The New "Granny Chic"
By CHARLOTTE KEMP
Pensioner Rose Ward has settled down to some knitting while she waits for the potatoes to boil. With her dog Toby at her feet, she sets to work and as her nimble fingers click away, a delicate gossamer web emerges.
This intricate piece, a deep blue top with an unusual diagonal rib, is nearly finished. Once Rose is happy with it, she'll pop it in a padded envelope and send it to her employer in London.
And you can bet it won't be long before this distinctive top, so lovingly made in Rose's Nuneaton home, is hanging in a fashionista's wardrobe.
For Rose, 68, is one of a secret network of grannies producing couture rather than tea cosies in her kitchen (or living room or garden — Rose gets out her knitting wherever and whenever she has five minutes to spare).
As fashion takes a retro step, designers are snapping up women like Rose to achieve that coveted handmade look. For summer, we had crochet, appliqué, broderie anglaise and lace. This autumn, the granny chic theme continues with chunky Aran patterns, Fair Isle knits and long cardis.
So who better to produce it than real-life grannies who have been knitting all their lives? Rose Ward is one of several hundred enthusiastic 'home knitters' working for Wear-downey, a designer knitwear label set up by two former models.
Its designs have been snapped up by Helena Christensen and Sadie Frost. Bronwyn Lowenthal, of chi chi knit label Lowie (stocked at popular celebrity haunts Paul & Joe and Doctor Boo), is also reliant on her army of hand knitters, who are hard at work on the cutest autumn collection of berets, fingerless gloves, ponchos and wraps. Even the bigger labels are drawing on the experience of hand knitters.
Dublin-based designer John Rocha has a network of elderly women clicking away for him. Jaegar has included hand-knits in its autumn main collection and the up-and-coming Jaegar London label.
Margaret Howell has homed in on traditional Fair Isle patterns with sexy tank tops and cardigans for dress-down glamour, all lovingly made in Scotland by home knitters.
So valued are these knitting ladies that in some cases their identities are shrouded in secrecy for fear they might be poached by rival labels.
Up-and-coming designer Clare Tough, for instance, will identify her granny guru only as Doreen, an experienced knitter who, by all accounts, puts the younger woman in her place when the duo work on new designs.
Toni Hicks, knitwear tutor at the University of Brighton who taught the likes of Julien Macdonald, is not surprised that these super-skilled senior citizens are so highly prized.
"There is a generation of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s who have the most tremendous skills," she says.
They learned to knit and crochet at a time when you had to make do and mend. They were expert at unravelling garments they didn't wear and restyling them for next to no money.
"Now that a hand-made look is back in vogue, I'm not surprised their unique skills are in huge demand again. For years, it has worried me that hand knitting would slowly die out, but the other great thing about the return of the home-made look is that younger women are being inspired to learn how to do it themselves.
"We teach crochet, hand knitting and embroidery at the university. This year, I have had students who have honed in on hand knitting and produced some amazing garments."
However talented, these young pretenders would undoubtedly be impressed by some of the garments produced by the likes of Rose Ward. She learned to knit almost before she learned to read and has been clicking away all her life.
"My mother taught me and I cannot remember a time when I couldn't do it," she says. "I used to make jumpers and cardigans as a child and I can vividly remember crocheting my first pram cover.
"To be honest, I don't think of myself as a good knitter. It's just something I've always done. I used to make lots of chair covers, and the odd suit or skirt for myself, before I replied to an advert in a knitting magazine for home knitters."
Now, Rose is part of a 200-strong community working for Weardowney. "I get sent the patterns and the wool, then I am left to it," she says. "Gail and I talk on the phone regularly and if something is not working out, I'll tell her. There are regional supervisors, too, that we can talk to.
"So far this year, I've made four long-sleeved dresses, a chenille waffle cardigan and a cowl waistcoat. If Gail wants something urgently, I can do it in a fortnight or so but otherwise, things take around three weeks to a month.
"One time, Gail asked me to help with a pattern for Elle magazine to feature and I had to knit up the prototype.
"I couldn't help laughing when Gail told me the editor was convinced the sample was done on a machine because it was so neat. But that's just me. I keep my knitting around the place in a carrier bag, so that I can pick it up whenever I've got time.
"My favourite of all the pieces I have made for Gail was definitely a long dress I made for a singer. She loved the first one so much, she's now got four. It was in cream chenille with inserts of black lurex.
"Gail came up with the idea of putting the panels down the side and it did look really gorgeous. I've also made a cardigan for the actress Juliet Stevenson.
"To be honest, I am always amazed that something I have made while I was cooking potatoes or watching TV ends up on the catwalk or in the wardrobe of someone famous.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm just an ordinary knitter. When I'm not knitting for Gail, I make blankets for Save The Children."
While Rose may be blasé about her skills, Gail, who worked as knitwear manager for John Galliano before setting up her own label, is full of praise for her "knitting ladies".
"Women like Rose have the most amazing technical ability," she says. "Though there are some younger knitters, the really intricate work tends to be done by the older ones.
"I have knitters of 74 who are doing 4ply fine work, for example, and they don't think anything of it."
Though Gail won't reveal how much she pays her ageing team of artisans, she is quick to stress that they are well looked after. As far as she's concerned, the little cottage industry she has set up is as Fair-trade as you can get.
"I used to supervise 800 women when I worked at John Galliano," says Gail. "Now, I have about 200 women working for me from all over the country from Cumbria to Wales and the Isle of Wight and as I see it, we pay them fairly well for doing something that is a hobby which they would do out of love anyway.
"We have a similar community set up in Macedonia to produce our TopShop line. Again, as far as I'm concerned, it's Fairtrade.
"These women are doing something they really enjoy and getting paid at the same time."
This army of experienced knitters is influencing fashion, too, says Callula Scott, who works for a design house specialising in hand-knitting, crochet, embroidery and embellishment.
"We make garments for the American market and the production is in the Far East and China to be competitive. But we test out techniques first with the help of a small group of eight ladies who have a wealth of experience.
"One of them is in her 80s and she often gives us ideas on what will work and what won't, which is fantastic. There is never a quiet moment when they come into the office. We've all learned a huge amount from them."
Callula is convinced the hand-knitting revival will remain a strong theme over the next few seasons.
"There's a sway away from the novelty sweater with clean cut, simple lines. You will also see sweaters with crochet insets, and embellishment is still popular."
Certainly, there was an arts and crafts feel on the autumn/winter catwalk, with knitwear labels such as Pringle showcasing a homemade look.
"Handknits have an inherent heirloom quality and luxurious feel that became a very strong focus this season," says Pringle's new creative director, Clare Waight Keller.
"My approach was to make them modern by creating new trapeze silhouettes while still using traditional artisan skills."
The results are stunning, though you'll need a mini mortgage to afford the beautiful cream cable knit swing cardigan (£795) or the lust-have grey cashmere jumper, £750, both made by Scottish home knitters using traditional yarns.
The long knitted cardigan is another must-have for autumn (seen everywhere from Gaultier to Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti) and it won't be long before you see a celebrity or two in Balenciaga's Aran polo necks (only the pencil slim need apply to avoid those Bridget Jones bulges).
If you can't afford to buy the home-made look, there is another alternative. Next time you visit your granny, take some quality yarn and get her started on a little something for you. But watch out — if it's too good, the granny scouts may snap her up.