Meet Areez Katki, the man behind New Zealand's most coveted knitwear

Slow hands

He was taught to knit at the age of seven by his grandmother. Nowadays, it might take Areez Katki four weeks to create one of his sought-after wool garments all by himself – and his fanatical followers are happy to pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of owning one.

“I personally don’t count myself as a designer,” says Areez Katki, “because that would mean I design pieces and have them made by other people, which does happen on the rare occasion. I’m a textile practitioner.” No factory floor here: Katki is the sole creator of handcrafted knitwear with a loyal following of wool-loving fanatics, people who are prepared to drop around $700 on a jersey that’s taken anywhere from two to four weeks for Katki to hand-knit all by himself. He uses perfectly imperfect hand-spun wool from far-flung corners of the globe – including Turkey and the Middle East – and closer to home in Canterbury. He likens his creations to art.

His winter collection, mostly sold out now, features painterly, watercolour-like blocks knitted into pleasingly chunky wool jumpers, and elegant cross-over tops and tunics in hand-dyed saffron yellow, brick and moss-coloured wool. “I have customers who have collected a piece from every season,” he says. “It’s almost like they’re collectors. Knowing that a garment that you put so much love into goes to a home where people appreciate it is key for me.”

“So much love” is almost an understatement. He works everywhere – at home, on park benches, at dinner parties or on the beach. But he creates mostly in his workroom, a classroom-turned-studio in an old Montessori school in Parnell, where a cluster of young designers and makers such as Maeve Woodhouse, Jason Lingard and Rachel Mills work nearby. Inside Katki’s workroom, there are piles of yarn, thread and textiles dotted everywhere, including the rustic Cantabrian wool that features in his winter knits. This wool was spun for him by Napier-based spinners, who laboriously hand-spin it using an old spinning wheel. It then gets dyed in small batches with the help of his friend Yun Do, a dyer and machinist.

It’s a long process from raw material to finished product, but that’s where Katki derives the most satisfaction. “For me it’s the slow process of very meditatively producing something that has a lot more depth to it, which should hopefully introduce some kind of change to the way people consume clothes,” he says. “I’ve been distancing myself from seasonality, fashion and turnover. I still have pieces from last winter that I treasure, as should anyone who purchases them.”

Katki is a synesthete, which means he associates colours with other experiences such as taste, movement, sight or sound. Translating this sensitivity into textiles sometimes feels like a full-time job. “It’s ever-consuming, but joyfully so,” he says. He has been producing knitwear collections – which usually consist of 30 to 40 garments – for the past eight years, but this winter saw him produce just 20 as he focussed his attention less on garments, and more on pure creative expression.

He recently created his biggest piece of art to date: a five-metre-long embroidered silk panel that took him five months. It was made especially for the Vanished Delft show at Pah Homestead, curated by Anna Miles to celebrate the Arts & Crafts movement and the applied arts. Made from silk noil, the embroidery is a synesthetic response to the French composer Maurice Ravel’s score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloe. Katki says layers of contextualisation are there among the abstraction, including notes embroidered in grey thread and Roman numerals that correspond to the pages of the composition.

Katki also has a large-scale piece on show at Gus Fisher Gallery as part of the Marabar Caves exhibition, this time in response to a piece of literature. These fine-art creations don’t signal an abandonment of the fans of his wearable works, as the two strands of his output are interconnected. Many of the watercolours he paints for fun hang on the walls in his workroom, one of which provided the inspiration for his winter collection. “I have books and books of watercolours,” he says. “It’s something that I do to remind myself that what I do is an art practice and not fast fashion. It’s got this depth behind it that I hope to one day have recognised.” 

Katki hopes his pieces might inspire people to consume clothes less rapidly, buying once and buying well. It’s an ethos that his parents, both accountants, sometimes have trouble grasping. “They think what I do is a bit strange and whimsical,” he says. “For that generation, the quantification of success is recognition and acknowledgement. For me, I quantify success from inner happiness, from creating something beautiful that you know you didn’t compromise in any way to create.”

Katki is Persian, but spent the first seven months of his life in India, where his grandmother lived at the time of his birth. “It was a cultural thing,” he explains, “leaving a baby with the grandmother.” He was reunited with his family in Muscat, Oman and they spent a brief period in Dubai and London before settling in Howick when he was 11. Grandma, who he’s incredibly close with, lives at the family home. It was she who taught him to knit at seven years old. “My gran has always been a really nurturing matriarch for me. Respecting this matriarchy is how I progressed towards knitting, garment making, embroidery and painting, and because she came from a family of craftspeople. They were jewellers, woodworkers, stained glass makers.”

Katki wanted to make his mark in this long line of artisans and initially decided to study fashion. “But I found it limiting to me creatively and intellectually, so I ended up studying art history, English and philosophy at the University of Auckland.” It was here that the sweaters he knitted for himself first got him attention from friends, and eventually led to an introduction to Kristine Crabb at Miss Crabb in 2009. “I fell in love with the knitwear, and him, right away,” Crabb remembers. “The work is very special and carefully considered – it’s total luxury to wear and you can feel the influences woven into the pieces.” Since then, Katki has had a range of clothing for sale in her store every year. He also has his knitwear stocked at Simon James Concept Store, a furniture and homeware store where he works part-time. It’s important for his pieces to complement these stores and he’ll often share swatches with Crabb, or Georgina McCormack from Simon James, to make sure his collections sit well within theirs.

Every now and then a range will sell out and people will ask for more. “I’ll say ‘no, wait for next season’,” says Katki. “I think the goal is to produce as much as I can and as much as I want to. Right now, I’m going in a more artistic direction towards embroidery and art, and I’d like to see where that takes me.” Fans of his clothing need not despair – there will be a series of embroidered tops and dresses using the same silk as his embroidered scroll in his upcoming summer collection, as well as some select knits. Just don’t expect an Areez Katki clothing empire any day soon. “That’s the opposite of what I want,” he says. “That would be a nightmare. I would like to remain a quiet and elusive textile practitioner.”


Areez’s pieces
When clothing and art collide

View Areez Katki’s silk work in Marabar Caves at Gus Fisher Gallery, until 2 Sep. His summer range is available from late Sep.