The Knitting Train

Brigette Cameron
Knitting is manifest in an increasingly broad range of creative practices.


This article is part of the series commissioned for Artlink as part of the issue Handmade: The New Labour (see forums for discussion)



Installation shot from the Big Knit by Caroline Love

k1, p1, k2tog, sl1, k1, psso No, you are not being exposed to some new mathematical theory or being seduced by an alien code. This is a ‘language' penetrating deeply within popular culture – what you are reading is knitting notation! This language is being translated and interpreted throughout the arts. Call it collective consciousness, call it Zeitgeist—whatever –

"knitting as a means of expression in fine art has become a global phenomenon, appearing in galleries all over the world. No longer is knitting pushed into the realm of being ‘a suitable pastime for the ‘aged and feeble-minded!''

So where has this frantic click clack of knitting needles come from? Maybe the technological superhighway has created a need for people to get in touch with fundamental hands-on creativity. We desire a creative outlet as a backlash to the impersonal nature of our working lives. Hobbies such as knitting are accessible ways of expressing this desire. Knitting is a basic skill that almost anyone can learn – just two simple stitches, knit and purl, and it is the combination of these that creates shape, form and pattern.

But is this resurgence of knitting and artists' responses to it, simply an adjunct to the prevalence of all things ‘retro' in our society? Although it appears that the mainstream absorption of retro aesthetics extends to past-times (eg, knitting, crochet, embroidery etc), it is not the sole reason for knitting seeping into our culture in a fine art capacity. This has come from a much broader base where in the late 90s the hand of the maker became more prevalent in craft. Previously, the steely coldness of the 80s appeared to lead to a commodification of makers' work that created a disembodiment of craft. But, the 80s, reacting to the hand-made nature of the 70s (when a simple knitting machine truly stood as an icon of modernity), were a colder, harsher, more self-interested time. By the late 90's work was appearing in textiles that did not apologise for its hand-made qualities. In fact, these qualities began to be recognised for their value and the maker's handprint added value to the work. Whereas fine art often appears to be outcome driven with a desire to hide technique,

"knitting is technique driven, so is ideal as a means for the maker and the process to find a place in the new order."

It was during this period of the late 1990's that knit was seen to emerge in fine art. In the Melbourne International Biennial Signs of Life (1999), a sculptural piece was exhibited that presented knit as an integral component. The French collaboration of Art Oriente Objet displayed their work entitled Rabbits were used to prove….(1997). This piece uses the drawn and quartered taxidermied body of a white rabbit, with entrails knitted out of wool obtained from the cloned sheep, Dolly. The piece questions the relationship between ethics and aesthetics and explores the correlation between certain aspects of art and science.

Interestingly, the relationship between science and knitting, although not obvious, is closer than one might first realise. According to Mary Thomas:

‘Science as applied to knitting puts things in order, and inspires confidence. It does not elaborate, but simplifies the knowledge of knitting. It shows how pattern is created, and so how it can be elaborated, simplified, or adapted as circumstances require'.

The scientific nature of knitting seems to adapt with ease to the relentless binary society we exist in.

There is also a direct visual and constructive link between computer graphics and the development and subversion of knitting stitches and patterns. The stylised structure of pixilation lends itself readily to the creation of imagery in knit. Similarities occur between the amplified pixilation of computer graphics and the graph-like nature of creating motifs in knitting patterns. The morphing of a PhotoShop file put through a cut-out filter, or the bitmap tracing of a Flash file creating ready-made personalised imagery easily adaptable to knit.

But does the technique of knitting and its execution in traditional mediums such as wool alone stand up to scrutiny in a fine art context? There are many contemporary practitioners that would argue that it does! A number of galleries have entrusted their spaces to artists who work in knit. In recent years, Gertrude Contemporary Artspaces in Melbourne has had two exhibiting artists who work with yarn and knit. Examples of their work include Kate Just's Uniform (2001), a life sized knitted woollen policeman with every detail of the man and his uniform executed in knit and Renee So's Flock Culture (2002) which presents a range of familiar items such as sheep and a campfire tightly covered in knit. It appears that knit successfully lends itself to the possibility of making the everyday extraordinary therefore giving it validity when presented alongside other mediums in a fine art context.

It also appears that the simplistic nature of the craft has perhaps allowed artists a sense of freedom from other traditional mediums that may be difficult in nature to master. The craft of knitting truly is a basic one –

‘On this slender foundation, one stitch, one fabric, but dual in name and reversible, and so opposite as black and white in every characteristic, the whole structure of Patterned Knitted Fabrics is built up'.

This simplicity appears to create a playground for artists to experiment, yet also allowing a complex duality to work with if so desired.

Caroline Love, a fine art graduate from Melbourne, has recently extended her hobbyist interest in knit into an artistic pursuit. In September 2004, Caroline exhibited her collaborative piece The Big Knit at Seventh Gallery in Melbourne. She has said of this remarkably large piece of knitting: ‘I was able to release a lot of creativity that I'd found in my drawings or in other areas was a bit restricted and I was becoming really frustrated with that. And then, all of a sudden, this [The Big Knit] started and I was able to release' . Penny Webb of The Age wrote of Love's work: ‘Caroline Love has achieved the impossible: she's produced…..a sculptural installation reminiscent of the 1960s work of the beautiful, doomed Eva Hesse' —testament to the success of this large collaborative work as an exhibition piece.

Knit lends itself readily to collaboration. In fact, hand knitting is so labour intensive that to do anything of scale there needs to be many influencing hands that execute the physical labour. The Big Knit as mentioned above, utilised approximately 40 knitters. Canberra artist Bronwen Sandland utilised over 100 knitters in her piece housecosy (2002) where she covered her entire house with knitted squares. There is also a major community project underway in Melbourne that will replicate the façade of a public hospital in a large knitted mural. In all of these pieces, it is the memory of each person's contribution that is left in the work – their individual signature, making up the whole. Is it a concern that the artists did not knit every stitch themselves? Is it important for the maker to make? Within this endless debate, at least perhaps we are starting a culture where craft in art is discussed in a forum that focuses on broader issues than materials and how they are executed. Amongst other ideas, this debate facilitates long overdue discussion regarding intellectual property, collaboration and the idea of community engaging in artwork as active participants rather than in the traditionally passive role of observer.

This collaborative nature of knit has lead to an ongoing push by knitters to work as groups and in public forums. Knit is a social animal that is expanding its public displays in ever-increasing numbers. Knitting groups meet in pubs, clubs and galleries – anywhere that allows a forum to swap ideas and support each other's creative pursuits. A group from the United Kingdom called Cast off state that their ‘mission is to teach everyone to knit, going public is the only way'. Cast off are an organised bunch of knitting devotees with approximately 300 members. Their world of knit now includes their own website and a mail order catalogue of kits. There are similar groups springing up all over the globe. As knitting becomes more enmeshed within popular culture, it is the role of the artist to subvert, explore and extend the use of the medium.

By experimenting with the idea of transparent technique, knit artists are now creating work where the process becomes the main integral component of the work. As previously noted, it seems tradition that process in fine art is concealed. The new work in knit appears to make no apology for the obvious nature of construction and technique. For the previous two years, my colleague Rebecca Jobson and I (aka K1P1), as knit performance artists, have placed ourselves in the window of Craft Victoria in Melbourne for the annual Scarf Festival. We sit for the three day duration of the festival – knitting. This work demonstrates how process has become as important, if not more so, than outcome. In this case, knitting as art embraces process with vigour – because the process is the Art!

Artists have also been exploring non-traditional mediums within the traditional technique of knitting. Artist Fiona Hall's piece Scar Tissue (2003) exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Federation Square is an example of playing with unexpected mediums. The knitting in this piece is created from videocassette tape. Other artists have knitted with seemingly unforgiving materials such as wire and in my earlier work Isolation (2002), I explored the use of fibre optic cabling in an attempt to push the boundaries with medium and technique.

It does not appear to be an accident that most people utilising knitted structures and yarn in their work seem to be women. Women have a long history with textiles and there is a sense of paying homage to previous generations of women who worked with textiles. It appears that this link to a humble, unpretentious history is a key to the knitting secret. Having recently reread Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, I was interested to note that the author places knitting needles in the naïve, humble hands of the unnamed protagonist who narrates the classic tale. The idea of Rebecca herself, the sophisticated character with ‘beauty, brains and breeding' engaging in the modest domestic craft of knitting seems almost absurd—perhaps the perceived more gentile crafts of embroidery or tatting more apt.

Part of paying homage to the previous suffragette-inspired army of practitioners comes through the exploration of the practical, domestic products that have been designed and knitted throughout the generations. This has become an area for exploration unto itself by artists. The cycle has come full circle as artists recognise the significance of these decorative items with functionality and attempt a contemporary take on traditional themes. In December 2004 an exhibition was held at the Museum of Craft Oddity in Los Angeles, USA. Pieces from all over the globe were exhibited. I submitted a piece entitled Foxy Koala (2004), a knitted koala-shaped tea cosy with fox fur feet that makes a statement about the impact feral animals have had on the native fauna in Australia. Unable to personally attend the exhibition, I imagine pieces will include a contemporary spin on toilet roll covers (you remember the ones that housed plastic dolls with voluminous skirts that adorned the cisterns in many suburban homes), potholders, decorative bottle covers etc.

So, there appears to be an unlimited future for knit as a creative medium. As more people board the knitting train, the more artists will be pushed to stretch the technique into new areas of contextual experimentation. The traditional, practical, applied nature of knit will never be forgotten. And although we may be banned from carrying knitting needles on aeroplanes, not even this will stop the passion that abounds for knit and its growth in popular culture. Viva La K1P1 Revolution!


Abbott, G., (2004). Crazy For Knitting , Rowan Knitting Magazine No: 34. UK

du Maurier, D., (1938). Rebecca . London: pub Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Leonard, P., (2003). Boys Who Sew , UK Craft Council Review

Signs of Life (1999). Catalogue from Melbourne International Biennial

Thomas, M., (1972). Mary Thomas Knitting Book . New York: Dover Publications

Thomas, M., (1972). Mary Thomas's Book of Knitting Patterns. New York: Dover Publications

Razer, H., (2004). We Have The Power . The Age June 24 2004 A3 p8

Sandland, B., (2003). Catalyst email interview with Nicola Hardy.

Brigette Cameron is a Melbourne based textile artist who has a keen interest in examining the delineation between knitted craft and art. She is fascinated with making the ordinary extraordinary by exploring process and context in her hand knitted work

Last modified 22-Sep-2006

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