Knitting community and sewing the seeds of fashion’s future

Piazza Sant’Anna in Palermo’s Kalsa neighborhood has all the trappings of a postcard-perfect southern Italian square, complete with a Baroque church and vibrant history (it launches you into the Lattarini street market, a swirl of colors and conversations, in the old days lined with Arabian-tinged spice stalls). But none of that could keep it from losing some of its liveliness when the city introduced a new pedestrianizing plan three years ago.

Michele Gullo’s decades-strong haberdashery, Gullo Filati, was part of the plan’s collateral damage; preexisting business challenges created by a larger crisis in the sector were compounded by Palermo’s then-new traffic enforcements. It would ultimately be handicrafts and Michele’s human touch that would help bring both the square and the shop back to life.

“My brother and I were faced with a choice,” Michele explained in a recent phone interview. “It got to a point where we knew we’d have to close, move cities and change industries, or get experimental.”

Getting experimental was the way they went, first setting up social media accounts to get the word out, and then launching a weekly Knit Café. The concept was simple enough: interested people could come to no-cost, in-shop, around-the-table knitting sessions where coffee and conversation flowed freely. But bringing the initiative to life got them more than they bargained for: the very first workshop welcomed 120 participants. Ever-growing groups now meet twice a week, and when people come and take their place at the table, “they really feel like they’re part of a family,” Michele says proudly.

For Michele, there’s no explicitly direct economic consequence, but the café’s renewal of interest in artisanal work and DIY projects has turned his whole business around—not to mention his personal philosophy. “Before,” he says, “day after day, deadlines, all that, was a challenge. We were more attentive to the product than to the client, and now we have this community motivating us on a daily basis, [while it also] motivates the client and makes him or her more attentive to the technical skills behind a garment.” Heightened consumer awareness is a long-term outcome of laborious hobbies, it turns out: overarching TCBL project coordinator Jesse Marsh emphasizes that when people participate in something like this, “they start to realize that you can’t have a garment cost five euros without some form of slavery being behind it.”

Increasingly, besides sparking change and reviving social life within its neighborhood community, the Knit Café has also helped change the face of the very activities it promotes, transcending stereotypes and outdated ideas about who gets to enjoy knitting, sewing or crocheting as pastimes. Around the table aren’t just grandmothers passing down skills to their progeny (though there’s plenty of that, too): Michele has watched a sizable men’s sewing group take shape. Gender tropes and antiquated scenarios of wives working through the night alone are no longer what springs to mind when café participants picture sewing: instead, “it’s fun, it’s social,” says Marsh. Facilitating integration and cross-cultural interactions has also been a byproduct of this relaxed atmosphere, as Michele notes that a young man from Ghana has been among the regular attendees.

Gullo Filati’s concept is a model that has made headway well beyond Sicilian borders, too: these informal but highly attended labs are rife with broader industry innovation potential. Similar initiatives have been implemented three times so far (with some slight twists) at the TCBL place lab Hisa Sadezi Druzbe in Murska Sobota, Slovenia. Darko Ferčej, head of the EU projects unit at the Ptuj-based eInstitute (eZavod), which oversaw the cafes’ implementation, explains that the main aim of these meetups was to discuss possibilities and develop new products using recycled materials. Participants in Slovenia were generally as mixed a bag as Michele’s groups at Gullo Filati—male and female, older and younger—but where the Gullo Filati crew typically churns out jumpers, gloves, hats or blankets, fruits of the Hisa Sadezi Druzbe labors included slippers, bedding, handbags, and pillows and beds for domestic dogs and cats, crafted from used blue jeans. “The results were really quite impressive,” Ferčej says, adding that casual conversation, coffee, drinks and a “cozy environment” were community-creators across both cultures.

A fresh and eco-friendly take on toys—perennial point-losers in the sustainability department—also emerged from these Slovenia-based cafes, with one group creating recycled-textile puppets based on the “Talking Tom” application (which stars a virtual, semi-viral talking cat). This idea of planet-friendly play is well-aligned with the next initiative set to come out of the Gullo Filati café: in partnership with Textile Center of Excellence in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and funded by the Worth Project, Gullo Filati is working on a series of multi-element, DIY sewing kits that can be integrated into any café’s activities—a “census” of various ones around Europe is currently in progress—with the social element still front and center, a design template to follow, and opportunities for “collaborative sewing” to take place. Marsh likens the idea to IKEA’s revolutionizing of assemble-it-yourself furniture: supplies and instructions are stripped to their essentials, and tasks are presented in an accessible way, best performed with someone else (the kit-within-the-café model encourages participants to ask a neighbor or tutor what step to take if they get stuck).

Importantly, templates won’t be produced in a vacuum but will be carefully sourced—most likely from designers who have a past-season pattern or other piece that no longer needs to retain competitive edge. Patterns will be added to a digitized database for knit café organizers who sign up on the TCBL platform. The concept takes the model laid out by the more traditional knit café and enriches it in terms of required skills and final outcome (“These won’t just be Christmas potholders we’re talking about,” Marsh says).

Other anticipated ripple effects of the cafes for the wider fashion industry are plenty: namely, that as participants’ skills grow, these hubs could become scouting grounds for designers eager to find people who can sew and actually construct clothes—an astonishingly small group. With more experiments like Gullo Filati’s, a far-reaching return to technical know-how could be imminent.

Article by Mary Gray