We had the pleasure of speaking with Irish knitting designer Kieran Foley. From his base in Dublin Kieran creates colourful and inventive designs that showcase fascinating colour and texture combinations. We talk to Kieran about his love of knitting and colour and hear more about his inspirations and design process.
When did you first learn to knit and what drew you to that particular craft?
I learned garter stitch in school in Cork when I was quite young (early 70s), and I learned two-coloured-back-and-forth stranding at home from my mother who was always making something. The colourwork element appealed to me most.
Did your interest in knitting lead you on to want to study textile design?
I was also interested in painting and colour in general – I applied to NCAD with vague ideas of being a painter, but ended up in the Textile department – the Fine Art department was monochrome and obsessed with intense life drawing.
You went on to work in printed textiles after college – did this cement your love of colour and patterns?
Working in the textile industry in Italy – just being in Italy – was the best education in colour and design. I sold hand painted designs to mills north of Milan, many of them small family businesses. When people were looking through my portfolio, it was fascinating to see how they sorted and arranged colour groups and patterns, and sized up the relationship between decorative pattern, garment shapes, and the body.
You mention that at college you were encouraged to sketch and collect ideas in a notebook, is that something you still do today or have you moved this part of inspiration gathering to digital?
I work a lot with printed charts, and these get recycled as a kind of messy notebook which gets culled every now and then. I also use Pinterest and Instagram.
When looking at your designs as a collection it’s obvious that colour is a huge part in what you create. Do you have particular favourite colour ways or colour themes?
People tease me about my constant use of red – I like warm colours.
A very interesting yarn dyer (Colorshift yarn, unfortunately now retired) from America opened my eyes to the potential of yellow and different types of yellows and golds (“Yellow goes with everything”). In NCAD I had made printed textiles in golds and blues inspired by a gilded Annunciation altarpiece in the National Gallery, but had not thought of using yellow in knitting. Also I’ve recently noticed how some shades of green have a lovely warmth to them.
On your website you talk about the various places and things that inspire you, do you find you go through phases where you’re inspired by different things, or recent places you’ve visited, or are there common themes that have stayed with you?
Textiles and decorative arts are a huge inspiration, especially the colouration of carpets and weaving – Ethnographic museums enthral me.
My Atlas pattern was inspired by a trip to Morocco – it combines the colours of camels with brightly coloured ribbons inspired by woven patterns and camel decorations.
I love the sea, and waves, and the patterns that light makes on moving water – the west of Ireland and remote Greek islands are inspiring destinations. This relates more to my lace patterns.
Your designs are primarily shawls – what about shawls makes them such an interesting garment for you? Are they a good platform for experimentation?
I’d like to design garments but don’t want to have to think about fit or doing ten sizes. I think of knitting more as a piece of colourful patterned textile to go with plain clothing – to be scrunched up around the neck or draped, depending on the weather or the occasion.
As well as colour, your designs are characterised by intricate patterns and techniques. You’re obviously a master of stranded knitting from your childhood days but are there any other techniques you’re drawn to for the effect they create?
Intarsia was a bit scary until I tried a few swatches – and realised its potential as a kind of painting – with unlimited colours and patterns. Plus you can push it towards “mixed-media” with different weights and textures.
You’re also a prolific designer – does the design process relax you? Is it something you find you ‘have’ to do?
It can actually be hard work – sometimes ideas just don’t work out after a lot of swatching, so it feels like a waste of time – however it’s great when the initial idea works out as planned, or produces something unexpected. Yes, it’s something I have to do.
What’s your design process?
Idea, sketch, swatch, re-swatch, choose colours, knit, rip, knit – sometimes when something is half finished I take a photo and use Photoshop to explore what might happen next, maybe with variations of what is already knit. And sometimes when it’s finished I continue to agonise about details, and the published version of the pattern will have a couple of improvements – eagle-eyed knitters notice things from time to time. Also, If I change my mind about something in the middle of the knitting process when it’s too late to go back (e.g. making changes to a stranded pattern), this can result in slightly messy details which add richness to the finished item. The image of Sari (below) illustrates this – it took ages to decide on the left hand side of the pattern, and as this was the third restart I decided to keep going and live with the mess. Visitors to my trunk shows like to see the traces of the process.
You’re inspired by places and things but are there any other designers out there that you’d look to?
Kaffe Fassett (colour and confidence) and Xandy Peters (techniques and ideas) are both inspiring.
What does the future hold for Kieran Foley?
Kieran regularly does trunk shows in The Constant Knitter in Dublin, where visitors get to see his colourful designs and to hear about his design process. Keep an eye on The Constant Knitter’s Instagram profile for details of upcoming trunk shows.