Pattern Launch Friday 8th December …

It has been a privilege to collaborate with Japanese knitwear designer Rie Okamoto over the past few months. In spite of the geographic distance, we have reached out and shared some common aesthetics and principles. Just recently we had a ‘conversation’ about her life in Japan and what has influenced her knitwear design path.

What was your route to knitwear design and was there anyone or anything in particular that influenced this?

When I was young, I went to a fashion design school. The school had a knitting department but I did not study knitting because my objective at the time was to make clothing out of fabric. Looking back, I did not realise at the time that knitting would have suited my personality.

However, through the course I learnt about three-dimensional cutting so I am always pondering the relationship between the body and the garment and because I studied fashion I value originality in my designs.

In 2012, I visited a friend’s house on top of a mountain in a settlement called Taniai, about 20-30 minutes drive from where I live. During our visit, an elderly woman in the neighbourhood gave my friend a pair of socks she had knitted.

Until then I had a vague longing for knitting but after seeing this scene, I decided to put it into action because I found the elderly woman so very beautiful and I wanted to be like her.

In the first instance, I was able to finish knitting a pair of socks from a book, which gave me the motivation to move on to the next thing, even though the finished sock was far too big!

I also then discovered Ravelry and my knitting world expanded. Through this website, I met a wonderful designer who encouraged me to try designing my own patterns which led me to where I am today.

Where do you live in Japan and could you describe it for us please?

I live on Shikoku island in Kochi Prefecture in the western part of Japan, in a mountainous region far from urban areas. I was born and grew up elsewhere but this is where I now live and I love my natural surroundings.

How would you describe the knitting context in Japan both historic and contemporary?

In the past, I think the public had a strong image of hand knitting as a hobby done by older people, like a grandmother knitting for her grandchildren.

Nowadays, I think that the number of younger generation knitters has been increasing in Japan over the past few years due to the influence of the internet, videos and social media.

One of the things that has led to the spread of knitting in Japan is that people have begun to recognise written knitting patterns instead of the Japanese convention of only using knitting symbols, diagrams and simple instructions. It has also evolved to become more than just a hobby but a way to be fashionable. I hope that this will continue to evolve in the future.

What types of yarn are traditional to Japan … wool, cotton, silk?

According to my research, there are no native breeds of sheep in Japan.

Traditionally Kimonos were the norm in Japan until Western clothing became more prevalent. For that reason, it seems that cotton and silk were historically the material used and produced.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I live in a place surrounded by nature. I am continually moved by the colours of the mountains at the change of seasons, the evening view or the surrounding scenery. I always wonder if I can somehow express these images in my knitwear.

In reality, I have loved clothes since I was a teenager, so I imagine my favourite things and landscapes from all genres that I have seen and incorporate them into the designs that I myself want to wear.

What are the most important values for you in terms of the yarn you work with or the design work that you do?

The classic designs and trendy wear have already been created by many great designers. My aspiration is to create designs that are a little more unique to me and that can be used for a long time. Of course, fast fashion is very prevalent and hand knit knitwear is at the opposite end of the spectrum, so my vision is to create knitwear designs that can be enjoyed from the knitting process through to wearing them.

As for yarns, I like to knit with yarns that are hand spun and carefully produced so that I can see the maker’s face and I know its’ provenance. I believe it is the designer’s job to design according to the yarns individual qualities. These qualities are very important to my work.

Introduce your Icicle Ice sweater design to us …

A long time has passed since I started thinking about designing with Birlinn yarn. At first I was thinking of a colour work piece that utilised the properties of the yarn but I could not come up with a satisfactory colour work pattern. From then on, after a lot of trial and error, I focused on a sweater with a large gusset, which was the shape I wanted to knit.

I lined up several types of ribs, eyelet lace and slightly different cables to look like icicles. I wanted to capture the shapes created by nature in ice, which are never the same, even when several are lined up in a row.

The entire sweater is cable knit with ribs, and the variety of ribs used creates a very stretchy sweater. The large gusset, the other significant feature, also makes this sweater comfortable to wear. I hope all our followers enjoy wearing their Icicle Ice sweater in Birlinn Yarn

Thank you Rie it has been wonderful to have this insight into your creative world and I am delighted that you chose to design with Birlinn Yarn. May I wish you every success in your forthcoming patterns and it has been such a wonderful experience to have been working with you.

Photos – Rie Okamoto

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