Interview with Ruth Lee, fibre artist and knitter
Did you undertake formal training in college or within the industry, or did you find your way into knitting via a different route?
My degree/postgraduate qualifications are in Printed Textile Design. My original ambition in the late 1970s was to set up as a maker in painted and printed textiles but the cost was too great. At the time I was interested in large- scale installation work and hand painting lengths of fabric. I bought a knitting machine simply to produce saleable items with a view to setting up in print at a later date, having seen one in action by a fellow student on my postgraduate course at Birmingham Polytechnic.
At the time I had never really considered knit as a potential career. Although I knitted as a child (and was surrounded with and greatly appreciated the beautiful hand-knits that my mum made) I never really had the patience to finish (or even start) projects other than playful and eccentric interpretations of stitch patterns in my mum's pattern books. I do remember knitting a few sweaters in my teen-age years and incorporated some free-form knitting into college projects. I did much more in the way of sewing and artwork.
However, once I had mastered the basics of the knitting machine (I am completely self taught) I quickly became fascinated by all the different types of colourful patterns and textures that could be produced away from the constraints of a written pattern. Machine knitting was a much more visual experience (graphs, charts, free form knitting) and suited my way of thinking. I then found I had unlimited patience to produce hand tooled, machine knitted fabrics directly on the machine and now take the same approach to hand knitting.
Currently I am exploring hand knitting within the broad area of my fibre arts practice. I do not differentiate between hand framed machine knitting and hand knitting with needles. It is all about creating continuous loop structures. I use the machine as a hand tool in much the same way as I work with hand knitting needles. My current approach to hand knitting owes much to my experimental machine knitting, one working method being mutually complementary to the other.
How would you describe your position within the world of knitting?
Latterly I see myself as a fibre artist who knits rather than knitted textile designer/knitwear designer seeing each element of my practice as complementary to each other rather than contradictory (site specific fibre arts work, exhibitions, wire knitted jewellery and accessories, book projects, workshops, writing for knitting magazines).
Current exhibition work is multi-disciplinary in approach and explores, for example continuous loop technique (hand and machine), stitch, off loom construction techniques, surface design and manipulation.
What inspires and influences the designs you create for knitted objects?
The making process: my finished pieces are quite often different to my initial plans. Ideas gradually evolve through the making process. Thinking with my hands is a major part of the working process.
It is often only in retrospect that I can begin to fully understand what I want my pieces to say, having worked through the symbiotic relationship between materials, processes and ideas. Inspiration and starting points are many and various.
Clothing and accessories as a metaphor for ideas and concepts, for example a single pair of Georgian shoes inspired my exhibition "Made from Memory" which took place on the 9th October to March 2005. An exhibition inspired by the costume collection of Pickford's House Museum of Georgian Life and Historic Costume, Derby.
Inspired by a single pair of Georgian shoes, most of the work explored footwear as a metaphor for ideas, concepts and states of being. Hand-me-downs commented on the social divide between upper and lower classes; Relics is about old shoes as good luck symbols and as protection from evil spirits whilst the white shoe installation explored otherworldly journeys.
Made from Memory suggests the idea that worn shoes evoke the memory of the wearer and their social status, each shoe wearing differently, molded through wear to an individual foot shape, suggesting either a life of luxury or that of hard work. Each shoe-form in Hand me Down's for example was constructed from the same template (which also retains the shape for each individual pattern piece) yet each shoe-form has its own special trade mark and individuality.
All things linear, skeletal forms, temporary structures, traditional and contemporary basketry, old knitting and crochet patterns, spirit of place, outdoor locations and big landscapes.
Found objects. Museum pieces. Old, worn and eroded objects (manmade and natural), gardens, plant form, microscopic organisms.
Colour symbolism, meaning and context in different cultures. Japanese fibre artwork. Painters who work primarily with colour.
Naturally occurring repetition, pattern, texture, cycles of growth and decay, the Fibonacci number series (1,1,2,3,5,8,13 and so on) as a metaphor for growth and to give an underlying sense of natural balance and harmony to my work.
Knit is a metaphor for many of the underlying ideas behind my current fibre arts work; for example the cyclic nature of growth and decay. The act of knitting builds organically, one stitch at a time; very much like cells multiply in the natural world. Unravel knit and you are left with a length of thread to start all over again.
Knit, as a process, may have no real beginning or end. At any point the work could be unraveled and started again and again. The unraveled thread holds in its memory something of the previous pattern, for example small kinks in the wire or a break in the rattan. Repeat the same stitch pattern and the results will be slightly different, for example as a group of leaves on a particular tree repeat in shape and form but are not totally identical.
What types of materials do you prefer to use?
Materials are chosen to express ideas and concepts or because they themselves suggest an idea to me by the way they handle, their tactile qualities or their potential as a metaphor. I am always looking for new and unusual materials to experiment with for future projects.
I am fascinated by the magical transformation of linear materials into complex structures and surfaces, which build organically through repetition of small units and changes of scale. Materials include very fine basketry cane, enamelled copper wire, paper yarn, metallic and cotton sewing thread, plastics, rope, elastic, plant material, fabrics, tape, cling film for example and, at the other end of the spectrum, the new generation of modern hand knitting yarns.
In recent exhibition work knitted surfaces have also been manipulated and layered into Tissutex paper, burnt into Tyvek, stiffened with Thermofoil, treated with varnishes, glues and wood stains.
What would you most like to knit that you haven't made so far?
Site specific pieces involving knit for outdoor locations possibly exploring links between knit and basketry
I find my most exciting work evolves from unexpected sources of inspiration and where I set out with a blank canvas without preconceived notions of where this might lead.
What do you think of the hand knitting 'revival' taking place in the US and which has now reached Britain?
Textile and fibre artists have long since recognised the potential of knit as a means to express ideas and concepts…however…for the uninitiated…
- It's relaxing. It's tactile and hands on. A meditative, calming process: an antidote against the stress of modern day living in the fast lane.
- Availability of new, inspiring fashion yarns with 'wow' factor in wonderful colours and textures appealing across the generations and encouraging younger knitters to take up their needles. Internet shopping has helped make specialist yarns more accessible since the demise of many local wool shops.
- This new generation of yarns is easy and quick to knit yarns with instant appeal, and can be knitted in simple stitch patterns that let the yarns speak for themselves.
- Publications such as the new monthly 'Knitting' magazine published by The Guild of Master Craftsman Publications to support the revival of hand knitting design and practice.
- Events such as The Knitting and Stitching Show that annually brings together textile artists trade stands and hands on workshops. In 2003 The Knitting and Stitches show first hosted awards for students working with knitted textiles…to encourage and showcase the creative development of design in the area of knitted textiles
- Design for Knitting study day at the V&A organised by textile designer John Allen encourages people to break boundaries and push horizons of knitting to greater extremes.