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Sue – a traditional knitter turned artist

I stopped knitting carefully and started knitting with abandon.

Learning to knit: My mum and my grandma taught me to knit when I was really very young.  I remember knitting at primary school as I made dolls clothes.  I used to do the knitting and my mum used to do the crochet round the neck and the finishing.  I still often crochet necks to finish jumpers.  After that I quickly started knitting myself jumpers.  In our early teens (11 or 12) there was a mohair phase and we used to make these thick jumpers that grew very quickly.  In the playground there were about half a dozen of us sitting, knitting mohair jumpers.  I’ve still got them.  Knitting was something I could do at home, I had a lot of absence from school as I had severe asthma.  If I could sink myself into a project it helped my breathing, it just sort of calmed me down.  So I did quite a lot of knitting just to occupy my hands.  I made this fair-isle jumper when I was a teenager.  I remember finishing it watching a film the Hunchback of Notre Dame, it got so exciting that I knitted quicker and quicker. 

For a long time I only knitted garments until I went to Morley College and discovered experimental machine knitting and then knitting took off in a totally different direction. I did their textiles foundation in 2007 and one of the blocks we studied was machine knitting. This was when I started making knitting as art, and I forgot about garments. I knitted with wire and made a blind. I’ve done quite a lot with wire – handbags, flowery headpieces for a wedding. I use wire with wool to give it the ability to be malleable which I love. If I’m experimenting I use wire. Plastic knits up quite well, the fine stuff is rather a nice effect, you can get some really fine textures with Sainsbury’s bags as they’re incredibly thin.

Knitted Wonders I had a theme for my foundation show of ‘Miss Havisham’s shed’ as everything I’d dyed looked like old ladies underwear.  They all looked frayed and tatty so I stopped knitting carefully and started knitting with abandon.  I didn’t have to knit perfectly as it was being used for a different purpose.  Mistakes can work to my advantage, I made them deliberately in this project.  You can correct a mistake and then felt and then you don’t see it.  I’m not good at precision garments on the knitting machine.  I did knit a jumper once, but when I sewed it together it was awful.  If I’m hand knitting I will unpick to correct a mistake, but on the machine I don’t.  I leave the loose threads and long threads on the edge and I just sew them into the seam.  But by hand I will make sure I get it right.  I never did tension squares for a hand knit.  I only do them in class if I have to.  I was never taught to do that, I just got on with it.  I do a lot more guess work these days.  I know enough about knitting, size and tension to know where I can modify stuff if I need to.

I carried on with classes for about six or seven years on Wednesdays and Fridays.  My first experimental piece was a knitted bag based on a fruit/vegetable.  I made a Rhubarb bag – the bottom was a leaf made out of knitted wire, then I pressed plastic onto it so you got a lovely bright greeny, yellowy crinkly feel.  The wonderful thing about Morley was this huge chance to play, to experiment and use knitting in a freeing way and that’s what I’ve enjoyed ever since.  I use wool the most as I can control colours and dye it.  I do like the effect of lightly felted wool, if you have the right fair-isle pattern it melds nicely.  I made a jacket with a punch-card design based on one of Henry Moore’s textile designs called ‘barbed wire’.  I knitted about 6-7 metres of fair-isle, intending to felt it and make a jacket.  But I over felted it and it was a bit small and stiff.  I covered a chair in a slip stitch bubble pattern in cream.  It’s still in my bedroom but the moths have had a go at it so I need to mend it.  My original idea was to make the chair look like it was sitting in a jacket with arms and pockets off to one side, but I didn’t manage to achieve it.  I often have to pare my ideas back as I run out of time to do them.

I made figures from hemp for an exhibition to reflect different cultures and the patterns/styles they have and the kind of convergence you get in London from across the world of everyone’s fashions. They were all from samples of different techniques of fabrics that I’d made over the years. You can just look around the tube and see how people put fashions and fabrics together. You often get Japanese girls wearing outrageous clothing, and African girls with different and significant prints. I used to work as a social worker and I managed a family centre in Camden in a new building. I wanted to make it look multicultural and give it an ambience that made it more than an office. I used different fabrics and styles such as kilims with cushions that I made that went with it. I copied a lot of traditional Japanese and African patterns to put posters on the wall and give every room a different flavour, to reflect culture through pattern and cloth. Sadly I’ve got no pictures though. I dressed the whole building as I wanted the family rooms to be cosy, and people to be able to relax in the interview rooms. Everybody said that it really pulled together. I don’t think my boss believed that I’d done it by myself.

My favourite piece is a knitted pigeon I made.  We set up a spin off group of artists after Morley and every so often we do exhibitions and also pop up exhibition days.  One of the women has a wood down in Sussex.  I made the pigeon for that project.  Then the following year we did a project called nests, so I put him in a nest with felted eggs.  It’s all machine knitting with different lacy patterns and weaves.  His feathers and body are made from different bits of knitting that I felted together.  The beauty of working with that group is that knitting is my strength and default, but Morley stretched me to go way beyond my comfort zone with all sorts of other things.  I’ve got a lot of natural dyes, and I love making woven pieces with those as they blend so nicely together. 

At the moment, I belong to an embroiderers group in Enfield and we have what we called travelling books.  You get a picture from a book and you have to respond to it.  I use knitting quite a lot in that.  You can use knit weave for textures, colours or backgrounds.  I’ve just done a piece for a competition using reject pieces from knitting with dissolvable solvron.  You use this when knitting fair-isle with lambs wool and the solvron washes away and you get lacy bits.  Often they don’t work and you just get blobs.  I’ve just used it for a piece called Terrain. 

Some of the members are artists, but others like doing fine, traditional embroidery which is not my style. I have boxes full of odd bits of dyed and printed fabrics and remnants that I made at college that I can use for backgrounds. My inspiration for the December project is a really horrible postcard full of blue and white glass bauble decorations. So out came the knitting machine and I’m doing some fair-isle blue and white pieces and I’ll just chop them up and weave or stitch into them. Knitting gives me a form of making fabric.

I still do a little bit of hand knitting, but mostly for my grandchildren. I never liked traditional baby clothes, so I knitted interesting clothes in different textures and colours.  I keep wanting to get back into it for myself: I’ve got the wool and the patterns, but I’ve just got to find the right combination to get started. In the meantime I’ve been doing a lot of crochet cushions as it’s straightforward so I can just do it mindlessly in front of the TV.  My cupboards are full of my projects.  I went through a phase of giving people knitted cushions as presents; individual cushions made to their colours and tastes.  Felted knitting looks a lot like embroidery so you can make some really nice textures and patterns.  But I’ve got an awful lot in my beach hut and camper van too.

There’s something about knitting that’s really relaxing.  I like to use my hands.  I’m not very good at sitting still without doing something with my hands.  I get that from my mum, she was never without her knitting needles and my dad always had his sketchbook.  My grandma was always sitting knitting constantly.  I love the idea of constructing something, and very repetitive patterning.  There’s something about the feeling of fibre in your hands and watching something grow.  I quite like embroidery but I won’t do it every night, knitting or crochet is my fall-back position.  I do something every night, mostly in front of the telly. 

My Tension Square: We took over an allotment two or three years ago.  One of the plants was a bush called Christmas box (sarcococca confusa) and they’re beautiful deep purple berries.  So I tried dying silk with it and it gave a beautiful bluey colour.  I made a cardigan forty odd years ago when I was expecting my daughter.  I took a plain pattern from a book and modified the cardigan to add a lacy front.  I remembered it when I was playing around so I decided to use that same pattern with the silk to see what it looked like. 

My legacy: I feel a bit sad that knitting might stop with me unless I can teach my grandchildren.  I taught my daughter in law to knit, but when she had the kids she stopped for a while, so she might get back into it.  My daughter does dress making and I taught her to knit, but she’s not got the same interest.  I was knitting competently and able to follow a complex pattern as a teenager – but she hasn’t got that same skill level yet so would need a lot of help. 

Ten years ago I was teaching young mums to knit in a café.  The class was nearly a disaster, as they were more interested in their babies and chatting than learning knitting.  You can’t teach much in an hour’s session, and then the café went bust.  Now knitting is seen as cool and a good thing.  For a while hand knitting was a bit passé.  Now people are beginning to be much more conscious of what people can do with knitting, helped by the range of wools that you can get now.  For years I used to knit with French wools as they were the nicest you could find.  I can’t go near a wool shop anymore as you’re bound to see something that you like and want to try.  I have to keep myself away.  Someone told me that there’s a phrase called STABLE which stands for STash that never in your life will I be ABLE to use.  That’s definitely true for me as I’ve got more wool than I’ll ever knit with.

I’d like to pass on some knitting skills but teaching hand knitting needs someone always available to help and correct, like my mum was for me.  I don’t feel that you can competently knit until you can correct a mistake.  Unless you get a certain degree of skill you don’t push yourself to make things.  I do get neighbours popping in to ask for my help correcting things, or to borrow some needles.  Sadly there’s not enough adult education to address this.   The more it’s taught in families is probably the way forward although a lot of people teach themselves on-line now. 


Published by jencableart

Jen Cable is a mixed media textile artist who loves to draw attention to the outmoded, fabulous, awful and bizarre aspects of culture and everyday society

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