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Mary likes to experiment with technique to push her own abilities

I want my pieces to be loved and used.

My brother and I had one of those little spools with pegs sticking up.  We were taking some kind of weird yarn that changed colours every foot or so and wrapping it round.  We knit a little tube, I don’t think we made anything out of it, we were just making a colourful tube.  I have no idea how old we were, my brother’s three years younger, it was probably in grade school.  My mother did not knit.  In the summers, our vacation was over to Pennsylvania to a cabin that a great grandmother had purchased to keep the family together.  It worked for several generations, though not really now.  An aunt would come over from Washington DC.  She was knitting a long strip of white that I think was going to be bandages or something.  I don’t think it was during a war, but at any rate she was knitting a thing about 2” wide. She taught me how and I knit about an inch but of course she had to rip it all out as my hands were all grubby and it was not very sanitary looking. 

I did a little with needles after college.  I don’t think ever in high school.  The first garment that I knit was a big white poncho, there was no real pattern, no sleeves.  I never really learned how to use the pattern books.  I tried a sweater for my husband that came out way, way too large; though a sweater for me came out alright and it actually had a little bit of cable in it.  My husband’s two sisters knit and I know the one who lives in Hong Kong does great knitting.  She knit garments, hats for poor people in the winter; she knit little toys – little stuffed animals to give away.  She felt like she could be of some use to the community that way. 

I got into working with wire the way I do because I was a metal smith and when I was at metal school I took a fibres course.  We learnt how to set up a loom, several kinds of weave and to deal with colour.  We had to choose an off-loom project and I chose macramé, but after my first macramé things like earrings and a necklace I knew that this technique wasn’t good to do as you’re bending the entire lengths of each wire each row when you tie knots.  I liked the look of the half-hitched knots on edge, so I started wrapping every wire around a group of other wires and every once in a while bringing an interior wire out.  You get it much more crisp and controlled looking but you get a taper as you run out of interior wires.  I needed to figure out what to do with the clipped off ends.  I was using fine silver as I knew I needed something softer than brass.  I’d only started with macramé in brass wire as that was what I had on my bench but that was really hurting my fingers.  I hit on the idea that if I had a lot of ends that I clipped off together and hit them with a torch you get a beautiful ball rather than shrinking back.  I did a whole lot of pieces that explored all these silver balls.  My tutor gave me the assignment to make 2 pairs of earrings a week before I went on to do anything else, not to do a whole bunch of samples.  So from late November I made 2 pairs a week until I graduated in August and each week I tried something different.  I did twisting, I went through a number of different kinds of braid, I went through flat weaving or plaiting, I tried soumak but I did not knit.  By the time I finished up I had gone through a lot of fairly simple kinds of textile processes.

Neckpiece #13 using knitted wire; Photo Doug Yaple

When I started knitting in wire it was in the mid-seventies.  I graduated in ’67 so it was a few years later.  I had been travelling a lot in ’73 and I had started my exploration of wire work as my project in Grad school.  I lived in Taiwan from ’71 to ’73 and I came back to the US through Asia and Europe and I was always looking in museums for historical precedents on wire work looking for pieces that I could afford.  I got this slightly broken Tibetan piece (as I say in my lectures, when a piece is broken you can tell more about it), I didn’t know too much about it, and I didn’t know if it was knit.  When I traced what a wire does in this system I found that it was a loop and loop, and each time it goes round one row higher and that is the definition of knitting.  So the first thing I tried with wire was back to my first experience of yarn and pounding some nails into a spool; but that really didn’t work to my satisfaction.  Yarn stretches and then springs back and so gets dense that way.  Wire doesn’t do that.  It was open, spidery looking, not good looking at all.  I noticed that in the Tibetan pieces the loop goes through three loops, three rows back and pulls up a long loop that sticks up beyond the last row, so you get this diagonal.  I figured that’s how you get dense with wire, you overlap it.  So I tried pre-bending all the loops and then just go round and stick one in, but it wouldn’t go in.  I needed something to pull it through so I tried a crochet hook.  Even though I’d never tried crochet there were some in my Grandmother’s sewing box that my mother now had.  I went and got those, and that worked.  That’s how I did my knitted wire.  I was corresponding with Oppi Untracht and I asked him if you name a process by the tool or the stitch and he said absolutely the stitch, so I call it knitting. 

I was exploring what I could do with these tubes, I found that I could pull the wires out so the loop was a bit bigger and shape the loops.  I never went larger like Ruth Asawa did, I kept small; jewellery and little creature scale.  I did a series of exploration once I’d found out that it went back three rows, so I did four little tubes, all with six loops, same gauge, same size crochet hook.  I went through each row back one, back two, back three and back four rows.  I could see how it got more dense in the overlapping of the wires and I liked that. I found that the knitted samples that I’ve seen from other cultures are always three back, not two and not four.  I felt that it’s because it gives you the density that you want without problems of counting back.  Three your eye sees right away which speeds your work up.  Then I thought it would be nice if the whole thing curved.  I found that I could just bend it and it would stay there as it was in fine silver so didn’t spring back.  I could make it grow back and out, following whatever direction the little loops were pointing in.  I thought I would do masses of these and do a Hawaiian hairnet, but it was boring.  Knitting is not what I chose to push and explore. 

Basket Experiments

I found twining in about ’74 by looking at baskets that I found in my Dad’s house.  Most baskets are made of many short elements and I don’t like to deal with the ends so I wanted to see how I could work with longer elements.  When I was looking at a North West coast basket, I was looking at the structure of how it was made (as it was a little broken) so I could see the two weft elements twisting around the warp element which gives a slight slant.  I love that slant.  Once I found that; from ’74 to now; that’s what I do, I twine.  Most of the basket elements that I do use flat elements, strips of bamboo or birch bark.  I had made a rule for myself to use only round elements to give me flexibility to work in any direction.  To get a flat element which really showed that slant, that angle, I wound two round elements together; after trying both one and not liking it and three and getting twisted up. I stuck with two to get the visibility.  That’s been my system since ’74. 

Experiments in Pattern

The stuff I buy is often broken because it’s cheaper.  I’m an artist, I don’t have a lot of money.  I’d rather get several samples that aren’t museum quality because I can learn from them.  Any sample that I have; first I try to do it how it was done, then I change it and I do it more and less to see what happens.  Herbert Maryon’s book on wire had several pages in the middle with examples of twisted wire.  I would try what happened if I twisted more and it would break, or less and find it would be not that interesting.  I would find out why the example was that way and the rules were as they are.  Now, when I’m doing my twining I’m not starting with an example anymore.  Quite a few of the major projects have been designed as challenges or something that would teach me something.  Can I get the wire to do this?  One woven piece early on was with two colours of wire, silver and a magnet wire.  I knew that when weavers wove coverlet patterns that they would draw it out on graph paper to show where they float over and where they don’t, where the weft shows and where the warp shows.  So I did a pattern woven piece to teach myself how to draft out patterns.  When I am twining now, I am either working with form, keeping it plain; or I would do a very simple form where I could play with pattern and use this drafting method. 

When I went to Undergrad and Grad school our thesis project had to be technical experimentation.   I’m a product of the fifties/sixties when we were learning what we could do with these materials and tools.  A lot of exhibitions in the seventies were contemporary American jewellery and I was a wire person so I got into a lot that way as they wanted something of all the different processes.  Then there was a shift and suddenly you had to have some kind of deep concept whether it was personal angst or political and that wasn’t me.  I wasn’t going to jump on that band wagon and invent a concept.  What I like to do is teach myself stuff, each piece still was pushing my abilities.  Could I make the little insect look like an insect, could I make the animals read like an animal?  Could I actually twine these little pieces so precisely the same that when I soldered them together all the wires lined up?  It was still pushing my ability to work with the material.  

I’ve done one narrative piece.  A fellow called me up and said he wanted to commission a nice piece for his wife now their children had all grown up, the last of the four was getting married and he had had a wonderful life with this woman.  I did a bracelet and started out with a series of warps of 20 gauge and a couple of 14 gauge which are bigger wire that represented the husband and wife of the household.  I twined back and forth then a little bit later I incorporated a wire that went from narrow up to big that wandered around on top of the woven plane.  Then a little later up came another one and then two at once as the third pregnancy was twins.   Those wires were all wandering round on top.  Then I asked him that now they’re all married and grown up where do they live, and he said that one’s in the same high rise building and one’s around the corner.  So all of these wandering wires all came back down and then you had six of these heavy wires making up the household.  It was a little story of their family, just going around the wrist.  I told him what he was and wrote it down for him so on the rehearsal dinner when he presented the piece to his wife he read this out and she cried with joy.  I had a big solo show in 2012 and the museum was trying to borrow back pieces but she wouldn’t let it go.  That was really great, I want my pieces to be loved and used.

The last piece I finished was also a concept piece (Choker #96).  I was invited to an exhibition of jewellery in the age of Covid exploring how this affected your work.  I wanted to participate as friends were running the show but truth be told it really hadn’t affected me much.  I’m able to go out and work in the garden, I just ordered my groceries without going to the store.  I’m sort of a hermit, I don’t go to movies, I don’t go to clubs.  I could still talk to friends over zoom or email.  So I was feeling anguished.  Then, when January 6th happened, when Donald Trump’s supporters went into into the Capitol and tried to overturn our democracy that really did affect me.  The next morning I woke up and I knew what I was going to do.  You might say that we were playing with fire.  We’d carefully built up our system of government over 200+years and it could so easily be totally ruined.  So I carefully twined a section of material, of sheet, and then took a torch to it.  My last piece is forms that were sort of floral or leaf like but instead of soldering all the wires down to end it off I just torched it.  It was so easy to destroy it; I do have a little junk pile of ones that I torched a little too much.  That’s where my work is now. 

Choker #96 by Mary Lee Hu, photographed by Daniel Fox

When I give lectures or workshops I don’t want to produce a lot of clones.  I try to show them all the different kinds of things I explored briefly.  I’ve not seen someone really go wild with soumak for example.  So if someone would want to take that and spend 20 years at it I think they could do something wonderful.  You could do that with knitting, especially with wire; look what Ruth Asawa did.  Depending on the kind of material that you use, its strength or its beauty; using it for its vibrant colour or its silhouette; a lot can be done.  Try to find something that just seems to click with you, each one of us has something different in our makeup that gives patience for some things and not others.  My eye does not see colour though I’m not colour blind; I can appreciate colour.  My eye always follows line.  I was the kid on the block that could always untangle the kite string.   I could find 4 leaf clovers because it’s an X in a field of Y, I could find pattern immediately.  Try to learn what you’re inborne native strengths are your interests are as you’re going to spend a lot of time at it and then push that.

Mary Hu has won numerous awards for her metalwork and her pieces are in many major collections such as the V&A and the American Crafts Museum.  Mary has no modern media accounts, but putting her name in a search engine will give you plenty.

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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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