Five minutes with Nikki Gabriel

Artist, The Endless Garment: The New Craft of Machine Knitting, 12 February - 21 March 2010

Australian knitwear designer Nikki Gabriel’s work features in The Endless Garment exhibition. As well as archival pieces, she is displaying new work made on the WHOLEGARMENT machine in the experimental 3 Jumpers Project which pushes machine knitting to the edge.

Nikki Gabriel and model Georgia Head

Nikki Gabriel and model Georgia Head (in Nikki Gabriel design) at the Endless Garment exhibition.

Georgia Head wears a Nikki Gabriel dress and a Construction Pattern jacket

Georgia Head wears a Nikki Gabriel dress and a Construction Pattern jacket.

Nikki Gabriel with the garments she made in the 3 Jumpers Project

Nikki Gabriel with the garments she made in the 3 Jumpers Project.

Nikki, tell us about your involvement in The Endless Garment – you are participating in many different activities.

I feel very honored to have been asked to make a special address on the opening night 11 February; and being the only Australian designer amongst a line up of some very awesome internationals: Issey Miyake, Sandra Backlund, Walter Van Beirendonck, Cooperative Designs, Mark Fast, Yoshiki Hishinuma, Saverio Palatella, Freddie Robins, Sibling.... Wow!

What are you going to cover in your artist talk at RMIT Gallery?

In the floor talk I will be showing images and talking through work developed over the years, and studio processes, production processes as well as industrial knitting experiences.

I will be speaking about the history of my business from the time I graduated from RMIT how I started and how the work progressed.

When I first started I was inspired by the textiles and the forms they made and how I could exploit their materiality – when the textile builds its own character. Clothes followed as a natural progression of form.

You are conducting a Construction Knitting Pattern workshop at RMIT Gallery on 12 February, which is based on a modular construction system you devised.

It will be a hands-on workshop to guide people through the making of the pieces in the Construction No 2 pattern. The material kit includes new and limited edition handmade ebony knitting needles, bespoke Alpaca yarn and the knitting pattern; the essential tools for the Construction Knitting Patterns.

How did you develop the concept of the Construction Pattern?

I was interested in shifting the perception of knitting as being a 'mumsy' or 'retro' experience.

I wanted to communicate a knitting experience that was more relevant to our current culture; and that anyone can engage in the experience of making something through the design fundamentals of conception and intuition.

The modular building system of the pattern is about progressive knitting, each piece not taking long to make and then adding to it over time. There is a really nice sense of satisfaction in making something and being inventive.

People who have bought the patterns get to share this experience; sometimes people don't even make them; they just like the idea.

Do you have to be a very good knitter to tackle a Construction Pattern piece?

The patterns I created were to engage people who weren’t necessarily knitters but interested in design, as it works on a modular building system, where one shape can be transformed into something else with the addition of another shape.

The patterns require only really basic knitting experience; and through the workshop I'll demonstrate how anyone, even non-knitters, can participate in the making process. I hope the experience they get out of the workshop will be how to laterally apply shapes to making garment constructions.

In your knitwear designs, what comes first - the pattern, the design or the yarn?

The yarn definitely comes first- it’s what I get most excited about. I'll work out how knit with it by studying its characteristics; then the garments are derived from the movement and drape of the textile once its knitted up.

New Zealand has a great resource of fibre and spinning mills; so it’s wonderful to be there and have access to that. I am in rural New Zealand and the nature of my work being fairly solitary is perfect for me to create.

My approach to knitwear hasn’t changed so much, but I do have more time and therefore more opportunity to conceive ideas and make things.

As well as some machine-knitted archive pieces in the exhibition, you are exhibiting the work developed on the SHIMA SEIKI machine (in the 3 Jumpers Project), along with a documented process.

I generally use the machine for finer thread and hand knitting for fatter threads; or sometimes the hand making for lace stitches that can't be produced on the machine.

The most amazing advantage of working on this technology is the WHOLEGARMENT machine completes all of the garments on the machine, which would otherwise have to be hand finished, so as a designer of course this is favourable for productivity.

Your course of enquiry into your work is based on shifting and altering the design parameters in knitwear by utilising both machine knitting technology and hand-made techniques, sometimes in the same garment. What was the most surprising thing you discovered about working with the SHIMA SEIKI machines?

I did achieve some interesting results. I was that excited by the output that I would have loved to have produced a whole collection from this one idea and textile. I approach my work engaging all forms of knitting mediums, including hand-knitting. My interest in the work is how to apply which material to which mechanism to get a unique result.

The design scope is immense. You can apply almost any flat-bed or hand-made technique to this 3 dimensional technology. I did achieve some interesting results. I was that excited by the output that I would have loved to produce a whole collection from this one idea and textile that I produced.

I approach my work engaging all forms of knitting mediums, including hand-knitting. My interest in the work is how to apply which material to which mechanism to get a unique result.

It seems the advent of advanced technology has seen a shift to the hand-made and appreciation of old-fashioned, if you like, craft skills - does your work on the 3 Jumpers and with your own machine-knitting in your business challenge this?

Technology is faster now for the sake of producing more volume, but that means lots of the same item. I think as individuals we also have a need for authenticity and exclusivity in our choice of clothing. Old fashioned craft skills do reference this as a nostalgic notion of 'special-ness', you know - like 'your nanna's ‘specially made this for you'.

I think my work does challenge this notion, as I think essentially good design experience is what produces good garments whether by hand or by machine, and this is the difference between craft at home and hand-making production for the fashion industry.

A design sensibility is like hand-writing in a garment. Fashion is a really interesting communication tool: it reflects our culture, ethos and community generally.

You have designed and produced knitwear ranges for Akira Isogawa and Aurelio Costarella, alongside working on your own bespoke fashion collections which are made in limited edition. Do you mentor others now?

It’s been an awesome experience working with other designers. Knit is a really niche industry, and so my engagement with those designers is about an exchange of ideas and vision.

I think essentially I love what I do, so that’s why I keep working at it, and often I will get asked for advice from students and offers to work on collaborative projects.

How do you see your work being worn? Do you have an audience in mind with your work?

There is so much process that’s involved in my work that I always hope it goes to someone who's going to really love and appreciate the piece.

I think my customers who do buy the work see the value in the labour. I also find it really interesting in how broad an age group my work appeals to; and I also get comments from male tailors too on the quality of the making; which is always a great compliment.

So as an artisan; I just hope my work goes out to an appreciative audience.

For media enquiries, photos and interviews with the artist: RMIT Gallery Media Coordinator, Evelyn Tsitas, (03) 9925 1716, 0418 139 015, or