Knitting: At the convergence of art and craft and creativity

David Scrivner/AP - For some people, a hurricane is a chance to catch up on reading or watching TV. For others, it’s a chance to knit.

For some people, a hurricane is a chance to catch up on reading or watching TV. For others, it’s a chance to knit. My knit for Sandy is a cloud-soft scarf made of yarn thin as dental floss wrapped in a halo of mohair. No fancy stitch work for this yarn, no elaborate lace patterns. Hurricane knitting is comfort knitting, the same stitch over and over, something you can do while watching a movie, or by candlelight. It’s the repetition that gives rise to the stereotype of knitting as something practiced by little old ladies in rocking chairs, churning out raspy sweaters and polyester baby sets in pink and blue. Needle in, needle out, with a gentle accompaniment of clicks. My hurricane knitting is growing inch by inch, a fabric light and warm and smeared with vivid color.

Is this a creative act? Or a safe one? I am making something that wasn’t there before. But rather than inventing something, I am following a pattern and using colors prescribed by someone else — in this case, by a textile designer named Kaffe Fassett. Fassett is a kind of Harrison Ford of the knitting world, which is to say an ’80s heartthrob who has retained his rugged good looks and a modest following into his gray years. Following his directions gives me the satisfaction of achievement, the light warm fabric growing under my fingers, without the mental pressure of having to figure out how to do it.

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“You sort of bypass the brain,” Fassett says of knitting, “and you really enjoy the process of bringing colors together.”

I talked to Fassett, 75, because he recently wrote a book called “Dreaming in Color” about his life as a knitwear designer, needlepoint designer, quilt designer, fabric designer and self-appointed color crusader, and he was traveling around the United States giving workshops to promote it. Fassett mostly focuses on quilts these days, but it was with knitting that he burst onto the scene in the ’70s in fashion magazines and in the early ’80s with the first of his books. He has since produced a sequence of coffee-table books with lavish photographs of models draped in sweaters and shawls in geometric or organic patterns, in a riot of shades, photographed in colorful locations around the world: a tulip garden in the Netherlands, a village in Morocco. “What I’m doing is showing people how to come to their own personal color,” he says, sounding like a self-help guru. But what he produces is also a coloristic equivalent of soft porn, the opulence and decadence and prodigality of color packaged for home consumption.

A tactile experience

Color is sensuous. Think of the clean blast of a Matisse with its vibrant blues and reds, or the languid, seductive, suffocating surfaces of a Klimt. Think of a painter’s palette with its thick unctuous blobs of fatty pigment. Think of a yarn store, a tactile experience open to amateurs, with shelves and bins laden with soft greens and bright yellows and twisted hanks of multi­colored yarn as bright as ribbon candy. The first thing you want to do is touch: “So soft!” is the cry of every non-knitter as she or he thrusts fingers into a skein of unknit yarn. This is how Fassett started knitting: On a visit to a Scottish woolen mill in 1968, he was seduced into buying 20 colors of yarn, and he was so eager to find a way to use them that he got someone to teach him how to knit on the train back to London.

The colors of yarn are within your reach in a way the colors of paint aren’t. It takes time to learn to manipulate paint and make it do what you want. But while knitting can be fiendishly difficult — some of Fassett’s patterns call for 50 colors, and some people take years to knit them — all of those colors are also within reach of anyone with two needles and a book or YouTube video or friend to show how to use them. My scarf doesn’t require me to make any choices at all. Fassett designed the yarn with the color changes built in, so that new stripes keep appearing in unexpected shades — fuch­sia! maroon! navy blue! — as the fabric emerges.

Knitting can certainly be an art: There are knitting artists, such as Ruth Marshall or Astrid Furnival, who produce sculptural or wearable or hangable pieces with needles and fiber. Knitting can certainly be creative: Fassett describes the process of forging ahead free-form as he comes up with designs, combining colors and shapes to produce patterns row by row and whim by whim. And art, certainly, can be made by following directions. On a wall of the National Gallery of Art by the auditorium there’s a Sol LeWitt mural that glows with color, like a series of patchwork quilts. It was executed, like most LeWitts, by people following the artist’s directives. The color choices are a byproduct — just as they are in Fassett’s designs.

‘Where’s the surprise?’

“What always amazes me,” Fassett says, “is people who stagger up to me so thrilled to show me an exact copy of what I’ve designed. I look at it and think, ‘I know that; where’s the surprise? I want to see you in that.’ I love it when someone changes, makes their own statement. That’s when I feel most satisfied they’ve gotten the spirit of what I do.”

Knitting sits at the convergence of art and craft and creativity. We tend to prioritize the art, the original, the creative, over the craft, the useful, the domestic; and I, as a lover of the arts, would be the first to place art over craft on whatever aesthetic hierarchy is employed for such comparisons. Fassett’s books often reflect the repetition of knitting by recycling patterns and anecdotes from one volume to another: the Persian Poppies vest, the Tumbling Blocks pattern. And they often describe his own gradual move away from his original career as a studio painter. He found he had to gear up for a day in the studio, while knitting was exerting a compulsive pull. Well, of course, I say to myself, art requires more mental energy; he was embracing the path of least resistance. But I might say it while reaching for my own knitting needles.

A storm is the time to celebrate that which sustains and to embrace the repetitions that have comforted us since childhood. The roast chicken and gravy we cooked for our hurricane supper tastes no worse heated up for the next day’s lunch. The needles click, and the scarf grows, and the rain thrums in sheets against the windows. Those sensations and flavors and memories are knit into the fabric and will be part of something I’ll wear a year from now, when Hurricane Sandy is the stuff of anecdote and I’m long since back to celebrating the supposedly higher and ostensibly more worthy arts.

 
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