A trip to the studio of ARTSTRING designer Emilie Odeile will leave you with the warm-and fuzzies of art: you’re inspired creatively and, in a more literal sense, are warm and fuzzy after seeing her fabulously hand-knit designs that make you long for fall. Emilie started hand-knitting in 1999 and added machine-knitting in 2009, just before she opened ARTSTRING boutique in Hollywood a couple of months later. She’s learned a lot along the way, not the least of which is the importance of just believing in what you can do and then doing it—balls of steel, this one. Anyway, I feel like my rambling is depriving you of her wise words, a discussion that includes how she pushed past her fears and jump-started ARTSTRING, and where she sees her business and fabulous designs evolving from here.
What made you want to knit custom designs?
In the beginning, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice to design my own pieces as much as it was an unwillingness to learn how to read knitting patterns. I was impatient and just wanted to get on with it already, and patterns, to me, felt rather confining. Finding the right yarn and the right needle size and making swatches to figure out the gauge and hoping the finished product looks at least a little like the one in the picture all seemed like so much trouble when I could just start knitting and see what happens.
Two years into my knitting obsession I did actually attempt to use a pattern and found a typo that I never would have caught had I not already been a fairly experienced knitter. I think that one single attempt confirmed for me that there was value in my stubborn refusal to go about knitting in the traditional manner. Had I gone to a knitting class or two or bothered to read through an entire knitting book, I would, of course, have saved myself a few headaches and learned some of the basics much sooner than I did. But I also might have robbed myself of the opportunity to figure out multiple ways of accomplishing something had I known the “right” way from the beginning. Not knowing what I was doing allowed me to just play and get to know the yarn and the stitches in a way I’m not sure is entirely possible when there are rules to be followed. One of the benefits of just playing and exploring possibilities is that more and more things become possible.
How did this lead to ARTSTRING, and when did your boutique open?
I had been hand-knitting custom garments for private clients for several years but wasn’t making a living at it. I was also working closely with Marco Morante [of MarcoMarco] and Ashton Hirota [of Ashton Michael Clothing], both genius designers—truly, just silly good at what they do—and was having a difficult time seeing the value in my own work when compared to the wide range of beautiful designs they were confidently churning out on a daily basis. They both had this ability to be incredibly creative on demand and I just didn’t believe I would ever be able to conjure up so many great ideas in so little time. I started to believe I just wasn’t a creative person. And as much as I loved being with them everyday, my confidence started to crash and I realized I was never going to let myself fully explore my own creativity under the watchful eyes of these ridiculously talented friends of mine. To be clear, they were incredibly supportive friends and coworkers—and mentors, really—but my own fears and insecurities were getting the best of me and I knew it was time to leave the nest.
After a couple small pushes to get things going—creating and marketing a hand-crocheted earring line, which I still sell today, placing my designs in various boutiques, collaborating with local artists—I realized small pushes weren’t going to work for me. Given my hermit-like nature and tendency to hide in my work, it was clear that I was going to have to scare myself into success, which is why I started looking for a public space, even though I had no idea at the time how I was going to pay the rent or even what the business was going to be exactly. But the minute I walked into this magical place, just across the parking lot from Marco’s studio, the ideas came flooding in. Putting the cart before the horse felt like the most logical thing to do so I signed the lease, crossed my fingers, and hoped I’d figure out the next move quickly. I took a deep breath and officially opened the boutique doors on April 1, 2010, and, while I’m convinced this is the smartest thing I’ve ever done, I think I’m still waiting to exhale.
What do you love about knitting?
I love how completely transformative knitting is. The fact that one long string can become just about anything with a little time and imagination feels almost miraculous. It’s both daunting and exhilarating to hold a pound of yarn in my hand and think, “I can make anything I want right now.”
And how did this lead to your career?
Once I started machine-knitting at the end of 2009 (thanks to Anne Edwards, a wonderfully talented knitter, designer and seamstress who pushed me even though I really didn’t want to put down my two knitting needles; she even sold me my very first machine and showed me in an hour or two all the basics I would need in order to continue on this journey), I started to really embrace experimentation even more than before and found that I couldn’t stop the ideas from pouring in. I often had to get up in the middle of the night to sketch in the living room for an hour because this slideshow of images would run in my head until I got the ideas down on paper. It was a kind of creative rush that I had never experienced up until that point and it was pretty clear that a.) I had bottled up a good deal of my design ideas due to the insane amount of time it takes to create garments with just two knitting needles and b.) the game had changed forever.
The idea of doing anything other than creating in physical form what I was seeing in my head no longer felt like an option. And believe me, I did try to think of something else. Anything else. I couldn’t imagine my business surviving more than three months, and I cried for three days straight, struggling over whether or not to sign the lease. Of course, I did have Scarlet Fever at the time (true story—thanks a bunch, Marco*) so it’s possible that may have played into my fragile state. [Laughs] It was also during this feverish time that I came up with the name ARTSTRING because the one thing I knew for sure was that my creations would be made with art, heart and string. Plus I’m a sucker for nerdy wordplay.
*Marco did actually give me Scarlet Fever but, over the last ten years, he (along with business partner, Chris Psaila) has also given me opportunities, guidance, confidence, friendship, and THE sexiest shoes I’ve ever owned. So, you know, he’s forgiven.
How do you think ARTSTRING has evolved and where do you see it going in the future?
ARTSTRING started out very much as an experiment and, honestly, as a way to save myself from my own fears. I didn’t know what part of the business would work or what I would enjoy so I kind of just said yes to everything that came my way. In the early days I mostly made custom garments for private clients, which somehow opened me up to the entertainment industry. I’ve knit custom designs—including clothing, accessories and set decoration—for film, television, runway (New York and Los Angeles Fashion Week, 2010—I designed and made all the knits for the Ashton Michael collection), theatre and commercials and have developed and produced knitwear samples and small productions for a handful of fashion designers.
When I’m not knitting for a production or a client, I typically spend my days knitting one-of-a-kind pieces to keep my boutique full of new things to look at and touch. These days, in addition to the custom and one-of-a-kind work, I’m working on a small capsule collection, which will ultimately allow more people to wear the knits. I’m not quite ready to talk about the concept of the collection yet but I’m really excited about it. I’m also working on a collaborative art installation that, along with the capsule collection, will hopefully be unveiled this winter. In the future, I see the business growing beyond just these two hands of mine so that the label can continue to grow and I can continue to play in the studio. Until then, I’ll continue to do a little of everything, which can be overwhelming at times and also incredibly satisfying.
Your craft is so unique in that with one medium, knitting, you’ve developed a wide range of designs, from earrings to clothes to knit doc martens—how do you stay so fresh in your ideas?
Fresh is a much nicer way of putting it than all over the map, so I’ll go with it. The reality is that I’m just completely obsessed with knitting and love to see what’s possible. I also get bored and a little sad when I have to make the same thing over and over again so I entertain myself by making whatever I feel like making on a given day, assuming I’m not on a deadline.
Have you ever worked with other mediums or do you think you might in the future?
While my obsession is certainly focused on yarn and all that it can become, I mostly just love to work with my hands. I occasionally incorporate other materials in my work including wire, wool roving, beads, crystals, rope, paint and even electrical tubing. In the future, I would love to explore painting and sculpting.
Where do you find inspiration for your knits?
Inspiration comes from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I don’t read magazines or stay current with fashion trends, so I rely on more basic sources of inspiration: a flower, an interesting texture on the side of a building, an old beat-up basic from my closet that’s begging to be tweaked and remade in cashmere, a mathematical sequence. Of course the yarn itself is a huge inspiration. Sometimes that’s enough, and I’m off and running.
Have you ever found yourself with a kind of “designers block” and if so, how do you get past it, or do your ideas for designs flow freely?
For me, designer’s block comes in waves. It’s less that the ideas stop and more that I sometimes don’t feel inspired to create them. It can be really frustrating. When that happens, though, I know it’s because I haven’t given myself enough contrast in my life. When I tie myself to my work and the studio for too much time without any outside fun, my excitement starts to fade. I don’t think I’ve ever felt excited and blocked at the same time. So the best solution, when I can convince myself to do it, is to close the doors and go do something else entirely for a couple hours or even a couple days to remind myself that there’s more to life besides knitting—something I’m sure we all need to remind ourselves on occasion, right? It’s possible that’s just me…Eating is another one. The days go much smoother when I remember to eat. Of course, when there’s a client and a deadline in the mix, all of the above goes out the window and it’s time to just suck it up and get it done. Fortunately, adrenaline and fear feel an awful lot like excitement to the creative mind.
You host a monthly event, Knit Night. What’s the goal for Knit Night?
Knit Night is a modern day knitting bee and it’s one of my favorite parts about this business, which is otherwise a very solitary endeavor. It’s this great little event where a very mixed bag of creative folks (olds, youngs, boys, girls, gays, straights, virgins, and vets) come together to drink wine, chit-chat and knit. And crochet. And felt. And needlepoint. And spin yarn. And whatever else they feel like doing. Occasionally they even sing at the piano. But all those activities are really just vehicles to connect with one another, which is precisely why it doesn’t matter to me one bit how experienced they are or how much they accomplish while they’re here. My original goal was to create a community of kind, creative, interesting people. I feel like Knit Night has actually managed to do that, and I’m incredibly grateful to get to share the evening every month with people who have truly become family. How often can you say that about a roomful of needle-sharing hookers? [Laughs]
What advice do you have for knit lovers and fashion lovers who want to find their own unique vision in the industry?
Create something you love. If you don’t love what you’re creating, keep playing. Let it be a fun adventure to not know what on earth you’re doing. Let it be okay to fall flat on your face, knowing you’ll learn something you otherwise might never have had the opportunity to learn. My business would be nothing without its happy accidents, especially in the early days. And if I hadn’t been willing to go with it, I might have missed out on creating some of my very favorite designs that ultimately shaped the look of my entire line. Like almost everything, failure, in moderation, is a good thing. It helps us to take a breath and recalibrate or sometimes, even, to redefine what success is. If you can find a way to learn something everyday—about yourself or your work or human nature—that’s a success. Beyond all that, do great work, be kind and meet your deadlines.
See more ARTSTRING designs in the slideshow below: