by Sarah Anderson • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
In the heart of Heartside Neighborhood in downtown Grand Rapids, you’ll find an unassuming live/work space, branded with the words “KNITit” on a decal plastered on the front window. By walking past it, you might never guess that this modest space houses global innovators who are changing the world of 3-D knitting, one stitch at a time.
Chief Knit Picker Liz Hilton, along with Knit Architect Tracey Weisman and Resident Knit Wit Alexis Troxell, works diligently to transform dreams into realities for companies or individuals in need of a 3-D knitting maven to research and develop their revolutionary ideas into viable products.
What is 3-D knitting? Humans have been creating garments by way of knitting for thousands of years; the earliest evidence of knitwear lies in a pair of knitted socks dating back to 11th century Egypt. Developed in Japan in the ’90s, 3-D knitting utilizes state-of-the-art machines to take digital designs and transform them into a single piece of clothing.
Typically, a commitment to research and development means forming an agreement to produce a certain amount of product. KNITit is unique because it completes work without requiring companies to mass produce a product.
“KNITit can do development and if the company likes it, they can go into production,” Hilton explained. “KNITit isn’t asking to own the intellectual properties. Bigger companies that don’t want to mess around with that pay us a fee for development but then at the end of the development period, I hand over the program and it belongs to them. Sometimes startups that are more flexible will work with KNITit in a different way, where KNITit can own the intellectual property and we work at a reduced cost.”
Though KNITit is housed in Grand Rapids, their reach is worldwide. The company fulfills requests from the UK, Japan and Germany; however, many of these projects are still at the beginning stages of development and remain top secret.
“It could take years for what we are working on now to see the light of day,” Hilton disclosed.
In her 5X5 Night award-winning presentation, Hilton expounded that “KNITit can reinvent products that exist and create products that do not yet exist.”
Though most products are on lock-down, some have made it out into the open. As an adjunct instructor at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Hilton led a class that showcased their functional reflective garments at Lunafest 2016. Hilton is currently working on a line of seamless reflective wear for reflective company Personal Habitat. The gear is made of highly reflective thread, ensuring the safety of outdoor adventurers and jogging enthusiasts by amping their visibility for oncoming traffic when the sun goes down.
Innovatively using three 3-D knitting machines imported from Germany and Japan, Hilton and her team are also experimenting internally with sport design, shoes, wearable technology and consumer electronics. One project Hilton is particularly proud of is a dress she created for the Elevate: DisArt Fashion Show for ArtPrize 2016. The dress was originally made for a friend who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. With the use of the knitting machines, Hilton was able to stitch together a compression top, something that is therapeutic to many with cerebral palsy, and a skirt with a hem, which could easily accommodate wearable technology that sounds off an alert when her friend gets too close to bumping into anything.
Hilton hopes her work is able to bring therapeutic compression garments for children with cerebral palsy to the mainstream.
She also hopes to make waves in the medical community with lymphedema compression socks, as well as other healthcare industries that are outside the realm of compression.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel,” she added. “This technology has been used for a long time. I’m just using it for a new purpose.”
With worldwide influence and an increasing demand for this kind of research, Hilton could take her operation anywhere, but she insists on staying put on Division Avenue in Grand Rapids.
“I’m sticking it out on Division because I really believe in this neighborhood and I believe in it coming around–I’m romantic for Grand Rapids,” she admitted. “It was the first time I was able to afford living on my own without a roommate and the first time I was able to work on technical textiles instead of fashion stuff. Grand Rapids has just been really, really good for me.”
Hilton dreams of expanding her space for retail purposes.
“To have a consumer step into a shop that isn’t just a shop–it’s an innovation center and a manufacturing facility rolled into one–I think that’s the future,” Hilton said. “It’s where mass customization really starts. I think it would be really interesting to have that in a studio retail setting.”
Hilton is always eager to explore fresh ideas that could expand her business.
“We are going to LA next week to look at manufacturers to scale up products we develop here,” Hilton shared. “We are also considering some in the UK and Grand Rapids. We plan on scaling up production first, but if the opportunity presents itself I would love to get into manufacturing, but that’s not something I see in the next five years but probably 10 years from now.”
A passion for technical knitting and innovation serve as the driving forces behind her business, but what keeps Hilton actively loving what she does is the pursuit of knowledge and the greater impact her work has on the lives of others.
“[I love] being able to create something from nothing and have that product have a function that goes beyond an aesthetic purpose. We’ve poured a lot of our energies into creating garments for the DisArt fashion show and healthcare industries. Those are products that directly benefit people’s health and wellness. That’s a huge part of why I do what I do and also how I’ve attracted employees who have similar visions of wanting to help people.”
Hilton hopes to be involved with DisArt for ArtPrize 2017 and open KNITit’s doors to the public to introduce Personal Habitat’s KNITit made reflective wear.
Learn more about KNITit at knitit.co (not com).
Sarah shuffles between editorial support, content production and advertising at WLM. She loves her job so much, and isn’t just saying that to impress her boss.