Metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker

Monday, October 28, 2013

The next theme from my PhD thesis that I'd like to focus on is... (drum roll please)

... my role as a designer. 

I launched Keep & Share in 2004, working as a designer-maker to create seasonal collections of knitwear and selling them mainly to individual customers. In 2008 I started to support other knitters by producing patterns and running workshops and projects, while still (of course) creating my own knitwear pieces. My research project has been a continuation of that journey, exploring the ways in which I can use my design practice to facilitate and support knitters to work more experimentally, without conventional patterns. This approach corresponds with the ʻhacktivistʼ designer role described by Otto von Busch:

'This role is not the one of a classic unique genius of fashion. Instead it is in the form of orchestrator and facilitator, as an agent of collaborative change. It is not the divine creator of the original and new, but a negotiator, questioning and developing design as a skill and practical production utility ... It is a combination of designing material artefacts as well as social protocols.' (von Busch, 2009: 63)

When I reflected on the research project, I felt that the role I had developed for myself involved two strands: metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. First, let's think about the 'metadesigner' role:

In the past my primary design activity was producing ʻclosedʼ patterns for knitted garments, to be produced either by me (to sell) or by amateurs (for themselves). For this project I have been designing fragments of knit processes, gathering knowledge, developing instructions and advice, and creating a structure within which to present these resources. 

This new type of activity changes my relationship with finished objects; when I design and make, I have the satisfaction of holding a new garment that I have constructed. As a metadesigner, I ʻmight never see or even be aware of the results of [my] endeavours, changed as they will be by users to suit their own needsʼ (Atkinson, 2011: 30). It is worth considering: does this new role satisfy me as a designer? I think so; by supporting and influencing the work of amateurs, my efforts can have a far greater impact than would be possible when making by myself.

Jones (1991: 205) describes this new role (as adopted by a designer of his acquaintance) in a particularly engaging way: ʻhis role, once heʼd given up part of the design function to his clients, became, as he said, that of professional encourager.ʼ

'Professional encourager' - nice, huh? OK, so now for the idea of the 'hyper-amateur maker':

In this mode, I try out the same tasks as other amateurs, working with items from my own wardrobe – but consciously permit myself to spend more time and energy, and to work with more ambition and courage, than they might feel is possible or desirable. This ʻhyperʼ approach enables me to push the boundaries of my ideas, identify problems and opportunities, and create examples that will, it is hoped, inspire others.

In my last thesis-related post, I discussed identity construction in relation to fashion. I used the same idea to reflect on my own identity:

My identity as a designer-maker has been partially dependent on distinguishing myself from amateur knitters. Like other ʻstudio craftʼ practitioners, I have used the validation of institutions such as ʻthe museum, the media, and the marketplaceʼ (Stevens, 2011: 44) in the construction of my identity.

However, I have become uncomfortable with engaging with a hierarchy that implicitly denigrates amateur activity. Knitting has evolved over centuries of activity by ʻuntrainedʼ amateurs (usually women), via communal evolution and the contributions of talented individuals, who would be recognised in their own communities but are now forgotten. When I design and knit, I am benefitting from the effort of these people, and it feels disrespectful to deny this relationship.

So, my identity now comprises three strands: designer-maker, metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. I feel that these roles allow me to sidestep the studio craft/amateur craft hierarchy and instead simply enjoy collaborating with other knitters. They allow me to explore design at a 'meta' level and at garment level, and to experiment with making at different scales, from individual stitches to complex systems.



Atkinson, P. (2011) Orchestral manoeuvres in design. In: B. van Abel, L. Evers, R. Klaassen, & P. Troxler eds. Open design now: why design cannot remain exclusive. Amsterdam, BIS Publishers, pp.24–31. [available online here]

Jones, J.C. (1991) Continuous Design and Redesign. In: J. C. Jones ed. Designing Designing. London, Architecture Design & Technology Press, pp.190–216.

Stevens, D. (2011) Validity is in the eye of the beholder: mapping craft communities of practice. In: M. E. Buszek ed. Extra/ordinary: craft and contemporary art. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, pp.43–58.

von Busch, O. (2009) Fashion-able. Gothenburg, Camino. [hard copy and pdf version available here]



Wednesday, October 23, 2013

As a bit of light relief from my thesis-related blog posts, I thought I would share another of my childhood making projects, which has somehow survived to the present day (minus one mitten).

I cannot recall exactly why I chose to knit a bonnet, jumper, cape and mittens for this donkey puppet ... but I'm glad I did!



Unravelling fashion and consumption

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's time to pull another strand from my PhD thesis: the relationship between fashion and consumption. Yes, it's a big one! Here, I'll just try to summarise the issues...

My approach to this research was informed by a short conference paper from 2008 by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, which I described in my thesis like this:

Fletcher and Grose (2008: 1) call for ʻfashion that helps us flourishʼ. They describe how the rich culture of fashion helps us to meet our human needs for identity and participation, and argue that celebrating this positive role of fashion could improve individual well-being and allow new opportunities for sustainability to emerge.

As I went on to explain, this idea is inspiring, but not straightforward:

This view of fashion requires us to consider the role of fashion independently from the current economic fashion system. This is far from easy; as Breward and Evans (2005: 2) explain, ʻfashion is a process in two senses: it is a market-driven cycle of consumer desire and demand; and it is a modern mechanism for the fabrication of the selfʼ. These economic and cultural processes are intertwined, ʻmutually constitutive to the extent of being analytically inseparableʼ, according to Briggs (2005: 81). 

So - I'm interested in challenging the link between fashion and consumption, whilst celebrating fashion as a means of identity construction (what Breward and Evans call 'the fabrication of the self'). Identity construction is a key idea in my thesis:

In traditional cultures, identities are stable; for example, ʻin nineteenth-century industrializing societies, social class affiliation was one of the most salient aspects of a personʼs identityʼ (Crane, 2000: 4). We now live in a post-traditional world, and identities are less stable; in this context, we have multiple identities and the self becomes an evolving, reflexive project (Giddens, 1991). 

One way in which we construct our identity is through our possessions (Belk, 1988). Because leisure and lifestyle, as opposed to work, religion and class, have become more important in constructing identity, ʻthe consumption of cultural goods, such as fashionable clothing, performs an increasingly important roleʼ (Crane, 2000: 11). Woodward (2007) describes the act of choosing what to wear as a practice of identity construction, and dressing as an act of ʻsurfacingʼ particular aspects of the self. 

Shops provide us with an endless supply of new clothes, that we can use to construct our identities. However:

As Finkelstein (1991: 145) says, ʻif we are relying upon the properties of procured goods for our sense of identity, then we are compelled to procure again and againʼ.

This neatly summarises the link between the two processes of fashion, described above - a central challenge for sustainable fashion. 

In my research, I found that an alternative means of identity construction was taking place, separate from consumption:

When we re-knit, we are able to mould our identity within a single garment, adding new meanings associated with the practice of making.

This project has provided some indications that alternative fashion practices – such as re-knitting – can provide the well-being benefits associated with fashion and meet our needs for identity and participation in ways which are not dependent on consumerism. While a fashion system revolving around these alternative practices would involve much less frequent consumption of new items, it need not be dull; as we have seen from the examples in this research, the process of re-knitting can intensify and energise the relationship between wearer and wardrobe.


Belk, R.W. (1988) Possessions and the extended self. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (2), pp.139–168.

Breward, C. & Evans, C. (2005) Introduction. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.1–8.

Briggs, A. (2005) Response [to chapter 3]. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.79–81.

Crane, D. (2000) Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Finkelstein, J. (1991) The fashioned self. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2008) Fashion that helps us flourish. In: Changing the change: design, visions, proposals and tools proceedings. Turin, Italy, 10-12 July. [View pdf of full proceedings]

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Woodward, S. (2007) Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg.