How to Build a Sweater 

Thursday, Sep 15 2005
Photos by Michael PowersZen and the art of knitting? Ha! Try tense and anxious as you count out those stitches to shape a wearable garment, says knitwear designer Eugene Ong, who relaunched his expanded line Ujein — with backing from an Italian manufacturer — earlier this year. No, there’s no Zen. But there is building, construction, creating something — the fabric, the pattern, the garment — from nothing. The idea of being able to make something you can inhabit, to create spaces — which led him to get a degree in architecture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — also informs his clothing design. “Knitwear is just this freak thing. It works perfectly with an architect brain. I think of it as construction, like how can I make a sleeve out of one piece, or how can I make something out of a rectangle.”It’s the making of things — an airplane with operable wings out of regular old typing paper as a kid growing up in Glendale, or a T-shirt line with friends in high school — that fascinates Ong. And clothing offers more freedom than architecture. “It’s a more pure form of design. There aren’t any rules — only the market and the ones you set for yourself.” Ong learned to knit in Denmark, where he spent the fourth year of Cal Poly’s five-year architecture program. His host mother wanted to make him a sweater for his birthday. “A week later she said, ‘You know what, I think it’s better if I teach you how to make a sweater. It will be more valuable.’” After graduating, Ong worked as head of the model shop for a downtown architecture firm. He continued to knit on the side and started his Ujein line, mostly scarves and neck pieces. But Ong, who manages to be simultaneously animated and shy, was becoming disgruntled with architecture, particularly at the corporate level. “I didn’t think it was good design. I didn’t think I was doing a service to the community. I didn’t feel like I was really using what I had. I decided it was time to drop it.”Which he did, starting a T-shirt line — weird shirts with animals and oversize prints — that lasted two seasons. He liked making the shirts. It’s just that the public and buyers didn’t get it — too radical, not commercial enough, wrong animals, whatever the reason, a disaster.Then, last October, he took part in Showdown! at the Schindler House, where he presented a collection of men’s sweaters — he even had to walk the runway when one of his models didn’t show up. And that got him thinking about how he could do something more commercially viable but still, well, Eugene. Or Ujein. He got calls from a few stores to look at his collection, which eventually led to a showroom downtown and the Italians. His ideas seem to be working.And for those friends and family wondering when they might be getting a Ujein, you’ll have to wait. Everything goes into the line. “I don’t even own one of my sweaters.” It’s all about building.

Taylor wears a hand-knit cotton floss sweater.

Holly wears a hand-knit cotton floss skirt, halter blouse and wrap.

Holly wears a hand-knit cotton floss skirt, halter blouse and wrap.

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Holly and Taylor wear stainless-steel and viscose knit sweaters.

Ujein is available at Maxfield, 8825 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 274-8800; or ujein.com.


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