Re-knitting: parallels with architecture

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In my thesis, I draw on a number of different areas which I see as parallels for fashion and clothing. For example, I use folk music as a way of framing my idea of homemade clothes as 'folk fashion', as outlined in this post

Here, I'd like to discuss the parallels that I see between knitting and architecture, and more specifically between re-knitting and the reworking and repair of existing buildings.

The first mention of buildings in my thesis appears in a discussion of the benefits of making. Community architect Christopher Alexander involved local people in the design and construction of their own dwellings, and writes eloquently of the impact of this experience:

'They have made themselves solid in the world, have shaped the world as they have shaped themselves ... They, they themselves, have created their own lives, not in that half-conscious, underground, interior way that we all do, but manifestly, out there on their own land: they are alive; they breathe the breath of their own houses...' (Alexander, 1985: 322)

I love this quote! Various writers on craft talk similarly about the enjoyment of bringing something new into existence. For example, Roszika Parker ([1984] 2010: xx) describes how the embroiderer 'holds in her hands a coherent object which exists both outside in the world and inside her headʼ and explains that this has a great positive impact on the sense of self. In short, knitting - like building - makes us feel alive and solid in the world.

Christopher Alexander pops up again with his writing about the repair and alteration of buildings. In The Timeless Way of Building (1979: 485), he observes that 'at every moment we use the defects of the present state as the starting point for the definition of the new stateʼ. This simple observation translates directly to re-knitting; in the projects that were made as part of the research, the issues which needed to be resolved with the garment - whether holey sleeves or an item that was felt to be boring - were central to the design discussions.

He goes on to discuss conservative repair versus tranformation, a distinction which corresponds with Richard Sennettʼs (2008: 200) ideas of static repair, which will ʻrestore the object to its former stateʼ, and dynamic repair, which will ʻchange the objectʼs current form or functionʼ. In the re-knitting project, I saw the knitters making the same distinction and showing a strong desire to improve on the original item, dynamically transforming it. 

Buildings are sufficiently long-lasting for us to see such transformations combine and develop over time. In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand quotes Brian Eno, reflecting on the appreciation he feels for buildings which change:

'We are convinced by things that show internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution ... This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.' (Brian Eno, quoted in Brand, 1994: 11)

The ʻtasteʼ for evolution that Eno mentions could also apply to garments and the practice of re-knitting. 

In the re-knitting project, I was struck by how often the idea of 'wholeness' came up - the need for the alterations to feel part of the garment, rather than stuck on. I was surprised, and delighted, to find Christopher Alexander discussing this idea of wholeness in relation to buildings:

'When we repair something in this new sense, we assume that we are going to transform it, that new wholes will be born, that, indeed, the entire whole which is being repaired will become a different whole as the result of the repair.' (Alexander, 1979: 485)

I agree that in each re-knitting project, a new whole is born; perhaps that's what makes it so satisfying.

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Alexander, C. (1979) The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, C. (1985) The production of houses. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brand, S. (1994) How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built. New York: Viking Penguin.

Parker, R. ([1984] 2010) The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine. London: I. B. Tauris.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin.

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Cave painting in a Vitalite tub

Monday, November 25, 2013

I've found a rich seam of material to mine in the 'things I made when I was young' theme. 

I've already shown you the first thing I (probably) sewed, and an over-accessorised donkey

But my making wasn't restricted to sewing and knitting - as demonstrated by this beautifully preserved (by my mum) 'Cave painting in a Vitalite tub'. 

Vitalite tubs = making in our house, being the ideal receptacle for all manner of craft materials. And versatile, too! This one provided the mould for my work of art, and then kept it protected so it could be photographed for a blog 25(ish) years later.

More childhood making coming soon!

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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.

Lovely!

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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]

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