This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of the 2019 Rhinebeck Trunk Show.
If you were asked to compile a list of rockstar knitwear designers, Stephen West would most likely be at the top of it. The Tulsa, Oklahoma, native, who has a background in dance, brings a performer’s creativity to his work, and has seen Bowie-esque transformations, starting with subdued designs like his Boneyard Shawl, transitioning to edgier pieces, such as Transatlantic from his Westknits Book Two, and then to Shrowls and Ribbed Dickeys, and more recently to incredibly complex brioche lace.
Recently, Stephen collaborated with Malia Mae Joseph, the co-owner of the Stephen & Penelope yarn shop in Amsterdam, which Malia originally founded, to release West Wool, a line of non-Superwash yarn comprised of Falkland Merino and Texel, a breed of domestic sheep originally from the island of Texel in the Netherlands.
How did you decide to become a knitwear designer?
I began designing knitting patterns ten years ago after the owner of my first local yarn shop, Klose Knit, in Urbana, IL, asked me to write a simple pattern during the local Boneyard Arts Festival. I named that first shawl the Boneyard Shawl and started designing simple hats and shawls during that first year of designing patterns. I love the interaction of sharing a design and seeing the colorful variations when knitters customize the patterns and make them their own. I began by modifying patterns which taught me a lot about construction and simple math modifications to existing patterns. Once I started to design my own patterns, my mind couldn’t stop racing with ideas so it was a great fit for me.
How does your background in dance inform your work?
I was very improvisational as a dancer and I also improvise most of my designs while I knit. Sometimes I start a piece thinking it will be a hat or a cowl and it evolves into a modular shawl or sweater. I always loved to create and compose my own dances and that joy and passion for creating something from scratch translated into all of my knit shawls and sweaters. When I was dancing and performing more, I always had down time between rehearsals and performances which I filled with knitting.
Your aesthetic has changed since your early days of designing, transitioning from neutrals, greens and mustards to bright pops of color. How did that transformation come about?
I have always been fascinated with color, but I started embracing more vibrant colors after I moved to Amsterdam and started collaborating with other artists like my friend Alexandra Feo, a talented photographer, dancer, and knitter from Venezuela. We began collaborating on Westknits photos and approached them with a more mindful planning process. We ebraced fashion, styling, and makeup combined with the knitwear to produce more dynamic images. That was around 2013. That year sparked a joyful shift in my approach to combining colors and I was also traveling much more after that collecting inspiration around Europe and during my visits to Iceland. Soon after, I encountered the work of Belgian fashion designer Walter van Beirendonck. He continues to be an inspiration to me with his vivid use of color and unapologetic style in the fashion world. Yarn companies and hand dyers are always coming out with new colors. I start most of my designs with the yarn first, so yarn heavily influences my evolving design style.
On a related note, what are your favorite colors and have they changed at all since you started designing?
I love yellow, especially golden yellow. Currently, my favorite color is anything fluffy. I love mohair and brushed alpaca yarns.
Tell me about what inspires your designs.
Yarn yarn yarn. I have a colorful cabinet of yarn at home where I start most of my designs. Quite often I’ll create the first prototype of a design with a dozen or more colors. Then, I’ll look at the design and rework it with a more focused color palette. I play a lot with theme and variation so many designs are based off of previous explorations in short rows, and graphic striped effects.
What’s the first thing you do when you start designing a pattern?
I try to write down the pattern while I knit. I used to not write my patterns down the first time so I always re-knit them a second time. I’m getting better at writing patterns down while I knit to save time.
How did the development of West Wool come about?
Malia and I wanted to create a yarn for our store in Amsterdam and one that we could take to shows as well and something missing from our shop collection was an extensive solid range of non-superwash wool. We wanted a soft fiber that maintains structure and stitch definition so we chose a Falkland Merino blended with 10% Texel which is a Dutch sheep breed. Texel wool is quite toothy and give a little bite and loftiness to the soft merino wool. We debuted West Wool earlier this year in Bicycle, a fingering weight yarn with two plies gently twisted around each other, and a more bouncy DK weight yarn called Tandem. I particularly love Tandem because the stitch definition is so crisp and squishy. We can’t wait to release more colors and bases in the future.
What are some interesting things you learned when creating your yarn line?
We learned that two people with totally different color tastes can put a beautiful collection of yarn together. Malia has a super sophisticated approach to color and loves gray so you will see six shades of gray and some subtle and saturated tones throughout the palette. I always love a vibrant color pop so we injected some statement colors to balance out the neutrals. We are excited to expand the color range to make even more complex color combinations for stranded knitting and striped projects. We both had some yarn production ideas years ago that were never fully realized so we’re glad we waited until now to create our dream yarn just the way we wanted to do it.
We’ve learned to be very patient and thoughtful throughout the process to not rush anything too quickly. I try to carry these lessons through into my design work these days too. I used to be more quick and immediate with my decisions and design process, but now I let ideas simmer and cook longer until they are more mature and developed. The end result is always something I’m more proud of and I have fewer regrets these days. I rarely regret not doing something these days. Developing big projects like West Wool together with Malia or creating my Westknits books is an exercise in patience because there are so many components that go into the final product, but the beautiful result is always worth it in the end.
When and how did you learn to knit?
I learned to knit when I was sixteen years old from some friends in high school while we were rehearsing a school musical. I carried knitting with me everywhere from the beginning and became the knitting guy in high school. I haven’t put my needles down since.