Written by Jess Daniels with photography by Kalie Ilana Cassel-Feiss, except where noted.
The question “if not now, when?” has pushed many toward a leap of faith. For Emily Cunetto, it simply pushed her across the Bay, from her San Francisco residence to a studio space on the Emeryville/Oakland border.
The narrow room is whitewashed and bright from skylights overhead, with a long table along the lefthand side. Tidy and sparse, its minimalism allows for clarity. For Cunetto, the most critical part of her knitwear design process is when a clear vision of the piece arises from the material. To begin, she says, “I go for a fiber that speaks to me in some way.” From there, her designs are “a series of experiments, with this stitch or that needle” and then “it’s all about math once you get the swatch worked out.”
Cunetto has a wide smile and reserved presence. Her humble description of her workflow belies a strong intuition and years of experience with yarn and fiber. Unbridled experiments these are not. Rather, she makes insightful swatches with textures and patterns to highlight the precise qualities of the yarn.
While studying photography at California College of the Arts, she leaned heavily toward textiles, propelled by a lifelong love of fiber. Dabbling in weaving and other processes, she says “I always come back to knitting… I like how structural it is.” She found technical knitwear design classes too focused on creating swatches for high fashion production, but found home in various yarn shops where she has worked for the past five years.
Shortly after moving to Marin County, Cunetto became friends with Fibershed’s founder, Rebecca Burgess, and got involved with the community. She finds that Fibershed is a “great way to tap into local resources” and that “all these people making amazing fiber adds to the originality of the piece.”
Back in the studio, various phases of fiber float among Cunetto’s two knitting machines and hand knitting toolkit. A cone of Sally Fox’s naturally colored cotton rests on the table, while a series of lacey swatches in A Verb for Keeping Warm’s Flock yarn are pinned to the wall.
I spot a chunky swatch of garter stitches in swirling browns and cream and recognize it immediately from the Grow Your Jeans runway. Cunetto’s grass-fed top is a contemporary take on a retro swing jacket, with A-line shaping and a cozy collar. The one of a kind design was drawn directly from her collaboration with Jacalyn Post (Sheep to Shop), who created the custom yarn. Cunetto and Post corresponded by email, with Post gathering materials from her own sheep, alpaca from Deb Galway (Menagerie Hill Ranch), and a touch of luxurious guanaco fiber from Dana Foss (Royal Fibers). Cunetto imposed no limitations nor requests, inviting Post to “do what she wanted,” and was so amazed by the resulting yarn that after receiving the first skein she elected to pick up the rest in person at Sheep to Shop in Vacaville.
A tour of the farm and Post’s own creative process and machinery gave Cunetto “a lot of appreciation for how much hard work it is to spin and card yarn.”
Skeins in hand, she set to swatching and sketching, endeavoring to “work within the scope of the material—beautiful dark browns and depth of colors.” She quickly knew she would “avoid intricate cables and highlight the handspun [nature of the yarn] to make the garment cohesive.” Stitch patterns and the hand of the swatch “helped inform the silhouette—clean, nice lines, not too much texture.”
While high fashion often centers around the muse mentality, Cunetto opts to “make things that I would like to wear.” For the grass-fed top, she realized “I would love to have a jacket… thinking about fall, something super cozy and bulky.” Adding to the design experience was a new sense of fiber exploration: “I had never heard of guanaco, but the fiber is so soft and super warm.” All told, Cunetto says “getting to be a part of Grow Your Jeans was a dream come true.”
Runway deadlines aside, Cunetto designs “knitwear for this climate”—wearable pieces made for the variable, and thus layerable, Northern California environment. San Francisco temperatures may baffle visitors, but “the great thing is you use everything”—hats and scarves on the daily, then “grab a sweater when you go out in the evening” and carry fingerless gloves to fend off chilly coastal winds. All, of course, in natural fibers and wool.
Because Cunetto’s own design process relies on tuning into fiber qualities, she understood perfectly the value of creating a tactile fiber directory. To assemble the first series of the Wool and Fine Fiber Book, Fibershed reached out to request her assistance in creating knit swatches. As fiber producers contributed yarn to the project, Cunetto determined the best gauge and knit long bands of 3” wide swatches (narrow scarves, essentially). For Cunetto, working with a diversity of local materials was “a great way to get to know different fibers and different sheep” and impressed upon her that there are “so many different qualities” available in our bioregion. From drapey, heavy alpaca to the structural integrity of wool and the range of softness from different sheep, she took lots of notes and fell in love with the details. Beyond micron count, she became “kind of obsessed with the natural white—that’s a color that you can show texture or stitch in.”
As the swatch knitter for the Wool Book, Cunetto had a head start in discovering new-to-her fiber producers, and has already purchased fiber (Janet Heppler’s yarn) that she learned about through the book. Connecting with Fibershed producers extends the act of collaboration developed through Grow Your Jeans. After creating a grass-fed top together, Cunetto and Post are talking about future collaborations, and Cunetto says she is always looking for more collaborations because her knitwear is “a continual exploration.”
By moving into her own studio space just a few months ago, Cunetto has deepened this exploration, and hopes to soon transition to full time knitwear production. Launching her line is a learning curve, but with a recent website revamp and on-the-ground networking she hopes to attract the attention of local boutiques and individual buyers alike.
Cunetto sees her designs fitting into contemporary fashion not only in style but in quality—she considers each finishing detail carefully to make sure it is well constructed. “There is a growing consciousness of people wanting the story behind what they’re buying, looking for quality, transparency… I think our generation is taking ideas of sustainability and ‘back to the land’ and redefining what that means.”
With a growing community of talented designers engaging with farmers on the forefront of climate-beneficial strategies, we can look to our wardrobes as vehicles for change, in the same way Cunetto looks to her design practice, asking: “if not now, when?”
To learn more about Emily Cunetto’s knitwear and contact her for collaborations, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.