Emerging British designer Lily Parker is one to watch. Lily has quickly gathered a cult following for her signature Zebra Knits knitted knot cushions. Perfectly capturing the current zeitgeist, Zebra Knits has tapped into our desire for quirky, colourful and sustainable interior textiles that stand out. Studying knitted textiles at university, Lily first started working with commercial designers. Proving that not all businesses are good at spotting and retaining talent, and why you should always go with your gut feeling, Lily started Zebra Knits in 2020 after being made redundant — twice. With each cushion designed and made by Lily in her studio in Manchester, Zebra Knits has grown from strength to strength, attracting the attention of the media as well as other designers. I caught up with Lily to find out where her idea for the knitted knot came from, her advice for anyone wanting to start and what’s next for the brand.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Within myself and my own personal style I’ve become very granny-chic! Lockdown and knitting every day has really helped me become more fond of comfort and cosy materials, which massively transfers into my brand and my inspiration. I am in love with modern scandi-living but with unique bright accessories that draw the eye, the idea of instagrammable interiors and a space that is entirely curated by you for you really warms my heart. It’s a dream come true that my pieces have helped people achieve this.
Can you tell me a bit about your background? What was your journey into designing textiles?
I have been studying textiles since I was 11! The first time I ever realised I could take my passion for drawing and painting into fabric and textile was a real eye opener. I loved it from the get go. Through high school and college it was my favourite subject, so it was a no brainer to study it at University. I went to Manchester School of Art and studied knitted textiles for three years, it was at university that I really managed to knuckle down within the specialism of knitting, and that’s where the passion really took off. I was knitting every day at University and after a short amount of time trying to make it in the design world through graduate jobs I realised I was not set out for commercial design. Everything happens for a reason and I was made redundant twice during Covid, and this really pushed me to realise that I want to work for myself and make my own design decisions each day. It’s very overwhelming that people now love and buy into what comes out of my brain. For a creative it’s a dream!
“Do it! Don’t even stop to think about it, just do it. ‘We’re a long time dead’ is my most depressing but favourite saying.”
What prompted you to start Zebra Knits, and where did the idea for the knots come from?
It happened so randomly! It was during my first design job since graduating that I came up with the idea. We were designing a new range of pet beds in my job and were making a lot of test samples, there was a day where we were playing around with a soft inner tubing that would support the side walls of this pet bed. In the end the idea was scrapped but we were left with this soft inner tube, similar to a draft excluder. One day I simply tied it in a knot and thought hmm that would make a cute cushion. So I knitted some fabric at home and created the shape.
Its relatively simple – the knot cushion – but my unique spin on it is what keeps people interested. I was researching unique interior statement pieces every day during my first job, but they were looking for more commercial designs so often my wacky ideas fell flat. During the weekends I would play around with the ideas that weren’t taken seriously at work and I wanted to bring in my love of knitting. Quite quickly I came up with the idea and it all grew from there! Zebra Knits was born, however I still need to make a Zebra Knitted Knot!
You started off making monochrome designs before moving into colours. Was it a natural evolution?
As the brand has grown so has my confidence as a designer. To begin with I was mostly creating custom designs in any monochrome or two tone colours to keep my small circle of customers happy. But once I began to realise more people wanted to buy into me as the designer and curator of my brand that’s when I’ve had the most fun in coming up with new patterns and colour combos. Like I said before, for a creative person it’s the biggest compliment to be able to design what comes out of your head and people respond well to it.
As you mentioned, you were previously working for a commercial interior company but felt misunderstood. Can you tell me more about this, and how you took your experiences to build something positive in your own brand?
Yes, at the time it was such a difficult experience to go through but I’m so happy that I went through it for my own development. I learnt so much about the industry but mostly about myself and what makes me happy day to day. Coming fresh out of university you feel as though the world is at your feet. The confidence you have from graduating and doing well in your degree is almost naivety to how important that is in the real world. Grades, experimentation and creativity are particularly important on a design course, but in the real world of commercial design profit, speed and sales are seen as more important than genuine, considered design. I knew that I wasn’t right for the role but kept trying to fit into a box that wasn’t mine. Whoever can get on well in the commercial design industry, this is in no way slating you, but it wasn’t right for me and I imagine for a lot more young creatives fresh out of university.
“It’s very overwhelming that people now love and buy into what comes out of my brain. For a creative it’s a dream!”
Social media has been incredibly important for building Zebra Knits and you’re really active, but you’ve recently talked about the negative side of it and why you’ve removed likes from your account. Did you get any feedback following this, and has it made a difference to how you’re feeling?
Social media has got me where I am today with absolutely no doubt in my mind. It’s a powerful and life changing tool in today’s society and I am so grateful for the enthusiasm, likes, comments and shares that I have received through all of my platforms. But the numbers game is tiring for me. Instagram is a photo-sharing platform and there are people all around the world that have developed serious mental health issues from it. It’s crazy to imagine when you strip it back and see it for what it’s for. That’s why I decided to remove the visible likes from my page, and from others when I am scrolling through my feed. I want to like a picture because I actually like it and not because many more people have. I want to look at pages of other designers because I love what they are doing and to not compare myself to them based on numbers that mean nothing. We are all on our own paths and the numbers side of Instagram brings nothing but comparison and self esteem issues. Now I feel like I can breathe and share an image on my page because I actually like it and it doesn’t matter what numbers come from it. I love Instagram but my business is so much more than that, and so are so many other people’s.
Who or what inspires you?
So many different people inspire me, my favourite brand of all time is probably Paloma Wool, everything they do from photography to makeup to clothing and design just sings to my soul. Gustaf Westman is an incredible designer who opened my eyes to breathtaking interior spaces. His work was a huge help in imagining the kind of atmosphere and homes my designs could be a part of. I also absolutely adore the art community on Instagram, people who have become genuine friends and are on their own creative paths. They all inspire me in so many different ways, from interior brands, clothing brands, body positivity and self love brands, ceramic brands. Everyone has their own inspiring message and it’s beautiful to see every day… without the likes!
What do you like most about working for yourself?
The freedom and independence of making your own decisions time after time. There have been many anxiety filled moments, but looking at what I have achieved and knowing that it was all down to me is the rewarding feeling that keeps you going. Each day I feel happy and lucky. It’s rare to find something that you love doing every day.
You’ve got some exciting collaborations in the pipeline. Can you tell me about them?
As much as I have said about instagram it is also a HUGE blessing as it has put me in touch with some incredible creators who want to use my work in the most bold and incredible ways. Ideas I would have never thought about before are being discussed and that only comes with collaboration! To not reveal everything I’m working with some shoe designers and furniture designers. So fingers crossed. I can’t wait!
What comes after the knot?
I love the knitted knot – it has done amazing things for my brand – but for me the passion really lies with the knit designs and patterns. This is what I want to use to keep the brand going. It will get to a point where, hopefully, everyone will have had their fill of my funky knots, so then its time to branch out into new products which I can’t wait for!
What’s your advice for someone who has an idea but hasn’t yet started?
Do it! Don’t even stop to think about it, just do it. ‘We’re a long time dead’ is my most depressing but favourite saying. Our brains are automatically quite critical and can make excuses forever, but then by the end you’ll be left with a sad sense that you never just went for it! I believe in gut feelings quite intensely. Our bodies are tuned into what is right for us. So if there’s an itchy feeling to try something tiny, just go with that feeling because you never know where it will end up.