Maine is a hotbed for knitwear designers, led by tradition and a new generation of bold thinkers.
If you haven’t paid much attention to knitting in recent years, you might be surprised to see photos of Andrea Mowry’s designs: funky, colorful sweaters, shawls and accessories that are full of intriguing textures—a rippled edge here, a honeycomb pattern there. They’re wearable, modern and distinctive—a far cry from the stiff, overstyled knitwear designs of decades past. And the pattern photos are modeled by Mowry herself, a 30-something blonde with a nose ring and copious tattoos.
A recent transplant to Portland from her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan, Mowry joins an impressive array of Maine women who are designing fashionable, contemporary garments that you’d buy right off the rack if not for the fact that you have to actually knit them yourself first. These designers are inspired by the rocky coast and wooded acres, by the way the sun slants on a harsh winter day, by the sheer fact that life above the 43rd parallel provides opportunities to wear handknits 12 months of the year.
On a sunny morning at Tandem Coffee, Mowry was knitting one of the first designs she’s created since moving to Maine last spring. For the sweater in progress, she combined a rustic wool with fuzzy mohair—warm, cozy and a bit of a departure from the color-shifting “fades” for which she became known. “I imagine this as my coastal Maine sweater,” Mowry said. “I’m excited to be in a place where I’m going to be newly inspired.”
Knitting designers face a unique challenge: They must design a garment that looks good, that suits their customers’ desires and that fits in with their own overall aesthetic. And then they have to explain—carefully and in great detail—how others can make it themselves. Along the way, the designers, and the knitters who follow their patterns, are also literally creating the fabric from which the garment is constructed. It’s a mind-boggling challenge: the combination of yarn types (thick, thin, smooth, textured), needle sizes (tiny to enormous) and stitch combinations means the possibilities are essentially limitless.
Portland-based Bristol Ivy is known for her innovative designs. (Full disclosure: Ivy is a friend.) Often conceptually based, they use surprising construction methods and lean heavily on knitting’s math-based origins. For instance, her Recursive shawl is a wide, flattering garment that alternates open, lacy sections with solid triangles. Sounds straightforward, right?
But Ivy’s pattern has something more complex going on: It’s based on a formula where each triangle is twice the area of the previous one. “We come to knitting with all of these preconceived ideas about what it has to be based on what people have done in the past,” Ivy says. “But that’s not necessary. We can take it beyond the bounds of that history really easily. The most important thing for me is that knitting doesn’t have rules—it has traditions. It has ways things have been done, but that’s not how they have to be done moving forward. It’s been a lot of fun for me to see where the balance is between wearability, knitability and tradition.”
For instance, her Niska design is a cropped poncho with the addition of three-quarter-length sleeves. That description may sound a bit like a fashion don’t, but in person it’s a funky layering piece that instantly landed on many to-knit lists since Ivy released it in January. Niska’s combination of complexity and utility is the sweet spot Ivy aims for when she’s designing. “I want to have as much fun as possible coming up with ideas, but if the end product isn’t something that’s useful and wearable, then maybe I need to rethink it a little,” she says.
Other designers start from a less conceptual place, instead looking to create a garment that fits the aesthetic of the brand they’ve established or, even more simply, their own style. That’s Mowry’s way: “I only design for myself—what I’d like to have in my wardrobe, or what I would like to wear that I haven’t seen out there,” she says.
Elizabeth Smith takes a similar approach. A designer for the last decade, she specializes in simple, modern garments—a bit like what Eileen Fisher would produce were she a hand knitter. “I’m always layering,” Smith says. “So I’ll think about things like, what would be easy to throw on over a black dress?”
Smith, who lives in Freeport, works at the Portland yarn store KnitWit a few days a week, which gives her valuable insight into what her typical customers value—and what frustrates them. For instance, layering pieces generally use less yarn than a more substantial garment, such as a pullover sweater, which makes them more affordable; many of her customers let her know they appreciate that. Likewise, the clean lines of her designs make them easy to knit—something ready-to-wear designers never have to consider. “I like a really clean and simple and modern silhouette,” Smith says. “And I always try to pair that with designing and writing the pattern in a way that even beginning knitters can do. I want to create wearable and timeless pieces, and then design them in a way that it can be a relaxing knit.”
Ivy factors knitting difficulty into her designs as well, noting that very few knitters want to be doing two complicated things simultaneously. So, for instance, if a particular design uses an unusual or complex method of construction, she’ll be sure to keep the stitch patterns simple and straightforward—and vice versa.
THE QUINCE EFFECT
Observers of the knitting world agree that Maine seems to have a higher-than-average number of successful, well known designers focusing on contemporary knitwear. Carrie Bostick Hoge designs deceptively simple garments—often loose and a bit boxy—that receive great acclaim on Ravelry, the knitters’ equivalent of Reddit. Hoge also produces Making, a bi-annual craft magazine that often includes designs by Mainers, photographed in stunning locations.
Meanwhile, Portland-based Mary Jane Mucklestone focuses on traditional colorwork—think of the Scandinavian sweaters that incorporate intricate patterns in multiple colors—but adds modern flair in the silhouettes she designs and the way she combines colors.
So why the heavy concentration of talent in Maine? For one, there’s the DIY ethos that just seems to come naturally to Mainers. “It feels like that goes a little deeper here,” says Mowry, the Michigan transplant.
“There are more makers in Maine, and specifically in the Portland area,” adds Pam Allen, who has played a significant role in the expansion of Maine’s knitting businesses. “People with creative interests come to small cities where they can afford to live and work.”
Allen founded Quince & Co., which specializes in American wool spun in the United States, a rarity in 2010 when she started the Saco-based company. As a past editor of Interweave Knits and former creative director of Classic Elite Yarns, Allen had the skills and connections to jumpstart her business. While offering American-made yarn was her primary motivation for starting Quince, Allen also wanted to entice former knitters back to the craft. She’d encountered too many women who knew how to knit, but struggled with complex patterns.
It helped that Allen herself favored a clean, modern aesthetic, which can lend itself to relatively straightforward pattern writing. When she and Hoge, who helped Allen start Quince, photographed new patterns featuring their yarns, they used serious-looking models on simple, well-lit sets—no actorly poses or extravagant styling. And they carried that look and feel—one that has influenced many a Maine designer—over to their pattern and website design. “The rise of the Internet meant that you could do everything yourself,” Allen explains, referring to publishing patterns and marketing and selling yarn. “So because we didn’t have a lot of experience with the design software, we kept things very minimal.”
Over time, as part of the regular process by which yarn companies build their business, Quince began publishing patterns by other designers—many of them new to the business. Kennebunk designer Hannah Fettig published several books of her Knitbot patterns in collaboration with Quince as she was getting established. Like Smith, she worked at KnitWit, and that’s where she decided to make a career from a hobby. A pair of alluring cardigans helped make her famous in knitting circles (she has over 49,000 followers on Instagram). Smith, Ivy and Beatrice Perron Dahlen, a Freeport designer whose business is called Thread and Ladle, all published patterns with Quince early in their careers. “The first pieces of mine that were accepted were with Quince & Co.,” Dahlen says. “They’re really great about working with local designers.”
“I’m always layering. So I’ll think about things like, what would be easy to throw on over a black dress?”
Dahlen, who has an art degree, taught herself to design through trial and error, then conquered the steep learning curve of writing patterns. (Grading, the process of developing patterns for multiple sizes, involves geometry, proportion, a bit of anatomy and tons of math. It’s definitely not as simple as, say, adding a few stitches to every row to go from small to medium.) Her designs seem appealingly uncomplicated at first glance, though when you look more closely you spot intricate lace details or some well-placed cables—design features that have become her calling card. “When I put out a design that’s really simple, it’s far less successful than something that’s full of lace or cables,” Dahlen says. “I don’t know exactly how that happened, but at this point I’ve figured out that’s the sweet spot for my customers.”
As Dahlen’s designing career began to take off, she became intrigued by what she was learning about the vitality of the Maine knitting scene. “As I was learning about the individuals behind the designs I liked, I thought, ‘They’re in Maine, too?’” she says. Her discovery led to MAINE Knits, a Kickstarter-funded book she published in 2017, featuring patterns by Hoge, Ivy, Mucklestone, Smith and others. The designs share a certain direct simplicity that seems particular to the Pine Tree State.
“The pieces herein—sweaters, shawls, cowls, a hat and a pair of mittens—catch the eye in an inviting, ‘of course,’ kind of way,” Allen writes in the introduction to MAINE Knits, in perhaps the best recent evocation of the stylish Mainer’s fashion sense. “They’re lovely and wearable, inviting you to stop what you’re doing, drop your concerns and cast on. They provide an opening in the structure of a busy day to notice, to shift, to appreciate—they provide something to look forward to.”
While Allen, and through her, Quince, have had a major influence on many Maine designers’ aesthetics, there is another inspiration these artists share: the physical space around them. “All our photos have a similar feel,” says Ivy with a chuckle. “The landscape in Maine is very particular—there are very strong elements and very clean elements. And we all get to take photos of our designs in all of these gorgeous places.”
Michaela Cavallaro lives in Portland’s West End with her teenage daughter and two ridiculous small dogs. She spends a lot of time knitting on conference calls.