Reinventing knitwear: an interview with womenswear label PH5
Over the years, designers and manufacturers have introduced new and inventive production methods that have changed the fashion industry. When one discusses the future of manufacturing, they often think of speedy production times, fast customization and innovative methods like 3D printing. Though many changes have come, production methods for categories like knitwear have remained the same due to traditional manufacturing. Wei Lin and Mijia Zhang of PH5 are changing the way consumers experience knitwear, with garments that boast innovative production techniques that are considered impossible even today.
Founded in 2013, PH5 is a special brand made possible by Wei’s vast knowledge of knitwear (Wei’s family runs a factory in China) and Mijia’s forward-thinking designs that earned her the Kering Empowering Imagination Award and made her an invaluable designer at Nike and Christopher Kane. Today, the New York City-based womenswear label is available in 20 global boutiques in the US, Canada and Singapore.
PH5 recently took part in the Woolmark US Prize regional and invented a new fabric that the founders consider their “secret weapon.” We spoke with Wei and Mijia about the Woolmark competition, that new fabric and their unique production methods.
Fashion Network: First I want to say congratulations on being a part of the Woolmark US Prize regional. How did you approach the competition and what did you learn?
Wei Lin: We approached the Woolmark competition thinking that we will be very colorful and very playful so we chose to do a summer collection.
We entered the competition thinking, “Who knows more about merino wool than us?” But as we went through the process, we discovered interesting facts about merino wool that we didn’t know. For example, merino wool is like human hair. It’s an animal fiber and is like human hair in how it has UV protection. Human hair protects your head and your skull from sunburns.
FN: What inspired the look that you created for Woolmark?
Mijia Zhang: The inspiration is ‘artificial flowers.’ When we say ‘artificial flower,’ we don't mean fake or man-made. Artificial means someone taking nature and making an artistic arrangement.
We looked at Mark Quinn paintings for inspiration. Quinn would go to a flower market in London and buy different flowers and fruits to arrange them in the way that he thinks is artistically predictable. Then he would take pictures of them. He plays with the boundary between what is organic beauty and commercial beauty. Art is his own reflection, and we bring up this question as fashion designers. We also balance design with what drives us and what drives the customer to wear our clothes.
WL: We also thought, let’s create a look that is special and unique, but is also commercial. That was to our point of artificial flowers and the balance between organic beauty and commercial beauty. Commercial beauty is also beautiful in its own way, and we thought that sheer yarn was our winning formula because it’s so cutting edge.
FN: Wool is commonly considered to be a cold-weather fabric. How did you transform the fabric for the look?
WL: With PH5, we aim to challenge people’s conventional view on knitwear and inspire people to completely rethink knitwear. That knitwear is more than just a winter fabric, more than chunky, oversized sweaters. Knitwear should be lightweight, it should be breathable, it should be colorful, and it should be young and fashion-forward.
We were probably one of three Woolmark Prize finalists out of the 65 global finalists that are knitwear focused and produced a summer collection.
FN: Let’s discuss sheer yarn. How did you make the fabric possible?
WL: We talked to as many people that we know in the industry around the world; I counted around 17 yarn vendors that we talked to. We asked them if they had anything that is transparent or sheer, and their answer was no. Synthetic yarn is also not allowed for the Woolmark competition, so we had to create our own version of sheer merino wool.
Merino wool is like human hair, and you can dye your hair whatever you want but you can’t make it transparent or bleach it until it’s transparent. That was the hard part. Since we have a factory behind us, we had access to yarn mills and relationships with mills outside of Woolmark to be experimental with. We spent 3 months going to the mill trying to figure out this crazy formula.
We had a very high requirement of the merino wool that we selected. It had to be the best in class in terms of very thin and very strong. We picked the finest one and we blended it with 40% nylon to help it keep shape.
FN: The fabric almost sounds impossible to produce. How did you find the formula?
WL: We have no idea in terms of exactly the formula that our mill put into it, but it has something to do with the twisting the yarn and adding that special nylon that allows it to be sheer.
For the competition, our look had to be 80% merino wool from head-to-toe. We used 100% merino wool for everything else, so we were able to use this transparent yarn of 40% nylon and 60% ultra fine merino wool.
We had to create this new yarn. Our brand produces very technical knitwear and we needed a very strong and very fine fabric.
FN: Did the factory make sheer yarn by hand?
WL: Today’s modern factories are staffed with technicians and engineers with computerized knitting machines that are 24 hours. It’s really high-tech. My family’s factory has more machines than people.
Production on all of our pieces begin with Mijia and I picking a yarn with the color that we want and then picking combinations of yarns and colors. We put our thought into everything that you see, every fabric and every stitch. It’s original. It’s not something you can buy in the market, which also makes us very unique because it’s hard to copy.
MZ: It’s in our nature to do something that’s very technical. Knitwear is very conceptual. If you’re sourcing fabrics as a woven designer, you see a fabric hanging and you know how it looks, but for us, we have to touch the yarn and get an idea from one single thread.
I describe to my technician what I want, he will try different sample swatches, and we would determine the fabric that we’re going to use. Once we have the fabric stitch, we design the silhouette around it and we type in the program about the measurements within the stitch.
We work on a computer with coding and the machine knits exactly what we typed in the code. There’s less waste too. If you buy the fabric you have to cut out the neck, armholes and collar shape, and then knit and use the knit machine to link everything together.
WL: Knitwear has been a safe category and a traditional category for a reason. A designer’s mind functions differently than a technician’s mind, and that’s the beauty of working with the factory.
Mijia wanted to a knit made by a needle punching 7 different colors onto one sweater and it was a battle, which led to her hand needle punching the first prototype herself.
It’s a team effort for sure. I’ve said in the past that PH5 is not two people creating everything. We’re really standing on top of a giant foundation of teams and a development house that all make things into reality.
MZ: Not to mention that we have lunch together often and we have ice cream in the summer, so we’ve become great friends.
FN: Have you tested sheer wool or produced more garments with the new yarn?
MZ: We’ve tested sheer wool by washing it to make sure we have the right care method. Our team typically tests the garments to ensure that they fit many different body types. We want to make sure that you look good when you put on our clothes.
Wool absorbs sweat and lets out the heat much faster than a synthetic and it has UV protection, but you will feel more comfortable in sheer wool compared to synthetic. There’s so much potential.
WL: After we created sheer wool, we had less than a month to finish our look for Woolmark. We didn’t have much time to expand on our ideas, but it is our yarn and it has opened so many doors. There are so many more possibilities. It’s something that we can talk about and keep pushing new ideas around.
FN: So many hands touch each knit and so many minds work on each knit. Do you feel think that type of method can coexist with handmade production?
WL: Handmade goods have beauty. We should celebrate handmade, but I think there are enough brands that celebrate handmade and not enough brands that celebrate innovation and technology.
MZ: And our products still require human intelligence, because we may not be directly creating products by hand but we require brain power to figure out the coding.
WL: Exactly. Engineers can’t work long hours because their brains will fry. It’s too technical.
MZ: It’s nothing like making an iPhone. We have technicians figuring out how we can we make our knits and then typing and testing. I believe our production method is a celebration of human intelligence but with different tools. Other people buy needles.
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