The phrase I have always used to explain why I knit is “to answer a question”, but I’ve had trouble putting the question into words that express what I’m trying to find out. On one level, the questions are simple. Maybe I want to see how a certain set of colors work together, what happens to the chemistry if I add a specific other color, how can I turn a new construction method into a design element, how do I work the numbers to stay in pattern while I’m trying to get a certain shape. But on another level, the questions are much more complicated and philosophical. Why am I asking these questions? Why are the answers meaningful? I feel like the information I get about the relationship between specific colors in a particular circumstance tells me something I can add to my understanding of visual perception, or the potential of those colors, or tricks those colors can play on the eye to make it think it’s seeing something it’s not. The questions I want to answer are design scenarios that make me rethink the familiar. When I see new aspects to things I’ve habituated to, I understand those things and myself better.
I get most of my design ideas from the yarn I own. I’ve been looking into buying a knitting machine so that I can use up more of my stash before I die and also because I hate knitting plain stockinette. For one of my first machine-knit sweaters, I’m envisioning stripes of dark, low-contrast shades of dark gray/ purple and dark mud green, with occasional single rows of screaming traffic cone orange. It makes me think of a shuttered attic with narrow slats of light striping the space.
Another idea rattling around my brain involves a dark yellow/burnt red/brown multi and a turquoise blue skein, like marigolds against a summer sky, viewed from the perspective of an ant looking up from the ground below.
Hmmm… Right now I’m looking at the turquoise yarn cozied up next to the purple and green-brown yarns and I’m envisioning the combination in wavy lines, say, the feather and fan lace pattern. It makes me think of a body of water. I never get tired of designs that evoke water.
When I think of design ideas, they remind me of things I’ve seen or experienced. They revisit sensory memory. They reconnect me with the details I have stored away about nature and the world around me, and that reconnection makes me feel as if I’m living a more aware, sentient, and understanding life. The questions I try to answer through the details of my designs give me information about some tiny detail of life, like the story of the blind men groping different parts of an elephant and describing wildly varying creatures.
Like many fiber arts designers, nature informs my designing and my designs help me to process my understanding of the natural world and find meaning in it. Now that I’m retired, I take long walks every day, and I’m like a dog let off the leash and following every scent, or like someone on a psychedelic drug holding out his hand in front of his face and marveling at the details. I notice the details, I find accidental still lifes and abstract compositions hiding in plain sight.
I think I approach nature as a source of inspiration from the opposite direction from a lot of designers, who go outside with their cameras and sketch pads, and directly transfer their sketches to charts. Aside from the regrettable fact that I lack those drawing skills, that kind of literalism shuts down my imagination. Nature is nature, knitting is knitting, and it’s not possible to convey its three-dimensional totality in a two-dimensional fiber copy. The designer chooses a feature or two of the natural form and stylizes it. Sometimes that captures something essential and enlightening about the source material, sometimes it reduces it to banality. I find my way to representations of the natural world from the back end. Colors speak to me, and I listen to what they’re saying until I hear where the speaking is coming from and something resonates from my storeroom of sensory memories. As for the photos above, right now they’re just pretty pictures. Someday they might be source material for something I can’t imagine yet.
I will illustrate my method by using my Coleus and Impatiens Tunic as an example.
The question I wanted to answer was how to suspend dissonance and disbelief if I put a vermilion/green/fuchsia multi next to a grayed-down pink that not only clashed with it but had very little value contrast with it. I had mental images of gardens full of pinks, reds, purples, and oranges set off against greens. If you were to put the colors next to each other in a one-on-one pairing, they would clash. Putting them all into the same composition, they develop a kind of esprit d’corps. I found a kind of family reunion with the range of warm and cold pinks, purples, reds, and greens. One had something in common with another, which had something in common with another, until each color had a friend it could relate to, and I put the alternation of the colors into a rota with the pinks. I also purposely alternated high-contrast sequences with low-contrast sequences. The high-contrast sequences lend clarity to the low-contrast areas, which stop the eye and make it think. I like the transgressiveness of the sequence where the vermilion/green both screams and whispers against the low-contrast grayish pink. I like to make people try to decide if it’s ugly or not.
If I attempt to copy nature, I will end up stereotyping it. But if I interpret nature, I might find something new and true that rouses the eye and mind from the blindness of habit.