Kaylene Milner was first drawn to knitting as a fashion student, where she learned the basics after discovering that her course largely avoided the practice.
“I really liked how tactile it was, with minimal waste,” she says. “As a young designer, you don’t have access to as much of the textile industry…but with knitwear, you can create your own fabrics.”
After graduating, Milner launched his label Wah-Wah Australia to tap into his love of punk rock and knitwear, which had been inspired by an old photo of Dinosaur Jr frontman Jay Mascis with his high school band Deep Wound. “He’s wearing a hand-knit Deep Wound sweater his mom made him, I just thought it was so charming and ridiculous.”
A musician herself, Milner’s early collaborations with Australian punk bands the Hard Ons and the Meanies soon led to a moment of “loophole” when Dinosaur Jr approached her. “They got in touch with me, which was amazing and a bit surreal. I do not know if [Mascis] realizes that he is the inspiration for the brand. Or how small it was then – I literally lived in a shared house, sitting on my bed conceiving, with a closet in my bedroom that was my stash.
Another big break came in 2019, when the subsequent Dinosaur Jr jumper was worn by former Mighty Boosh star Noel Fielding on The Great British Bake Off. Now her knitwear appears all over TV and the internet, proudly worn by Courtney Barnett, Taika Waititi, Ben Lee and Tony Armstrong, with designs by Sonic Youth, Devo and Silverchair, and visual artists such as Kaylene Whiskey, Aretha Brown , Reg Mombassa and Fielding himself.
Glynis Johns, curator at the Powerhouse Museum, says knitting has a historic and often democratic place in Australian fashion history. “There was a tradition of really good home knitting in Australia, which came out of the Great Depression when clothes were hard to come by. But you could salvage yarn and rework old yarn, undo old sweaters and redo it. , and there were many models available.
Australia’s undisputed queen of colorful knits, Jenny Kee, tapped into this decentralized network of home knitters to bring her vision to fruition in the 1970s.
“Because Jenny doesn’t knit, she made a legend and attracted people who had those skills and could knit pieces in their homes,” Jones says. “She wanted to do something very Australian, using Australian wool, with Australian patterns to create this beautiful winter season of knitwear. The first pieces were pretty simple – she’d found a vintage zip-up cardigan at a Vinnies store and used it as the basis for her design.
While Kee recently launched a new children’s line revisiting his early kangaroo and koala covered work, some of his quirky designs are finding a second life. Hunter Valley-based Etsy seller Bec Grant launched her Retro Color Pop online store a few years ago. After initially selling a variety of vintage products, the Kath and Kim fan quickly turned to sweaters. “I noticed that the sweaters were leaving as soon as I put them in my shop,” she says.
Stocking everything from Ken Dones and Coogi knockoffs to Kath Day Knight’s triumph, the former elementary school teacher says her store’s traffic stats show most shoppers head to Kee’s original pieces – which can sell for between $1,500 and $5,000. “It’s people from all over – mostly Australia – who I sell to – but Kath and Kim is huge in the US as well.”
“When I was in school, if someone came up to you and said ‘that sweater is ugly,’ you’d be mortified,” Grant says. But these days “it’s part of the appeal” and “a nice compliment.”
Many of Grant’s lists evoke a sunny, simple vision of Australia typical of the 1970s and 1980s: full of native flora and fauna, bright colors, postcard landmarks and the occasional boomerang. It’s cannon that invites a stall in 2022: a hand-knit, unlabeled piece celebrates the 1988 bicentenary, but in his description of the item, Grant reframes 1888 simply as “the year Australia was invaded”.
Some Wah-Wah productions also go against this legacy, from a fundraising collaboration with Gumbaynggirr artist Aretha Brown who asks us to: “Know your history, decolonize your future”, to one of Milner’s most popular pieces featuring the work of artist Yankunytjatjara Kaylene Whiskey.
“As soon as it launched, it really hit people,” Milner says of Whiskey’s sweater, which mixes cockatoos and boomerangs with his idols Cher, Dolly Parton and Wonder Woman. “There’s a sense of celebration: of his culture, of his friends and family in Indulkana, and of his love of pop culture.”
Milner’s collaboration with Mombassa, another Australian art and fashion icon, also has a thread of activism, with her “Sweater Enthusiastic for Climate Action” message raising funds for Firesticks Alliance and the Climate Council. . “It’s a loud jersey and it’s a message that needs to be loud.”
While Milner still runs her business from home, her 100% Australian merino pieces are made overseas. Many local manufacturers focus primarily on corporate clothing and school uniforms, she says. But according to Jones, some recent developments suggest there is a future for the house approach of yesteryear.
“During the lockdown, fashion design students didn’t have access to schools and all of their facilities,” says Jones. “UTS… actually provided their students with a home knitting machine, so a lot of the graduate work last year [was] …made on knitting machines – it was really beautiful.
Milner was also impressed, “I think we’re going to see some really exciting knitwear coming out of Australia.”
Whatever the future holds, says Grant, despite the threat of moths and accidental shrinkage, people seem to cherish and preserve their knits, whether designer, daggy or both. This care ensures that they can be taken out again and again, when taste and time permit.
For Milner, such longevity is the dream: “I hope people can take my clothes out of their wardrobes in 30 years and pass them on to their children.”