Knyttan's factory opened late last year at Somerset House, where the company is based. The retail space has now closed but Knyttan plans to launch a new shop in central London next month, with a new collection of products
London clothing company Knyttan uses cutting edge software and high-end machinery to produce customisable knitwear on demand, with patterns by designers from Moniker to Kate Moross. In this feature from Creative Review's September issue, we speak to to co-founder Ben Alun-Jones about the company, and how mass customisation could transform the way we shop...
Buying clothing online is rarely a creative process: select your size, add to basket, pay and wait for delivery. Buy a jumper or scarf from Knyttan, however, and you can select a pattern, distort or adapt it as much as you like and create a bespoke design that is knitted on demand and delivered the next day. Patterns include a houndstooth one by Amsterdam studio Moniker, a moiré-style design by digital artist Nicolas Sassoon and geometric creations by Kate Moross – and the number of variations is endless.
Knyttan was founded by Ben Alun-Jones, Hal Watts and Kirsty Emery, who met while studying at the Royal College of Art (Alun-Jones and Watts studied innovation design engineering and Emery, womenswear/knitwear). The idea for it came about after Watts and Emery worked with UK Sport to develop performance clothing for Olympic athletes, and encountered industrial knitting machines that could be programmed to make unique garments.
Pied De Poule fermier scarf, designed by Amsterdam interaction and media design studio Moniker for Knyttan
Traditionally, these machines are operated by an expert, making it expensive and time consuming to programme a new design. But Knyttan has created custom software which automates the process. Once shoppers have finished editing a pattern, they simply click ‘send to knit' and the machine will get to work, making a jumper in as little as two hours.
"We wanted to unlock the potential of these machines to create something different every time, so we developed a system that took away the role of the expert programmer, which is the major bottleneck for the industry," says Alun-Jones. "We have developed a huge amount of increasingly complex software, and have physicists and computer scientists working behind the scenes to make it incredibly simple and easy for the customer," he adds.
While Knyttan was set up to give consumers more choice, Alun-Jones is keen to stress that it isn't looking to replace designers, or let shoppers create their own designs from scratch. Instead, it offers a curated selection of patterns that customers can adapt, without straying too far from the designer's original aesthetic. "A lot of people might have an idea about how a design can be tweaked, but they don't want to create one from scratch. In this way, we're not threatening the role of the designer, just challenging them to design in a new way. We have a baseline when it comes to quality, and while everything we produce will be a little bit different, there will always be some parameters," he says.
Knyttan's website allows customers to manipulate designs and patterns on screen to create a bespoke piece of clothing made with 100% merino wool. Items are knitted using the same industrial machinery as several luxury fashion brands
As well as working with Moross, Moniker and Sassoon, the brand has designed knitwear for Christopher Raeburn's SS16 collection and will be releasing more collaborations this autumn. "We're interested in working with great creatives from any field," says Alun-Jones. Making a Knyttan item is an unusual challenge for designers, who are required to create a flexible template rather than a finished piece. "We've turned knitwear into a blank canvas, so [designers] have a new artistic medium, and customers can have more involvement in the process by being able to adapt those designs to their style."
Fashion has been slow to adopt mass customisation so far, largely because of the logistical and technical challenges it presents. "You're dealing with several huge headaches, from where you put stock when everything's custom, to how the customisation process makes sense for customers, to enabling designers who can't (or don't) want to program to embrace a new way of working," explains Alun-Jones.
One of the Stoll knitting machines used to create Knyttan's products. Garments can be produced on demand in just a few hours
With Knyttan's business model, however, products can be made quickly, locally, and without spending a fortune on stock. The company recently received more than £2 million in funding, and plans to open a new pop-up shop in central London next month. It also intends to expand beyond the capital, by working with traditional factories to create “local production hubs”, though its R&D team will continue to work from Somerset House.
As Alun-Jones points out, knitting has traditionally been a handmade activity, "involving a huge amount of personal effort" or a very industrial process, with garments mass-produced and dyed or altered after they're made. "We're trying to bring the best of these worlds together," he says.
"We had conversations with a lot of big brands a long time ago who told us no-one wanted this, from a consumer's perspective, but we've done all sorts of research which suggests the opposite is true, and that there is real demand for this. Now we've built the underlying tech, we really want to push the creative direction of what we've developed to make things people want, are involved in as much as they want and that are of a really high quality. I think there's a real need for that in fashion: ultimately, it's all about individuality and expressing your style and personality."
CR's September issue is out now and includes interviews with Knyttan, Paul Weller, Hussein Chalayan, Iris van Herpen & more.