Ethical fashion. Beautiful. Made to order. Quality. Love. Cherish for life. Stylish. Cosy. Knitwear. Hand-crafted. These are all words that come to mind when you think of Liadain Aiken Knitwear.
Liadain Aiken is a designer whose brand has a fantastic ethos with regards ethical fashion, and believe that quality pieces should last for years, and even pasted onto future generations. This is an ethos that I firmly believe in, and one that I am hopeful will continue to grow as more focus is pushed onto sustainable fashion.
It’s slow fashion, not relentless trends. It’s made to order, not mass produced.
We are delighted to be featuring an interview with Liadain today, and learning more about her journey to creating her brand, her inspiration and her work with Fashion Revolution, Ireland.
What drew you to the craft of knitting?
I have always been drawn to knitwear. The love for wool and craft of knitting was passed down to me from my Mum, Granny and sister. All amazing knitters. Growing up I would get obsessed with a particular jumper or cardigan and wear it non stop for weeks with a pair of jeans. My Mum taught me to knit, when I was about 6, after an attempt to learn to ride a bicycle wasn’t going so well. I picked up the knitting quickly, and still have a couple of circular cushions I knit when I was ten.
It wasn’t til 2009 that I picked up the needles again and my sister had to show me the knit and purl stitches. I loved it and started to design a few jumpers. It’s wonderful to create your own fabric and the scope of stitches and techniques is huge. Knitting on the domestic machines is still a slow process. It’s methodical, a series of movements that can really flow when you know a pattern and don’t have to think about it.
Can you please tell us a little about your path to launching your brand?
I arrived home to Ireland after a few years of travelling and the recession was in full swing. I knew that I didn’t return to Interior Design and was seeking a new path. I did a dressmaking course in New Zealand and was considering starting to make clothes. I’ve always had a sustainable approach to design so was seeking ethical fabrics and fell down the rabbit hole of the environmental and sustainable issues at the heart of the fashion industry. It totally overwhelmed me.
During that time picked up the knitting needles again, made a few jumpers and fell in love with the idea of creating traditional Irish jumpers with lively bright colours. Wool as a raw material has so many amazing qualities. It’s renewable and sustainable, so that sat well with me. I found a course in Brighton with the Knit-1 Studio to learn all the techniques on domestic knitting machines and off I went. On returning I started making accessories and sold them at the Dublin Christmas Flea. I didn’t really get into a good flow with working on my own piece at first and ended up working in costume for film. This work was intense, up early, long days, hard work and loads of lovely people. There was a lot of standing around in the fields of Wicklow being quite, so it gave me plenty of time to think about all the things I wanted to make.
I kept up knitting part-time and was fired up to get the new products in Donegal yarns out at the Christmas market. The hats were popular and I sold out. The next year I was still working in costume with doing a few knit projects on the side and again did a push for the Christmas markets. I had customers returning to get more hats and that encouraged me to take a risk and go full time. I had such resistance to do wholesale with the making taking so long, but when Scout got in touch, I knew I had challenged myself. Encouraged by the sales going well, I went full time and launched the online shop in 2016.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My creations are inspired by colours and patterns both in nature and around the city. Bold pop patterns and clashing colours, things that are slightly off-kilter. I also love unusual colours you find in nature, like the bright moss green grass, orange lichen on rocks and that blue of bailer twine. I tend to get an idea for a singular garment and just want to make that piece. Then move on to another piece.
It’s funny, as I struggle with the idea of designing whole collections and have never felt like a fashion designer. I’ve recently decided to not put as much pressure on myself and to work the way that comes naturally to me and not worry about what I think my approach should be. My main inspiration comes from the desire to create pieces that make the wearer feel really alive while getting a lovely hug. And then the cynic in me laughs at that, but it’s true!
Where do you source your wool from? And is there a particular type of wool that you prefer/enjoy working with?
The merino wool comes from Donegal Yarns, the most Irish material I could find. Their colour range satisfies my love for natural tones and bright pops. The flecks encourage unusual pairings. The only thing about this yarn is that it can break easily, which is overcome on the domestic knitting machines I use, so you can fix the problem.
Many factories using modern knitting machines won’t use this yarn as you can’t deal with breaks as easily. I also use Scottish lambswool for scarves and tops. It knits up beautifully. The shawl scarves and Ailbhe tops in this are quite popular. I live in mine. I’ve also just started to explore a few other new yarns, so hoping to branch out this AW.
Do you knit/sew all of your designs yourself or do you have a team?
I started off making everything myself, then roped in family and friends to help get me through the busy Christmas rush. My Dad making pompoms, Mum and my sister sewing hats. Now I have a few knitters dotted around the country that works from their homes and a few graduate interns from time to time. I design and sample each piece until it’s right. Then write out the pattern for the knitters. It can be quite a challenge when you pass the piece over as their machine can have a different tension, so there is always some tweaking.
I found it really difficult to hand things over at first as I’m quite a perfectionist. That has slowed my progress, but I’ve learned so much and am now keen to do more new designs. I’ve found some really great knitters and it’s wonderful to build on these relationships, the communication and delight in the outcome of our combined skills.
What is your favourite part of the design process?
I love working out a new pattern. I enjoy combining pattern drafting and the maths involved in converting it all into stitches and rows. Then you have to sit down and actually knit it, which can change things up. Making the first sample is exciting but can take a few goes to get the piece just right. Deciding on colours is always difficult for me as I always want all the combinations or just want to make everything in pink and red!
I love the motto on your website, ‘Timeless design, not relentless trends. Made to order, not mass produced. Cherish for life, not wear and discard’. How important is it for your brand to be sustainable?
Timeless design to be cherished for life, made just for you. These concepts make me feel so happy, special and grateful. That’s what I want my customers to feel when they choose one of my pieces. I love making an item especially for someone – a piece that represents them and their unique personality. I am also trying to embrace my own personality and push that out more in the designs.
Do you remember getting handed down a piece of clothing and feeling so special knowing that a family member wore this before? A friend recently baulked at the price of a beautiful tweed shirt, it was expensive yet beautifully crafted. My first thought was ‘Don’t be so selfish, your grandkids would love to be handed down that shirt!’
The brand also needs to be sustainable in all areas. It’s definitely a work in progress and I will always be looking for ways to improve. Two elements that I’m really happy with is our care labels that are organic fair trade cotton and recycled brown paper postage bags. I also hold onto all the end of waste yarn, which I intend to make into felt and see what ways I can use it up. When I find that magic pocket of time!
Films like The True Cost, Bitter Seeds and The Machinists really opened my eyes to the world of fast fashion and its impact on the world. Do you feel that more designers and creators are getting more on board with organic and sustainable fashion?
Yes, designers definitely are being more conscious of their choices. Once you pay attention to the environmental and humanitarian issues, it’s hard to shut those thoughts down. After I saw Bitter Seeds I pretty much stopped shopping. I couldn’t afford to buy the clothes from the ethical brands so just bought the odd necessary basic on the high street and scouted the charity and vintage shops from time to time. I understand it’s difficult to make the changes, especially if you don’t have had the means. This is why the high street brands need to take proper action, become more transparent and make better quality affordable clothes. We the people who have a voice need to demand that, and to do that the best way to make them take notice is to stop buying or buy less from the brands that are not paying workers or that are polluting rivers.
I’m involved with the Fashion Revolution Ireland team and we did a great shoot in D-Light studios to showcase what ethical clothes are available to buy. It was amazing to have contemporary, vintage and upcycled pieces all styled together. To name a few Four Threads – who get fabrics from artisans in India, Attention Attire – who use tents left over from festivals, The Ethical Silk Co – luxury pyjamas, Orla Langan – organic denim, Retail Vintage and pieces from Atrium and Om Diva. We have the fashion spread in this months Totally Dublin and are gearing up for loads of events happening for Fashion Revolution Week 23rd to 29th April. So pop onto Fashion Revolution Ireland on Facebook to hear about the events and to our Instagram FashRevIreland to see the photos.
Would you have any tips for those hoping to start a career in design – something that someone had said to you when you were starting out?
Find what you love and go for it. Don’t doubt yourself and if you are stuck, freestyle, just go for it. Even if it doesn’t work you’ll have learned something and also worked with your unique authentic style. Do as many internships as you can to soak it all up, ask questions and really look at how all the elements work, both business and design.
Build relationships with people in other design disciplines so you can ask their opinions and collaborate, it’s always interesting to get a different view. If you can’t afford something, like needing professional photographs, barter, it’s such a good way to get something done when you’re broke. Try not to compare yourself to others and trust in yourself.
What has been your proudest brand moment to date?
The moment that pops to mind is at the Dublin Christmas Flea when people came back the 2nd year with a hat they bought the previous year. They loved it and wanted to get another or get one for a family member who had been stealing theirs. It was so encouraging. I felt the love and energy from hard workflow back to me.
Where would you like to see the brand going in the next five to ten years?
I would love to grow the online business internationally and start doing more collaborations for limited edition runs. There are so many great artists and designers out there that I’d love to create with. Such a good excuse to hang out with other creatives and push the boundaries while combining disciplines.
And lastly a very important question… Lyons or Barry’s tea? And favourite dipping biscuit?
I’m Barry’s gal. If there was a gluten free and dairy free version of a TimTam, that would make my day. Although The Foods of Athenry ‘Cookie Shot’s’ are very moreish when they’re dunked!
A massive thank you to Liadain for doing the interview, and I certainly want to support the brand and all that it represents. I hope that you will check out more of Liadain’s work on her website, and you can also follow her journey on Facebook and Instagram.
All images kindly provided for use.
If you enjoyed this interview in the ‘Floralesque Meets’ Series, then you can click here to read more exciting interviews with designers, creators, artists, photographers, entrepreneurs and more – enjoy meeting the makers!