Meet the Founder: Genevieve Sweeney
Do you have any niggling questions about the Genevieve Sweeney brand? What is Genevieve’s background? What goes into the process of designing a new piece of knitwear? What is coming next?
Read on for our all-encompassing interview with our founder.
What inspired you to launch your own knitwear brand?
Knitting has always been a part of my life. I’ve been knitting since the age of 5, secretly knitting throughout my childhood until I realised there was a career in knitwear. I studied Fashion Knitwear at Nottingham Trent University, a four year degree in which I specialised in menswear with a year working in industry. I went on to work in design, development and production for global brands in New York, Switzerland and London.
Throughout this time I always knitted in the evenings and weekends and I spent a lot of my free time travelling around factories and yarn mills soaking up the industry, meeting artisans and falling in love with the craft.
When I moved back to London I started to buy and restore old knitting machines called Dubieds. I would find them on Gumtree and eBay and travel up to Scotland, sitting in pubs with the owners of the machines. I was engrossed in their stories of working in a golden age of knitwear and the disappearance of not just their industry, but their communities when knitwear production moved to the Far East in the 1980s. I left these meetings utterly heartbroken and knew I wanted to help. The fashion industry didn’t make sense: global brands over-producing, causing huge waste, and cutting corners on quality for price, not to mention the carbon footprint created with samples being sent across the world to check a colour.
I always wanted to start my own brand but I knew I wanted it to set a standard and show that sustainable knitwear was possible. I started a project with retired hand intarsia knitters, in hope of giving them a portfolio of modern designs to show their craft to other brands. The first design was the Davin (named after my knitter’s mum). Once I saw the finished cashmere sweater, I knew this was the start of the Genevieve Sweeney brand.
Could you share the story of the brand’s conception and launch?
I spent two years travelling up and down the country trying to find knitters to work with me. I had two hand intarsia knitters to work with, but I also needed linkers to construct the jumpers, millers to wash and finishers. I was also looking for knitters to manufacture my staple lambswool styles.
It was quite a journey! Firstly, many manufacturers had no contact details online. There were no websites like Make it British who championed and shared information on British manufacturers. I would sit in pubs in the Scottish Borders and ask locals if they knew of anyone who had a knitting factory. I would then turn up at the factory after months of having calls and emails ignored, and plead for the owner to meet with me. It was hard as many manufacturers wanted the minimum order quantities that they were receiving in the 1980’s – thousands of units – but that wasn’t realistic for slow fashion or a small business. After 18 months I found five factories who took a chance on me and knitted my first collection, launching in 2015.
Due to my background in knitwear, once I had the factories on board, the prototyping, sampling and production was quick. Friends helped with building my website, branding and photoshoots in return for pieces of my knitwear. At the time I lived in Hackney and the council rented a free shop to local businesses for a week at a time. It was here that I launched my brand to family, friends, influencers and press in October 2015. My husband and I worked through the night, building the shop furniture and hanging systems. Seeing my collection fill a store was an amazing feeling.
I will always remember the first two customers who bought the Solline sparkly socks for their partner’s birthday, and who still return to shop with me to this day. As well as a woman who stopped in her tracks when cycling past and tried on a lambswool teal sweater (the Rea) which had caught her eye. It looked incredible on her with her deep auburn hair, so she bought it. After years of work, this was the most incredible moment that I have always cherished.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
My inspiration often comes from Mother Nature; the colour palettes of nature and the changing seasons. I am mesmerised by the vibrancy and depth of the colours of flowers. I will often recreate these hues in my twists of lambswool marl, such as the Lichen colour which was inspired by lichen on a fallen branch. These moments and colours are captured in my mind and come to life through the twisting of yarns. I am also inspired by abstract art and 1920s textiles with geometrics and pattern placements.
Where and how is your knitwear made?
Genevieve Sweeney knitwear is made across the UK. From the Scottish Borders to Derbyshire, Leicester, Oxfordshire, London and Hertfordshire. Each knitter makes a different style and often uses a unique technique. I work with both heritage and innovative knitwear manufacturers, and source my yarn from mainly Yorkshire or Scottish woollen mills. My fancy yarns for sparkly socks are sourced from Italy.
Could you talk us through the process of launching a new piece of knitwear, from conception and design to the final garment?
It depends on the style, but often the design process begins with the yarn. I explore colour combinations by twisting my own yarns and creating unique hues that have intense colour and evocative moods.
For stitches, I will often test out the yarns or techniques with hand knitting or knitting on my Dubied machine. This makes it easier for the knitter to understand what I am looking for. Or if it is a geometric pattern or jacquard I graph out the colour blocking to illustrate the design on the body.
I design with seasonless style in mind, creating silhouettes that are versatile, effortless and pair with a capsule wardrobe. Such as the Lea cardigan, that can be layered over a fine jumper in the winter with its slouch fit or draped over a slip dress in the summer for a nonchalant edge. I live in knitwear and always want pieces that can take me from day to night; that layer of comfort that can be thrown over a sequin skirt for cocktails.
Once I have the yarn and silhouette designed, I work with the factory to prototype the style. This can be done in two ways: I design swatches and send a technical tech pack to the factory to follow, or I visit the factory and develop the program with the factory. This second option can often speed up the process as we can work on the design together and confirm stitches and patterns there and then, rather than going back and forth over email.
I then fit the prototype to make sure the silhouette sits right on the body. I trial the garments myself for a few weeks, to see how they feel and how I can style them with different pieces of my wardrobe. Any amendments will then be made and a final sample knitted ready to photograph and use as a standard for our production.
What other made-in-Britain brands do you admire?
I have so much love and admiration for made-in-Britain brands who also have their own factories, teaching a new generation to continue manufacturing skills in the UK. Brands such as Private White in Manchester who make incredible outerwear, Hiut Denim who have reinvigorated denim jean manufacturing in Cardigan, Wales, Grensons for boots, and The Cambridge Satchel Company who’s story I love setting up her own factory.
What’s next for Genevieve Sweeney?
As I am typing I am getting ready to move into my new studio. It has been a long time since I have had my own space. I was sharing a warehouse space with my husband who is a metal fabricator, but over the pandemic and the birth of my two babies, I moved more and more into the house. Knitting machines and babies don’t go too well together, so it is time for the next chapter.
From September 2023 I am moving to Grandsey’s Place in Green Tye, Hertfordshire; a community of artisans of heritage craft. I am really looking forward to being able to hold events and open studios, and most importantly set up my knitting machines again.
I have a collaboration launching at the end of September with a wonderful shoe brand, and will also be celebrating my brand’s eighth Birthday this Autumn.
New designs are launching in October/November and I am currently working on a new collection to launch next Summer. I love being in the factories, working with artisans and building my brand, and am looking forward to continuing this in my new studio space.
Quick fire Q&A
What is your personal favourite piece of knitwear from your collection?
Ooo this is hard! All tweeds and marls! I love the scattering of colourful hues across the Maud and Mauden sweaters; they are both timeless knits that can be styled with anything, and are the most worn jumpers in my wardrobe for both day and night.
The Lea slub lambswool marl cardigan is also a favourite. I love the yarn that is custom spun using a very slow traditional process to make the slubs, the vibrancy of the marl, the British made buttons and the hand linked details. It brings together all my values of responsibly sourced materials, heritage techniques, artisan craft and modern effortless design.
Hand knit or knitting machine?
Again, hard one! Hand-knitting is a meditative practice for me – I love sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine or cup of tea, mixing yarns together and creating something that has no restrictions. There is a playful yet therapeutic process with hand knitting.
What colour knits do you usually go for – brights or neutrals?
Most of the knitwear in my wardrobe is bright colours. I love how the colours change throughout the seasons as I layer over different textures, such as with denims, leather and cords in the winter then over silk slips and linen in the summer.
Ankle socks or long socks?
Long socks! I love wearing cropped jeans and skirts so I always reach for the Sia socks when autumn hits. They keep my legs so warm and have that little zig zag sparkle that styles beautifully day to night.
Wool socks or sparkly socks?
Another hard question, but it depends on the situation. Wool socks for everyday wear, lounging at home and pairing with boots, but sparkly socks for the evening and when I am wearing trainers – I love the pop of sparkle and colour peeking over.
Brushed wool or lambswool?
Our Scottish spun lambswool makes the most sumptuous knit! It is durable yet very soft against the skin and has the magic power to keep you cool when you’re hot, and warm when you’re cold.
Sweater or cardigan?
Cardigan as it works hard throughout the seasons, through all the weathers!
Most beloved piece of knitwear you have ever owned?
The Munro hand intarsia was a beloved sweater. It took over 14 hours to hand knit the front panel and sleeves. It was knitted in Scottish-spun cashmere in the Scottish Borders, and was truly a piece of art. Also, the Rea lambswool sweater that was launched in my first collection. It was my most popular style and I am very excited to be introducing a new version this Winter that is even more special!
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