Fashion: Hello, doily!

The hand-knitted, hand-crocheted look is hot on the high street - leaving Granny purling and plaining in her chimney corner. By Tamsin Blanchard. Photographs by Donna Francesca

Never before have handicrafts, traditionally the reserve of the Women's Institute, been perceived as sexy. But this summer needlepoint, embroidery, lacy knits and crochet are all the rage. If your granny can knit it, chances are it's the height of fashion. The rails at high street chains, from Karen Millen to Kookai, are positively groaning under the weight of crochet cardigans and tunics (quicker to produce than traditional knitwear). But intricate, lacy knitwear has also become the stuff of luxury evening wear.

Lainey Keogh, the Irish knitwear specialist, has introduced Hollywood - in the shape of Demi Moore, Liz Taylor and Isabella Rossellini - to the glamorous world of her lacy, organic knitwear. Keogh has been knitting for well over a decade but she made her catwalk debut in February at London Fashion Week. Such is the appeal of her slinky dresses that Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova and Naomi Campbell all agreed to model for a dress instead of a fee, along with the voluptuous size 14 girl, Sophie Dahl.

Keogh's label was born out of a labour of love in the early Eighties, when friends began to put in orders for her knits. The appeal of her clothes is that they are obviously hand-crafted. There is an increasing market for luxury clothes that are one-offs, untouched by the whirr of a mass production line. And why not? If a single piece of clothing costs upwards of pounds 400 (Lainey Keogh's sweaters start at around that price) you want it to look as though it were made specially for you.

John Rocha has always had a strong line in knitwear, but this summer he has been amazed at the demand for his hand-knitted and hand-crocheted pieces. These are dresses so finely crafted that they seem to be held together by single threads. Each garment is hand-dyed, too, to keep the yarn silky and supple.

"It has astonished me how popular knitwear has been this season," he tells me from his Dublin studio. Frustratingly, because everything is hand-worked, there is a limit to how much he can supply. "People want something to buy and keep, to wear this year and the next," he says. This season in particular, Rocha's knits are instant classics, well worth the pounds 700 it costs for a full-length evening dress. He uses the traditional knitting techniques that have developed locally over the years and pushes them further, with modern patterns and sharp cutting. He works with a team of in-house technicians, as well as outworkers who knit from home.

Joyce, 70, is a home knitter and crocheter who has worked on jumpers for Vivienne Westwood as well as for her own family and friends. She started knitting at the age of 12, learning from her mum and at school. She is one of the last generation of British knitters - her daughters weren't interested in learning her skills, and her grandchildren have lost interest in wearing hand-knits, too. "I knitted for them until they were 13," she says. "Then they wanted designer stuff." There are very few 13-year-olds who are spending evenings with their crochet needles, frantically replicating dresses they have seen on the high street.

Despite the spiralling demand for hand-knits and crochets, skilled British women such as Joyce are finding it harder to get work. Rates for hand- knitters are notoriously low - they will be paid less than pounds 30 for a designer jumper that may sell for 10 times that - but there are whole armies of knitters in South America and China who will work for a fraction of the price.

Suzan Felton is a knitwear agent, consulting for designers and spending endless hours over tea and biscuits with her ageing knitters. She is not optimistic about the future of the UK's knitters. "The price of yarn is consistently rising," she says. "Hand-knitting is something that will die out here."

The luxury end of the market keeps knitwear in the limelight of fashion, but skilled local knitters prepared to put in the time for little financial return are hard to find. Ms Felton has been working with the Birmingham- based knitwear designer Delphine Wilson, who sold her MA collection to Browns and now sells her sculptural designs to Whistles and Harrods. By advertising locally, Wilson has found a loyal team of knitters, but few make a living out of it; it's more a way of supplementing income with a much-loved hobby. To pay the knitters by the hour would mean the cost per garment would be impossibly high.

For anyone thinking of investing in a hand-knitted garment this summer, there are lots to choose from. Just spare a thought for the hands that knitted itn

Stylist: Sophia Neophitou

Fashion assistant: Holly Davies

Hair: Adam Bryant for Toni & Guy, using TiGi Linea

Make-up: Emma Kotch

Model: Caroline de Maigret at Take Two

This page

Gold crochet knit dress, pounds 995, by Lainey Keogh, from A La Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1

Opposite page, above

Black long-sleeved crochet minidress, pounds 110, by Whistles, 12 St Christopher's Place, London W1, 9 High Street, Oxford, and branches nationwide (enquiries, 0171-487 4484); white big knickers, from pounds 14.50, by Hanro, available from Selfridges, as before, and Dickins & Jones, Regent Street, London W1

Opposite page, below

Sheer cream crochet knit dress, pounds 795, by John Rocha, from Liberty, Regent Street, London W1, and Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1 (enquiries, 0171-734 0123); cream knickers, pounds 3, from a selection at Marks & Spencer, branches nationwide

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