The mind and world of knitwear designer Lindsay Degen is as much of an explosion of technicolors and energy as we've always hoped.
BY JINNIE LEE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY WINNIE AU
On the day I meet Lindsay Degen at her apartment-slash-work studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, her hair is half up in a messy bun and half down in a long braid. She’s wearing a simple, boxy white top, but her choice in bottoms are bright orange knit lounge pants covered in a playful-yet-somehow-wearable pattern of white and green squares.
I could immediately tell these pants were of her creation: bright colors, knitted to perfection, slightly off-kilter and DIY. Upon closer inspection (and touching the color blocks for myself) I find out this allover “pattern” isn’t knitted but actually silkscreened puff paint that was run under an industrial hair dryer. The white squares also glow in the dark. And I think to myself how this eclectic world of mish-mash that Degen (the woman) lives in—from her hairstyle to her outfit—is the very essence of what DEGEN (her namesake knitwear line) represents.
DEGEN was launched in 2012 to much praise from the New York fashion industry. Woven underthings, wildly oversized sweaters, stop-in-your-tracks colorful pant-leggings, and cheeky knitted boob motifs gave way to Degen’s early success as, not only an apparel designer, but a knitwear artist. By taking the fundamentals of hand-knitting, as taught to her by her grandmother, and implementing the practice to an array of digital knitting machines, Degen has rolled out broad collections that push the limits of what knitting looks like. Her whimsical aesthetic has led to collaborations with a diverse set of brands, like Converse, My Little Pony, and Victoria’s Secret.
“I love experimenting with materials; it’s easy for me to get psyched on something,” says Degen. “But my biggest struggle is focusing and deeply exploring certain things instead of hopping around all over the place.” Unfortunately, this means that these puff paint knit pants are likely going to remain a one-off. And besides, Degen adds, “I like making something once and I don’t want to make it ever again.”
Her desire to exclusively create one-of-a-kind pieces is part of the reason why Degen no longer sells her adult DEGEN collection unless it’s a custom order. (Her babyDEGEN collection, however, is still available.) It sure is a peculiar ethos for a clothing designer, but Degen has her reasons for breaking out of the mold. “The fashion industry is so wasteful and it really upsets me. I read a statistic that the amount of clothes that New Yorkers throw away every year is twenty-one tons,” she laments. “How are we not seeing it yet? That’s what I’m not understanding.” Plus, challenging the norm allows Degen the freedom of her own creative schedule rather than following the rigid seasonal and production calendar of the fashion industry.
But DEGEN wasn’t always the one-woman operation it is today; the line has also scaled back gradually since the days of managing her own “knitting factory” of women at a larger studio space in the Navy Yard. The experience was valuable for Degen, being able to employ an empowered group of skilled full-time knitters, but she eventually realized the day-to-day aspects like “worrying about tax implications and renters insurance and liability insurance and so on” didn’t interest her. She also felt guilted with the pains of being a small-business owner, admitting that she didn’t feel like she was paying her employees enough. (“But now they make more and they’re all doing awesome stuff,” she adds.) Rather, Degen took a step back to start making again—making her own decisions, doing things her own way. The shift has been working out better for her.
So what is Degen up to now? Though it may seem like to fans that Degen is in a chilled out phase, her schedule is anything but low-key. At the moment, the majority of her time is spent teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, and the Rhode Island School of Design, which has her commuting to Providence every week. And when she isn’t in classes, Degen is working on a book of downloadable hand-knitting patterns that she hopes to publish this year.
“This book is a way to keep doing what I’m doing without the feeling that I’m contributing to the consumption problem,” Degen says, as she flips through her notebook of drawings and numbers. It looks like an overwhelming task at first glance—Degen tells me she will have to figure out how to best articulate these triangular slopes or calculations into written directions. Every pattern is a complex mathematical process that has to add up correctly. “I want to make interesting shapes that are not necessarily sweaters, but more like shawls or scarves that can have a presence on a wall [like a piece of art] but also be wearable,” she says.
“The only thing I’m not psyched on is that hand-knitting is a privilege; yarn is expensive, you need time to do it. Is it accessible to everyone? No. But you know, I’m working through those challenges,” she continues. “That’s what happens when you’re in academia. You get to know the pros and cons of the fashion industry intimately. You can’t try to push your students to solve the problems while you yourself are not solving any of them. It’s troublesome.” Degen hasn’t settled on a release date yet for her hand-knitted patterns but when it comes time to release the book, she says it will be made available on her website and on Ravelry, a community site for knit enthusiasts.
Before I say goodbye, Degen takes me on a tour of her space that she shares with her electrical engineer and musician boyfriend. She shows me a closet of every original DEGEN piece she’s archived. In the bedroom, she shows me an intricately patched quilt that she had hand-sewed for a cumulative 580 hours. In her work studio, she shows me her large knitting machine that she can make things like sweaters on, and then a smaller hand-crank knitting machine that is specifically for socks. In an aquarium in the living room, she introduces me to her bearded dragon Birdo, named after the Super Mario character. Then, she lights up an LED rainbow on the wall that her boyfriend made for her, a miniature of a gigantic version that was originally made for a DEGEN show (the large one has since been sold to Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips).
I decide that a send-off of rainbow lights is the perfect way to close out our winter afternoon together. There is supposed to be a massive blizzard the next day and all of Degen’s classes are canceled for a snow day. “I don’t even have to leave my apartment,” Degen says excitedly, as she picks up a set of needles and yarn as I head out the door. “I’ll be here, knitting all day.”