Knitwear Designer Pearl Munhawa: The Challenges Facing Graduate Talent

Knitting runs in my family. When I knit, I feel closer to them in some way and I feel like I make them proud by following in their footsteps. I love creating a fabric from scratch and watching it grow on the machines and come to life.”

Pearl Munhawa

Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa.
Studying her BA in Fashion Knitwear and Knitted Textile Design at Nottingham Trent University, Pearl Munhawa showed her graduate collection during Graduate Fashion Week. It was the concept of creating a fabric from scratch that really caught Pearl’s imagination before choosing to study knitwear, and her drive from this point onwards earned her First Class Honours when she graduated in Summer 2018. Authenticity is important to Pearl as she embraces her personal narrative within her collections, describing her identity as a designer, “I feel I have created my best work when I have allowed myself to truly embrace my heritage. Being born in Africa but having been raised in the UK has given me juxtaposing environments to call home.” Structures, bridges, buildings and geometric forms in her surroundings all informed her patterns for the collection whilst “celebrating the vibrancy and organic lifestyle of Africa”. Pearl combined this with modernity found in architecture to create a gender-less collection.
Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa.
“I had a lot of hand me downs when I was younger and once we were in the UK, we would send clothing we didn’t wear or fit anymore back to Zimbabwe for members of our extended family. I wanted to pay homage to this in some way.” The silhouettes of Pearl’s collection took form from her observations of people on a trip to Africa. The colours and human interactions in their environments informed the ‘multi-way’ format of her garments, creating longevity and allowing a deeper connection with clothing as consumers can personalise it. Jumpers can be worn as trousers- garments can be worn and styled in multiple ways.
Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa.
Pearl was thrilled to receive yarn sponsorship for her collection from Novetex. Primarily using 100% Merino, she combined this with cotton/merino mixes to achieve a comfortable yet luxurious fabric handle. To add textural contrasts, she used a Lilliput cording machine to adapt her yarns to chunkier weights. Colour was applied with confidence, defining her patterns with crisp contrasts, “While travelling in Zimbabwe, we drove past a roadside market which had so much going on! There were various pieces of colourful clothing and fabrics hung and draped around the wooden structures. I took photos which formed my initial colour inspiration. I wanted my final colour palette to be refined and to not be composed of colours people would necessarily associate with African prints or patterns. I wanted to achieve freshness.” Pearl’s technical accomplishments within the collection are to be admired, showcasing a whole spectrum of her skillset. Her colour block ribs and mock ribs were knitted on 7,8 and 10gg Dubied machines, whilst her colour work stitches were created on Stoll and Shima Seiki machines. Combining hand machine with digital machine methods, Pearl achieved handcrafted results alongside geometric, 5 colour patterned fabrics. She dedicated workshop hours to developing complex colour work pieces on the domestic machines, creating intarsia and lace fabrics to build her knitted fabric collection, as well as hand knit pieces.
Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa. Photographer | Sophie Dionne Pyke.
As part of her BA, Pearl had a year of industry experience. During this time, she interned at Tommy Hilfiger in Amsterdam and an independent knitwear design studio in Antwerp run by Hilde Frunt and IIia Eckardt. She utilised her vast domestic machine knit knowledge and CAD skills, participating in the design processes from concepts to launch. Pearl enjoys working on illustrations, drawings and CAD work, naming these as some of her unique strengths within the design process. Working with colour is another confident area for her, that comes intuitively particularly in using colour as a tool to create patterns. As a knitwear designer she finds joy in seeing her paper designs become 3D during her making process and solving problems along the way.
Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa. Photographer | Simon Armstrong.
Pearl aspires to work for brands who value authenticity and push boundaries- brands who value and practice equality and representation in all sectors. Market level is not necessarily a motivator for Pearl, as her openness to learning more in a variety of design contexts is her driving force.
Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa. Photographer | Simon Armstrong.
I took part in Graduate Fashion Week with my university. It was a very stressful time with tight deadlines, but ultimately I’m very proud of being selected. This was a dream I had from the first day I started my course, and I never thought I would achieve it. Seeing my work on the GFW runway gave me hope that I could really have a future in this industry. The end goal of starting my own brand is a scary one, but one I have always looked forward to. I want to be able to freely create what I love and share my creations with the world.”
Photo credit: Pearl Munhawa. Photographer | Simon Armstrong.
Since graduating, Pearl like so many talented graduates has been unable to secure a graduate position. She was applying to jobs throughout her final year at university in a bid to be more prepared, and her series of applications from which she received no response hit her confidence. Graduates spend hours filling out applications and sending over years worth of valued work in digital portfolios, only to so often be ignored (and worry their ideas may have been copied in the process). This leads to lack of motivation, attacks self-confidence and negatively impacts the mental health of these hard working, enthusiastic new minds. These feelings are sadly familiar to many graduates. Based in Leeds, Pearl is unable to commute to London, and without the guarantee of a permanent position, moving to London is not a risk she has been able to take financially. But this is where so many unpaid ‘opportunities’ are located. Perhaps unpaid roles are justified through a belief that interns are ‘there to learn’ and they are ‘being done a favour’. It is notable though that many brands take on over qualified graduates as unpaid interns  – and have them working on design tasks, which carry a weight of responsibility, and demand high skill levels without paying them. Brands want the skills and ideas of graduates, but so often aren’t prepared to pay for them. This is not a sustainable way of business – nor is it a fair one. Keep an eye out during the graduate shows this summer and ask if your company could provide an opportunity for a talented graduate. Incorporate their minds into your teams, and provide challenges from which they can continue to learn and contribute ideas. Take a chance on graduates. To underestimate and devalue their contributions is to miss out on an exciting opportunity for progression.
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Beth Ranson is a knitwear designer, textile researcher and lecturer in Textiles. As a skilled knitter, she designs and produces fabrics for a variety of design contexts. Motivated by problem solving in sustainable design contexts, Beth occupies the space between knitted textile design and sustainability theory: an interesting space to be. With a strong focus on the preservation of creativity in design, Beth believes that sustainability need not be perceived as a limitation in design. Inspired by her on going research into what ‘sustainable practice’ can mean, Beth takes note of academic theories within the realms of aspirational goals and applies this to the actual making process, working from ‘the bottom up’. She intervenes in current systems for textile product life cycles and seeks to inspire and facilitate educated and responsible change.