There is no room for traditional notions of the knitted garment in Alana Clifton-Cunningham’s designs. No cowl-neck jumpers, no nods to nanna’s cardigan patterns. Instead, many of her “body pieces” incorporate laser cut timber veneer and leather, and her designs bring a sleekness and sexiness to this otherwise very traditional art.
Intrigued by the tactile nature of wool, Clifton-Cunningham, a professional designer who lecturers at UTS, uses a traditional domestic knitting machine and creates her garments by draping her creations over a mannequin and tucking, folding and moulding as she goes.
“I’m really attracted to knitting because I’m intrigued that it is fashion but it’s also textiles – it crosses between the two,” says Clifton-Cunningham, who is part of a retrospective exhibition now on at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney called Making It: 20 years of Student Fashion.
“My work is anti-fashion. It’s not set in a time, doesn’t conform to a trend forecast. They are stand-alone, concept-driven pieces – not ‘sweaters’, not ‘jewellery’,” she says. “Neither are they gender specific.”
Supporting Australian farmers using 100 per cent local wool in her artworks, in some pieces Clifton-Cunningham also weaves in materials such as semi-precious stones, fishing line and leather. “The soft wool juxtaposed with these materials challenges the whole perception of what materials you can knit with,” she says.
Over the past decade she’s most often displayed her work in local and overseas galleries rather than on catwalks. Her pieces are sometimes hung from the ceiling in a disembodied form, so visitors can walk around or stand under them, admiring the work from all angles.
And Clifton-Cunningham insists people be allowed to touch her work. “I hate going to an exhibition where it’s all ‘look don’t touch’,” she says. “I always want to feel the fabric. I’ve made alarms go off in some galleries by doing the wrong thing.”
So she always has “touch pieces” – samples of her knitted work, made of exactly the same material as the displayed item, for the public to feel and marvel at.
“Exhibiting my work is very important to me,” she says. “I want to see people’s reaction. I want them to figure out what it’s made of, how it sits on the body. I want them to interact with the piece.”
Part of her artistic inspiration comes from historical dress over the centuries, when people wore separate, removable sleeves, cuffs, collars, pockets and “stomachers” – decorated triangular fabric panels attached to the front of a bodice or gown.
“It actually was about sustainable fashion because you could take these pieces off and they were interchangeable with other outfits,” Clifton-Cunningham says.
She’s also studied African body scarification – where skin is cut deliberately scarred to form body art – and this echoes in her work too.
Growing up with a mother who was “very crafty” and a grandmother who loved to knit, doing visual art and textile design in high school was second nature to the young Clifton-Cunningham.
Now, one of her favourite aspects is teaching students how to drape and manipulate fabric on a mannequin. “It takes them on such a different journey; they can scrunch the fabric up, pull it and twist it. It loosens students up and stretches them, instead of just designing flat on paper,” she says. “They make very different designs.”
'Making it: 20 years of Student Fashion' is the latest exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, open every day until October, 10am – 5pm, 500 Harris St, Ultimo.