Art Inspires Knitting

Is it art or craft? We think this beautiful vest is most certainly both!!

Inspired by a painting, knitter Paul Palmer crafted a beautiful piece of wearable art.   Paul shares his challenging, lengthy and enjoyable journey through this project:

When my wife and I acquired a painting by Audrey Riller for our new home, we felt it was worth more than the artist would let us pay for it, so I made her an offer. If Audrey would buy the materials, I’d create for her a piece of clothing based on one of her abstract paintings. She was excited by the idea, and I wanted her to think about it and come back at me with some ideas, but she wanted me to think about it and just do it!

Audrey’s mind loves the putting together of art, but also the taking apart of it.   She was clear that she had no expectations that my final work would recreate hers, but rather it would be a vibration from it as inspiration.

My mother was an avid knitter, and I remember argyle socks and the bobbins clicking around her work. I wanted to learn to do what she was doing when I was 5 or 6 years old. I did spool knitting and made hot pads for teapots, and sweaters for my teddy bears. I was too “cool” to knit in my teens and too busy with school and music studies (piano lessons, school band, arranging music, playing in a dance band, etc.). In my twenties, I knitted many things for my baby daughter, most of which she didn’t like wearing because they were too warm for her. I was always drawn to projects that would have me learn something new, a new way to cast on or off, a lace pattern, a tricky argyle pattern, or making pictures on the front of a kid’s sweater.

I started thinking of knitting as art when I was commissioned to knit a Vogue Pattern jacket and undersweater in a paisley pattern that made increases and decreases tricky and required carrying the unused colour behind without tightening the fabric. I used a baby alpaca mix that was almost as soft as cashmere (cashmere yarn for the project priced out at $890!). It was great to work with yarn that was more expensive than I’d have allowed myself to choose, and the project was difficult enough to be interesting!

It was time to start creating a garment for Audrey, so, from a large output of square abstracts, I chose a piece of her art that inspired me.  I photographed it, studied it and thought about how it would be translated into knitting. When I saw Audrey cutting up a painting to reuse it in pieces for a collage, I realized that I would not recreate the entire piece but rather use areas of the canvas as separate blocks of colour on a black background. Coming from one work of art, they’d be related, but not identical. Audrey loved the idea but would not commit to a preference for one of my choices over another. So I went into “artist mode”, that trance-like space where you just know what’s “right” for a project. I used two right-angles of matting to consider a myriad of options, eventually cropping and printing them out on the computer to see if I was right about my choices.

At the same time, I was stewing about how to create the garment itself. I envisioned a long vest and sketched one version that had the coloured panel begin at the upper right chest and spiral around the piece to the bottom right. Then another in which there was a small rectangle hip-high on one side and a larger rectangle on the back. When I decided on an asymmetrical front opening, narrow on the left and wide on the right, with a sloped hem on one side, I saw that the patch of colour needed to follow that diagonal, and I planned a parallelogram from the painting low on that side with a square of it on the back. Then I had to decide on the neckline, the shoulder shaping, the size and shape of the armholes, and the finishing.

I wrote out the knitting pattern, decided on the gauge and how many stitches would be needed. I love moss stitch and it was easy to choose it for the edging, but how wide?  I chose Andalusian stitch for the basic ground because I’m crazy about Flamenco, and Andalusian has a gentle texture that wouldn’t be plain stocking stitch, but wouldn’t detract from the art blocks either.

Selecting yarns, once I found a “perfect” colour, I had to consider whether the substance of the yarn would work with the other “perfect” choices. I had initially intended to work only in natural wools, but that was too restrictive when I needed such a wide range of colours. My mind was spinning, but I was elated by the heap of beautiful yarns I assembled.

Once I had the 12 or 13 colours on bobbins, some doubled or tripled, I realized that I had to knit the colour panels as separate entities and fit them into the back or front as I worked the basic black around them. I just couldn’t imagine keeping all those bobbins straight while I worked the plain black areas.

After printing my computer images onto graph paper I started work on the large square of art for the back. To keep the bobbins from tangling, I worked on the dining room table with the bobbins lying across in front of me and the pattern beside them. “Knit two black, twist yellow and knit one, twist red and knit three, twist in black and knit 14 . . . ” all the while marking off the pattern. I had done intarsia before, but never with this kind of stitch-to-stitch detail. Happily, after a dozen rows or so, I could see Audrey’s art slowly appearing and felt satisfied that I was on the right track. It took weeks, maybe a couple of months, to finish this square. After all, I had a life and I really couldn’t devote more than an hour or so at a time to it!

Then I had to print some more of the painting areas onto graph paper to draw the parallelogram, sloped to match exactly the slope of the front hem.

Finally, I began knitting the vest itself, trying things, unravelling them and trying them again. I had started on the smallest piece, the front left panel, so by the time I cast on the back, I was confident that I knew what I was doing. Compared to knitting the art, and despite having to create it as I went along, the garment itself was finished in much less time.

Audrey modeled the vest just six months after I had the idea for the project!

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