I had the opportunity to visit the creative studio and showroom of HANIA by Anya Cole when I was in NYC in January. Located in Midtown Manhattan on 56th St. near 5th Avenue, in a studio-to-die-for, this 5-year old company of handmade cashmere sweaters was pure inspiration for me.
The 2nd floor studio space was light and bright due to the ceiling-to-floor windows facing 56th St. Neutral walls with industrial touches and a warm oak wooden floor gave the large showroom a clean calmness for focused creativity. It is space to envy–in a lovely section of Manhattan (which happened to be right behind my hotel on 55th). I could just imagine my looms and my own large design table there, as well as my yarn and fabric and spinning wheels and mood boards and sewing machines. . .
Since I was in NYC to help my friend Sy of June Cashmere at the Vogue Knitting Live (VKL) show, checking in on the HANIA by Anya Cole studio was one of our pre-show activities. This is because one of their sweater lines is made from June Cashmere yarn. I felt quite privy, actually, to be a part of the visit. Earlier in the year, Anya’s assistant Julie had trekked to Kyrgyzstan to understand first-hand the cashmere process. The friendship that developed among the players of both of these small companies in their process of doing business together was a joy to witness. It certainly added to my experience of touring the studio.
Anya Cole started her venture later in life. With her husband still working and her daughter grown, Anya turned to a skill she learned as a child in Poland–knitting. As Anya will tell you, her mother said, “If you need it, make it.” And she did, which is something I certainly understand. While my parents didn’t exactly say that to me and my siblings, their own lifestyle of ‘making when needed’ rubbed off on all six of us, whether it’s taking the washing machine apart, sewing a new frock, or building–well anything.
Anya’s sweaters are timeless, bulky knits that show off beautiful stitch patterns and cabling. They are based on squared shapes, presumably because Anya says she doesn’t know how to read patterns. The sweaters are designed in one size but that doesn’t mean that one-size-fits-all. Some of the sweater designs simply look better on certain body types than on others. As Anya puts it, some sweaters just “aren’t for you” so you try her styles until you find the ones that flatter your frame.
When I was looking at all of Anya’s sweaters, oohing and aaahing over the details, I couldn’t help but recall one of my all-time favorite knitting magazines–Aarlan, a 1980s German pattern book. The pages are yellowing but the designs inside are classic, with stitch patterns that seem both innovative and timeless–just as Anya’s designs do. Maybe this gives us a clue into Anya’s artistic nurturing given that while living in W. Germany for a time, she knitted to support herself and her young daughter. I can relate to and appreciate such an influence given that my own Scandinavian heritage permeates my creative work even when I don’t expect it.
HANIA by Anya Cole employs about 100 knitters in and around NYC, many of them young mothers or women who supplement their income through knitting. The sweaters are expensive — they sell at her studio or in high-end retail stores such as Bergdorf Goodman for $2500 -$3000. By the time the fair trade cashmere is bought (and there is a lot of it in these sweaters), the hand labor is paid, and the wholesale to retail costs are included, that is the price.
At one point during the visit, Anya decided that another female cohort and I should wear her sweaters in the June Cashmere booth at VKL. We hesitated (see prior paragraph) but Anya insisted and well, being ones to appreciate high quality, we transformed ourselves into nearly giddy teenagers at trying on the sweaters and finding the ones that looked the best on us. While it was absolutely a privilege to drip in lots and lots of cashmere, I ended up carrying our choices back and forth to the show in a plain paper bag that tore just a little more with each trip. Believe me, I wondered more than once at the audacity of trekking across Midtown with a ripping paper bag full of cashmere sweaters worth literally thousands of dollars.
As our group was about to leave, I asked Anya the significance of ‘HANIA’ in her company name. She shared that Hania was the original spelling of her name in her native Poland. When she entered West Germany, she became ‘Anja’ and upon arriving to the US, Anya. Being in NYC, it seemed fitting that the answer Anya gave was an immigrant’s story; I immediately thought of Ellis Island and the customary spelling normalizations that occurred as officers recorded the arrival of each immigrant.
As I learned Anya’s story, the cleverness of her company name clicked with me. HANIA is a nod to the roots of her knitting, the necessary skill of youthful making that makes possible this later-in-life endeavor by Anya Cole.
Just how later-in-life? Anya started her company at age 58, making that beautiful adage by George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) so fitting. . .
It’s never too late to be what you might have been.
I don’t know that Anya was looking to find ‘who she might have been’ but she was looking for something to do and I find the result personally inspiring. As someone who is continually working to find how to make my own creative skills sing, I am inspired by her designs, her working studio, her use of fair trade materials and local hand labor. I’m inspired by the recognition that her making skills are important and valuable. And I’m inspired by the fact that she has started this venture at an age when many are counting the years to retirement. It is a reminder that we really still can become whatever we might like to become.