Yarn talks to me. Its colors tell me stories about time, place, and memory, and sometimes it tells me about the Big Issues in Life. It doesn’t happen because the colors are pretty. It happens because the colors have a message.
In fact it’s more likely to happen when the colors are strange, even unappealing to me. A few years ago, purchasing Wollmeise lace multis was addictive because it was a gamble. There were very few named multi colorways available at the weekly updates, which took place at 2 a.m. my time, and they mostly went to people in Europe with fast internet connections. There was another update at 11 a.m. my time for “We’re Different grab bags” in unidentified colorways, and the lace bags also went in the blink of an eye to people who wanted the yarn enough to take their chances on what they might get. Generally my computer was too slow to get even these bags, but once I managed to snag not one, not two, but three of them, and afterward I felt like I might as well crawl under my desk and await something terrible, because I’d used up all of my good luck for a long time. When the yarn eventually arrived from Germany, the package contained two of my three skeins, and one was a colorway that I loved and the other was one that I hated. Well, those were the odds. I had to go to the post office the next day to pick up the third skein, and all the way I prayed that it would be the colorway I loved and not the one I hated. And since I had used up my good luck for a long time, it was the colorway I hated. It was a red-black gradating into black-red, and now I had two of them. I could hear the Luck Goddess yucking it up at my expense.
What on earth was I going to do with all that red-black/black-red yarn? It looked so dark and ominous, like a cavern of hell. I started thinking about a project that would use up as much of it as possible, such as a dress in a stranded pattern, because I like stranding. I needed colors that would contrast with the gloomy red, so I took a good look at my stash of yellows and oranges. I decided to build a gradient of yellows and oranges, and that made me think about the colors in the hell scenes in the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
And there was my story. Flames of hell. Imagery of societal concepts of death and the afterlife came to mind, funeral flowers, chains, skulls, Victorian rectitude concealing damnable sinning, along with the flames. Grateful Dead album covers. The Rolling Stones song Dead Flowers started playing on my mental soundtrack.
Take me down little Susie, take me down
I know you think you’re the queen of the underground
And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave
This dress was my first major foray into what I call improvised stranding, in which I decide the course of the many of the motifs I create right there on the needles, although I also rely on bits and pieces of other people’s charted motifs, since I’m not wonderful at drawing. I had an idea of filling my knitted canvas with Hell’s Angels flames, but I decided not to refer to a chart or picture of Hell’s Angels flames. Instead, I would just plop stitches onto my blank canvas and see what happened. So after I’d made a folded hem at the bottom edge of the dress, in a deep cold blue the color of Elsa’s dress in the movie Frozen, I sat with that blank canvas in hand, and… froze. I had no idea what I was going to do. Eventually I forced myself to randomly alternate 2 to 7 stitches of the multi with the first color in my yellow-orange gradient rota. It looked awful. It looked like nothing at all. I kept thinking of shapes I was going to make at specific places in the knitting, and I’d forget what I was thinking of by the time I came around to those places on the next round.
The first inch or two of knitting was pretty scary because knitting without a particular plan is going to look incoherent at first, and incoherence is not a good look. But within 10 rows or so, areas of coherence started to emerge. The idea of Hell’s Angels flames started to recede from my thinking, replaced by spirals, curlicues, and roughly parallel vertical meanderings that went off into their own directions whenever things started getting boring. I still thought of them as flames, but very stylized flames in a hellscape geography.
Eventually I started working chains into the work.
When I got up toward the yoke, it was time for the dead flowers symbolism that was so perfectly expressed by the red-black multi. My original thought had been to transplant stylized Scandinavian flower charts into my improvised hellscape, but that no longer seemed right. They were too regular and even, and regularity and evenness would have interfered with the mood I was creating. I found some charts of roses that were realistic in the irregularity of the petal shapes, and I prepared my canvas for those motifs by turning the yellow-orange gradient into the main color and whittling down the dark shapes into vines, tendrils, and leaves, all improvised.
It was important to my design to avoid repetition in the naturalistic flower and leaf shapes. Here I got kind of clever, if I do say so myself. I had two charts, one of a rose and one of a rose and leaves, and I alternated the leaves with the two rose shapes. I turned the charts around in various directions in order to preserve the look of irregularity my design required. This really put my powers of spacial perception through a good workout.
When I got to the part of the yoke that needed to be decreased, I cannibalized someone else’s pattern for parts. The Let’s Play Murder pattern by Professor Fonz begged to be adapted to my purposes because its juxtaposition of skulls and Victorian wallpaper motifs conveyed the Gothic attitude of anxiety and ambivalence toward death and the fear that the way one lives will almost inevitably result in a harsh judgment in the afterlife. I read the design as hinting at the rot beneath the outward rectitude of Victorian society, and it was the perfect symbolism for the moralistic pull that religion uses to attract believers, without referring to any specific religion. Symbolism aside, the Let’s Play Murder pattern was written for different yarn than I was using, but it provided a usable template for the decreases I needed to work into my yoke shaping, and the numbers were easy to adapt because the stitch repeat number was compatible with the number of stitches I had after working some decreases into the “Dead Flowers” segment.
I think of this dress as a visual essay on societal attitudes toward death. It’s kind of like my own private joke though. When people see me wearing the garment, they’re just seeing a garment, without any expectation that there’s some larger idea connecting the stylized flames, chains, roses, and color choices. Garments aren’t usually walking allegories and people aren’t in a mindset to examine a person wearing a dress they way they would examine a painting in a museum, and I wouldn’t have wanted heavy-handed symbolism that punched people in the face so that they would notice that they were being sermonized. Nevertheless, this dress isn’t really the thing to wear to a funeral.
Not too long after I finished my afterlife allegory dress, I opened up another package of yarn from Wollmeise in colors that I’d ordered just because they were available and were good additions to my palette. But at some point during their journey from Germany to Baltimore, the two skeins had developed an ambivalent but strong personal relationship: they didn’t especially like each other, but they had to be together. One of the two skeins was a pink, an orange-tinged salmon that told me “I’m pink, but I’m not that kind of a pink,” and the other was a grumpy green multi in a dark murky green and a lighter bilious green, very toxic. Oh my goodness, ambivalent pink and toxic green, a romance made in hell, just like the relationships I had in my youth before I got middle-aged and now old and complacent in a long happy marriage! An image of distorted hearts and ironic flowers flashed into my mind, the trappings of romantic love that can’t quite conceal the failure to connect meaningfully.
A year passed between my opening that package and my starting the dress, during which symbolism for love-that-isn’t came into my mind while I was working on other things. Hearts were the dominant motif: what could I do with the shape? What could I fit into it? What could I turn into a heart shape? How could I turn this symbol of affection into something negative, ironic, and even sinister? Because honestly, we all know that love stinks. It makes you stupid and cruel, and if it doesn’t make you stupid and cruel, it makes the other party stupid and cruel. At least the quest for it does, most of the time, until you get very, very lucky. Hence, two sperm swimming up the fabric and crossing in the night in a heart shape. Hearts with a maze inside. Hearts with spirals inside, like a circular argument that leads nowhere except to the exit. Hearts with skulls inside. Skulls in the shape of hearts. Cracked hearts. Hearts wrapped up in chains. Chains in the shape of hearts. Hearts surrounded by flames, and inside nothing but vapor. Men and women reduced to generic gender roles, with no more individuality than male/female bathroom icons, trapped behind bars in a heart-shaped prison.
The litany of negative romantic symbolism continues: Roses, the commercial expression of feelings that don’t actually exist except in wishful imagination. Roses with broken stems, with skulls embedded in the center. A daisy with loves-me-loves-me-not petals falling from it, and loves-me-loves-me-not daisies with skulls in the center. A big sugar skull incorporating much of this symbolism. Traditional Scandinavian patterns of male and female folk dancers, altered to separate the figures and put them in boxes. So many negative images, but the work reads as pretty! I used to take it with me to knit at the yarn store, and people would always compliment me on its prettiness, and then I’d draw their attention to the details they’d missed on first glance. The expressions on their faces would grow worried, and then they’d ask what my husband is like. Fair question, but the most I want to say is that I got very, very lucky. Without getting into my personal life, I’ll say that whatever the negative symbol may be, my real life is the opposite.
So I’m knitting along, remembering the frustrations and anxiety of my youth that I have gratefully left behind in decades of security in my happy marriage and the ebbing of my hormones, smugly relieved that I’m no longer young and that my life worked out pretty well after some rocky early years. Well, hooray for me. Aren’t I special. Love stinks, but I’ve transcended it. From my happy little perch above it all, I can enjoy being so smug. So condescending. So obnoxious.
One night, soon after the current occupant of the U.S. White House started explicitly threatening nuclear war, I was lying awake in the dark, thinking of the disintegration of American culture and the increasing possibility of it all ending in a radioactive blaze. The lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future” came into my head, and it didn’t seem so much like a prediction as a description:
There’ll be the breaking of the ancient
Your private life will suddenly explode
There’ll be phantoms
There’ll be fires on the road
and the white man dancing
You’ll see a woman
hanging upside down
her features covered by her fallen gown
and all the lousy little poets
tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson
and the white man dancin’
Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ
or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don’t like children anyhow
I’ve seen the future, baby:
it is murder
But then there was this, the one thing left behind after the horrors of the world have been unleashed from Pandora’s box:
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
but love’s the only engine of survival
Love’s the only engine of survival. Love stinks, but it’s all we have. Finally, there’s the message, the punch line to all the negative imagery I’ve conjured. I charted the text and counted the number of spaces the lettering would use up. The total was slightly more than half the number of stitches I would have at the base of the yoke after joining the sleeves, which meant that most of the text could be read from the front. Then I started thinking about what to do about the back. It was clear that the idea of the text, which was the “yes, but” to the negative romantic imagery, meant that I was done with the hearts and flowers. I needed a motif that indicated something higher and more Platonic to represent the connectedness that motivates the quest for love and motivates the tolerance and even the seeking of the insincere flowers, the sperm passing each other in the night, the circular arguments leading only to the exit, the imprisonment in gender roles, the toxicity of what is called love. Connectedness, and what is more interconnected than Celtic knots? I combed through my battered 30-year-old copy of Celtic Charted Designs by Co Spinhoven and found a knot pattern that I could stretch across the back and that would fit into the 17 rows of my charted text.
I was conscious of my numbers throughout the knitting of this piece, but while I was knitting every other part of the dress, there was room for some inexactness. For the text and the Celtic knot, every single stitch needed to be precisely placed. I spent a day counting and re-counting my stitches over and over again so that I could accurately place markers for the start and finish of each word and the placement of the knot. I might not have spoken to anyone that day while I was counting, or for the next couple of days while I was knitting that segment. Knitting the knot chart was especially exacting because the squares of the chart are about a millimeter wide and high, and my eyes are not young. But I was almost 100% accurate, except for one stitch in the knot pattern in a place that doesn’t affect the way the pattern reads, and even if I tell you that the mistake exists, you probably would never locate it.
The triangles of the yoke connected visually with the triangles at the waist to give the piece coherence. I chose the triangle motif because I wanted to make pockets in a simple stranded pattern that wouldn’t tax me too much when I had to do wrong-side stranding, using my contrast colors of acid green and coral. I was thinking of the triangles as a symbol of jealousy triangles, but I asked my husband what he thought triangles symbolized, and he mentioned the delta of female anatomy that writers who he reads, like Philip Roth and John Updike, frequently refer to. That was OK. I asked Melissa, from the yarn store, what she thought triangles symbolized, and she said gay rights. That was OK too. Then I googled triangles and symbolism, and got pretty much everything under the sun, including the sun itself. It was all good, it was perfectly all right with me for the triangles to mean anything the viewer was inclined to see. After the text at the base of the yoke, I was done with explicit romantic imagery, and the repetition of the triangles at the yoke served many functional roles. In addition to its open-ended symbolism and the visual coherence connecting the little triangles at the waist with the large triangles at the yoke, the numbers were really good for shaping the yoke. I started off with 28 12-stitch pattern repeats, which enabled me to decrease 56 stitches per decrease rows, two stitches per triangle for five decrease rows, resulting in smoothly diminishing triangles and a neckline that is neither drafty nor tight.
I had an interesting conversation with my younger daughter while I was knitting the skirt, when my motifs were not very far along and only I could see where I was going with this thing. I was explaining the symbolism of what I’d already done and how the half-done motifs would grow, and my daughter was hearing me out patiently but skeptically. I don’t remember her exact words, but the gist was that there wasn’t much point trying to make a garment mean something, because no one would ever absorb the meaning, because the medium, i.e. the practical function of clothing, overrides the message of the symbolism. She said I could put in all the symbolism I like if doing so pleased me, but its meaning would be strictly personal rather than communicative, like getting a tattoo, which made me cringe a little because I don’t like tattoos. She isn’t wrong though. Visual representations that would make people stop and ponder when placed on a rectangular surface and hung on a wall go right over people’s heads when executed in yarn and worn on a body. That’s simply a fact. While I would like it if the societally-conditioned eye were more capable of absorbing ideas presented in unexpected places, I like the subversiveness of having something going on beneath the surface that is the exact opposite of what the casual viewer thinks he sees in the social context of seeing another person wearing clothing. Nevertheless, this probably isn’t the dress to wear on a first date.
14 thoughts on “Love and Death”
It’s always a pleasure to read about your process.I already loved these pieces, but now I love them more.
Thanks, Kim! And thanks for inspiring the pockets!
So freaking fantastic!
Thank you so much!
Abby, I never cease to be amazed at how much thought and planning goes into your knitting. Your blog is incredibly interesting, and of course, your dresses are awesome
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I’m speechless! Love the dresses, love the imagery, love your writing, love being subversive!
Your dresses made me look at Lisa Auerbach’s knitted political sweaters – just because we expect sweaters to be warm and cuddly, their messages are more shocking and i hope that your dresses will get the attention they deserve and make people think about these issues ! Many thanks for showing your amazing knitwear and knitting skills!
I love Lisa Auerbach! I had her vaguely in mind when I decided to do the text. Thanks for mentioning her!