Genevieve has fashioned a career out of her 'uncool' childhood hobby
Eleanor Kent meets the former Bishop's Stortford schoolgirl whose childhood hobby – which she kept secret from friends for fear they would think her uncool – has blossomed into a burgeoning fashion brand.
Designer Genevieve Sweeney was taught to knit by her grandmother when she was a little girl, never expecting that her childhood pastime would lead to a successful career that has taken her all over the world working for luxury brands including Burberry and Hugo Boss.
She now runs her eponymous premium knitwear label from her studio in Little Hadham. Her sought-after designs marry contemporary design with exceptional hand finishes that celebrate the time honoured techniques of artisan craftspeople.
“I was a secret knitter from the age of five and never thought for a single second that I could make a career and living from the clothes I made," said Genevieve, 30.
“Knitting was just something that always fascinated me – it was almost hypnotic. Even now I’m still fascinated by how you can take a ball of yarn and turn it into something amazing.”
As a teenager, Genevieve would seek out vintage stitch books, creating her own shapes and fusing them together to give old patterns a contemporary twist.
“I was always making things for my cousins and sister,” she said. “But it wasn’t until I was about 16 that I admitted to my friends I loved knitting.”
Genevieve’s light-bulb moment when she realised she could pursue her passion as a potential career came while she was working at Arthur Findlay College, the college of spiritualism and psychic sciences at Stansted Hall in Stansted, where she met an older girl who was in her second year of studying knitwear at university.
“Although I always knew I wanted to do something fashion-related, I had no idea that knitting could be a job or that it might open up other career paths,” she said.
“I remember telling my grandad that I wanted to study knitwear at uni and him telling me that if that’s what I wanted to do then I should go and work in a factory rather than waste four years doing a degree. So, I took him to a final degree show and he was as mesmerised as me. It’s quite amazing when you see what can be achieved with knitwear and all the different possibilities it has.”
After completing A Levels in art and textiles, Genevieve took up a place at Nottingham Trent University to study for a BA in fashion knitwear and knitted textiles. To her surprise, she was one of only a few students on the course that could hand-knit, so in her first year she established the university’s first knitting society to connect with others who shared her passion.
“When I set it up in my first year we had about 20 members, but by my second year there were 150 of us!” she said. Members would meet in bars, cafes and restaurants around Nottingham, often packing out the smaller venues.
“It was about the time knitting groups started becoming quite trendy and it was a great way of making new friends outside my course,” she said. “Some of those people are still my closest friends today.”
During her third year, Genevieve took up a work placement at a creative swatching company in London, which she describes as being a “turning point”, giving her invaluable insights into the industry she was about to enter.
During her time there some of her knitwear designs were sold to high street names such as H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch, and she worked with the likes of Marks and Spencer and New Look. The swatching company went on to sponsor her graduate collection, which was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological film noir Strangers on a Train, and she continued freelancing for them for four years.
After graduating with a first, Genevieve moved to New York to pursue a career with American fashion label Rag & Bone before her work brought her to the attention of Hugo Boss, resulting in a relocation to Switzerland and Lake Como.
She was eventually tempted back to the UK when Burberry came calling, and later worked for Scottish brand Lyle & Scott before deciding in 2015 that she was ready to branch out on her own.
“I felt it was the right time to work on what I wanted to do, so I started buying some machinery and found a little studio in east London,” Genevieve said.
Her official launch in a pop-up shop in Hackney was attended by reality TV stars from Made in Chelsea, and her creations were soon being stocked at uber trendy boutique The Shop at Bluebird in King’s Road, luxury department stores Fortnum and Mason and Liberty London.
During her first two years, Genevieve was also a regular at markets and fairs, helping her to better understand her target customer base.
Now based out of her studio on Little Hadham’s Church End Farm estate, a space she shares with artist husband Ian, Genevieve’s collections feature unusual and custom yarn blends and British spun natural fibres, with each and every piece finished by hand. Geometric hand intarsia jumpers – a knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colours – have become a brand signature.
In addition to supporting British mills and suppliers, central to Genevieve’s ethos is her commitment to working with highly talented craftspeople, helping to preserve skills and knowledge that might otherwise be at risk of being lost to future generations.
“I’m really connected with the people who make my designs and that’s very personal to my brand,” she said.
“When I decided to go it alone, I started meeting lots of retired knitters who hadn’t worked in the industry for years but were desperate to get back into it and were so excited to have the opportunity to be using their skills again.
“One person who knits for me specialises in hand intarsia and if his generation doesn’t teach the next then what he does will disappear with him. That's the reality of it and knowing that potentially these skills could die out really does upset me.”
She added: “What I really want to emphasise is how traditional methods can be modern and how you can bring contemporary design alive with skills and expertise that has been used for years and years.”
Genevieve, who lives in Stansted with Ian and their two cats, described the support she has received from customers as “overwhelming”.
“I went to lunch the other day with one of my long-standing customers and both she and her friend were wearing one of my jumpers, which I just find amazing,” she said.
“I love buying things that people have made because they always have a bit of a story behind them, and to me that means they have so much more meaning, and I think that’s what my customers like too.
“I think they also see it as a bit of an investment – they want something timeless and which will last. If you look after them, you could easily still be wearing my jumpers in 20 or more years.”
As well as working on her autumn/winter 2019 collection, Genevieve is developing a homeware range, such as blankets and cushion covers, and said she would love to take on an assistant at some point in the future.
She recently returned to her old school, Herts and Essex High, to give a careers presentation to GCSE and A Level students to get young people interested in knitwear and textiles from a young age. She offers work experience to budding fashion and textile students to help a new generation become inspired by British manufacturing, artisan skills and international business marketing.
“I never thought as a schoolgirl that I’d be living and working in New York, Lake Como and running my own business, but here I am,” she said.
For more information, visit www.genevievesweeney.com.