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Creative Process: Dylanium Knits
Dylan Uscher, one of Canada's most successful knitwear designers, owes it all to Toronto's terrible traffic

Worth. by David C. Wigley + DylaniumKnits. Photo: Dylanium Knits

It’s a cliché, but sometimes it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Not that Dylan Uscher was very happy at the time, coming back to Toronto from York Region, stuck on a bus in a traffic jam, as a trip that should’ve been one hour ended up taking three. To pass the time, his friend and travel companion pulled out her knitting needles. 

“I think she was making a scarf,” he says. Soon enough, he asked if she’d let him try. “So she taught me how to knit my first stitch.” And while he admits that it wasn’t a life changing moment (the skies didn’t open, a heavenly chorus in woolen hats and mufflers never materialized), that trip did represent the departure point from a career in linguistics, which he was studying at UofT.

Seven years later, through his company Dylanium Knits, Uscher has become one of the most successful knitwear designers in Canada, having worked with Philip Sparks, David C. Wigley, Ezra and Greta Constantine and, most recently, MAC Cosmetics. The fateful steps between being stuck on a highway and taking bows on the runway are how a career is made.

Uscher spent most of that winter break knitting. His mother and grandmother were both knitters, creating everything from baby clothes to Afghans. While he credits his family for giving advice (and admits that he probably doesn’t make anything his mother couldn’t have), he differs from his matriarchal legacy in one major respect: “They loved socks, but I don’t like knitting socks.”

“I don’t see the point of working on something for so long that’s so beautiful, that’s put inside your shoe,” he goes on. “I understand that wools socks are very warm, I understand that they’re really comfortable for being around the house, when you’re sipping tea and that kind of thing. I get it! But I’m not going to spend two weeks knitting something that goes in a shoe.”

The other early inspiration was the online social network Ravelry, a kind of facebook for knitters where professionals and hobbyists alike can swap patterns, stitching techniques and personal yarns about yarns. “They just reached two million users worldwide,” Uscher says. “It’s not a tiny, nobody sort of thing.”

After finishing his Masters, Uscher entered the questioning, transitional period that is so common among graduates it should be an official part of the degree. He was spending more and more time knitting, straddling the worlds of crafting and fashion. Although his heart remains in knitting cafes like the Purple Purl in Leslieville, it was in fashion that his career took off.

“My first client was a company called ‘Babies and Beasts’.” The company is run by Krystine May and, yes, it makes clothing for babies and dogs. “I have some really adorable pictures of dogs in my little fishermen sweaters.” Uscher’s designs were featured in her doggy runway show, and he uses that moment as an example of how one opportunity can lead to another. The show was covered by the Pet Network for their program ‘Pet Fashion TV’ (“All of these things are real!” laughs Uscher), which led to May being invited to show her designs at the annual Paws for the Cause gala.

May’s French bulldogs, some wearing Uscher’s designs, were paired up with Canadian celebrities, wearing clothes by Philip Sparks. Sparks became Uscher’s next major client two months later. The timing was perfect as Sparks was just about to open his store on Ossington. Uscher sewed a scarf for him (“We’re talking, probably seven feet long and a foot and a half wide. Gigantic scarf!”), and the sweaters the duo designed together were some of the first items sold at the shop.

That collaborative approach, in which Uscher does varying amounts of designing and creating depending on the project, continued with his later clients.

“Sometimes they know exactly what they want,” he explains, “but they don’t know how to make it. Some clients will say, ‘I want a sweater in black’ and I’ll take those notes and give them design details and applications. And then sometimes I’ll actually work with designers to develop their collections from a much more conceptual space.”

David C. Wigley and Dylan Uscher. Photo: Dylanium Knits

Recently, he’s worked on more of the conceptual level with David Wigley, who approached him to help with his menswear line. The designer wanted it to be about “life and death and rebirth.”

“It was a bit dark and a bit heavy, but it was really interesting.” The pair are in the very beginning stages of planning fall 2013.

While working with designers, he has also expanded the products that Dylanium Knits offers. This month, he will launch a line of leather crocheted gloves and rings. I ask him what’s the most difficult part of starting a business.

“Money,” he answers, without missing a beat.

He explains that it’s difficult to find the balance between turning a profit and scaring people away. Uscher thinks for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “Fashion is a business where a lot of people expect you to do things for free, for exposure or for your name in the newspaper.”

Writers can relate to this.

“Those kind of ‘do it for free because of the press’ things can be very alluring when you first start, cause there’s something really exciting about opening The National Post and seeing your name in it. But I think a lot of people try to take advantage of you when you do that. So you just have to choose really wisely. And really value your work for what it is.”  

Uscher says that he thinks he’s done well so far because there’s no one else doing exactly what he does. “I’m worried that I can’t say that for much longer, because if people see that I’m doing okay, they might also want to do what I do, and start some competition!”

His work for other companies has served him well, as the garments he made for MAC Cosmetic events were sent all over the world. Uscher loved when a fashion blogger in Kuala Lumpur became a fan of his work. While eventually he would like his own line, he recognizes that knitwear has its limitations, and that’s why he’s getting into designing accessories as well.

“I, of all people, love knits– don’t get me wrong. But you can’t wear a knit sweater, and knit pants, and a knit bra…”

But in the meantime, Uscher is just excited to be expanding his business, although he adds that if he employs a second person, “I will have to move my company out of my bachelor apartment on the Danforth, because it’s already embarrassing enough to have a contractor over and see me sewing in my bedroom!” 

____

Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_

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