With a collection that details an intertwinement of cultural references and rich retellings of childhood memories, Alice Morell Evans produces a modernised vision of an old Welsh wassailing practice that embodies the very essence of community. Her work features upcycled materials found amongst the furniture of her grandparents’ home in South Wales, including a chair and a chandelier, repurposed into ornate knitwear garments that play with the sense of reminiscence for a period in time abstracted through memory. Creating intricately structured silhouettes that sustain the memory of Welsh folklore, each piece draws on the chaos embodied by the custom of the Mari Lwyd, revitalising the energy of the celebration. Now, having showcased her final collection Hen Aelwyd at Central Saint Martins' graduate show, the L’Oreal Professionel Young Talent award winner is set to continue cultivating her unique vision for the future of knitwear.
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As much of your work references your own early memories, could you begin by telling us about your beginnings, and what led you to pursue fashion?
I’ve always had a huge interest in fashion – I grew up in a creative family, and my Granny taught me how to sew, as she was a designer at Marks & Spencer’s in the sixties. I remember stitching my parent’s shirt buttons on when I was barely old enough to have a needle in my hand! Being surrounded by arts and crafts from such a young age resulted in fashion feeling like a good starting point for me to begin my studies; there was an aspect of nostalgia to it.
The main starting point for the project was when my grandparents moved from Fishguard (South Wales). They had this beautiful, eclectic home filled with oddities – it felt like a truly safe, homely house, and I realise now how unusual it was to have spent time in such a space that I can’t associate with a specific time period in my life. When I look back at the pictures, it almost didn’t feel real. When they left, all the furniture that held so many memories came with them and was held in storage, altering the landscape of these pieces. I realised that the memories of that space were more important than the space actually was – it was more creatively valuable to me to look back at what I had, and focus on the distorted memory of the home in my work.
What initially inspired the decision to work with knitwear? How did you decide that this was primarily the medium for you?
Knitwear is a very slow, craft-based medium, and I like that when knitting, you’re very aware of where your materials come from. It involves making the fabric as well as the garment, and in the process, you aren’t entirely sure how the end result will appear. I enjoy the strong connection to the materials that you’re working with, and the ability to source the fabric and its makeup. I was working a lot with Melin Tregwynt, a blanket company, as the woollen mill is near my grandparents’ old home. I used offcuts from their old blankets and repurposed their waste material to make the knitting fabric I used in my collection; I like the aspect of knowing exactly where the material had come from. The fact that I was making not only the fabric but also the pieces for the collection was a challenge, but it was worthwhile.
Other students from Central Saint Martins also assisted in the project and as a result, a sort of knitting circle was created, which revived the sense of community that I felt as a child. I feel like this community aspect of knitwear is quite different from other fashion pathways – it has a very emotive, team-building quality to it.
Your collection Hen Aelwyd explores presentations of old Welsh cultural practices, including that of Mari Lwyd, a wassailing tradition. Could you tell us what drew you to include a portrayal of such traditions in your work?
Originally, it was my grandmother’s retelling of these stories that drew me to this aspect of Welsh culture. Not many people know about these traditions, and I felt the pull to retell these stories, which prompted the desire to sustain them through narrative. I wanted to produce garments that people could move and dance in, to recreate the same sense of celebration present in wassailing traditions like Mari Lwyd. Part of this practice was the wearing of a horse skull on the head of the Mari Lywd horse, so I worked to reform the horse skull in my own sculptures, and also incorporated the patterns from such sculptures into dresses. It was a chaotic way to begin the project, but also incredibly interesting to be led by the shapes of what I was making rather than designing what I thought I wanted to see. I went in fairly blind, unsure of what the final form would be, and then refined things down.
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What influenced your decision to repurpose found materials in your designs? Were you motivated by the sustainability aspect or was this a stylistic choice?
A little bit of both – from the angle of sustainability, I wanted to be aware of the origins of my materials as much as possible, but I’m aware that unless a piece is very simply made, it’s impossible to achieve complete sustainability. Nonetheless, working with found objects felt more ethical because I was still using one-off pieces that would have otherwise gone to waste; I tried my best to repurpose everything that I was given. To do this, I used items from both of my grandparents’ homes, such as chairs – this is visible in the second look, which features chair arms coming off the shoulders. Problems did arise when incorporating such objects; the chair was becoming mouldy, and I found myself working against the natural process of decay in order to include it in the collection.
My favourite piece overall has to be the chandelier hat, because my grandad moved into a care home in the first few weeks of my final year, and my parents discovered that tucked away in a box was this tiny chandelier piece – I instantly knew I wanted it to be a part of my collection. At first, I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do with it, so that evening I made a balaclava, and the following day I had the first piece of my collection. Ultimately, I wanted to let these found materials do the talking and created garments around them rather than the other way around.
An aspect of nostalgia, through the depiction of your personal memories, features prominently in many of your designs – particularly via the incorporation of materials from your grandparents’ home. How were you able to channel this sense of reminiscence into stylistic choices?
I was drawn to the idea of reimagining the memory of a landscape rather than recreating the landscape itself, as this memory is distorted to incorporate the elements most important to the individual. In doing this, I was almost cutting the rest of the landscape back, leaving the bare bones of what I found to be most important. These key elements were married with a choice of textiles to produce pieces that were modernised while still pertaining to how I remembered, say, Grandma’s old curtains – a memory that became distorted in a way that I aimed to convey in the garments themselves.
Whilst your designs are primarily knitwear, you have also explored other materials, including crochet and leather. How do you decide which mediums to integrate into a design?
As for crochet, the idea came about whilst working with waste yarns; at the time I was having to tie short pieces together to create lengths that I could work with, so I had to adjust the process to better work with waste products. It was also inspired by work I’ve done with Bethany Williams, who I’ve worked with for nearly 5 years now. In previous collections, she wanted to patchwork lots of old pieces of knitwear together, and we found that the best way to do this was with crochet joins. The outcome was beautiful, and I decided to include a similar process in my own work.
The decision to work with leather was inspired by the Mari Lywd, which included leather harnesses and such because of the horse – it also had the effect of giving each garment a little sex appeal, preventing it from veering into being too twee. I worked with shoemakers who sold leather offcuts, which worked well alongside knitwear and also allowed me to further repurpose waste byproducts.
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Much of your artistry centres around the idea of allowing traditional customs to prevail through the creation of each piece – an example of which being your creation of funeral stockings, a take on the old Welsh practice of stockings knitted by those who were dying, to be worn to their own funerals. What drew you to this concept?
I came across the practice through research into old knitting practices, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it before, considering how connected it felt to my own roots – it was even new to my grandparents, it goes so far back. It felt like a good prompt for this collection as it’s a dying tradition that few seem to know about. I liked how much agency it brings back to knitwear, invoking a personal connection to what’s being made – something I feel needs to be talked about more in relation to sustainability in fashion; providing clothing with a narrative will allow us to love our clothes more, resulting in fewer garments being thrown out.
Funeral stockings felt like the perfect example of this. Somebody made these stockings for a purpose, envisioning it with their own agency at the same time, including personal elements such as their initials. As well as this, the fact that knitwear involves making the fabric at the same time as the clothing gives a very personal touch to the final piece.
I was drawn to the idea of making my own funeral stockings because at the time that I discovered the concept it was lockdown, and I was, therefore, unable to go to museums to see original pairs. Because there’s very little information out there on the practice, I found the best method to understand it would be to make myself a pair. It may seem like a macabre process at first glance, but at the same time, the people that would have made these pieces were far more connected to the idea of death than we are today, in the sense that death back then was a part of life. They mourned differently from the way we do now, almost as a celebration of life, which is actually a very beautiful concept. I was very proud of the end result – I had returned to a tradition that a lot of our grandparents would have practised.
Your latest collection comprises bold structural choices that play with proportions to produce abstract forms that contort the silhouette. What was the vision behind the structure of these garments?
During lockdown, my dad and I started experimenting with creating small sculptures, as he’s a sculptor and a painter himself. Moulding clay and creating various shapes inspired the decision to incorporate the horse skulls of Mari Lwyd into the garments, having them as the foundation for the work while abstracting them to the point to which it wasn’t immediately obvious what they were. I wanted to redefine what these shapes looked like while ensuring that they translated to the structure of dresses without becoming too bulky or costume-like.
To do this, I worked with corsetry and other tight-fitting garments and then worked on some larger shapes by taking small sculptures, blowing them up and putting them on the body. While making pieces with larger structures I was aware of how they would move down the catwalk. I wanted the garments to represent a sense of celebration, in keeping with the original traditions they were inspired by, so I made them move as though someone was dancing in them. The first dress included wickerwork panels which swing back and forth to allow the piece to dance as it moves – I wanted it to be fluid to walk in.
I understand that during lockdown, you began your Lost Jumper Project, in which you reproduced lost items of clothing that only survived through paintings and photographs. How did you conceptualise this idea?
My cousin came to stay with us, and we were working in the studio together, focusing on Mid Century painters such as Christopher Wood. We came across one of his paintings that included a harlequin jumper; the wearer almost looked like my cousin, who really wanted the jumper himself. It started as a joke, but it grew into an envisionment of what the artist was trying to communicate through the painting. I wanted to recreate something that matched the painting as closely as possible, even down to the fabric wobbles, so I realised it would be a great way to challenge myself to get back into knitting. I had taken on a lot of production for Bethany Williams prior to lockdown, but by this point, everything had slowed down a lot. Therefore, the process of reproducing this jumper from a painting served as the perfect starting point for what became a larger project. Afterwards, I realised that there were other jumpers I wanted to reproduce from images, such as Barbara Hepworth wearing certain pieces. I experimented with as many different knitting techniques as possible and linked back to the paintings as closely as I could, recreating many more pieces before lockdown lifted and I returned to Central Saint Martins. I’m really excited to start the project back up again in my spare time.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’m about to take on a Creative Director role at Bethany Williams, which will teach me a lot about the commercial side of fashion – I’ve had a lot of experience with freelancing, but this opportunity will allow me to learn about the business side of things. I’m dedicating the next few months to designing pieces that will work in somebody’s wardrobe, and I aim to launch my own vision – I don’t want to go completely into the digital realm; it’s important to me that I have a close connection to the pieces that I make, redefining knitwear as I go.
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