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…

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