Making things–beyond the art/craft wedge

Reading Glenn Adamson’s and Tanya Harrod’s joint interview with novelist A.S. Byatt (or Dame Antonia Byatt, as she is known in her home context—to my American tastebuds, Dame, I must confess, feels funny on the tongue), I was struck by the nationalism of her project, and the utter Englishness with which she is grappling: the difficulties and aftereffects of modernization, and the audiences, personalities, and social roles made manifest in the material culture in fin de siècle British culture. Put another way, Byatt’s book magnifies the twin ideologies of modernism and capitalism. The myriad descriptions of paintings, pots, glazes, wrought iron, skirted sewing tables, and whale-bone corseted women offer a stupefying collection of stuff: the Edwardian domestic possessions that have now become coveted antiques and collectibles, their well-conceived forms, colors and intensities spawning an assortment of Victoriana kitsch that continues to proliferate well into the present day—just attend any Victorian Studies Association conference, or save yourself the trouble and invest in a pair of patent leather granny boots, dye your hair black (with a center part), and knit yourself a tea cozy (or cell phone cozy).

Nationalism seems to be a consistent issue in craft practices, one we can’t really easily get away from. Why is this? Because craft processes are not only linked with “tradition,” but also, intertwined with production: labor practice, economic recovery, and collective pride. No matter that craft is still, more often than not, inefficient and expensive, and a touch utopian. Hand-dyed, hand-spun cotton and wool from a knitting store—you know, those lovely ones, independently owned and run—often go for $9 or $11 a skein, versus the yucky acrylic stuff sold at chain craft stores that sell for $3 or so. Much like farmer’s market produce versus the conventional supermarket, there is no comparison, of course, in terms of quality, but the small, independent stores more often than not end up belly-up. The intent is there: to ignite a revival, a community of like-minded souls who turn up for knit class, or collective quilting sessions altogether, but such publics are usually made, and not found.

Adamson asks pointed questions about whether or not there is a utopian imperative inherent in craft. Byatt redirects her answer, positing that utopianism is “…actually dangerous. Certainly in the 1960s it was. I decided that a kind of rather flat skepticism, and making things, making things well, is better than a utopian attempt to reform society.” I found Byatt’s statement a very useful correlative in re-thinking the de-skilled artistic practice that exists broadly throughout visual art training—the idea that one acquires skill based upon the sorts of projects one decides to execute. This is an anathema to traditional craft practice, of course, but now that the two are mostly merged—I don’t really make a distinction between contemporary art, per say, and contemporary craft, they are one and the same—that is, both camps are working conceptually. Furthermore, craft-based processes have been co-opted by visual artists of all stripes invested in issues of design, labor, and community. Yet, when Byatt says, “I believe in making things,” she hits on a tender nerve in our community, the seeming wedge between conceptual art and craft practices, which no longer exists. All artists believe in making things, it is just that the definition of “thing” is imprecise, and always in flux. That is also the beauty of artistic practice, in that there are so many kinds of “things” to make, be it a book, a tea cozy, an installation, or a You Tube video.

Journal of Modern Craft 4.1

The first issue of 2011 is now out, with writerly reflections on the nature of utopianism in craft.


Editorial introduction

Sustainable Socialism: William Morris on Waste by Elizabeth C. Miller

The Craft of Industrial Patternmaking by Sarah Fayen Scarlett

Speculative Artisanry: The Expanding Scale of Craft within Architecture by Joshua G. Stein

Statement of Practice

Interview with A.S. Byatt including Tanya Harrod and Glenn Adamson (PDF)

Commentary by Glenn Adamson

“The Artisan,” from The Mirror of Production by Jean Baudrillard

Exhibition Reviews

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 reviewed by Bibiana Obler

Japanese Sashiko Textiles reviewed by Moira Vincentelli

Book Reviews

Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era reviewed by Ellen Paul Denker

KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave reviewed by Sue Green

A plea for open source knitting software

Machine knitted fabric by Veronika Persché

Machine knitted fabric by Veronika Persché

At my Viennese knitting workshop, I produce fabrics for use in the creative professions in both Austria and abroad. My knitting expertise is in demand by both (fashion) designers and artists—these customers select colours, materials and designs in order to create the fabrics with which they themselves want to work.

I am open to inspiration anytime and everywhere—it can come from posters, signs, lettering and packaging as well as from façade ornaments and from the colours and patterns of others’ clothes. As a textile designer I am constantly trying out new materials, patterns and effects—be it mohair, polyester, rubber or metal threads. Ever the experimenter, I enjoy knitting together things that at first glance don’t seem to belong together at all.

My working method is somewhat bipolar. First there’s the construction—strict, perfect and regularly textured, the opposite pole is the material: this is organic and often imperfect or irregular, making it a good source of surprises, coincidences and accidents. I discover inspiring textures in the architecture of the Bauhaus movement, of Viennese public housing and of Italian fascism, as well as in Russian Constructivism and M.C. Escher’s drawings. In processing these, I orient myself on the great role models provided by the Wiener Werkstätte and numerous traditional arts and crafts.

Since I not only design new patterns but also produce the fabrics, technical realization and selection of material play a major role. Working with the machine and experimenting with various materials transforms the pattern, often to the extent that it is not possible for people outside the process to trace it back to the thing from which it originated.

I create various fabric structures with the help of computer-driven knitting machines. Combining materials and altering the design, I can create a variety of different effects from the same starting point. My fabrics range from the organic to high glamour.

Machine knitted fabric by Veronika Persché

Machine knitted fabric by Veronika Persché

The machines I work with are semi-industrial ones, they were build for the needs of small knitting mills or designer/makers. Unfortunately they are not produced any more, even more, one of the companies went out of business.

So you still can buy some of these highly elaborated knitting machines with the according software at second hand dealers, but the numbers are limited and prices rise. In the last few months I experienced serious troubles with one of the control units, the software was not working anymore and I couldn’t access the system. This experience of depending on a proprietary software by a no longer existing company lead me to the decision to find a way to create an open source software for these knitting machines. Unfortunately, my computer skills are far from dealing with tasks like programming etc., so I have to find computer geeks who are able to help me develop the software. Right now I’m in the phase of getting smart people from around the globe together to discuss this theme. If anybody’s out there who wants to get involved in this project, please get in touch with me!

Veronika Persché is a machine knitter from Vienna. You can find out more about her work and make contact at her website