IN CONVERSATION: ANNIE LEE LARSON, PATTERN BREAKER
Annie Lee Larson, founder of ALL Knitwear wearing MYKITA LITE model KASIMIR. Photo courtesy of MYKITA.
Knitwear designer Annie Lee Larson is one of the celebrated NYC creatives photographed by Mark Borthwick for our 2021 campaign. With her direct tone and friendly willpower, Annie from a young age has always written her own destiny, growing up as a transnational Korean adoptee in rural Wisconsin. There is a significant chapter for Annie in Minneapolis, where in 2010, she established her popular knitwear brand ALL Knitwear, a line of brightly coloured patterned sweaters each made by hand on a single knitting machine, before moving to New York City in 2011. For the past decade, Annie has crafted a strong identity in New York City both with her knitwear practice and also with a clear personal look, easily identifiable in head-to-toe-black, from her long black hair to a specific model of Issey Miyake black pleated trousers to her black circular glasses.
The past year has been tumultuous yet transformative for Annie, shifting her focus from knitwear to union organizing, with teaching as a red thread connecting this new life change. In our conversation, we delve into how the historical events of the past year have changed her view of the world and allowed her to decentre herself from her own narrative by recognizing the power of teaching, learning and community organizing through her new role as the Part-Time Faculty Chair of The New School Union. (@actuaw7902)
Welcome to the new Annie Lee Larson.
You’ve gone through a transformation – from knitwear designer and artist, to teacher, to a labour union leader within Parsons’ New School. With the addition of this union job, have you viewed yourself differently? Has your identity changed?
My practice is now three-pronged. My life is making sweaters, the union and teaching; the teaching is the midway point of those two things. If I were to describe my character arc it started with the knitting, then to teaching and then the union. When I get interested in something, I tend to go hard. If I don’t have an interest, it never materializes into anything. There are three things now where there used to be the one thing. My whole identity used to be “I make sweaters”, but now with all these personal changes in the past year, I feel like it’s a new me.
The degree of intensity that you bring to your knitwear has always been impressive - you’ve created a very clear artistic language when it comes to your knits, all made by hand, and built up stitch by stitch. How did you develop this personal language and what in your upbringing in rural Wisconsin affected your decision to enter a creative field?
I should give more context: When you’re adopted you don’t have a conventional history or story that you’re responsible for; it feels hoisted upon you. As an adopted child the focus tends to be in the future: What story am I going to make for myself? That’s what you have control over, and that’s what I bring to all of the interests I have a commitment to. It’s in part because of a desire to inform my own story in a way that wasn’t possible or isn’t possible as an adopted child.
It comes from an intersection of boredom and growing up in a middle of nowhere small town. I was so bored all the time, so I had to think of things to occupy myself. But to go deeper, because I’m adopted there’s an independence that comes with it that other people might not understand.
Some people might describe it as loneliness, which I think is accurate in some sense, but it’s more than that. Being adopted, you realize from a young age that you are by yourself and you’re kind of alone in a way. And because there is a lack of ownership over your own story, you feel an urgency to choose your own adventure, and write your own prophecy. That urge is so much more present when you don’t have a family history that most other people have and take for granted.
Annie with her brother Kip in their childhood home in Wesby, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Annie Lee Larson.
This makes so much sense in terms of how self-teaching is a big part of your practice, teaching yourself and creating your own story. Did you learn how to knit classically? Like with two…sticks?
LOL the “two sticks” are called needles by the way. And no, I never learned knitting by hand first. My first knitting experience was on a knitting machine. In Minneapolis I was an assistant designer at Target and designed classic men’s sweaters, and through that I became really interested in commercial knits. On a whim I decided to buy my own machine, and I found this woman on Craigslist, who was selling her knitting machine from a basement in suburban Minneapolis for $400. I believe this was 2009. And I still love Craigslist!
Is it the same machine that you still use now?
It’s not the same; since then I’ve purchased a couple different ones, but I used it for the first few years! Then I upgraded - I bought a second and a third one, I went from the bottom of the line to the top of the line.
Photo courtesy of Knick Studios & Annie Lee Larson.
During our first studio visit, you told me that you almost regard the machine as a musical instrument. That always stuck with me. Can you speak a bit about that?
The reason why I refer to it as an instrument is because the machine and I are working together to produce the outcome, you don’t just send something to the “printer”. Yes, some of the knitting machines in a factory can make the entire sweater for you (automatically by program) but with my knitting machine it’s a give and take – you need to understand the machine. When you understand the machine, then you know that this noise or this sound means something’s wrong. You know that this noise means that the yarn is wrong, or that noise means that you have the wrong tension. You understand every noise and tic, and that only come with intimacy and time.
Then there’s also something with how the knitting machine itself looks like an instrument, how you sit behind it and address it. I used to play piano for years and considered studying it; there are a lot of kindred correlations and a tonal tie from my music background - you learn to use the entire instrument in different ways.
Photo courtesy of Annie Lee Larson.
How do you describe what you do, what your practice is? It’s not accurate and feels wrong to say you’re “the sweater lady” - do you then regard what you do closer to an art practice?
My practice has changed a lot over the years. I tend to describe what I do from the position of an artisan, not an artist. When I speak to my students, I say I’m the village bread maker or cobbler – the person who has a specialty that’s singular, focused and worked for many years to become proficient in. It’s not just about technique; the artistic output and what that is or represents. I think 'artisan' is a good area for me to occupy. I have a lot of friends who are artists, but I didn’t really feel at peace with that world or with the fashion world. I feel in-between in that way.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Spiegelman.
A few years ago, you started to teach at The New School Parsons School of Design, (or Parsons for short). What courses do you teach?
I started teaching at Parsons in 2016, so it’s my fifth year there, (although I didn’t have classes this past year because of Covid). My classic courses are Machine Knitting I and Machine Knitting II. Machine I is fun because it’s the first time most students use the machine, and to teach the first contact with machine knitting is really special to see. The more advanced class is fun in a different way because the students are more confident and proficient and can then really focus on implementing their skills on the design and getting the technicalities right.
Teaching is a very innate skill, and sometimes I think a lot of people don’t have the gene for it. How did you start to embrace teaching? Has teaching come naturally to you or is it something that you’ve learned over time?
The knitting machine is very technical, so if you don’t have someone to teach you it can be difficult to learn. I had a person who taught a few things, and after that, everything was self-taught by trial and error. The woman who sold me my first knitting machine in 2009 gave me one lesson and was like come over for thirty minutes. She taught me how to cast on and how to put yarn on the machine, how to get a complete row of stitches, how to make baby socks. She would take my phone calls when I’d call with questions and was a great resource at the start.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Spiegelman & Annie Lee Larson.
In the beginning of my career, I wasn’t interested in teaching. I didn’t start teaching until six years into my practice and my label. To be honest, the reason why I never considered teaching before is because first, I felt unqualified; and second, it was an identity thing. It’s just really hard to share your knowledge when you’re a young designer trying to create a distinct look.
Early on I didn’t understand how powerful it can be to share your knowledge with people — that sharing knowledge is not a threat, or it’s not giving away your secrets — but I had that fear. And for that reason, I was really cagey about everything. It was Don’t ask me where I get my yarn, or Don’t ask me about my machine, or Don’t ask me anything! I did not make myself available.
I was definitely a 'No person' and then became a 'Yes person' from teaching others. When I started teaching, I became more confident in my practice and in myself because I was learning so much simultaneously. It made me realize how much better it felt to not be closed off and “no, no, no,” all the time, but instead to be like, “Yes I will tell you that, and yes I will give you that information, yes send me pictures of your project”. It was a major mental shift for me, removing myself from the centre of my world. The experience of teaching has been honestly life changing and wonderful. Now I feel like I couldn't go back to only knitting.
And from teaching to the labour union… Can you tell us more about The New School Union position you ran for, and won this past year? I know it is a very different position from your day job of being a knitwear designer, and it would be interesting to hear more about the job itself and then what motivated this change?
In November 2020 I ran for the Unit Chair for the Part-Time Faculty Union at The New School. I ran for a position I’d never held against a 15-year incumbent, and I won. I’ve been making sweaters as part of my label since 2010 and that was my whole identity until I started teaching in 2016 part-time at The New School. I was able to balance those two things well before, but over the past year, specifically last summer with national protests against police brutality, there was a heightened awareness of social racial justice, and inequality that led me to be more involved in my part-time faculty union and The New School.
I was not involved in the union prior to last year, but in the face of the global pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to advocate for our worker’s rights. It was a convergence of the global health crisis, racial uprising, a general insecurity among all groups of people. It became more and more difficult to take my studio practice seriously. For the first time in ten years, I didn’t have a desire to design anything. I just couldn’t do it.
My job now is to represent 1,600 – 2,000 part-time faculty members, which makes up 85% of the entire faculty. When I first heard that statistic, it was a turning point for me. My main objective is to make sure the university abides by our contract and to advocate for workers’ rights and to protect the artists and designers who give Parsons and The New School the reputation that it has. This is a school that prides itself on social justice and has a rich history of social justice and independent thinking and it needs its part-time faculty. There’s a lot of work to be done but we tell other members all the time, “We’re in the majority, we have power”.
What have you been seeing and learning since November?
My whole life is labour organizing now, so the books I read are about labour organizing and effective strategies to connect with people, and how to win power at the bargaining table. It’s a lot of learning about organizing via research and then putting it into daily practice.
I have also learned a lot about teaching. I’m not teaching at The New School right now, but in the past year during lockdown, I’ve started teaching private lessons through my own studio. I was like OK, I need to make money because no one is going to buy sweaters right now. The private lessons made me realize how important teaching is to me, and that connection is actually what I really care about, even more than design. There has been a lot of soul searching and a lot of reflection. I live alone and have a lot of time to reflect and sit with my thoughts. I feel like in some way I have a clearer picture of who I am and a clearer picture of what I care about after this last year.
You were shot by Mark Borthwick for the MYKITA 2021 campaign highlighting New York City’s unique characters and you got to choose a pair of MYKITA frames. I know you usually walk into a store and know exactly what you want, but what was your experience of choosing your own frames? Did a pair of frames call out to you?
I mean I was in crisis mode trying to decide, and I’m not an indecisive person. On the shoot I picked out a pair of frames, I placed my order, and I gave my prescription. But then a week later, I called Tiffany, the New York City store manager, and said, “I changed my mind, I don’t actually think I want those”.
I went back and I got the frames that were most like my old frames. I’ve been wearing contacts for the last three years, but to anyone who has known me for a while, they know that I used to wear these black circular frames that people would say, “That’s your look”. That was my look for many, many years. I enjoyed the shoot so much. It was low key and fun, and I found myself surprised by the options that I tried on. It felt like My mind is expanding but then maybe that was fake because in the end, I picked the ones that were most similar, LOL. I’m so happy with them, I wear them frequently and I know that I made the right decision.
I know you are a big reader, and earlier you said you only read about labour organizing… but like, ONLY? What’s on your reading list right now?
I’ve actually been reading a lot of science fiction lately. Last summer I started reading Octavia Butler, and it changed my life. I had never been into science fiction. It never sparked my interest, but I was completely taken when I started reading Octavia, it's exquisite writing. Then it opened the door to other science fiction. Now I’m reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. I’m specifically interested in sci-fi from the female perspective. I can’t only read nonfiction, like I must read fiction. It’s a form of escape and it’s a true pleasure.
Thank you so much for your time, Annie.
No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilder Age — Jane McAlevey
Requisite reading for any organizer on building real, collective power in the labor movement.
We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice — Mariame Kaba
This collection of essays and interviews is next up on my list. Mariame is an organizer and educator focusing on abolition and transformative justice and an essential voice on Black liberation.
1996 — Matt Keegan
This is a brilliant collection of interviews, commissioned writing, and curated archival images focusing on how political ideology changes by my dear friend, Matt Keegan. I have barely scratched the surface on this book, but I do intend to read every page.
The Story of the Lost Child — Elena Ferrante
I finally read this over the holidays. It's the fourth book in the Neapolitan Quartet, which I love, with an appropriately brutal finale!
Kafka on the Shore — Haruki Murakami
Another holiday read. I love Murakami. He writes totally fantastic fiction — a true escape.
The Fifth Season — N.K. Jemisin
About halfway through this, the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy and my first time reading Jemisin. It delivers!
Dawn — Octavia E. Butler
I spent most of the last year reading O.E.B. books and will savor the remaining few. I don't have anything original to say about her books, just that they are incredible and they changed me.
Pachinko — Min Jin Lee
I can't wait to read this, everyone says it's incredible! Despite being Korean, I haven't read many books about Korea or by Korean authors.