Unlike suits or shoes, the construction of knitwear isn’t a topic even the most clothing-obsessed guy often thinks about. But, let’s consider what’s sitting in your stack of sweaters. Most designs feature solid colors or repeating patterns: stripes, checks or the intricate rows of Fair Isle. The reason for this is technical: traditional knitting “in the round” needs an entire loop around the body before changing colors, producing the horizontal familiar bands of color and pattern. But what if you want something more creative? That’s where intarsia comes in.
Named after an Italian term for mosaics, the technique bucks the constraints of old-school knitting and, like a jigsaw, fits blocks of solid color into one design. Stitches become like pixels, embellishing knits without printing or embroidery. As Swedish designer Laura Dalgaard puts it, “It’s like painting, not only with colors but also with different techniques and textures.” Established Scottish knitwear names such as Pringle and Begg & Co have used the method for more adventurous designs, like sea camo, while contemporary brands like Aimé Leon Dore and Casablanca have embraced it in sweaters that are, essentially, a highbrow alternative to graphic tees.
At Speciale, a tailoring shop in London’s Notting Hill that balances Florentine craft and a British countryside sensibility, intarsia is frequently employed. The sweaters and cardigans are hand-framed, which means that each color is added onto the loom by hand. The results are particularly delicate and tactile. Speciale’s color palette conjures the Welsh hills—deep greens, peat brown and rust red—and, fittingly, its 4-ply cashmere sweaters depict abstracted landscapes that are more Ellsworth Kelly than Vincent Van Gogh. A series of intarsia tapestries and blankets is on the way, to complement the brand’s indulgent cashmere throws.
In Hong Kong, Carolyn Yim is knitting intricate cashmere sweaters in a factory started by her grandmother. Having studied literature at Columbia, she returned to the family business to design her brand, Dreyden. “I named my men’s collection after John Dryden, England’s first poet laureate,” Yim tells Robb Report. “He writes that ‘poetry should be plain yet majestic’; I seek the same with Dreyden cashmere.”
Yim’s knits are scrupulously designed but full of personality. A recent collaboration with illustrator Mr. Slowboy meticulously translated his charismatic sketches onto fine cashmere using 8-color intarsia. As Yim explains, such complex images present an engineering challenge: “Like woodworking, the physics of each different yarn must balance each other’s tension, otherwise it will fall apart. The process takes weeks and dozens of trials to perfect by tweaking the mathematical formula each time. It’s a fun mix of art and science.”