Knitwear design student Phoebe Thirlwall was an unquestionable highlight of Graduate Fashion Week 2010. Her work demonstrated an impressive level of craftsmanship, story receiving recognition even before the shows when one of her dresses was photographed by Rankin. Phoebe’s final collection, consisting of six looks, was a feast of beautiful and intricate knitwear. I caught up with Phoebe to learn a little more about the work that went into her final collection, and after the chaos of that week, what she plans to do next!
Graduate Fashion Week is a fantastic opportunity for students. How did it feel to have your work selected for the show?
It was really exciting because I had never expected to be selected, and when I found out I was obviously over the moon. It made such a difference to see my work on a raised catwalk, it felt so professional, and although I was really nervous when it went out, it was a great feeling to see it up there and being photographed. It is an amazing opportunity for students and it is a shame that everyone doesn’t get to go.
Why did you choose to study Knitwear Design over a general Fashion degree?
The Knitwear course at Nottingham Trent University involves a sandwich year in industry, which was one of the reasons I chose to study the course. Employers always want experience, so I felt that a year in the industry would be attractive to potential employers. I never particularly preferred knitwear over wovens, but when you are designing knitwear you have so much more freedom to create exactly what you want. If you are making an outfit from woven fabrics, although you can print on them etc, you are still limited by the fabric itself. When you knit an outfit, you can control the whole thing. You can knit the fabric however you want it and create different textures and patterns. Also, I like knitwear because you can knit the pieces of fabric to size. You can approach the whole outfit in a different way.
Where did you complete your work experience and how valuable was it to you?
My year in industry was spent in a family run knitwear factory called GH Hurt and Sons in Chilwel, Nottingham. It is a fairly small factory where lace knit is designed, made and constructed into various pieces. They create baby shawls and christening blankets sold in high end department stores and items of clothing for a number of luxury catalogue retailers. We also produced a lot of items for retailers overseas, such as the USA and Hong Kong. I was able to learn about the first steps of the process – receiving yarns on cones and in big hanks, to designing and knitting the pieces and finally how each item is made and finished to a high standard. It was also nice to see the items for sale and being worn because I always thought -’I made that!’ – which is a great feeling.
Can you explain a little about the techniques that you used? Did you have a lot to learn in terms of advanced skills?
The outfits I made are knitted mostly in silk and bamboo, with an elastic yarn that I used to create the patterns. I developed the technique by experimenting on a knitting machine to see what types of fabric I could create. I knew that I wanted to use elastic because it developed from my concept of skin, and also that I wanted to work with luxury fibres such as silk. I used a combination of rippled stitches, stripes and transferred needles on the front of the bed of the knitting machine to create the fabrics that I made my collection from. These are all techniques that I had learned in previous years, but putting them together required a lot of experimentation, and luck.
Was there much change in your work from the conception of the idea to the work we saw on the catwalk?
Yes. I had worked on the project since Christmas, so there was a lot of time for ideas and concepts to change. Initially, I had no idea what my collection was going to look like and I still didn’t until a few weeks before the show. I had no idea what type of fabric I would use, or what techniques. It wasn’t until I developed a fabric that I was happy with that the collection began to come together. At the beginning, I was thinking about the concept of shedding skin, more than the skin itself. This gradually changed throughout my research and development, into a more specialised study of the skin. I know that if I had stuck with my original thoughts, then the collection would look a lot different. It would probably be a bit more structured, rather than the more subtle and slim-line way it is turned out.
Which of the other graduate collections were you impressed by?
There were so many great collections. It’s good to see other peoples work because it is all brilliant. I loved all of the collections from Nottingham (slightly biased obviously), but there were many other Universities that I liked aswell. I was backstage when the De Montford show was going on, and some of those were amazing!
Nottingham has made a bit of a name for itself as a hub of creativity. What it has it been like for you?
I like Nottingham because it is a small city. It’s more like a town and everything’s quite compact. There are a lot of creative people who come to study here, but everywhere is quite laid back, which I like. It’s not over crowded with arty types. There are lots of students with different interests, and there are good places to go to eat, drink or shop. I suppose it has got a bit of a name for itself, but it’s a fairly down to earth city to live in. I’ve lived just outside the city centre for 2 years, and I’m going to be sad to leave.
You described your collection as ‘based on skin and flesh on the human body’. Where did this inspiration come from, and what else inspires you?
The inspiration for my collection came originally from a general interest in the skin and flesh. I think that this comes from being a vegetarian since I was 11. I have a strange relationship with food. I like things that are untouched. I won’t eat meat. I took this fascination with meat and flesh and developed it into a concept which I could look into for my collection. I get inspired by anything and everything really, usually something small and ordinary because you can look at it in more detail. I think that even something small and boring to others can become inspiring if you look at it enough.
New designers such as Mark Fast have shown us some other unique techniques with knitwear. Have you thought about how you could further your own skills?
It’s strange to think that a technique can be what ‘makes’ a designer. To me, Mark Fast developed this brilliant technique and ran with it. That’s great because I had never thought about design from that angle before. I always thought you had to constantly create different pieces all the time. Designers like Mark Fast are inspirational because they open your eyes to the possibilities of what can be done on a knitting machine. Missoni also creates such beautiful and unique knitwear. In a way, I would like develop my technique further, but I also would like to focus on new tasks and new direction.
Phoebe Thirwall, photographed by Rankin
One of your dresses was photographed by Rankin. How did it feel to learn that your dress was selected?
Amazing. It was sent down to London, but I never expected it to be photographed. Apparently the university sends items down every year and they rarely get selected to be photographed. When I found out that it had been chosen to be photographed I was really happy, by Rankin especially! The fact that Kate Shillingford from Dazed and Confused actually chose the pieces is overwhelming. It was about 2 months later that the pictures were released. Seeing my work on the Vogue website was mental!
You also received praise from the fashion bloggers. How have you found the attention?
It’s been completely surreal having people like Susie Bubble write about my work. She said it was one of her favourites from the photos, and so did Lucy Wood. I used to read about fashion graduates and imagined they had such exciting lives, but I’m just in my room with my cat and not really doing anything. It’s really strange seeing photos and articles about my work. I feel now like it isn’t even mine and I’m looking at someone else’s. It doesn’t seem real.
It has been two weeks since the show. What’s the plan now?
Is that all? It feels like a lot longer ago than 2 weeks. My collection is being sent over to Shanghai in September for Spin Expo, and a few of the outfits are being used in a photo shoot in July. My plans now involve finding a job, going to interviews and hopefully being hired. I want to move down to London to be nearer to my boyfriend. Ideally, I want to see clothes that I have designed, being made. I also really want a long holiday, somewhere nice and hot, where I don’t have to think about knitting!
- Bethan Juliff, Knitwear Designer Extraordinaire: New S/S 2012 Season Preview Interview
- Claire McLachlan
- Taylor Made Menagerie
- Graduate Fashion Week 2010: Nottingham Trent
- EDE Knitwear: An interview with Ellie Jauncey