Remixing the fashion commons

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This is a guest post that I wrote for the blog of Digital Transformations, a research network exploring digital transformations in the creative relationships between cultural and media organisations and their users. It outlines my thoughts after attending the second of a series of academic workshops on this subject.

At Friday’s workshop the discussion touched on fashion’s approach to intellectual property and how it is different to that of other cultural sectors. (For instance, it was mentioned that in a Guardian webchat the previous evening, Clay Shirky had mentioned that there is no copyright in fashion, but that this had not deterred fashion designers from producing creative designs).

This is an interest of mine: the theoretical part of my PhD on fashion, making and well-being hangs on the idea of fashion being a commons, or a shared cultural resource. I describe the fashion commons as consisting of the huge diversity of dress and garment styles, shapes, fabrics and details from different geographical areas and historical periods. Fashion depends on this broad, varied, vibrant resource, because new fashions involve existing styles revisited, recombined or recontextualised. In ‘Material Culture in the Social World’, Tim Dant describes how fashion ‘acts as a living museum’ and ‘plays promiscuously with the past’, reviving elements from the commons and layering them with new meanings.

The fashion industry is only able to use this commons because of the minimal legal protections that exist for its creative design. The industry actively protects its trademarks, such as brand names and logos, but the design of garments cannot be ‘owned’. In their paper on fashion and IP in the USA, Jenkins and Cox state that because garments are considered ‘useful articles’ by the courts, they are not protected by copyright. There is a similar situation in the UK; while designers have some protection through design right, in practice no-one can own elements like a sleeve shape or a striking silhouette.

Effectively, as Cox and Jenkins say, ‘designers are free to borrow, imitate, recombine, transform and share design elements’. New designs are built on archetypes and previous styles; appropriation and modification are inherent to the fashion design process and entirely legal. This is a striking contrast with the worlds of music, literature and film – at the workshop we heard many examples of how the sampling or remixing of existing content can breach copyright law.

The downside of this lack of protection is the copying which is common practice in high street fashion. I have had my own knitwear designs ripped off by a number of retailers, and found it to be a distressing experience. Although I was successful in gaining recompense in the most extreme case, as I had formally registered my design, most designers know that if you make a few tweaks to a copy then it is very difficult to argue legally. So, I’m a defender of the fashion commons, but complain about copying – isn’t that a contradiction?

I don’t think so – for me, there is a definite difference between remixing and copying. Copying is cynical, lazy and a waste of the talents of the designers our art colleges train every year. Remixing connects us with each other by reviving and recombining things that we recognise, in a new cultural context.

Cox and Jenkins suggest that fashion’s intellectual property regime could provide a model for other sectors. Although I’m no expert, I think I agree. The ‘big picture’ argument for copyright protection is that it enriches the commons, and ensures that creators are sufficiently rewarded to keep creating new content. However, the stories from film, music and literature suggest that the commons are being denied lots of new, remixed material. James Boyle argues that information products are made of fragments of other information, and the increase of protection reduces the supply of these fragments: a cultural ‘Tragedy of the Anticommons’.

Putting these weighty thoughts to one side, I’ll finish by thinking more specifically about the Digital Transformations project, which is (like me) interested in communities of amateur enthusiasts producing innovative material. My particular focus is on amateurs making, and re-making, their own clothing. Just like professional designers, amateur designer-makers can ‘remix’ the fashion commons. Even makers using patterns, which might seem to be prescriptive, can make their own combination of design elements. Patterns are often designed to allow users to choose from various options and features, and makers also branch out to create adaptations not suggested by the pattern, gathering inspiration from all over the place: films, high street shops, catwalks, vintage clothes, street style and so on.

In writing this post, I was reflecting on the other key aspect of the project: the traditional cultural organisations which are starting to engage with amateur producers. I realised that there are very few cultural organisations focusing on fashion and dress; off the top of my head, I can only think of the V&A and the Fashion and Textile Museum. These are isolated examples of institutions that have an interest in encouraging amateur communities to produce their own fashion; most of this activity is carried out by individual designer-makers, like me.

We are far outnumbered by the corporate entities which design, manufacture, sell and promote fashion – all of whom have a vested interest in keeping us as passive consumers. So, although fashion may have a relaxed approach to intellectual property, which could be rewardingly explored by amateur producers, there are few organisations around encouraging anyone to do so.


What does 'knitterly' mean?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

At the moment I’m collecting, developing and sampling techniques for intervening in existing knitted fabrics – opening, unravelling, re-knitting and embellishing in every configuration I can muster. In my last post I showed one example of the step-by-step images I’m taking of each sample, which will show others how to do the same process. I’m aiming for these processes to be generic – able to be applied in many different ways, in different contexts.

But as I’m doing the samples, I’m realising how many decisions are involved in their making. I want to show a multitude of possibilities, but – by their very nature – each sample can only show one. For example, I have a sample of a piece which I’ve opened and knit down from the open stitches. What hem to knit? What cast off to use?

In a conversation with my PhD supervisor last week, I described these decisions to him, and explained that I was using the idea of ‘being knitterly’ as my guide. Where I have a choice of techniques, I choose the one which seems the most knitterly. But what does this mean? I suppose, for me, it’s about appealing to the sensibilities and preferences of an experienced knitter, and enjoying the full vocabulary of knitting – based on my own experience and the knowledge gained from discussing techniques with others.

I guess that I started using the term ‘knitterly’ with reference to the idea of ‘painterly’. My dictionary defines painterly as:

painterly adj

1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a painter

2. characterised by qualities of colour, stroke, or texture perceived as distinctive to the art of painting, especially the rendering of forms and images in terms of colour or tonal relations rather than of contour or line


knitterly adj

1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a knitter

2. characterised by elements perceived as distinctive to the craft of knitting, especially…

It’s the second of these definitions that I’m particularly interested in. Could it be developed? What are the elements perceived as being distinctive to the craft of knitting? I searched for others using the term in this way, and found a thread on the Knitter’s Review forums, and a mention in KnitKnit about the knitterly work of Teva Durham.

One person on the forum also made the link between knitterly and painterly:

“I view ‘knitterly’ much as I view ‘painterly.’ Or much as I view the concept of a ‘musician’s musician.’ Paintings that are considered ‘painterly’ often display techniques that may be difficult for a beginning painter to master but which add something beautiful to the work. Tom Waits is a classic musician’s musician–some folks without much of a musical background may not understand all of his work, but those who have studied or played a lot of music can hear musical quotes and techniques that are really exciting.” Lanea


On the hunt for the characteristics of knitterly-ness, I’ve gathered some ideas together, backed up by some of my own thoughts and the words of others (usernames refer to posters on the Knitter’s Review forum, which can be found here - I hope the original posters are happy for me to use their contributions, but please contact me if not)

Knitterly is about both design and execution

“I create designs to bring out this expressive quality, but in reproducing them, not every knitter has the touch. There are two levels, the design and the implementation or interpretation – like a Chopin nocturne needs a feeling pianist.” Teva Durham quoted by Sabrina Gschwandtner, KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave, p60

Knitterly is about both process and product

“An attention to the craft – to the skill involved in making the item and not just in the item itself” fillyjonk

“[To] focus not only on patterns but also designing, technique, fibre, etc … because for me, knitting is more than just fashion.” MJM

Knitterly is being ‘absolute boss of your knitting’

“The technique will, I think, prove to you that you are the absolute boss of your knitting.” Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitting Without Tears, p37

… by understanding the structure you’re creating 

I think of a knitterly approach as being able to read your knitting, to see a piece of knitting or a pattern and to understand the processes involved.

… and using the right technique, based on your own preferences

“It’s about knowing eighteen different ways to do an increase, and choosing the one you want, no matter what the pattern says, based on how you want the end-product to look.” honeybee33

Knitterly is attention to detail

“An attention to, and an appreciation for, detail. An unwillingness to sort of shrug and say, ‘Oh, that’s good enough, no one really knits any more so no one will notice the corners I cut.’” fillyjonk

Knitterly has a preference for in-the-round to flat knitting, for seamless finishes, and for knitting over sewing

“[The] traditional method of construction ‘in the round’ is more natural to knitting than the more modern method of knitting over two needles. Knitting pieces and sewing them together owes more to dressmaking and tailoring, than knitwear. The majority of old patterns were in the round. There is a piece of good advice for knitters that the Shetland Islanders mention over and over again. ‘Never, ever sew when you can knit’. After all, most people hate putting the knitted pieces together.” Michael Pearson, Traditional Knitting, p14

Knitterly is revelling in the cleverness of knitting …

“Perhaps many people share with me great pride in producing a piece of work which will cause their expert friends to exclaim, ‘How did you do it?’” Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter’s Almanac, p44 

… but being open about your techniques

“[I] gradually, with hints and winks, give out clues.” Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter’s Almanac, p44 

“The “wise knitting woman” who passes her skills and knowledge on to others.”fillyjonk

Knitterly doesn’t disguise its nature

“Being true to the craft….to me that means it should look like knitting.”kdcrowley

I surprised myself by realising how much I agree with this. I remember having a conversation with a machine knit designer, who tried (quite successfully) to disguise the fact that her fabric was knitted. Her work was accomplished and professional, but I don’t think I’d describe it as knitterly.

Knitterly is being prepared to experiment and ‘unvent’

“It’s about ferreting out how it could be possible to make a yarn-over-knit exactly the same size as a yarn-over-purl, even though you are the only one who would be able to tell.” honeybee33

“[To] look at a sock knit the same way for generations and come up with a different heel.” RobA

Knitterly engages with tradition yet pushes forward

“To me, knitterliness is not about tradition, or ‘the way they used to do things’. It’s not just about looking back, or moving forward. It’s about the drive for the craft that propels all of us ever outward, expanding *and* refining, preserving *and* inventing, no matter where that long drive takes you. Just because we can, and just because we care.” honeybee33


There were some proposed characteristics of knitterly-ness that I disagreed with:

Knitterly is about enthusiasm rather than skill or detail

“I think of someone as knitterly if they love knitting, and it has nothing to do with attention to detail. A grandmother who knits with Red Heart yarn because she loves the craft so much and can’t afford wool is a perfect example to me. I know people who knit tons of novelty scarves, and others who knit one exquisite sweater per year with every detail carefully planned out and executed. Yes, I think the latter is a better knitter (skillwise), but I think they are both equally knitterly.” knit_cookie

“If the work is done for the joy of knitting (product or process)  it is knitterly. If it is done for the participation in a trend alone, it’s not. So the most intricate knitted garment in the world could be non-knitterly – because it was done for the sake of a trend, and the rattiest scrap of garter stitch with dropped and split stitches, can be knitterly, because it was done for the joy of knitting. RoseByAny

I understand the sentiments of these contributors, but think it’s useful to define knitterly as something other than enthusiasm: otherwise we have no name for knitterly techniques.

Knitterly is about humility and lack of ego

“The old sage woman who’s made mittens and socks (and more) all her life for her loved ones. Without fluff, and without great praise…just the quiet doing.”knittingbaglady

I agree with the following response: “While I understand the feeling of roots that this image creates, I am not sure it represents knitterliness to me. It would depend on how you did that work, wouldn’t it? RobA

My gut feeling is also that a lack of ego or fanfare is more indicative of the status of women, and women’s craft, than a knitterly quality to aspire to. A lot of my work is about trying to get a little more fanfare around the knitting of others.


So, what do you think? Do you recognise my definitions of knitterly-ness? Disagree? Have any more to contribute? Who or what do you consider to be knitterly, and why?



  1. i read the comments and thought about the word knitterly.
    The pleasure of knitting is i think very importend, but… if you have the skills to level up your skills it can be knitterly as well.
    Like when i was an art student and i had to knit some art work, i loved it to try out some other materials and to try out how you could use the same technic without losing the effect of knitting. When something like that was been a succes i felt it was knitterly as well.
    i don’t think others aren’t telling the truth but, you can’t disquality the one or the other.
    Like the fun and enjoyment of the knitting it self but as well the fun that you can have that you watch your skills are improving to a higher level;-D
    i’m a dutch girl so … my english isn’t sooo well, sorry for the mistakes i have made;-D

  2. Great blog post Amy, inspiring as always. I wonder if the definition as “elements perceived as distinctive to the craft of knitting” could be applied to something that is not actually knitted. For example, could Chae Young Kim’s knit effect digital wallpaper be described as knitterly?

  3. Thanks for the comments – there’s definitely an interesting dynamic between enjoyment and skill, and an issue around whether ‘knitterly’ requires ‘authentic’ materials, or even to be physically knitted!

    Food for thought…

  4. tomofholland 

    Since reading this post I’ve been thinking a long time about what ‘knitterly’ means to me. I think I broadly agree with you. For me, ‘knitterly’ means that you have an object that you could not perceive to be made in a different way. I think it would be interesting to explore the term ‘elements’ in the second definition of ‘knitterly’, rather than trying to finish it. There are some things you can only do by knitting, which I think makes something ‘knitterly’. The most obvious one is already mentioned: the ability to make a seamless tube (hence a sweater knit in the round is more knitterly than one knit in pieces). But another important one to me is that you can shape that tube whilst you are making it, unlike sewing, where you need to cut material, and then sew it together. There’s also a certain way of decoration that feels very knitterly to me, which is the textures you can create with knitting, which again, is something you do whilst making the fabric, rather than something you do afterwards (e.g. in pottery, you would generally first make a shape, and then you can create a surface texture afterwards). As for colour, stranded colourwork feels more knitterly to me than intarsia. All this is underpinned by intimate knowledge of technique, and an intuitive understanding on when to use them to achieve the exact effect you’re after.


  1. Hi Tom – thanks for your contribution! Yes, I totally agree – I often bang on about designing for the capabilities of the structure, and celebrating those that are particular to the structure, e.g. the ability to shape three-dimensionally without sewing.

    Interesting point about decoration, and stranded colourwork versus intarsia – I think I agree. In colourwork, in a way you are more restricted because you have to design for the floats – and creating within that restriction is particularly knitterly, I think.

  2. I think any design element that works within the restricted framework of knitting and tries to push it to the very limit makes something knitterly. Again, using stranded colourwork as an example, I think Bohus designs are a good example of being very knitterly; or EZ, who limited herself to try and only use purl sts where absolutely necessary and thus finding very interesting ways of designing and constructing objects.

  3. I’m totallly agree with tomofholland.
    but a level further, or higher will be the same. and show you much better the meaning of knitterly.
    Like or by the way thinking of theatre. You must use to show the audiance bigger sized things of knitterly fabric by using bigger sized stiches and using bigger yarn, like thick rope or plastic tubes or … fabric that you can knit on your arms to get the same awesome knitterly meaning .
    I have done that, and when i had to learn students to knit i had given them the project knit a had to weare in the theatre and think big sized.
    It helped them to think why they knitted and to think on an other level to show the knitterly of their work.
    I was flabber gasthed at the end of which the had made, when i had given them an other subject to make they didn’t had thought of knitterly only of learning to knit.
    We often think to commen when we think of knitting and knitterly.
    I like both ways but it’s awesome to show people you can do sooooo much more with the term knitterly then just a piece of knitted fabric.XD


Online/offline knitting

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

This is a guest post that I wrote for the blog of Digital Transformations, a research network exploring digital transformations in the creative relationships between cultural and media organisations and their users. It outlines my thoughts after attending the first of a series of academic workshops on this subject - details here.

I came to the Production and Creativity workshop exercising a sort of double-think. Yes, this day is totally for me, I thought – the agenda seemed to address many issues I’ve been thinking about recently. I am a ‘professional’ knitwear designer-maker often producing projects and workshops with and for ‘amateur’ participants, sometimes on behalf of cultural organisations. My PhD research centres around my practice, exploring how a designer-maker can support knitting activity by others with the aim of encouraging more positive experiences of fashion. So, I was interested in the themes of the workshop, and in particular ‘the role of the professional producer as they find themselves in a community of enthusiast producers, fans, and other practitioners’.

Simultaneously, I felt like a bit of an imposter – I have no specific interest in digital creativity and online environments, beyond my own Twitter activity, website and blog. Would I have to imagine that all my offline projects take place online to take part in any meaningful discussion?

It wasn’t really until my journey home to Hereford that I was able to reconcile these thoughts. On reflection, I realised that the first talks by David Gauntlett and John Naughton had demonstrated that changes in media (broadcasting to mass participation, towers to platforms, scarcity to abundance) are changing the whole cultural landscape. I would argue that this new landscape affects the context within which we act, even if our actions are entirely offline. It engenders a growing expectation of, and desire for, individual creativity. Knitting has been practised as a creative pastime for centuries, always subject to cycles of popularity. This new environment may be one factor in the recent resurgence of hand knitting as a leisure activity.

Furthermore, if a community of interest finds its home online, as the knitting community has rather convincingly done through Ravelry, that affects the experience of knitting. Lots of knitters now connect with others via Ravelry and knitting blogs and discuss their own niche interests. Even if you do all your knitting independently and offline, or use online knitting resources as a lurker, rather than an active contributor, you are connected, by association, with digital transformations.

This realisation, plus several conversations during the day, made me realise how the fluid the boundary is between online and offline life. So, happily, no pretence was required on my part; both offline and online experiences were considered ripe for discussion. Offline activity can be framed and inspired by online conversations and information; online connections can continue offline experiences. It seems to me that the issues around participation, cooperation and expert/amateur relationships are pretty universal, and depend more on the context and type of platform than a binary online/offline distinction.

David Gauntlett spoke about platforms not just being digital platforms – such as Twitter, YouTube etc – but also ‘real-life’ platforms for creativity; for example, guerrilla gardeners use the street as a platform for their grassroots activity. He outlined 8 principles for platforms (which he promised to blog soon!), which place an emphasis on open participation, storytelling, recognition and a sense of community. While I could see that the principles would apply to digital platforms, I realised that they equally describe the qualities of the offline knitting projects I run.

For example, at my Keep & Share Knitting Tent which visits music festivals each summer, I aim to involve everyone, of any skill level; to let people take part for any length of time; to teach skills, as desired; to create a convivial environment and a sense of community, however transitory; to gather participants’ stories of knitting; and to celebrate the output of the project. Neil Cummings spoke inspiringly about transferring online principles to offline experiences. I hadn’t thought of my projects as ‘platforms’ before; seeing them in this way enables a new perspective and generates new ideas, as I consider how to transfer successful digital experiences to my offline projects.

Seeing the knitting community as a spectrum of online/offline/hybrid activity, rather than a binary, has also helped me to think about how I could connect with this rich community to further my PhD research and share my ideas. Because I have chosen to run workshops in my studio with a small group of knitters as my main method of data collection, I have – so far – tended to ignore the online community, or simply use existing online resources as a source of information. However, I’m sure that there are many rich conversations to be had: gathering anecdotes, gaining feedback, understanding how members of the community connect and support each other online.

I’m going into Ravelry – I may be some time…