nurtured during the competitions. Production has slowed down at the moment, being that Santoni is an Italian company based in China. I have been doing online talks for the Royal College of Art, linking in with the students. I lecture here at two different colleges, the Limerick School of Technology and St Angela’s College. As teaching and learning have been moved online I have kept busy, even if it is just been from my studio work or my living room. 

I have been lucky enough to be selected for the ITS Award 2020 which was going to be held in Trieste, Italy, but is going to be going digital because of Covid-19. That has helped me to have a creative focus. Even though we will not get to see one another in person at the awards this year, they are going to bring us together for next year, the 20th Anniversary. They are going to be opening up their archive of garments and accessories, exhibited as a part of the Academy project. 

It is about being patient at this stage. We are going to be shipping everything off in the next couple of weeks so it will be documented without us and it will go live digitally. Moving through a digital space has brought its own challenges. It has been a challenge for those designers that are used to letting the piece or the cloth or the yarn do the talking. When we cannot physically engage with it, how do we communicate that? 

ZZ: Sustainability has become a buzzword. Knitwear has come far as new technologies allow for total creation in one continuous thread of yarn. How did your work touch on that?

Generating these circular forms to go around the body in a seamless fashion was appealing. The idea of mapping them and working them to a point where there was very little waste in the end product made it better. For footwear, you can think from the skin of the sock to the outer layer and finish the entire piece like that, with some stitching. With yarn usage, it is about the economy of time — if you have time, you can delve into the production of the piece, the design, and the development. 

ZZ: Fashion designers have only recently adopted virtual sketching. How do you map out garments?

It is mostly through digital files. There is some back and forth. You have a section of knit to understand the raw inputs that we are going to add and the shaping. 

ZZ: With a field as tactile as knitwear, the digital aspect seems imposing as the human element is not as visible. Is that a natural process?

It is. With any trial that I handle it first and feel it, so there is that understanding of how a yarn is going to come off the machine. From there, that informs the digital. It is never a straight run-through. Working with these programs can also be as creative as working on a drawing board. Knitwear has always been machine-based for me, even when it is domestic machines strapped to my kitchen table. With industrial-scale knitting machines, everything is faster, but there has been an appreciation for the machine and its capabilities. 

ZZ: You were a finalist of the Woolmark x Adidas performance prize. 

Athletes need to keep cool during training, their clothing wicking sweat away from the body while also having antibacterial breathability.  A lot of fibres tend to retain odours, while with merino, you can wear it again and again and it will not retain odours. The antibacterial properties lend themselves to footwear and not just performance, but post-performance in assisting and aiding in recovery. There are structural elements within the bodysuits that I would have fed through elastics and rubber-resist straps, giving the wearer a more focused workout in particular areas. The series of footwear focused on post-workout recovery and pressure focuses within the massage soles. They go from resistance, soles that work out tension going through to partial knitting structures that house wooden or rubber rods, depending on the kind of resistance that is required. The wearer can stimulate circulation through the shoes. 

ZZ: Designers like Simone Rocha have taken to Irish handicraft, thinking about the Connemara coastline as a source. 

I moved over to London for the MA and went from being in the West of Ireland back to city living. While I love London, it created opposing feeling of nothingness in Ireland to being surrounded and at times, suffocated. I drew on recordings and visuals of the coastline from home after one of our storms. There was this energy in how the seafoam frothed up and surged through the limestone gulley’s on the coast, coating them. Nothing captured it better than these weightless bodies suspended in space. 

ZZ: Aerial dancers approach their practice with an athlete’s mindset. The components of their practice are often technical and their garments reflect that.

'KNITWEAR ON AIR', A SERIES OF AERIAL DANCE SEQUENCES IN THE PERFORMANCE KNIT BODYSUIT, PERFORMED BY ANNA MCDONNELL
‘KNITWEAR ON AIR’, A SERIES OF AERIAL DANCE SEQUENCES IN THE PERFORMANCE KNIT BODYSUIT, PERFORMED BY NICOLA BRODIE SCOTT
'KNITWEAR ON AIR', A SERIES OF AERIAL DANCE SEQUENCES IN THE PERFORMANCE KNIT BODYSUIT. PERFORMED BY ANNA MCDONNELL
‘KNITWEAR ON AIR’, A SERIES OF AERIAL DANCE SEQUENCES IN THE PERFORMANCE KNIT BODYSUIT. PERFORMED BY NICOLA BRODIE SCOTT
'KNITWEAR ON AIR', A SERIES OF AERIAL DANCE SEQUENCES IN PERFORMANCE KNIT BODYSUIT PERFORMED BY ANNA MC DONNELL
‘KNITWEAR ON AIR’, A SERIES OF AERIAL DANCE SEQUENCES IN THE PERFORMANCE KNIT BODYSUIT PERFORMED BY NICOLA BRODIE SCOTT

One of the dancers I work, Sianna, does aerial displays, running performances on the outside of buildings. She received a piece from me for the Edinburgh Arts festival a couple of years ago and she said «Why wasn’t this here three years ago?». Having their input and insights from experience and their practice has informed me about how I think about dance costumes and dancewear. People believe that it is very light with loads of give, but they need layers to allow for harness wear to be disguised or to support the body against that abrasion. The external elements help feed all of their experiences. It is also important for dancers to get access to kits that are not synthetic based. Some think that with athleisure, it is a limited market for natural yarns when the reality is that it is not. 

ZZ: With innovations from companies like Woolmark and the Performance Challenge, knitwear has a bright future. 

There is no sign of anything being able to challenge knitwear because it is a diverse area. Every person, the moment they get out of bed or before they have gotten out of bed they have an item of knitwear on them. Crafted elements can come through in machine knitting — the old-fashioned idea of knitwear is no more, it does not purely have to be hand-crafted. 

Ireland has a heritage of knitwear. There are aspects of knitting that people do not understand — the technicality of it scares people. Up-and-coming knitwear designers can come in and just say «it’s okay, I got this, It doesn’t have to be scary».

I went to the Wool Conference summit in Nanjing in China last year and the spinners are thinking in sustainable ways as well. They are spinning their yarns to have their core ecru yarns across ranges — their technical yarns, their wool blends, everything. When an order is put in, that number is put in to be batch-dyed. While those options mean that there are going to be longer wait times, they are thinking about made-to-order from the yarn stage as opposed to it being huge batches of dyed yarn. 

ZZ: Investing in the younger generation of designers will build a new thought group for fashion. 

The future of knitwear and knit products does not sit in the heritage field. I want to investigate sourcing a machine in the next year. I would like to put the wealth of knowledge and the contacts that I have brought up in the last couple of years into play through linking with innovation hubs or makerspaces. I would potentially have access to working with factories in Europe which I would not be opposed to. The technical learning comes along with the machinery and all of the software development.  These are challenging times and as a graduate, you are going to be dipping your toe in the untouched water.

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