Danielle Chiel’s website somewhat poetically describes the product showcased there as “Heaven in a hand knit.” Click on The Shop and eight beautifully curated knits pop up. Classic crew sweaters, collared capes, cropped cardigans and a cable-knit scarf in a palette of cream beckon the browsing shopper to select their style, then choose their desired colour. But it’s not until you click on the Artisan Knitters tab that it becomes apparent how truly heavenly these designs are.
On a page filled with smiling faces, Chiel introduces the Indian women knitters from the rural village of Edayanchavadi, in Tamil Nadu, that make her knitwear possible. The women are all immaculately dressed in colourful saris. Many of them are wives and mothers, and all of them have come together to learn skills, make an income and ensure a stable future for their families.
The women are part of the specialised hand-knitting apprenticeship that Chiel set up three years ago specialising in hand-knits. After searching the world to find an appropriate place to produce her unique product, the Woollahra-based designer settled on a developing area of India. There, she has since established a strong and sustainable practice that benefits all involved.
“I teach the women to read English, to knit, and to do flawless finishing,” says Chiel. It’s the finish, she explains, that hasn’t previously been emphasised; in addition, of course, to knitting of a very high standard. “After the course, the women have a choice to work with me or not. Initially they are paid an apprenticeship; then, once experienced, they are paid a full-time wage.”
Chiel started out with a dream to have her handmade knitwear on the catwalks of the world and compares the refined craft to that of the haute couture seamstresses toiling in the ateliers of Paris. “I call it high-end hand knitting,” she explains. “The biggest fascination for everybody is how the knits are made. The thing that sets the brand apart is that the product is entirely handmade and hand-knitted.”
For her latest collection, Chiel has worked with Gostwyck Merino, a wool fibre grown on a sixth generation property founded in 1834 on the New England Tablelands of New South Wales. The farm implements sustainable grazing practices that benefit the environment, aims to improve ecology and champions the welfare and health of its sheep. Before Chiel came along, the superfine 16-micron Merino wool produced there was only used for machine knitting, but a yarn was quickly developed that suited her requirements.
Chiel retails her Woolmark-certified garments for between AU$500 and AU$1000 each, all the while building her company’s profile in order to outsource its services to other high-end brands looking to include a hand-knitted garment in their collections. More business means more work for the women in India, and a workforce that continues to grow under Chiel’s careful tutelage. In addition to travelling to Southern India every six to eight weeks and working closely with the local women for six to ten days at a time, Chiel has written incredibly detailed training manuals mapping out the specific step by step process to ensure a uniform end result.
Despite the impeccably accurate and uniform handwork, each knit is nevertheless unique, and each comes with an individual registration number that unlocks information as to its origin. “We can maintain it, tell you who knitted it and anything else about the garment that you’d like to know”, says Chiel. She is clearly proud of the journey each piece takes, from the Merino farm in Australia to the spinning mill in China, to her knitters in India and, eventually, to customers around the world.
In January of this year, Chiel featured her superfine Merino wool collection on the runway in Hong Kong, cementing the business’s status as a truly global brand. But her plans don’t stop there. “It just keeps getting larger and larger,” says Chiel. “The ladies I work with are wonderful women and, truth be known, I just want to employ as many of them as possible.”
See more of Danielle Chiel’s knitwear at daniellechiel.com