This time last year on Freshome, we wrote about the trend for knitting and crochet in interior design and we are happy to report that the trend is still going strong. What was once considered to be an old fashioned past-time reserved for grandmas has become increasingly popular in recent years as younger generations have rediscovered the value and pleasure in the handmade and the hand crafted. At the forefront of this trend is Melanie Porter, a renowned British designer who is becoming known around the world for her ability to create exquisite, textured fabrics which are individually knitted and felted before being used to create unique and one-off furnishing items. Melanie’s oversized knits certainly caught our eye and we were intrigued as to how she goes about creating her signature pieces. We caught up with her to find out more.
Can you tell us about yourself and your background?
I grew up and went to school in Surrey, though I spent a couple of years in Canada when I was very young. I studied fashion design at Central Saint Martin’s before specializing in knitwear. Straight after university I went to work for Burberry and then spent several years in Italy. It was a bit of a challenge, working in Italian, but it was all very exciting at the time, travelling all over Italy to visit knitting factories and clients. Then I came back to work in the UK for Pure Collection and I was travelling out to China several times a year. But I was beginning to miss physically making things and decided to try to revamp a couple of old chairs I had.
I couldn’t find a fabric that I liked so decided to make my own. The reaction that I had to the first few pieces that I made was so positive, I persuaded my boss to allow me to start Melanie Porter as a business creating bespoke knitted chairs whilst continuing to work as a knitwear designer. Luckily my business took off so I was able to devote myself fully to it. I still occasionally consult for several fashion brands, mainly creating stitch samples and clothing specs.
How did first get involved with knitting and how long have you been doing it?
As a child there’s one particular photo of me that I thinks sums me up completely. My Mum is very creative, she’s a successful artist and when I was very young she was running a spinning and weaving class. She took the image of me aged one year old with not a toy in sight, just a pile of un-spun fleece that I am happily playing with. My grandmother taught me to knit – she made lampshades and tapestries. My grandfather was an architect who did upholstery in his spare time and I am still using some of his old tools today in the studio.
My family has strongly influenced my career. I did a BA in Womenswear Fashion at Central St. Martin’s - I was particularly interested in tailoring and manipulating fabrics to create structural forms; it was only in my last 4 months that I realised that knit was the perfect medium for this. I then specialised in knitwear during an MA at Nottingham Trent University.
How has your experience in the fashion industry influenced the work you do today?
I use many of the skills that are traditionally connected to fashion and clothing manufacture in my work, and I still use many of my old suppliers for the materials that I use. This brings a ‘couture’ quality to my work, with every detail finished by hand.
Knitting has become popular once again recently. Why do you think this is?
I have definitely noticed an increased general interest in the various craft-based techniques over the last few years. Different people view my designs as either classical or contemporary and sometimes both! So its probably just fortuitous that there is a movement of people gaining experience and knowledge and interest in what could be considered traditional craft-based techniques.
Can you talk us through the process of making one of your fantastic knitted chairs from start to finish?
A client either specifies that they would like a version of one of my previous pieces, in which case I go off and find a frame, or they give me their own chair and ask for a bespoke design created to suit their own home. I’ll draw the design so that the client can see exactly what the final piece will look like, which I’ll either post to them with swatches of colour, or meet them at their home where we can pick colours together from my extensive colour card. Once the order is confirmed, I’ll order the yarn and strip and reupholster the chair, or prepare the lampstand or any other piece ready for the cover to be individually made.
The yarn arrives as 2/28′s fine yarn which I ply up to create the thickness I require – sometimes a single cover will involve 7gg machine knit, 3gg machine knit and hand knit, each requiring different thickness of yarn but in exactly the same colour. I plan each knit panel taking into consideration the shrinkage caused by the felting. Once each panel is made it is felted to form a tight hard-wearing fabric that is then used as a cover material. Most pieces are finished with hand crocheted buttons.
To produce your oversized knitting, you must need oversized tools & materials?
I tried with cricket stumps to start with but then found someone who produces knitting needles to order in any size. They are very heavy and unwieldy to use but they allow me to knit with other types of materials like nautical rope or my new chunky woollen yarn. I have been experimenting over the last year with different techniques to make my own thicker 1-inch yarn as no one produces such a product commercially. After much trial and error,
I have a secret method, that although very labour intensive, gives me the desired combination of soft, chunky and robust finish for my new Hugo range. I have had lots of people wanting to buy the yarn itself so that they can use it for their own products but I can only make enough for myself at the moment.
Every piece you create is made entirely by you, by hand. This must be a pretty labour-intensive process? How long does it take you to make each piece? Is that why they are quite pricey?
I love doing all the individual steps so much that I do most pieces entirely by myself! It is time-consuming but not everyone is so lucky to do something they truly love so I don’t mind the long hours and sore fingers. I do occasionally use an upholsterer for some of the pieces if I am particularly busy but all the designing and knitting and finishing is down to me.
I am never sure how long a piece will take. If I have a particular idea of the frame shape or age of the piece I want, then it can take several weeks to find the perfect piece. For most of my work, I give a lead time of 10 weeks and as with most things, as the deadline gets closer the hours extend well past midnight quite often. A piece like Albert or Marc takes significantly longer as every single piece of knit is knitted by hand to precise shapes and textures so the knitting on its own for similar pieces takes several weeks.
My pieces range from about a hundred pounds up to a couple of thousands for the larger chairs and sofas. The pricing is determined by how many hours it takes to make (up to 200 hours for the larger pieces) and also the cost of the materials I have sourced and used.
Who are your main clients?
Most of my commissions are individuals for their personal homes, though I do sell established pieces from my range in boutiques in London and Paris. I have to admit that when I started out I was worried that it would be very niche and my client list would be a particular type but I am so happy that I have made pieces for all different types of people and from so many different cultures and countries. I think in part that is because I allow my clients to be as much a part of the creative process as they want to be. I love the reaction that people have when they see their finished piece and that what gives me the ultimate satisfaction, whoever they are.
What is the most unusual product that you have made created with your knitting?
I was commissioned by a well-known boutique in Notting Hill to create a statement shop-window. In collaboration with their lovely manager, I created fully-covered red male and female mannequins with extra-long fingers and toes that were suspended by extended knitted necks. They looked pretty freaky and would have suited Halloween but they got a brilliant response from the clients and the public.
What can we expect to see from Melanie Porter next?
I am always trying out new interior products and have a book, ‘Handknit your Home’ launching with Cico Books in March that will go through the creation of 30 new products so that knitters anywhere can try their hand at a Melanie Porter design.
I have also been experimenting with some brilliant specialists in their own fields at transferring the aesthetic of my knit designs to other products. Currently we are producing some gorgeous bespoke wallpaper with Emily O’Connor from 009 textiles and also from printed vinyl flooring with Printed Space. I am going to be exhibiting at Home in January at Earl’s Court and hope to have some of these products ready to showcase then as well as a range of bespoke cinema seats that I am really proud of that I have rescued from a Edwardian theatre and have re-imagined with my signature look.
Freshome would like to thank Melanie for sharing her inspiring story with and providing this fascinating insight into how she produces her exquisite knitted furnishings. What do you think about Melanie’s knitted goods? Be sure to leave us a message and let us know.