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    « 9. Things Can Change Quickly and Then Everything Changes | Main | 11. Abingdon »

    Thursday, January 10, 2008


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    Well, how fun! I don't think I ever get the chance to talk to non-knitters who are actually interested in talking about those sort of things. I've long since become accustomed to the glazed expressions, rolled eyes, etc. and basically just keep my thoughts to myself. This should be quite entertaining!

    Hope your days away are for something good - take care of you!


    Mike--great question! I'm an art-history PhD student, so I love questions about knitting like this! I suggest you seek out the designs of Nora Gaughn, especially her Knitting Nature book. She is definitely someone who is thinking about the issues you raise. Also, colorists like Mae Landra, of the famed (well, in fiber fetishist circles) Koigu yarns are also always considering such questions. (Landra was trained as an artist.) Here's a Latvian mittens/NATO link: Note that the knitters were explicitly told they couldn't use the swastika motif, long a traditional sun symbol before Hitler appropriated it. ( Now, as for my own knitting, I'm a basic knitter. I've fooled around with designs for things like hats and such, but other than that I generally follow someone else's patterns, like our brilliant Norma.


    I don't think knitters consider composition in quite the same way an artist does. Except that designs are created (and critiqued) about how well they draw attention towards or away from potentially unflattering areas. The placement of any visually-distinctive design is a particularly thorny issue. Do you want it over your boobs, so that it draws attention to them? Or around your waist, where it might make you look fat?

    However, cable patterns are an excellent example of conscious use of positive and negative space.


    Here is a picture (and a story( of NATO’s pile of Latvian mittens:
    I’m sure someone will find a nicer one, but it’s the least I can do for all you do.

    MaryB in Richmond

    I'll just echo what Erika said, that I don't think the same concepts apply to knitting that apply to painting, drawing, sculpture, or art quilting. As a general rule knitting has to be symmetrical, or at least as a general rule a person designing a sweater isn't weighing the weight of stripes on the left sleeve vs. a large area of turquoise on the right.

    Clothing designers are designing, again as Erika said, for human body first of all; it's not a flat canvas, and the coolest-looking sweater in the world, the most wonderfully-designed, is a failure if it makes the wearer's butt look big.

    The only exception I can think of is those big "Christmas-y sweaters" that have a Christmas scene (or whatever) all over the back. I'm not convinced that's art, but it is a "canvas" for design, even if mostly it's not particularly good design.

    But some knitters aren't designing for the human body; they're designing art pieces in yarn, to hang on walls or to float in space. Some are designing shaped objects that are essentially knitted (or felted) sculptures. But in those cases I'd say the knitting is coincidental to the art -- they aren't using design principles in a special way because they are knitting, they just happen to be using knitting (instead of fabric, or instead of stone) to make art.

    This is going to be a fun conversation to read!


    Knitting has a long history and if some historians are to be believed, started from adorning the body (not necessary - art), moved to warming the body (necessary - craft), exists today in both sides of that Venn diagram. The craft of building most basic shapes that cover the human body has been pretty much worked out over the centuries. The modern knitter can usually find a pattern available that will, when executed, produce an item that covers a specified portion of anatomy, and can also look attractive, assuming that the modern knitter has at least a modicum of taste. Certain designers are extremely popular because they have a better than average ability to combine color and/or texture in a way that I would call "art". This ability may be applied at the yarn design stage (Koigu or Noro come to mind), or at the pattern design stage (Joan M-M or Alice S*more or a dozen more). There are also designers who are great at understanding exactly how the craft works and with manipulating the structure and explaining how to manipulate the structure of knitting.

    Meg McG

    Delurking here, what a wonderful question.
    There are so many elements in knitting design. A big factor that comes into play when creating a piece of knitted fabric is the stretch. Knitted items stretch up and out and then back in again (depending on the yarn, cotton doesn't spring back as nicely as wool). That's always a factor in creating something.
    In terms of art, some knitted objects are not meant to be worn, they are meant to be art and demonstrate what can be accomplished with yarn. For example, on Erika's blog (above) she revived a book of knitting project where most everything was art.
    However, there are some artists who enjoy expanding their understanding of what yarn can do and still keep it a useful object. To me this is the a major component in the difference between art and craft (which could easily be a dissertation for ten PhD candidates). I would implore you to look up Cat Bordhi's work. This woman sees three dimensional space and the is able to figure out some fantastic ways of bringing the shape to reality. Its not so much that designs are innovative (which they are) its how she constructs her garments spatially that amazes most people. For example, she is known for creating Moebius out of knitted fabric. Most people would just create a strip of knitted fabric, twist it and sew the two ends together. However, Cat created a seamless Moebius design in which the knitter creates the garment from the middle and works their way outward, incorporating the twist into the design. I don't know where she gets her visualizations from, but her results are amazing. Two other designers who do amazing things with color and pattern design, but no so much in the way of challenging the construction of 3 dimensional space, are Alice Starmore and Kaffe Fassett. However, there are thousands of amazing talented knitters who do incredible, innovative thing and they all deserve credit for being able to manipulate space, color and texture into amazing products.


    Ah, now, Mary B. I disagree. What about Kaffe Fasset ? He approaches knitting as a canvas on which to place colour. The structure of his knits is left to thers to work out and is kept simple. If you go to one of his workshops he [ attempts to ! ] teach it as I would a painting class. He talks of tone, hue, shading, about distancing yourself from your work to see it more clearly.
    I don't often use colour in such a complex way, but I am conscious on it, and it's effects e.g. of emphasis, balance, contrast, etc. as I knit. It places a very big part in my knitting and in any designing I have done.
    That's one of the many wonderful things about knitting. You can put into, and take from, it a multitude of things. You can satisfy a need to explore form, colour, texture or simply satisfy the urge to be making something or the need for a repetitive task.


    As one of my sons majored in studio art, I watched his technique evolve and learned a bit about light and perspective and color. I think these elements could be applied to knitting design to create some wonderful artwear. The thought intriques me. I also think it could be fun to explore in wet felting.


    Artist? Craftsperson? I prefer the term 'Artisan', "Artisans employ creative thinking and manual dexterity to produce their goods." However, Mr. Fasset certainly does approach his designs more as a 'flat canvas'... so he may be considered more 'Artist'... Even the knitters following patterns, not of their own design, many of them are tweaking here and there = creative thinking... and some of the more complex designs? Definitely. You need that 'creative thinking' to get you through the pattern. Rarely do I meet a knitter who doesn't choose their own yarn, palette, while still following a pattern. And the Lacemakers? go check out Anne Hanson's designs, 'Irtfa'a' and 'Simurgh' and and..well, just go check them out, talk about creative thinking!
    Myself... I follow patterns, I have also just winged it in creating items, I do consider myself an Artisan as I do the majority of knitters.
    Another Knitter, Lene, you should check out her knits,
    she has several sweaters of her own design. An amazing amount of thought goes into the creation.
    Let's not forget to mention Elizabeth Zimmermann... pure genius... just look at the Baby Surprise Jacket... its construction. seriously.
    Dude, enjoy the read you'll get from this post :^)


    While I don't think knitting designers think of line and placement the same way that painters do, they do have keep placement in mind in different ways.

    One of the challenges to the knitwear designer is to put the shapes and colours onto the "canvas" in strategic ways that avoid embarassment. Bobbles, for example (things that look like little balls sticking out of the fabric), can be great fun -- until you manage to position them at the same place a woman's nipple sits. Then it's tacky. If you MEANT tacky, that's fine, but most folks would rather not have bobbles at the nipple line.

    Similarly, those who play with colour have to watch where the colour stress winds up on a body. Then you add the complexity of sizes. Sizing up or down a lot will move a design features placement on the body... sometimes in ways we don't expect.

    The cool thing is that when you knit, you can create a fabric that is shaped, bowing in and out in three-D. So it's not the same as working with woven fabric (which much be artfully cut and sewn to make three-D).


    I just like to play with string.

    Mike Strauss

    Wow.... I’m not used to so MANY comments from a question I ask. How does Norma manage to keep up? When I pose one in my chemistry or drawing class there is often a deadening silence (like the high school teacher in “Risky Business” who keeps asking “Anyone?, Anyone?” and then answers it himself.)

    Anyway.. a few thoughts:

    I’m so pleased so many of you DO see the connection I was referring to. And of course you do see that it is, in part, related to creating 3-dimensional art - i.e. sculpture is one example. But it IS also related to 2D art - i.e.,, painting, or drawing. What surprises me is the depth and extent of thinking about composition that all you guys are aware of. Wow.

    I would disagree a bit with Jennifer however. I know knitting often has to be symmetrical (though a glove isn’t Jennifer, it’s a chiral -asymmetric - object, like a shoe) but I was referring to the use of color and texture on the surface, which can, but does not necessarily have to be, symmetrical. The issue of covering body parts, and what color and design might do in drawing attention to those is exactly an issue of composition. The rules of what is good and bad there are quite different than in painting though. And Christmas-y sweaters are just an example of really BAD composition - at least most of the ones I’ve seen. There are parts of the sweater where ornaments might not work well, yes? That issue was addressed by Marianne I think.

    Re: the comment: -- some knitters aren't designing for the human body; they're designing art pieces in yarn, to hang on walls or to float in space. Some are designing shaped objects that are essentially knitted (or felted) sculptures. But in those cases I'd say the knitting is coincidental to the art -- they aren't using design principles in a special way because they are knitting, they just happen to be using knitting (instead of fabric, or instead of stone) to make art.

    Well, yes...This knitting IS the art, and doing art implies thinking about composition. I once watched a “painter” in Oaxaca on the street painting with 50 rolls of colored thread. He was looking at a street seen and sewing a composition on a flat canvas. The medium used is irrelevant. He needed to compose the scene. Whether with paint, with thread or with yarn, he could do this in pleasing ways (good composition) or less pleasing ways (bad composition.)

    This is too long a post (and my first to this community of folks,) but I have a final comment on “patterns” which many of you folks use. I believe that using a pattern can be, if one wishes, the beginning of a journey to more creative and personal constructions. One can begin to vary the pattern, see new possibilities, new ways of putting things together, i.e., changing texture, color, etc. One can begin to compose one's own work.

    It is what I do all the time painting oils. A Degas dancer, Corot Landscape, Bisbing’s Cows.. all of these “copies” are on my web site. Mostly they aren’t for sale. They represent some of the ways I learn to paint. I begin to alter them, to see things in the altering, and paths to my own work that are influenced by what I’ve done.


    Need to jump in on how desinging is not just garment construction. People like Debbie New look at a new architectures for sweaters or use knitting solely for art. If you look at the slide show of some of her work here or

    I fully realize that I will not be able to design like Debbie New - I am not artistic. However, I am planning on making her swirl socks - to push myself. As well I can make a customizations to sweaters and working on my first cardigan designed by me.


    I come to my sweater designs from a knitterly perspective, so, for example, I won't strand more than five stitches in color work, or use more than four colors in a row of intarsia. My designing is process oriented, rather than surface oriented. I create sweaters that are fun to knit, and also happen to look good. But being fun to knit is primary. Has anyone ever had a rolicking good time knitting a Kaffe Fasset sweater? He's a painter first and foremost, and his focus is on creating surface design. (All those hundreds of ends to weave in - God help us!)


    I hate when you go away! Will ya bring me back something? I too, like to follow along a roadmap. I only get renegade when I'm holding a hook, but knitting is taking a strong hold on the wild side of exploration these days.

    Laura Sue

    Norma, I wanted to share this even though you're gone. This is a website that google (or gmail) thought I'd be interested in when I opened my Knitting Daily mail.
    I've been totally captivated by this site! Who knew there were clan arans? Perhaps were I Irish, I'd have known, by God, but I'm not. Yes, you've go to love gmail. You can find anything in the bowels of your email AND they'll find things you didn't even know you were looking for!

    elizabet a airhart

    knitting is an art large blankets the planing
    design and most of all the colors - i would think
    be the same way an artist would lay out a painting
    on a flat canvass
    its a humble experience
    when whats in your head does not
    show up on the canvass


    Mike, I have done both kinds of knitting in my 45+ years at it (have also crocheted for 35 years)... sometimes I just want the process of knitting and know that the shape and color will flow out of my fingers without much effort, other times I follow a pattern, but the most fun is letting something take shape as you go. Knitting relies on having stitches on the needle most of the time, so it is often critical to envision the entire process in advance in order to calculate the proper dimensions, but I do like the change as you go approach that crochet has allowed me, though I don't enjoy the physical process of crocheting as much as I do the rhythm of knitting. In the past few years, I have taken more of an interest in creating the materials for the knitting, either through spinning or through experimenting with dyeing yarn/fiber, and then making a more standard pattern.


    If shape and color flow out without much effort, my guess is that your process has incorporated much of your past experience as you knit, and that what takes shape is
    a consequence of that past. That can happen with any process if you do it and get
    really good at it I think. Thanks for your thoughts.


    One knitter's insanely complex idea is another knitter's fun and a third knitter's idea of something disgustingly tacky. It's hard to keep track of all the elements at once; that's why sometimes whole garments are frogged after they are tried on. I'm weak on color choices and overall design quality, but I can enjoy the challenge of an insanely complex knit as long as it is one I designed. The completed object won't win any prizes but it fits, I like it, and I enjoyed knitting it.

    Lisa in Georgia

    Hey Professor Mike,

    I just wanted you to know that Ben Stein's line, "Anyone, anyone?" is from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," not "Risky Business." Why do I know this useless information? no clue.


    Yes... Yes... of course you are right. It WAS "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". Thanks for the reminder. Valuable info just in case I get on some quiz show some day.

    Meg McGaffin

    I am interested in your questions about patterns. Patterns are have two functions. First, they outline the steps needed to create a replica of an item. This is their most literal form. But I think you will find that patterns are another part of the medium used to create the object as well. Most designers include color and yarn choices when designing a pattern, however, many, many knitters chose other materials and simply use the pattern as a method of instruction. It's not like chemistry where you must have sodium and chloride to make salt.
    Knitting is more like cooking and patterns are like recipes. You can follow it to the letter if you wish and most likely, all things being equal, you will get the same result as the chef. I most often approach patterns as a way to learn a method or technique, not to replicate the original garment.
    One of my most-used knitting books is Ann Budd's Handy Book of Knitting Pattern. She has essentially written out formulas to create garments at different gauges. Her patterns only incorporate form and structure, all other elements: size, gauge, color, texture, are left to the knitter to chose. It's like a chemistry set for knitters.
    This is my second long-ass response to this post. I love this question. Many, many thinks and thanks.


    So interesting to hear your thoughts. Student labs are indeed like cookbook receipes. You follow the directions, you get the expected result. Like a pattern. But those students graduate into researchers in research labs where they apply they techniques and patterns of the student lab with new and varied ingredients (chemicals.) In this way new discoveries are made and the students evolve to real scientists/chemists. Art can be the same as well. Learning how to paint using as "patterns" the paintings of great painters eventually leads, if you work long enough at it, to the ability to create your own work in a masterful and painterly fashion. So it is with knitters and weavers I am sure. Thanks for adding your insights to this extended discussion.

    Jo in Boston

    Roxie's comment also made me think about the other side of designing a pattern--you aren't just designing a finished piece you are also designing a process--the steps that another knitter is going to go through to create something. If that process is too hard, or too time consuming, or too boring no one is going to knit the sweater. And that may be all right--if you're only interested in the finished piece--but most knitters are about the process. So you have to keep in mind when you're designing the pattern (not when you're designing the piece) whether the process of making it is possible (and interesting enough). So pattern design is kind of a two headed thing here.

    The comments to this entry are closed.


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