Q&A: Designer Karelle Levy on Sustainable, Sexy Knits

Guests at The Standard Spa, Miami Beach know how to turn a look—and during Women’s History Month, members at the hotel will learn how to create one from scratch. Designer, artist and fiber world trailblazer Karelle Levy is leading a Stich N Bitch session at The Spa for International Women's Day. Karelle sat down with The Standard to talk large-scale installations, sustainability, picking up a new craft and creating knits for tropical climates…forget sweater weather!

Thanks for chatting with us for International Women’s Day! You’ve grown an incredible following in the fiber community—what advice would you give women who might feel intimidated to pick up a new craft?

I love celebrating Women’s History Month. We have come so far, and yet our struggles are always challenged. Let’s keep fighting the fight! 

Starting a craft can be quite tedious and definitely discouraging but only in the beginning. Once you get over the hump and have that “A-ha! Moment,” it gets easier and easier. I think giving ourselves permission to mess up is very important, especially in the beginning. Our hands are doing things we’re not used too. The first piece is where someone learns the most. It should look bad, uneven and loops all over the place. What’s amazing is the more you do, the better the stitches and the more even everything becomes. Just keeping it going is a definitely a test of our quest for perfection and a practice of letting go.

Start with a simple project and make something for your pet if you have one, or a little belt, since it goes pretty fast. Learning from someone instead of on-line definitely helps. I always talk students through the process, wrap the yarn this way not that way, etc. It’s motor skills and once you’ve done it in the past, our hands tend to remember. Repetition is key! The more you do it, the easier it gets!

I always like adding a little alcohol for liquid courage and to loosen everyone’s stitches up a bit. 

A lot of readers might think of knitting in terms of winter wear: beanies, warm scarves, chunky sweaters. What you do is very tailored to a tropical context in Miami Beach, hardly a place to bundle up. How do you approach creating textiles to match that breezy, airy, sexy world?

I’ve always battled with the concept that not every knit is a sweater. Our underwear and t-shirts are knit! But just a tiny stitch. I knit breathable plant-based yarns on knitting machines. Because knit can be slinky and stretch it lends itself to being body hugging. If the piece is body hugging it fits every body type and is size inclusive because of my tubular knit technique. The curvier the shorter, the slimmer the longer. We have such sexy bodies in Miami. Making stretchy, beautiful and airy dresses that are also comfortable is key for our warm, balmy weather. I use bamboo, cotton, tencel, and viscose...adding sparkle also helps. I make dresses, kaftans, hot shorts, rompers and rarely make sweaters. I wear my KRELwear in the summer! 

As a Miami native, what are some of your earliest fashion memories?

My first fashion memory was in Paris, where I was born. I remember my last birthday party (I was five when I moved to the states) I changed my dress three times, because I kept getting things on it. My mom was a fashionista. She loved to shop! So much so that she had a kids clothing store in San Soucci with high-end kids clothes from Paris. She used to take me to the merchandise mart to get samples for my wardrobe. I wore samples all the time growing up. I had clothes before they got to the stores. I wasn’t much of a shopper. I’ve always had struggles with fashion. I’m very curvy, even when I was younger and thinner, so things never fit quite right. When I started knitting and discovered how knits move with our shape, I realized they could fit all every body type. I was big into nightlife and my first pieces were made to go out to the club that same night. I amassed so many fun pieces that I had to sell them so I could make more. I just love making fabric and figuring out new technics to make new pieces.

I grew up going to our family’s summer house just outside of Stockholm. We collected our trash, separated the plastics, and bottles and when it came time to trash them, we had to bring them to the recycling center...It’s fascinating when people are raised with the awareness of nature. It’s part of the culture.

When you’re asked to do a large-scale textile installation, how do you approach it? What are some of the risks and considerations you make about material, weather and design?

The fabric installations are all site-specific. Each installation is completely different from the next. So, site visits are essential. Many of the installations are the same but seen completely different depending on the site. For instance, The Interknit 2.0 is a massive collection of second hand, handmade afghans and crochet blankets assembled together to make a fort like environment. We installed it recently at The Love Burn where we (myself, my partner James Mann, and collaborator Melodie Blaize) assembled these granny blankets inside a 20x20 tent everything was hand sewn on to the structure. This piece is ever growing and we ask our visitors to add their stitch or pom-pom into the piece to add the the World Wide Web! It’s a great metaphor that not only is cozy but the act of stitching is quite meditative. Last year we were open to the elements and it rained and got soggy but fabrics dry so it wasn’t terrible just inconvenient.

Last summer we did the same The Interknit inside a bus for Young At Arts as a traveling museum. Fabric is easy and malleable. They built a lattice structure where we could staple the fabric into. Which makes it easy to stretch and sew or staple into things. It was such a great project that traveled throughout Broward County. Young Arts hosted workshops with over 7,000 children. It made me so happy to see photos and how it came back.

Say more about how your Scandinavian influences (and heritage) influence your sustainability mission.

I grew up going to our family’s summer house just outside of Stockholm. We collected our trash, separated the plastics, and bottles and when it came time to trash them, we had to bring them to the recycling center. It’s incredible! We the consumers, would separate our own trash and put them in the appropriate area. Everything had its separate space. Light bulbs, wood, plastic bags, cans, bottles, old appliances and even an area where people could donate for others to collect. It’s fascinating when people are raised with the awareness of nature. It’s part of the culture. But also my Jewish thriftiness for repurposing things helps too! Being industrious about how to spend on materials, how to reuse and create through my own “garbage” I make so much and I don’t want to add to our waste. The tiniest pieces of threads and yarns from our finishing gets collected and we use them as stuffing for our dolls, which are made from remnant fabrics of pieces that were successfully made into garments.

If you had to choose one: What’s your favorite fiber to work with?

That’s a hard one to answer, just like my favorite color...rainbow! I know what I don’t like to use: wool or animal products. Each fiber has it’s great and not so great qualities. Bamboo is breathable and soft but delicate to wash and grows from humidity but so cozy you can sleep in it. Cotton shrinks, it’s breathable too and quite durable. Metallic make everything special. Glow in the dark has that wow factor. Tencel is 98% recycled chemicals and is quite the best eco fiber. It’s soft silky and also grows because it’s a bit slippery. Viscose is great too and we have some that’s stretchy. I can’t have a favorite; It just wouldn’t be fair for the yarn or for me. 

So many people picked up fiber crafts during the pandemic…we imagine that’s created big new audiences for the kind of instruction you give. How has the fiber world changed over the last few years, and where’s it going next?

Less is available to buy. I now have a lot of my yarns made for me, but I have to buy in larger quantities. I try to buy as much as I need so it’s a bit complicated to find distributors or producers that work in small quantities.

Share some picks from your shop for a perfect day at The Standard Spa, Miami Beach. Our guests are always on the hunt for head-turning looks.

There’s so much! But some of my faves are pictured in the article, and my shop is always updating. 

What can guests expect from your upcoming Stitch N Bitch sesh at The Spa? 

They can expect a one-on-one moment with a very patient person! What’s great about these sessions is that we end up making friends while learning something so fun and useful! It’s an old craft that has so many possibilities! Can’t wait to Stitch N Bitch back at The Standard! 

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