You’ve heard about eating your greens, but what about wearing them? Aynsley Grealis is a Toronto artist who creates elaborate crochet garments and accessories — like bags shaped like hotdogs and avocado toast and embellished balaclavas, as well as patterns to teach you how to make your own designs. Her wearable art brand Knotted Neon has gone viral on TikTok and Instagram, receiving upwards of 200,000 likes on posts showcasing items such as her pizza rat bag (a rat hanging onto a pizza-shaped bag by its teeth) and her cow balaclava, complete with cute ears and pink trim.
It’s her food-shaped accessories collections that really take the cake (no pun intended), evoking a maximalist aesthetic that has grown in popularity.
It was the pandemic that influenced Grealis to pick up crocheting, which she hadn’t done since childhood. She was set to graduate from OCAD University’s drawing and painting program in spring of 2020, but lockdown meant the cancellation of her final showcase and without the momentum of presentation, her excitement for painting dissolved.
Scrolling on Instagram one day, she came across people crocheting and remembered the little creatures she used to make when she was 12. It occurred to her that she craved an art form she could play with.
So she bought crochet hooks and a few yards of material, and immediately fell in love with the process. She has always lived in Toronto — first in the east end, then Kensington Market — and has a determined love for the city.
“It has so much to offer, and I feel like I pull inspiration from all sorts of places,” she says, recalling memories of all the artists she’s met in the community and the galleries she visited as a child.
Grealis hunkered down and spent her time experimenting and pushing the boundaries of her new craft. Now 25, though it has taken time to figure out how, she has managed to make crocheting her full-time pursuit — a balance of making custom pieces, selling her own designs and making patterns.
Much of this can be attributed to the popular social media identity she has created, which also shares the name of her business, Knotted Neon. It’s the same Instagram account that she’s had since 2013, she admitted, now with 173K followers. Up until 2020, she’d used the account to share her finished paintings with friends, but one of the first crochet pieces she made drew unusual attention on the app: a sweater adorned by cows getting abducted by an alien (“because people were really into cows in 2020,” she says).
From there, her following slowly began to grow into a community of crochet enthusiasts, and it motivated her to keep going. She stuck to clothing at first, pulling her love of fashion into her craft through tapestry jackets, dresses and sweaters often colourful and adorned with the likes of cows and dinosaurs. In her first year someone dubbed her designs kidult fashion, children’s clothes for adults. Her next evolution was balaclavas, elaborate designs covered in flowers and mushrooms or insects, then sculpture-esque accessories like bags and headwear.
“I can work with them in a more playful way,” she says. “When I was painting, I was so fixated on what things meant, but when I got into crochet I approached it all from a perspective of fun.”
Her accessory collections have varied widely in theme, from animals to food. Typically they sell out five to 10 minutes after she releases them, like her recent pizza rat bag, and anybody who still wants one goes on a waitlist.
“I think the food bags have had the most positive response so far. They encapsulate everything that I enjoy, like humour and quirky, maximalist style,” Grealis says. Customers also request very personalized customs, like at Taco Bell Baja Blast bag which she is presently making. “It’s fun to be able to take people’s own interests and the things that bring them joy and replicate that for them,” she says.
Though Grealis had never contemplated writing her own book, she was pleasantly surprised when the publisher Abrams Books reached out to her with a proposal. The idea was a sort of choose your own adventure crochet manual, with patterns for balaclavas and hats, as well as additional patterns for embellishments such as flowers, and bees and mushrooms. “You have all of these pieces that you can bring together however you would like, which I enjoyed because that’s sort of my own creative process,” she says. Ahead of the April 16 publishing date, you can preorder Grealis’ book, Mad Hatter, through Abrams Books.
If her comment section is any indication, the book will be a hit — every new creation Grealis makes has followers clamouring to her page to ask for a pattern so they can try to recreate it themselves.
Going forward, she’s excited to make more patterns. “I think as much as there are a lot of people who want to purchase my pieces, there’s a lot of people who actually crochet themselves and want to learn,” she says.