Grandmothers and other patient souls who slowly turned out sweaters with their knitting needles never had a chance against today's computerized, high-tech knitting machines.
Technology has changed the shape of knitwear. With machines able to churn out all kinds of stitches at top speed, manufacturers can produce sophisticated knitwear that can be worn day or night.
Knitwear has become a fashion staple, whether it's a casual St. Croix pullover with a kaleidoscope of three-dimensional Jacquard weaves or a slinky St. John evening gown.
"Knits have really become increasingly important in the wardrobe," says Jolie Regier, buyer for the Studio 121 departments at Nordstrom in Orange County.
Knit dressing can range from a complete head-to-toe look, such as a knit pantsuit, to a simple sweater, she says. For women, silky sweaters have replaced blouses as an appropriate match for a jacket or suit. Men are using knits to solve the casual-Friday wardrobe quandary. For them, the most important layering piece of the moment: mock turtlenecks.
Computerized weaving techniques have ushered in all kinds of new knitwear looks. The traditional cable knit weave can be shrunk into narrow rows for a clean, tailored look or stitched up big for a soft effect. This season, manufacturers are favoring ribbed treatments and pique stitches that give sweaters a fine, waffled texture similar to that of a polo shirt.
"They've been able to inject novelty colors and stitching," Regier says.
Improved dye processing has produced cashmere sweater sets and other classics in intense shades never seen for them before--hot pink, clear yellow and aqua. In addition, luxury fibers such as fine merino wools, cashmere and silks have allowed knitwear designers to achieve drapier silhouettes.
"There's a finer hand on the knit. It's much more fluid," Regier says.
Among the knitwear at Nordstrom's Studio 121: Belford's
mock turtleneck made of cashmere-spandex; I. Co.'s soft cashmere ensembles, such as fluid pants with rolled cowl-neck sweaters, available in pastels or a brown to camel palette, and Studio 121's silk-cashmere cowl-neck sweater with an oversized cable knit in ivory, taupe, indigo and other vivid colors. (Knitwear ranges from around $165 to $195 for basic layering pieces to $600 for garments with elaborate weaving; at Nordstrom in Brea Mall, MainPlace/Santa Ana and South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.)
Men's knitwear has undergone a similar revolution in style. Guys have switched from plain pullovers to more expressive, fashion-forward sweaters.
"Knitwear fashions have changed in the past 10 years. Men are able to express themselves in bolder colors. Before, they just wore solid V-neck sweaters," says Bruce Amster, director of stores for St. Croix and co-owner of the St. Croix Shop in Fashion Island Newport Beach.
Some contemporary sweaters at St. Croix resemble abstract, mixed-media art. There are pullovers with asymmetrical collages of various Jacquard weaves and fibers. Computers have allowed St. Croix designers to experiment with yarns, mixing up stitches the way an artist mixes paints to create swirls, undulating stripes, geometrics and zigzags.
According to Amster, the person most responsible for the radical change in men's knitwear is actor Bill Cosby.
"He wore bright, colorful sweaters [on 'The Cosby Show'] and did more for the fancy-sweater business than anyone," he says.
St. Croix stocks knitwear made of wool, cotton, silk and cashmere. Styles range from the classics, such as cotton mock turtlenecks in teal and other rich colors ($115), to contemporary fashion sweaters. There's a cotton pullover crew neck with a crazy quilt of weaves in slate blue, melon and tan hues and a pullover with a geometric mix of taupe, tan and black splashed with turquoise ($185 to $275).
"With casual Fridays, men are wearing mock turtles with their sport coats," Amster says. St. Croix carries a limited selection of knits for women, from classic wool cardigans ($160) to novelty Jacquard-weave pullovers ($275).
Innovative knitting techniques have helped designers turn knitwear into evening wear. At St. John in Irvine, designer-founder Marie Gray often uses a wool knit embellished with tiny metallic appliques called paillettes to give her designs a shimmery, liquid appearance.
"Paillettes are an astounding discovery that helped create a new look," says Gray, who began experimenting with the metallic finish 10 years ago.
For the holidays, one can find elaborate gowns or jackets to be worn with a chiffon pant or full skirt at St. John in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.
"We've done reds with a vibrance we've never been able to achieve before," Gray says. "It puts you in a festive mood for Christmas."
There's a mock turtleneck gown in shimmering red ($1,900) and a sexy black dress with a strappy back ($1,700).
"We even have a zipper dress that zips all the way down the front," Gray says.
One wonders what Grandmother, who turned out more modest fare on her knitting needles, would have said to that.