READY-TO-WEAR, affordable luxury is the new focus for Fife-based knitwear designer Di Gilpin
Di Gilpin only planned on a six-month stay when she arrived on Skye in 1983, but the knitwear designer – whose business has taken her from a semi-ruined croft to the couture catwalks – could not have known the effect that visit would have on her life.
Having grown up in Yorkshire, Gilpin was 23 and teaching in a secondary school near Warwick when an accident forced her to take time off. “I had a great uncle who had just died, whom I absolutely adored. He loved Scotland and left me a small bequest to buy some good walking boots, and go and explore Scotland. So I did. I went with my then boyfriend and we camped until we found an old ruined croft to stay in.”
Her new life on Skye may have been a simpler one, but Gilpin needed some form of income. Having always knitted, she continued to do so, getting orders through friends down south. “It was all done by letter, because we didn’t have a phone,” she says.
Six months became nine, then a year, before Gilpin took a decision to focus on knitting as a business.
“I joined this [government] scheme and you got £40 a week to start up your own business. I used to borrow a van and get the ferry to Harris to buy yarn. I’d knit and I was just as inventive as I could be.”
Gilpin’s creative streak had been fired up at an early age, having been taught to knit at the age of five by her mum and one of her mum’s longtime friends.
“Aunty Doris would visit every Tuesday and kind of just adopted me. I was adopted anyway and she became my adopted aunt. She used to take me to London every year. We’d go and look at things in the beautiful stores. It had a huge effect on me, because she’d say things like, ‘What do you think about that jumper?’ And then she’d make it for me for Christmas, just by looking at it in the window.”
Selling locally, interest grew over the years, and summers brought tourists who loved what Gilpin was doing. “At first I was making everything, and then doing knitting patterns so that people could make it themselves and buy the yarn from me, and it just grew and grew, and I was there for nearly 20 years in the end.
“I learned a huge amount about the fit of garments, and I suppose, when the business changed and I got into couture and fashion, that’s where that expertise came from.”
Gilpin moved to St Andrews, opening a knitting shop there with a second outlet in Perth. Today’s studio is a restored stone bothy, the walls lined with colourful threads and baskets of wool, in Largoward, on the East Neuk of Fife. As well as production manager Sheila Greenwell and designer Stephanie Laird, there are ten knitters in the studio, plus a further 80 local knitters to whom work is put out. “I’ve got a fantastic team. You can’t have a good company unless you’ve got a great team,” Gilpin says.
In early 2011, Gilpin formed a new design company and immediately received a commission to make 48 pieces for London Fashion Week.
“It was all based on Gansey knitting, but taking it to a whole new level, so we did dresses and skirts and tights and stockings and all sorts of extraordinary things.”
Working with Canadian designer Paul Hardy on a collection for him proved a revelation. “I realised that I could do this, that somebody could come to me with fabrics and an idea of what they wanted and I could interpret it into hand-knit,” Gilpin says.
Using her vision to design the fabric of the end pieces, further collaborations with big fashion names followed, including cashmere brand Erdos 1436, outerwear brand Hancock VA, London-based designer Mark Fast (including pieces for Kanye West’s Paris show – “I was given a brief for a couple of pieces and they got sent straight to Paris; Kanye West probably doesn’t even know who I am”), Topshop Unique, clothing and homeware brand Cabbages & Roses, as well as product development for hand-knitted running shoes for Nike.
Gilpin’s collaboration with Erdos 1436’s creative director Graeme Black resulted in a red cashmere lace dress stealing the show at last year’s Edinburgh Fashion Week. Two months’ intensive work with Black doing the initial design, and Gilpin designing the fabric and the way it was to be made, highlights knit as an art form. (It’s seamless, knitted as one piece, with the skirt, back and arms all knitted in lace, in different weights of cashmere, which the team hand-spun in different weights, so it gets heavier as it gets to the bottom. There are more than 1,000 stitches at the bottom of the piece and a hundred bobbles knitted in. “It was a wonderful piece to work on,” Gilpin says, “absolutely amazing.”)
Known for her bespoke pieces, Gilpin’s latest venture takes her in a new direction, one she describes as affordable luxury. Largo features ready-to-wear knitwear and accessories all made in the company’s own yarn, Scottish lambswool, largely machine-knitted but with the feel of hand-knit with everything from Gansey-patterned iPhone covers to hats and snoods, as well as cushions and blankets, menswear, womenswear and childrenswear. The pieces are fresh and contemporary with beautiful patterns.
Despite her move into the design sphere, Gilpin has never lost her love for the basic art of knitting. “Knitting is really sociable and it’s essentially fun. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. And it gives people pleasure. What’s really lovely is the fact that you can make something and give it, and then that piece becomes part of somebody’s family and life. I’ve still got all [21-year-old son] Robbie’s little hand-knitted socks and hats and jumpers, they’re tiny. I pull them out occasionally and you’re kind of right back there. It holds the memory.”
Between launching the new label, finishing production for a large menswear label and preparing for a Japanese collaboration, Gilpin admits she doesn’t have much time off.
“What I do doesn’t feel like work, it’s just part of life. We run a knit club every Thursday night and the people who come to that give us so much support. I think that’s what’s really important, that there’s always an open dialogue. It keeps the company alive, constantly reinventing.”
Inspiration for the new range, as in all of Gilpin’s work, comes from her surroundings and, talking to her, it is clear the love affair that started with Scotland more than 30 years ago has never diminished. “I suppose it’s strange being adopted anyway, you never know quite where you’re from,” Gilpin says. “When I moved to Skye I just instantly felt at home and I’ve always felt at home in Scotland. I don’t know anything about my birth parents, but I certainly have a huge feeling for the place and I’ve always felt very comfortable here. I love the landscape, I love walking, I just love Scotland.”
• Di Gilpin, The Knitting Studio, 16 Cupar Road, Largoward, Fife, KY9 1HX (01334 840 264, digilpin.com)