Traditional textile techniques used in contemporary ways – Part 3: Knitting - The Open College of the Arts
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Traditional textile techniques used in contemporary ways – Part 3: Knitting

Knitting has come down the ages as a means to turn wool and other fibres into useable, usually domestic objects. Despite being a highly skilled activity knitting is most frequently seen as a handicraft and marginalised by the conventional art world into a feminine form of expression. As with crochet the technique has plastic abilities that allow the artist to express freely in 3 dimensions. In the hands of contemporary artists and practitioners both women and men are bringing knitting into galleries and to the forefront of artistic expression.
“I’m so bloody sad” is a piece of work by Freddie Robins that investigates our preoccupations with crime, illness and fear. As with this piece her work is often surreal and ambiguous. She uses a combination of machine and hand knit along with found objects as well as structural components to create sometimes puzzling and disquieting art objects. In her artist statement she states her ‘work aims to disrupt the notion of the medium as passive and benign’, I think she is implicitly saying here that knitting can be as expressive as stone carving and oil painting.
Emilie Zanon is a milliner whose work extends beyond headwear into sculptural forms that can be worn on the body. According to her website Capouche her brand name means “a walk in poetic, ethic and comfortable world”, a place where you can dress up and remain comfortable. In one of her Capouche Lab collections – Vert de Gris she has created a garment; knitted from wool and stuffed nylon that with its lumpy texture forms an almost hideous silhouette on the wearer. It both hides and reveals the wearer by distorting the body shape and exposing areas of flesh. The knitting needles have been left in place to leave the viewer in no doubt of the means this garment was made.
The self described artist, craftivist and rabble-rouser Casey Jenkins explores contemporary aspects of femininity through performance and traditional feminine crafts. In her work ‘casting off my womb’ she accesses and is intermit with her own body over a 28 day period using her vagina to hold a ball of wool she uses to knit a scarf. Casey describes the performance as uneventful and quiet, assimilating the benign and cosy craft of knitting with her viewers’ likely fear and revulsion. The work confronts the way we value women’s bodies, the negative reactions were expected and part of her investigation into why so frequently people feel repulsed by female body parts and functions.
Of course the knitted yarn does not have to be a conventional textile fibre, the artist Wang Lei works his knitted garments in paper and for his 2010 collection he used toilet paper. The installation consists of a series of garments knitted from the paper, which hang from coat hangers as they would in a wardrobe, but with the toilet rolls still attached and lying on the floor. The garments are recreations of traditional Chinese clothes so the work is not just about the material and the technical skill but it also contains social and political overtones. He also makes thread from other paper sources linking meanings and metaphors to the hidden depth to his work.
City of Stitches is the hand knitted space of the artist Isabel Berglund. Along with walls covered in knitting and a knitted tree there are garments attached to the surfaces where visitors can become part of the artwork. This and other works of hers toy with perception and reality encouraging the viewer to question the meaning of their surroundings. She says her “ work is designed to place itself between categories such as design, art and fashion.” This makes us wonder where the work belongs and for whom it is for. Textile art is often difficult to categorise as it traditional textile techniques are loaded with meaning relating to women’s work and alien to the more established art world.
This is a small taste of the creative importance of knit and the wide range of practitioners working today. I hope I have brought to your attention the value of a skill many oca textile students possess and that with experimentation, risk taking and perseverance exciting new artworks can be conceived.
Bibliography and further reading
A Shaded View on Fashion. Emilie Zanon’s Hats
Casey Jenkins.
Cut on the Bias: Textiles, Collaboration and Pedagogy. Freddie Robins
David Report. Isabel Berglund’s knit universe by David Carlson
Denada. Isabel Berglund/Blurring the lines between art forms
Fries Museum. Breien!
Freddie Robins.
Isabel Berglund.
Not Just a Label. Designer Capouche
Ode to Art. Wang Lei,Wang Lei
The Future of Fashion now. Designer profile: Wang Lei
The Gift of Knitting. Friday Inspiration, Isabel Berglund
The Guardian. Gripping Yarns by Tamsin Blanchard
The Guardian. I’m the ‘vaginal knitting’ performance artist – and I want to defend my work by Casey Jenkins
Victoria and Albert Museum. Interview with Freddie Robins
Vimeo. Capouche Hats
Vimeo. Capouche Kimipunk 02 Wuhao
White Rabbit Galley. Wang Lei: ‘Knitting the past, knitting the present.”
YouTube. Freddie Robins – Guest @ Gray’s Lecture
Images: Emilie Zanon
Wang Lei

Posted by author: Rebecca Fairley
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