That’s how I started working with seaweed
I believe that I learnt to knit in elementary school. It was still a time when girls would learn these type of things like sewing, knitting or crocheting; and the boys would have shop. It must have been in third or fourth grade, so maybe I was 9 or 10. We started out with something simple like a pot holder. Then we moved onto four needles and a project which is crazy, we would make baby socks! You learned to knit on four needles, it was nightmarish. Of course you were dropping stitches all over the place and what you end up knitting looked so incredibly dreadful. I can’t remember if it was me or my sister who knit them, but they were yellow and white baby socks and one was ginormous and the other was tiny; probably because we got help from our mother to do a little. It wasn’t that great an experience.
I’ve taught my sons to knit when they were younger. They’re not still doing it. I think they liked it, especially the younger one. It can be extremely frustrating learning to knit. It’s so easy when you do it yourself. I do remember how hard it was in the beginning to learn it.
Our mother was a pretty good knitter, she didn’t do very complicated patterns but she would knit sweaters for us, she would just wing it. She would just make a little swatch and figure out how many stitches per inch and think up a sweater for us. She didn’t really use patterns all that much. She must have helped me too, I have vague memories of this. I think when I was about 16/17 it was all the rage to knit or crochet your own sweaters so I did a lot of that. Then for quite a while I only made occasional items, then recently in the last few years I’ve started knitting again. I now knit for my grand-daughter I’ve made a couple of sweaters.
I knit a sweater for my husband, before we were married. He really didn’t like it. It was something that American men would just not wear at that point in time. You put all that work into it and he was really generous and said that it was wonderful or great but he never wore it. Now I think back and knowing what I know now about American and Dutch culture it was my lack of understanding about what people were wearing. I came to the US in the 80’s and things were still pretty conservative in New England in terms of dress compared to the Netherlands. Women were still wearing stockings to work, whereas that was what your mother did in the NL, but you really didn’t do that anymore. There was a big difference between what men and women wore formally for work, whereas in the NL that was already becoming more fluid.
Recently I’ve started machine knitting, with the intention of knitting with wire and making my own fabric. Rhode Island school of design has a summer programme where you can take an official credit, condensed into six weeks. The teacher was wonderful, Emily Nora O’Neil – she makes her own line of clothing, she was very patient. I was in class with kids my son’s age, in their twenties which was an interesting experience. It was pretty intense, with lots of homework. I enjoyed it and now I’ve made some baby sweaters on the machine.
I wanted to make textiles that were sculptural. I’m interested in using techniques that tend to be soft and then bringing them into the third dimension. So when I did my Shibori work I didn’t want it to be about the pattern that you’re striving for, I wanted to go for manipulated fabric that then has a life of its own and becomes a thing. Maybe it’s because I worked in the 2D world for so long as a graphic designer that now I want to come out of that. I took some private classes with the same teacher to learn how to use the ribber for 3 or 4 days in her studio. I was really interested in 3D knitting as I think it’s really beautiful if you can make something without seams, something that is thought of as a whole. I looked for classes with Shimaseiki in Europe, but it seemed that you really needed to know how to use one of their regular machines, before you used a 3D machine. It’s one of these fantasy ideas that’s sitting for a bit.
My goal was to use incredibly fine wire and I think that’s why I gave up. I wanted it to be almost invisible so that it could be interrupted with another material that would seem to be floating in air. In my mind it was just gorgeous, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I want to go back to trying it, and I want to think up a contraption which would have less breakage. I need a bigger studio space so I can leave it there and tinker and walk away from it so I can problem solve over time. When it did work, I really liked the sculptural form. But it’s very, very difficult to work with. I think it is possible, I signed up for an engineering forum on-line to talk to people about metal mixes to explore how fine I can go. I need the right mix of rigidity, flexibility and strength, maybe it isn’t stainless steel. I’m not done with it, it’s resting.
When I took the knitting class, I felt the need to make my own materials from scratch. Going closer to raw materials. When you buy fabric to work with, it’s a given – you can embellish it, dye it or manipulate it. I was doing a lot of pleating so I tried to create pleating in knitting to get a sculptural form. But it was so incredibly time consuming that I moved away from it. There’s a certain kind of tediousness to machine knitting that maybe I’m not entirely suited to. There’s so much you can’t control. Sometimes the machine just doesn’t seem to want to be nice, things happen, the stitches drop off and the thread breaks. There’s quite a lot of technical stuff to control and I don’t always have the patience for it.
I took this textile class at Haystack, which is a craft school in Maine. The theme of that class was to take textile techniques and take it into the digital realm. You could do anything, so I took knitting as an entry point. I started to figure out what is knitting, what does it look like if you draw it, or look at it from a technical point of view. I ended up laser cutting the actual texture of knitting out of wood. Knitting is all about it being stretchy, soft and malleable. It made me think about how flexible it is, not just that the material is flexible: you can take it on the train, to a meeting or when you are half-watching your children; in contrast to my sample which is laser cut which is this rigid thing. I then knit off of the laser cut piece of material, attaching to both sides of it. It really made me think about how knitting works. First I thought it would be easy to knit it into my work, but as the loops are closed you have to think of another way. It’s a closed loop system. So you have to pull the loops through to mimic the knitting. When you knit you don’t really think about what you’re doing. You take it for granted. You learn it as a kid and you just do it and you don’t really think about what the actual structure is, or at least I didn’t. I was trying to show (that) people who knit, their minds might be looking for ways to work around and incorporate whatever is not flexible in life. The idea being that knitting is done when we can do it, it’s something we take for ourselves when we can. To me it seems that it’s been that way forever, in the past it was Women needing something for themselves, feeling that they’ve accomplished something ,that it was outside of the ‘have to do’s’ maybe. It’s making little windows for yourself.
I feel that whenever it gets cold outside I feel this need to start knitting again. There’s something cosy about it. I always have something on the go, just now it’s a hand knitted baby hat. I like the meditative character of hand knitting which you lose with machine knitting. I went into machine knitting to get more regular texture and speed up the process, but I realised that you also lose something. I do love the structure of hand knitting, the material speaks the best when you keep it very simple.
My fibre work tends to be material or idea driven. When I started to work with wire, and make a 3D sculpture. I was thinking how I might do that, often my techniques come from the material. I go back and forth from material to technique; so I use techniques that I have in my basket, that are available to me. My plan is to learn to weave so I have the skill. Some people are true knitters or true weavers or basket makers, I’m a little bit more all over the road. I have an idea and I want to realise it and I think what is the technique to help me to get there?
For instance, Emily who taught me on the machine knitting class. She knows knitting inside and out: hand and machine knitting, this is what she does and she loves. Because of that she’s extremely good at it. I admire anyone who can take a beautiful garment off a knitting machine. It takes a lot of experience, insight and sense of material. Some people really develop that over a long intense period. I’m more experimentally inclined in that I have an idea and I want to try it with a material, but I might not go as deep into just one technique. Some people respond to a material, some are more technique based. That’s how I started working with seaweed, I think about what I want to do with the material and take it from there. I didn’t start out wanting to study basketry. It seems more chaotic and not as focused, maybe. I have thought about knitting with seaweed, and it seems a little bit more possible now. I’m wondering how neat it will look with the bubbles. Maybe I will have to look for different types of seaweed to be doing that. I like the contrast of how it would dry and go to a rigid material. I do like that, how the softness we’re used to with knitting that then becomes rigid – that’s what attracted me to working with wire. It’s a beautiful texture and pattern. If you knit it and dry it, and as it becomes rigid it’s unexpected.
I turn to different types of knitting for different reasons. I turn to hand knitting because I find it soothing, meditative. Like my mother I hardly ever go for super complicated patterns and just let my thoughts go. I turn to machine knitting with a goal in mind. I had this wild idea that I wanted to knit 3D wire baskets, but it was way too ambitious. I think I will return to it but you need the right mind-set for it. I also liked deconstructing the idea of knitting in the Haystack class, what is it? It’s a very interesting technique, if you think of how old it is and that we could make stretchy materials so early on; it’s pretty amazing that somebody figured it out. It’s so practical, you have a garment that can grow with you a little bit, you can wear it for several years and it will still fit you and then it can go to the next person or it can be undone and re-made. I did once explore the seafarer’s sweaters in the Netherlands for a while. I read that you work the sleeves from the top down, so if your elbows wore out you could just unravel it and then re-knit that part down to the cuff.
I really admire people who can knit or design very complicated patterns. People who have the patience to develop the pattern and really go deep to make a very interesting texture or structure. I haven’t gotten that far with it myself. I would love to have that patience. I’m still working on that. My work is meditative and repetitive rather than scrutinising instructions. It comes down to whether you’re a person who reads the instructions when you buy something new or do you just start working with it.
About Jeannet Leendertse: Jeannet is a Dutch Fiber Artist and Craftperson working from the Blue Hill Peninsula of Maine. Her work grows from coastal impressions and material experimentation. Most recently she has begun working with seaweed and stitching it to create sculptural basket forms. You can find out more about her, and her work on her Instagram or Website