13 July 2023

The Threads that Bind – Janine Whale


Ngā Hononga. Common Threads.

The trappings of fashion are all around us – as ways to express style and personality in the everyday, or when adorning ourselves for special occasions. Behind the fabric and the clothing are the artists whose visions shape the wearable art we spend our lives in. Janine Whale, Philippa O’Brien and Shona Tawhiao have each dedicated themselves to the fashion world. Though at different points in their careers, they are all bound by love to the craft. Here’s Janine’s story.

Woman sits in her studio

"I convinced my husband to downsize our bedroom so that I can have this as my studio. So this is a jewellery space, knitting space, sewing space – I love sewing – office space. And then storage – I daren't open the doors of the wardrobe!" Janine says.

There is a remarkable piece of jewellery on display in a showroom in the Town Basin of Whangārei – a collar of incredibly fine knitted silver wire. A literal neck-lace undulating like fabric in the wind, it’s the work of Whangārei-based textile artist Janine Whale, and it is one of her first forays into the world of fine jewellery.

Janine, 51, is a lifelong knitter. She inherited her passion for the ancient craft via her mother and grandmothers. “It’s really interesting looking back at your history, your whakapapa,” she says. “Both of my grandmothers knitted. My Nana Joan was a crochet/tatter/knitter – she was into lacy things. My other nana, Nana Ray, she was a resourceful woman who raised six children on her own after her husband died. And her knitting was a very different style. She would unpick jerseys from the Goodwill shop, hold lots of strands together and knit these chunky, cosy blankets. My mother was a spinner. I can’t remember who exactly taught me to knit, but it was probably my mum, and my nanas would help me when we’d visit in the holidays.”

Woman creating knitting pattern
Janine says, “I started off with the intention of creating knitting patterns because I could see that as a way of attracting an income to what I was loving. I knitted some of my colleagues at the hospital gifts, and one of them was a necklace out of silver wire – it was just a simple leaf – and as a consequence of that, a local gallery owner invited me to submit some jewellery for a show.”

Though knitting was a part of her upbringing, it was when Janine was studying paediatrics that she truly discovered the joy of her craft. “Knitting was a faithful companion while I was doing medicine,” she explains. “Because you’re doing something with your hands, it gives you permission to think about things without feeling like you’re wasting your time. I would use knitting as a rhythm for processing thoughts.”

Her paediatric practice brought Janine and her husband, Adrian, to Whangārei in 2003, when she started working at Whangārei Hospital. Their two children – Leah, 21, and Bryn, 16 – were raised in Whangārei while Janine practiced medicine at work and developed the artistic side to her knitting at home. “I started becoming more interested in doing my own thing with knitting rather than using patterns. I ended up pursuing studies in hand-knit textile and design by distance learning.”

Woman's hands knitting
Janine’s designs, available on pattern website Ravelry, include sweaters, hats and scarves, and knitted tees, among other items.

Top: The pattern making process is much longer than Janine originally assumed – around six months – but it remains a labour of love. “I usually design something that I want to wear,” she says. “I’ll start with a shape that I love and then I’ll think about what kind of texture I want it to have. Or I’ll have a concept – like a technique – and I’ll think, ‘How can I best display this technique?’” Above: Janine is a knitting artist and patternmaker. “I was also really taken with what you can achieve when you knit with a different fibre and so I started knitting more jewellery from there,” she says.

But four years ago, Janine realised she was going to have to make a decision. “When I was working, I actually found it hard to be really creative. I would come home and want to use my knitting for relaxation, not have to make lots of decisions around stuff,” she says. “In retrospect, my studies were giving myself permission to pursue some creative dreams. I got to the point where I realised I could not do both things and it would have been just as hard to stay in medicine as to leave. So with the support of Adrian, I hung up my stethoscope to pursue creative ambitions.”

Janine started Conexus Knits, where she’s growing the creative side of her craft – including sculptural forms, such as an exquisite knitted fuchsia lamp, and her knitted jewellery – whilst balancing the more bread-and-butter pattern designing. Though working with a fibre as pliable as yarn is quite different to knitting wire, Janine has found the two different variations on her craft are complementary. A lot of her jewellery designs, in fact, are first rendered in cotton. “My wire work also informs my pattern creating. It’s taught me a lot. The biggest challenge has been learning to be a risk-taker. Some of my work, I won’t start in silver because I know if I do, I’m not going to chop and change and try different things.”

And while the silver-wear she creates may be new and unique on the modern market, the inspiration she calls upon is timeworn. In her latest collection of brooches, the knitting patterns she uses are Shetland lace, a technique of exquisitely delicate knitting developed by some of the hardiest knitters in history. “The Shetland lace story is really remarkable,” Janine says. “It emerged in the 1840s and is a story of creating something beautiful in a time where life was dire and economically really hard.”

Woman standing in her garden, holding flowers
Janine in her garden. “I love knitting. I absolutely love it. There’s something sustaining about creating something beautiful.”

At the time, the hand-knitting industry by which many Scottish Shetland women survived was under threat from modern advances. “There was competition from the knitting machine; stockings were starting to be made on the knitting loom rather than by hand. Despite these challenges, this group of women took what they already knew and created something new – they chose to invest time and quality into making the handmade amazing, producing items unmatched by commercial production. They developed their own patterns and crafted these incredible lace shawls, which were sought after globally.”

Janine’s own development of the knitted arts is almost a retelling of this story. Where the Shetland women took the finest of fibres and crafted knitted lace of an unheard-of delicacy, Janine has taken a precious metal and moved the homely art of knitting into the realm of haute couture. “We still have unwritten sumptuary laws,” Janine says, referring to when and where it’s socially acceptable to wear fine jewellery. “I think it’s good to challenge them. I’d love to see my jewellery being worn in the cow shed. It’s very delicate, but I want it to present in a way that is strong.” That said, she adds with a laugh, “Though it behaves a bit like chainmail, it’s probably not jewellery you’d want to pull on.”

Glossary. Whakapapa, genealogy.

“One of my struggles is trying to remain focused. Too many fingers in too many pies often means you don’t cook anything. So that’s a learning process for me. Sitting with something for long enough that you are really pushing the boundaries of what you can do rather than picking up something new.”

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