Knitwear designer Jo Gordon originally trained as an artist at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen before moving south to study at the Royal College of Art and set up her successful business. She runs the company from her home in south east London, every year producing a new collection of covetable winter woollens that always includes some Fair Isle designs. The distinctive pattern has been handmade for generations in the Shetland Isles and became popular in the 1920’s when the Prince of Wales wore Fair Isle tank tops. Jo, whose colourful designs are knitted in Ayreshire and stocked in London’s Liberty and New York’s Barney’s, tells us just why she is a Fair Isle devotee and why colour and wool became her chosen path.
As a designer why are you passionate about wool?
“I love wool for many reasons. It’s a natural fibre and is one of the most effective natural forms of all-weather protection known to man. It is biodegradable, renewable and durable and keeps us very cosy. I was brought up in Scotland in a house with no central heating, so wool featured a lot in our lives. Jumpers, hats, scarves, and blankets were an absolute necessity and a little itchy so say the least!”
Do you think your Scottish background has shaped your work in any way?
“My mum knew a good piece of knitwear when she saw one. She was always going to jumble sales or the Barras market in Glasgow looking for hand knitted Fair Isle and she would always come home with brilliant finds for us. So through my mum I think I had an early appreciation of good knitwear. I remember a lot of people in our village knitted and we were also taught it at school. It was my best subject! I was very fast compared to other people.”
Can you describe how you work and where?
“My studio is at home in a big bright first floor room, full of natural daylight so I can see the colours well. There is a beautiful ash tree outside the window, which gives the feeling that we could be in a tree house. The kids go to school and I work each day. My team consists of Sara who is in charge of production, then Katy and I who do the designing. All our dispatch is done direct from Scotland where the majority of the collection is made. We have a few pieces made in England too.”
Do you visit the mills and knitters who you work with?
“The main Scottish knitting mill that we use is in Ayrshire and we have worked with them for 19 years. Scotland has a long history of making and producing the best knitwear in the world and is driven by people with incredible skills. Since I started I’ve worked with mills that share my passion for tradition and craft. Often small, these manufacturers understand the importance of keeping their skills alive. They are the best at what they do and supply a quality and authenticity that is at the heart of what I produce. I visit the mills a lot as it is too difficult to collaborate remotely. For me they are a very inspiring place to be.”
How do you choose the colours for your Fair Isle designs?
“We use eight colours in our Fair Isle, it’s always my prerogative to cram in as many colours as possible. With Fair Isle you have to be very careful to get the colour balance correct. A balance of dark and light colours and then what you call the poison, which is your bright highlight. You want every bit of detail and pattern to contrast with each other.”
What is it you love about Fair Isle?
“The intensity of the design and it’s a bit like making bread, you never quite know how its going to turn out!”
What kind of things inspire you or catch your eye?
“I get colour inspiration from so many different things every day. I often record these by taking photos or writing down the combinations in a note book. My mum was the late Scottish painter Anne Gordon and she loved colour. When I was a child she would continually point out colour combinations to me and we would talk about colour a lot. It’s something very deeply embedded in me and something I probably think about every minute of my life, either consciously or unconsciously. Colour is the single most important ingredient in my work. I love the flexibility that it gives. It can reinvent something familiar and I often use complex colour and pattern on simple forms to dramatically change context and mood. It can be cool, sophisticated, somber or frivolous. It can be reminiscent or it can be unfamiliar.”
When you are working on a new season’s collection, is there a mood or colour theme that runs through all the pieces?
“There will always be new colours or colour combinations that we are crazy about that will feature heavily in the new collection. When I start designing, we choose our most exciting bright key colours first, then work backwards to the more subtle tones. The key bright colours this season were Corona, a beautiful bright yellow and Medusa, a strange peachy pink, which sounds foul but works brilliantly with dark colours.”
How does the design process begin?
“The design process always begins each year with choosing a new palette of colours. My work is about one thing only and that is composition of colour. We choose these colours from the three different yarn spinners that we use. This year we have had our yarn spinners spin different colours together to create what you call marls. These are very beautiful to work with as the colour has a lot of depth to it. Once our colours are chosen we then draw up the different themes, like Fair Isle, colour blocks, stripes or geometrics. We then sketch up what will feature in each theme.Then I play around with plain knitted swatches of colour to choose the final colours that will go together.”
Do you have a person or type of person in mind for your designs?
“I design for my friends, family, myself and of course our customers (we have a lot of long-standing customers). We sell all round the world, and especially in Japan. I love how the Japanese dress. It’s much less body conscious than here and they are very creative with colour and shape, so I think of them a lot too.”
Can you imagine doing anything else for a living?
“I love working with wool, colour and very skilled people. I can’t imagine doing anything else, apart from maybe being a baker. I make all our own bread at home.”