Meet the Future of Knitwear

Key Takeaways:

  • Younger customers in China are no longer seeing knit as stereotypically old fashioned or only for winter.

  • Brands like PH5 are experimenting with digital programming and offering new concepts such as UV knit.

  • Local company Crush sources sustainable yarn and is running a cashmere recycling project due to Gen Z interest.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Britain’s top swimmer Tom Daley made an unexpected splash — this time outside of the pool. Pictures of him knitting in between dives went viral, trending on China’s biggest platforms. Netizens delighted in the handsome athlete’s plain and purl stitches. No less than three hashtags on the topic hit the headlines with #Daley by far the largest. 

Tom Daley trended in China after photos of him knitting during the Tokyo Olympics went viral. Photo: @madewithlovebytomdaley on Instagram

Aside from these fizzles, such as the unlikely popularity of Daley, or the success of JW Anderson’s free pattern which saw versions pop up on platforms like TikTok, the field is a notoriously tough proposition. The number of dedicated knit brands with worldwide fame is sparse — even Sonia Rykiel, known as the “Queen of Knitwear,” shuttered in 2020 (to be revived a year later) — as more mainstream companies such as Nike introduce it into their product range. 

In China, the most well-known wool manufacturers in the country are plentiful, including Heng Yuan Xiang, Erdos Cashmere Group, Snow Lotus Group, Deer King Cashmere, and the Chunzhu Group, to name just a few. However, the sector is challenged by a shrinking domestic market, an aging consumer base, and lack of appeal to new generations. To counter this, Erdos especially has stepped up its game by tapping local superstars and launching a diffusion line to adapt to these challenges.    

Despite the difficulties, a cohort of young stars are reshaping the landscape, from Crush Collection to PH5, ZI II CI IEN支晨 to Swaying/Knit, many of whom have studied internationally. Joint course leader at London’s Central Saint Martins Derek Lawlor believes that COVID-19 has, in fact, accelerated industry collaboration.  

This year, the students on BA Textile Design had the freedom to work directly with Chinese factories and technicians to develop their fabrics. “Unlike other terms, we were introduced to the factories and technicians working with our students during our tutorials. It was a great experience for them to work directly with production, and for us to observe how their designs were being developed,” Lawlor, a knitwear designer himself, explains. 

This is indicative of a wider trend in China. It always been the leading producer and exporter of raw textiles. Now, it’s a hotbed for technological experimentation in knit. Jing Daily highlights some of the country’s dynamic names taking on the big conglomerates with their technical invention and imaginations. 

A diversity of styles, and longevity beyond Winter

The new wave of Chinese lines are increasingly diverse. From ZI II CI IEN支晨 to Swaying/Knit, domestic names don’t follow a cookie-cutter approach, which can still be seen in the traditional homegrown companies worn by parents and older generations. This cohort are making knit cool again, such as ZI II CI IEN支晨 whose innovative color blocking technique quickly won over fans. 

ZI II CI IEN支晨 shows off its colorblocking technique at Shanghai Fashion Week 2021. Photo: ZI II CI IEN支晨’s Weibo

Founder Chen Zhi’s balance of innovative yet practical collections offers eye-popping fanciful separates that are comfortable and easy to wear. She has even mastered outfits for warmer summer months, securing her space in prestigious stores such as Browns, Lane Crawford and Wenzhou’s JuneShan as well as on Farfetch. Despite her quick ascent, she is well aware of the issues facing her contemporaries. “I think the main difficulties are meeting minimum quantity and sampling but we are now in a position that we understand the complex machine and the technology driving knit ingenuity,” Zhi tells Jing Daily.   

With a contrasting aesthetic, Swaying/Knit, based between Shanghai and Xiamen, was established by Shasha Wong to offer understated, relaxed designs and now retails at 52 retailers throughout the mainland. The Royal College of Art graduate also admits that the technical barriers are very high and that making complicated whole-garment products is not easy. 

Swaying/Knit’s AW21 collection features muted colors and relaxed fits. Photo: Courtesy of Swaying/Knit

However on the up side, Wong feels that customers have moved on from seeing it as stereotypically old fashioned, traditional or for winter: “We pick our materials carefully and use new techniques to tell stories and build an emotional connection with our customers that works all year around.”  

PH5 ties digital with craft innovation 

According to Wei Lin, founder of New York-based sculpted knitwear label PH5, consumers in China are moving away from minimalism and embracing body positivity, which is allowing the craft to boom. The label, designed by Zoe Champion, debuted a virtual “chief decision scientist” which acts as the voice of the brand earlier this year, while Resort 2022 explored the idea of crafting with computers. 

The refined fashion-forward designs in vibrant tones, fresh shapes, and innovative finishes, have so far caught the eyes of buyers in Harvey Nichols Dubai, SKP-Select, and Galeries Lafayette. Champion explains of Resort, “This one was even more about digital artworking, programming the artwork with the engineers we work with who are more interested in trying new things. I am in Melbourne, so it was going back and forth and playing much more with little details and patterns.” 

The duo confirms the challenges of the sector globally but suggests there are many talented names coming out of China who are more adventurous with their development. Lin continues, “It’s fun to reimagine the space so there’s a lot of depth of seeing a woven fabric and then how could that be a knit. We are inspired by tech but also whimsical which lends itself to new ideas such as UV knit. With us, it’s about being slightly different to what you’d see elsewhere.”   

Crush Collection enhances the sustainability of knits for Gen Z

As one of the more mature brands of the group, founder Vivian Chang, who is based in Gothenburg but has 25 staff in Shanghai, graduated from Los Angeles FIDM and started Crush Collection in 2009. Its quirky, novelty yarns and unique brushed cashmere techniques has earned celebrity fans including Dilireba, Jiang Shuying, and Du Juan, and 14,000 followers on Little Red Book. 

CRUSH Collection uses recycled cashmere and natural materials in its AW21 pieces. Photo: CRUSH Collection

Chang herself is considered an environmentalist under the “Made in China” banner and her line collaborates with Japanese Kyototex and Italian Lanificio dell’ Olivo to source sustainable yarn. “We are working with suppliers that provide organic or eco-friendly yarn and are proud of what we are doing better for our industry. We also have an ongoing cashmere recycling project which is appealing to Gen Zs shoppers,” she adds.  

The ingenuity of emerging brands to meet the demands of young consumers means that finally, designer knitwear in China is being pushed to the fore.