Low Down Recap: Katya Ekimian

We were so excited to welcome guest Katya Eikimian for our Low Down, September 23, 2021. Katya’s work is special because it encapsulates the relationship so many of us have with our materials and projects as we launch into a slower and more informed maker pace. A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, her studies and culminating thesis about endangered and rare wool breeds has left a permanent mark on the curriculum for future students in the form of new classes and opportunities; meanwhile, one of her recent designs walked up the iconic stairs at the Met Gala in September. 

The evening began with a discussion about the Met Gala dress from this year– Eikimian’s third garment designed for Sandra Jarva Weiss. (Weiss’s husband is Daniel Weiss, the acting CEO for the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for this annual event. For those unfamiliar, the Met Gala is the yearly fundraiser for the Met Costume Institute and coincides with the opening of the annual costume exhibit. In its early days, it was a small, intimate affair for museum donors. However, since Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour took over as the event’s chair-woman, it’s morphed into a grand spectacle with celebrity guests and outrageous costumes. Katya was only 17 when she first met Weiss, and designed the first dress for her the following year, establishing her own aesthetic on a public world stage. Though knits are an uncommon choice for couture, as her love of knitting grew, she naturally wanted to incorporate it into her creations.. 

Originally approaching her client about doing a knit wasn’t easy: Weiss was a bit hesitant about potentially wearing a sweater down the runway. Like any good knitwear designer, Katya made swatches and sketches to alleviate her concerns and illustrate the idea. This year’s dress was inspired by an art piece on show at the Met: a Tiffany vase from the 1890’s heavily adorned with flowers. Katya reimagined these flowers in a mix of American sourced and spun wools, designed to mimic hundreds of native American blooms. Each flower was individually crocheted in the time leading up to the conception of the final gown: 

“I used to make these little crocheted flowers quite often, I made my own patterns and then little alterations of it. So I actually started making the flowers weeks before I was doing the dress, because at the time it was tedious–I made about 100 flowers, I did them while watching t.v. and while thinking about the dress. I would think about how it would be made, how they would be placed; it was a good way to procrastinate making the body of the dress while still moving forward.” 

In addition to the flowers, beads drip off several portions of the dress, designed to mimic dogwood berries. The faux pearl beads were carefully selected to be light–knit fabrics are known for their stretch– to create the look with the least pull on the finished fabric. The ten panels of the dress were constructed individually, designed to be put together in the final fitting with crochet seams. Coming up with the base fabric was a process of experimentation, blending different Lurex and Metallic yarns with Catskill Merino and JaggerSpun lace weights to create a fabric light and soft, with the right density and gauge. 

Eikimian’s work is full of these small nods to crochet and knitting’s handwork roots, although she works more often with the knitting machine for speed. 

“It wasn’t until my second or third year of college that I tried machine knitting–before that, I was hand knitting, then I got really heavily into wool, and that’s when I took a machine knitting course. The background from handknitting helped me understand the way the stitches and the machine worked, and now I can make garments much faster. A lot of my work is very detail oriented and every step of the process means so much to me: the sheep, and the spinning of the yarns. I like to incorporate a lot of handwork into my pieces because it’s nice to see how the yarn performs under different technologies. I’ll add a hand trim, in crochet or knitted, it adds this little bit of funk. Machine knitting is so uniform, so I add it in, for a little fun”.

While machines offer knitters some ways to streamline their garments, the technology is not without limitations or a steep learning curve. What it does offer is the ability to try new things quickly–crucial when aiming for something completely bespoke. Katya told this story of balancing the color composition of the body fabric during our Low Down chat: 

“All the metallics used for this dress are from Made in America Yarns, a division of Huntington Yarn Mill in Philadelphia. This is a really well established, older mill, a really great company. I had ordered yarns weeks ago, before the Gala, and I needed everything right away and they only had five left on the website, so I bought them, and began the work. One of the colors, the silver just wasn’t quite right. I had everyone look at it, I took photographs of it in different lights, it kept coming out blue, and I was torn–do I just have a blue dress, or do I fix it? So I drove to Philly to get the final yarns and I brought everything with me, color matched everything by hand with their team, and they were so helpful and wonderful. I got an amazing tour, and I was able to get the right yarns: a super soft Metallic yarn, it’s available in a 3 or 4 ply, and a cone of 2 ply Lurex–I wanted to use these colors together to get a heathered effect.” 

Courtesy of Katya Ekimian
Courtesy of Katya Ekimian

Even with everything in line, the process wasn’t without doubt or worry. During our question and answer section of the event, Sloe subscriber Sarah asked about the trial and error for the final yarn’s composition–how these synthetic materials worked with the wool from Catskill Merino and JaggerSpun used for the body of the dress. The process certainly wasn’t without doubt:

“I cried so many times. Basically, Lurex yarns, laceweight yarns, are very fine. It’s a filament, a thread, and I was blending black and gold, all these colors, to make the perfect color–you do get this heathered effect that I thought was really pretty, where there’s more heathering and texture, it also adds more sparkle, because the light is catching it differently, and I wanted to play with that. I was knitting panels of the dress and I stopped and just started crying because it looked like sweatpants. I texted my friends, ‘it’s like Hanes with a high-school Prom Dress challenge’, I was crying. It was gray. In the end, though I had to pull the trigger…a dress had to be made”. 

In truth, the Met Gala poses surprises for any garment-maker: camera flashes and odd angles accompanied by bright lighting can test garments in ways the designer never imagined. 

Sweaters made from the wool makers Katya knows and loves personally (scattered throughout upstate New York and New England) is where her heart lies. Katya honors the bulk of her work in this shining moment by featuring Catskill Merino’s Saxon Merino in a laceweight. Farmer and wool producer Dominique is the successor of the farm that Eugene Wyatt made beloved to the region during his lifetime. Now, she continues to care for the sheep, outlined in Clara Parkes book’ Vanishing Fleece, appearing at wool shows like Rhinebeck and in the weekly Union Square Green Market. Both Julie and Katya had memories seeing Dominique at the booth, surrounded by swaying skeins in rainbow colors. This is where Katya and Julie both fell in love with sheepy wools, and surely where countless other knitters have done the same. Now, Katya and Dominique are old friends, thanks to Eikimian’s work with the farm on her thesis project:

“During my thesis I used her wool and we grew really close. Once you know people in that upstate NY fiber region, you all kind of get to know each other. I remember buying the yarn, and it was so much fun to work with someone you know so well. I knit a sweater with some of her yarn and sent it with a friend shooting a music video in Tokyo–I called her and said, ‘your sheep have been traveling, they’re in Japan!’ I actually forgot initially to tell her about the Met dress–80% of the dress is her yarn, and I forgot to mention it. She told me later she would have gifted it, but that’s not the point!” 

When you meet Katya it’s easy to see how her personality, passion and fervor opens barn doors: she’s earnest and eager, honest and genuinely passionate about learning more about sheep and fiber, but also the people who make them. I feel a lot of these things when doing my own work, and I know Julie is driven by a similar passion for the depth to be found in these discussions and conversations. Katya has something special about her get up and go–the ability to adjust to the unexpected–that will surely continue to set her apart. 

Courtesy of Katya Ekimian

Through her work, Eikimian has collaborated often with the Livestock Conservancy, an agricultural initiative group focused on preserving heritage breeds of all forms of livestock, with a focus on endangered and critically endangered breeds. Santa Cruz sheep are one such breed that has captured Katya’s heart, and she’s spent time of the past year working to turn it into a domestically spun yarn–no easy task when the minimum at the nearest facility (Chargeurs, South Carolina) is 2000 lbs. 

“I was living just this past spring with someone who raises Santa Cruz sheep, and he woke up one morning, he realized he had 200 sheep. It’s an endangered breed, so people were encouraging him, telling him to keep going with breeding them, but he needed to sell off some of his flock. He was in deep Pennsylvania, west of Harrisburg, so he sold them as starter flocks–he knew that because they were a niche breed, he needed to put out articles with the Amish and Mennonite newspapers, and have sheep move there,” she explained. After visiting, she knew she wanted to do something with the wool, so she’s been collecting it, with plans to transport it from Pennsylvania to South Carolina to be washed, then moved back up to be spun. There’s no way she’s shipping it, either. “I’ve been baleing it in burlap. I told the mill to be ready… I’m going to be there, you’re meeting me.”  

It’s this spirit of adventure that has driven many of Katya’s experiments, and surely endears her to the communities that host her residencies. During one such visit, she learned in-depth what it took to tan a hide the old fashioned way (grossing out hundreds of Instagram followers with a series of short videos in the process). In the end, it’s not about the followers, but the people, and the work. Katya shared her dream job with us: “I dreamt my life would be as this sort of nomadic fashion designer, and I’d go and stay on farms for however many months and make a collection, chill, cook for them.”

From the sound of it, she’s pretty close to realizing that dream. With several collaborations coming up this Fall (we’ll be sure to share them as they come out), Katya’s building a version of sustainability that feels attainable for each of us: 

“I feel like now, even especially with the pandemic you do see a big shift in what fashion seasons look like, as long as I’m not selling sweaters year round, I’ll be pretty good. Sustainability is a word without meaning to me anymore–it’s become knitting, it’s all your friends and the community and how that affects the people right next to you, the people feeding you–those farmers. That’s what sustainability looks like to me. As long as I’m doing that, I’m happy with my ethics and my carbon emissions, that’s kind of how I like to view it”.

Courtesy of Katya Ekimian

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