When your grandmother teaches you something, you damn well pay attention. Josh Bennett did, and now he’s got a gig with Marvel. Thanks, Grandma. The skill she bequeathed a young Josh was the ability to knit – an ability the New York-based chap finessed while punching the clock at a yarn shop on the Upper West Side. Noticing a gap in the market for men’s knitting patterns that weren’t dorky, he set up shop in the fashion capital, selling his own patterns and knitted accessories. Oh, and he just unveiled his official Black Panther capsule collection at New York Fashion Week. We nabbed him for a quick chat about how his hand-knitted sweaters embody the Afrofuturistic superhero flick (out today), and how he keeps his fingers from falling off.
How did you get involved with Black Panther?
Marvel came to me and asked if I would do a collaboration with them starting with Thor. I’ll be doing the movies till 2018. Each has a hand-knit sweater line – men’s so far.
Where does a concept for a Marvel sweater design come from?
With Thor I did research into who these characters were, like in Norse mythology. It’s really about finding the characters’ DNA. I brought that to Black Panther as well. I started designing the Black Panther collection way before I saw the movie. Since everything is hand-knit, it takes three weeks to conceive, knit and write the pattern for one garment, so I have to start very, very early. What fascinated me about Black Panther was his transformation from human to superhuman hero. The three sweaters represent the three things that make the Black Panther who he is: the vibranium herb he has to eat (a magic herb that makes him strong), his suits, and the women warriors who stand beside him and his family.
How do you go from being someone who loves to knit to the guy who creates official Marvel knitted garments?
I have no idea. I ask myself that every day. Knitting to me has always been very important. I’m fascinated with the transformation of yarn. You take a piece of string and you make something out of two sticks. I guess I’m always inspired by transformation. But it’s really about how you use the stitches and the fabric that you make; that really tells the story within the sweater. If I don’t have a story, then the design doesn’t make sense. With the Black Panther collection, for example, there’s so much that has to do with the colours, Wakanda, and their culture and technology. There are a lot of stories going on.
We have some pretty great wool and yarn in Australia. Do you ever get the chance to use our materials?
Yes, I love Australian wool! Merino’s fantastic. With the Thor collection, I actually used yarn from New Zealand – kind of a nod to Taika Waititi, because he’s from New Zealand and I love him. But this collection is cashmere. It’s also a bit lighter in its weight because the film takes place in Africa. If I can find yarn that’s close to the inspiration of the movie, I’ll always try to use that.
Any advice for aspiring knitwear designers?
Know who you are as a designer and just work towards that. Don’t let anything outside influence you at all. Stay focused on doing the best art you possibly can do.
What art do you want to make next?
I think the next art I’m making is for Avengers: Infinity War. With every collection that I have with Marvel, I really try to go further as a designer to incorporate hand-knitting into the Marvel universe – a universe that it’s never been in before. Hand-knitting and Marvel never felt like a good connection, but to me, it’s made me a better designer.
Because it’s pushed you in the storytelling department?
Their storytelling so amazing that I have to step up my game.
And everything that you create for Marvel and for your namesake label is your own handiwork?
I make everything. Everything is also limited edition and numbered. So with the Thor collection, there are only 12 of each sweater. With the Black Panther collection, there’ll only be five to eight of each sweater. So it’s a really good collectable for a Marvel fashion fan.
How do you prevent RSI?
It’s funny, I don’t have that problem; I just keep on knitting. I made the Black Panther red hoodie in about four days, working 24 hours a day; that was the first time that I began to feel a bit sore in my arms, but it was worth it.
Do you do anything when you’re knitting?
It changes every single time, but for this deadline, I watched Friday Night Lights, which stars Michael B. Jordan who’s also in this movie. It’s just such a good inspirational show. I’d be knitting, going, 'If they can do it, I’m just going to keep going!'
Black Panther is in cinemas today; read more about it here and take a look at the trailer, below.
Photograph: Eilon Paz