I’m a knit designer. I knit what I like to wear. However, every once in a while, I see someone else’s design that fills a void I did not know I had. Sometimes that sweater pops up as a seven-dollar pattern on Ravelry, and sometimes that sweater can only be bought for $4,000.
So it was with my most recent infatuation: a sweater worn by actor Eddie Redmayne for the Prada Fall campaign.
I first saw “the sweater” in August as I was leafing through the New York Times Sunday supplement. I wasn’t sure at first if I liked it: the colors were a bit clownish, the whole look a bit manic for the tweedy Mr. Redmayne. But I was fascinated, and I began to search for it everywhere. I bought the September issue of Vogue. I watched Prada promotional videos for glimpses of that distinctive pattern peeking from under suit coats. There were vest versions, alternate colorways, a simplified one in stripes available on Farfetch for about five minutes. But it was the colors in the women’s runway version that had me hooked. Indeed the whole runway show fascinated me with its garment deconstruction and its cultural bricolage. I was smitten. The sweater was more than a pretty thing to knit: it resonated with my designer instincts. It had a context in Miuccia Prada’s runway collection. It had MEANING.
One day, I put on my best black everything and marched down to the Prada outpost in Boston to see if I could find out anything more about it.
The staff couldn’t have been nicer, if a bit confused by my visit. No one knew the sweater I was so excited about. Peter, the manager, suggested that it might be a piece that hadn’t made it into production. New York would get one, if anyone did, but his Boston customer was much more interested in “the best white shirt you can buy” than such a sweater. If Boston was confused, New York was even more so. I just wanted to know if it existed beyond the runway. How much would it cost? Where was it made? About to give up, I found new hope when a friend of my husband’s said that he knew the costume designer for a popular Netflix drama whose star had a contract with Prada. “She knows everyone there, maybe she can get your questions answered.”
I held my breath.
While I waited, I set about trying to understand the sweater in the best way I know how: I knit swatches.
I peered at the stitches in the photos, tracing how I thought the yarn traveled from one stitch to the next. When I thought I understood how it was made, it was a drop everything and knit moment, so I used the skein on my desk: Nurtured from Julie Asselin Yarns.
I began my experiment with units of 12 stitches. What I learned from this swatch was that I was right about my structure and about my math. While the original sweater had an eight stitch repeat, the units worked in any even number really, all that mattered was gauge and how big I wanted them to be. For my next swatch I added color, changing only after a full row of units to see how they interacted, and also because I was still shy of going full intarsia. I also played with the math, trying out an eight stitch repeat in Cormo Sport from Sincere Sheep.
This swatch best illustrates how the shells connect to each other: I see them as stripes, built as little back and forth scribbles of short rows that start small and grow by one stitch at every turn. I begin the stripe at the right edge of the fabric, working the first shell back and forth over eight stitches. The top row of the shell continues across into the next shell to the left, making the first stitches in the bottom row. I work that shell, and then move on again to the left. Once I’ve completed the row, I knit on the wrong side of the fabric all the way back. I begin the next stripe with half of a shell, then proceed as before. In the intarsia version, the color of the last unit gets used for that knit row on the wrong side, which is where the contrast color purl bumps in the original sweater come from. With this Cormo swatch, I refined the set up stripe, working only two sets of short rows to avoid distortion in the transition from the ribbing. The scallops distort the fabric without this, and you can see in the original sweater that the knitter took care to do this.
Once I had solved the construction puzzle, I felt ready to tackle the intarsia variable. I consistently counted nine colors in every version I’d seen. I dug out all of my skeins of Jamieson’s Double Knitting, and played with combinations for a bit before I chose these colors to work together.
The first thing I did was to knit a single unit, unravel it, and then measure the length. This way, I could break off the correct amount and be free of the yarn basket. I worked a garter stitch border and the transition rows in my “background” color, then chose my colors at the beginning of each row of units. As the swatch grew, it became more intuitive to place my colors, balancing for tone as much as hue. I squinted at it a lot and I also used this as an opportunity to try knitting backwards, a neat trick. I’m not sure it saved me any time, but it was fun, and I got pretty good at it by the end. (You can find YouTube videos to show you the way if you’re interested.)
What about all the ends? (I can hear you muttering.)
Thanks to social media, I had seen the back of one of the actual Prada sweaters. So here’s one of the sweater’s secrets: the ends are knotted and cut short. I was disappointed for only a moment before I remembered the time I asked Kaffe Fassett if I could look at the back of his vest. He had flipped the hem, like the good sport that he is, unashamed of all the knots and dangling ends there. He rationalized it in this way: “If you knot it, it’s not going anywhere, you can get on with your knitting, and all people ever see is the front.” I took the back of this lovely fabric as further permission to just tie a knot and get on with it. And so that is why the back of my swatch looks like this.
So what am I going to do with this? At the moment, I am dreaming of a Rhinebeck sweater, a grand opus worked over the next eight months out of my beautiful Jamieson’s stash. I’d be thrilled to run into anyone there who follows the same path. In the meantime, I’m waiting to hear if the powers at Prada will answer my questions. I’d love to see the original sketch, and know how the technical aspect played into the design. Did the sweater come from a swatch? Did the sketch suggest a patchwork and the knitter took the idea and came up with this? Who is the knitter who made this sweater happen? Can I send her a fan letter? I want to tell her that she inspired me, and as a fellow designer I bet she would be thrilled to know.
Get Ready for Holiday Knitting