critical knitting

needled reviews: Sabrina Gschwandtner, KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave (STC, 2007).

In a recent Q & A, New-York artist and KnitKnit creator, Sabrina Gschwandtner, remarked on the weird gap between the world of contemporary craft practice and that of critical debate. Since at least 2002 and the appearance of the first issue of her now-famous zine, Gschwandtner has been inspired by knitting’s public, social and inherently critical dimension. “Knitting can be anything from a form of graffiti, gift, performance, and sculpture,” she says “it is an empowering tool that allows people to think of social space.” Yet while the response of the 100,000 + visitors to a recent MAD show in which she was involved was, in her words, “phenomenal”, a quick glance at the exhibition’s reviews reveal a mainstream critical response that seems rather more bewildered than engaged. For example, any review which begins with the words “long viewed as the domain of grandmothers….” as Martha Schwendner’s short-sighted piece in the New York Times does, clearly betrays it’s author’s lack of understanding of craft’s new aesthetics. My non-knitting friends repeatedly point me towards articles like Schwendner’s, or remark amusedly on the Shreddies advert, in which the ‘humorous’ association of knitting with old dears disrespects the craft as well as those over 70 by rendering both equally ludicrous. One wonders precisely when discussion about knitting in the general media might move beyond regarding it as something other than a bizarre curiosity. And, indeed, when will our debate about our own art and craft really expand outward from the realm of the domestic toward the public face of knitting—the communities, the practice, and the politics—with which we are all, whether we acknowledge it or not, involved?

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Gschwandtner’s new book marks a significant step in the right direction. It is a sign of the happy shift of the creative politics of knitting from the unusual to the commonplace that the book is published under the Melanie Falick imprint. For Falick, a sort of one-woman craft-popularity thermometer since the appearance of her important first book in 1996, really is the public face of knitting publishing. And Gschwandtner’s collection of carefully selected profiles and patterns, illustrated with Kiriko Shirobayashi’s luminous photography, certainly benefit from the quality of production and editorial attention that distinguish all of Falick’s publications. A quick comparison of Falick’s Knitting in America with Gschwandtner’s KnitKnit shows just how vast the shift of the past decade has been. In Falick’s book one encounters only one ‘artist’, a few marginal men, and no non-white faces at all. There is also a terrifying homogeneity of taste, which thankfully does not exist in the diverse world of knitting practice and design represented by Gschwandtner. No-one welcomes more than I the move from those garish Fassett-inspired intarsias that dominate the projects in Knitting in America…but this is just an aside.

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Knitting in America (1996), reissued as America Knits in 2005.

Gschwandtner’s book is transatlantic in scope rather than nationalist in focus, and there is a much more nuanced exploration of the social politics of knitting outside the realm of individuals and their families. The vast majority of the spinners and knitters featured in Falick’s book (with the exception of the redoubtable Barbara Walker) account for their engagement with the world of fibre as a lifestyle choice or business idea. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but one of the stimulating things about KnitKnit is that it illustrates how knitting has so clearly moved beyond questions of lifestyle to deal with larger issues concerning critical practice, aesthetic discourse, design choice, social engagement, and the politics of craft. Those whose business is knitting are represented here too—Joel Hoverson or Erika Knight spring most readily to mind—but then one turns the page and discovers in Jim Drain’s Forcefield collective, Bridget Marrin’s marvellous Švankmajer-inspired objects, or Mandy Macintosh’s Donkey Skin a world of creative possibility way beyond that of commerce.

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Mandy Macintosh, still from Donkey Skin (1996)

Yet what’s so great about this book is that commerce and creativity do not cancel one another out and, in fact, they sit right next to each other in productive dialogue. Equally, design activities and aesthetics that might seem on the surface vastly different from one another discover, through the debate implicit in these pages, that they have much more in common than they might initially have imagined. For what could seem more different than Dave Cole’s gigantic ‘knitting machine’ and the miniature wires with which Althea Merback creates her tiny sweaters? Yet both artists talk articulately and in some respects, similarly, about their explorations of material, form, and scale.

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Althea Merback, Gloves (2005), wire-knitted silk.

On a personal note, I particularly enjoyed reading again about artists and designers such as Liz Collins, Rachael Matthews and Lisa Anne Auerbach, who in their different ways engage carefully with issues of gender, cultural memory, occupation, and public space. And who can deny the appeal of the lovely projects by designers like Catherine Lowe and Anna Bell? You may not like all of the personalities or the perspectives represented in this book. There will be things you disagree with. You may not want to make yourself a jump in the wall jumper. But I ask anyone to deny the sheer vim of the world that is represented here, its wit, its vitality, and its refreshing ability to self-ironise that doesn’t in the least detract from the serious politics of its endeavours. Of the MAD exhibition Gschwandtner says that she wanted “reviewers to question why there are more knitters” and to “feel a community thinking about art and craft.” You can certainly feel that community thinking—as well as making—in many dynamic and exciting ways across the pages of her book.

6 responses

  1. Thanks for such an eloquent and thoughtful review of what is my favourite knitting book. Of course, I’m never going to make a floor-to-ceiling high teddy bear (!) but I find this book so inspirational for my knitting and design aspirations.

  2. Joy! I’ve been wanting to purchase this book since I first heard about it, but I’ve been unsure about whether it can really be as good as it looks. Sounds like it can be.

    My husband and I got our starts in fine art, but I’ve utilized none of that in my knitting. I’m very excited to see what other knitters are doing in the fine art world.

  3. Hi there,
    Since ‘The Domestic in Drag’ I have been really enjoying your ability to think critically about knitting, craft, politics etc. it’s really refreshing to read what you’ve put here and I agree with you that it is wonderful to find dialogues which deal with knitting as a public/political/community activity.
    Your review of this book is really helpful.
    Thanks for writing such considered and articulate accounts – they are a pleasure to read and always give me something to think about.

  4. Only want to say your article is as tonishing. The lucidity in your post is simply spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this field. Well with your permission allow me to grab your rss feed to keep up to date with incoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the good work

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