Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Get Knitted


Get Knitted
July 2 – October 26, 2008
Millennium Gallery, Sheffield

Knitting has enjoyed such resurgence of interest that its popularity is in danger of contributing to its downfall. Press coverage of celebrities knitting has been healthy in recent years, as have sizable exhibitions such as Knit 2 Together, which toured the UK in 2005 and Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting at the Museum of Arts & Design on view in New York City in 2007. Get Knitted responds the same popular interest in knitting as these other exhibitions and is well sited to engage and challenge the public by providing a contemporary definition of knitting. Unfortunately, the exhibition is thin and shows little development of critical thinking to make it stand out from what has gone before. Ultimately, while functional and sculptural knitted objects are on display, very little truly challenges what we have come to expect knitting of late to communicate.

A video of Freddie Robins’ knitted wedding showed knitting to be magical, communal and beyond expectation. Much more could have been made of this beautiful piece of history (the scale of the projection for one), for it captured a way of thinking about knitting that genuinely overturned expectations. Regrettably, little else in the exhibition managed to conjure quite the same magic. Jemma Sykes viscose and copper wire dress and Samantha Williams knitted tyre cover stools fell fowl of what looked to be a rather zealous interpretation of health and safety guidelines. Displayed in the centre of the gallery both were barricaded off in a manner that suggested they might have been constructed from barbed wire, at the very least. Sykes’ dress would also have benefited from a display that allowed the garment to fall around the body’s form. On the hanger it adopted a two dimensional flatness that obscured some of the beauty to be found in its construction.

Rachel Matthews’ Cast Off pieces included a knitted “Penis in Cable”, “Hand Grenade Purse”, “Deluxe Lipstick” and “Cigarette in Stocking Stitch” – humorous and subversive responses to the stereotypes of knitting for pleasure. But the history of Cast Off and the central role the group has played, not only the revival but also questioning of the place of knitting in contemporary society, was not explored. This left the objects without the contextual explanations they deserved. Similarly, Orkney based Tait and Style’s knitted Fair Isle cushion, stuffed horse toy and baby blanket (sadly all in the same colour way) appeared with little supporting information regarding the relevance of the pattern or insight into the complexities of its construction.

In an eye-catching arrangement on the far gallery wall, Shane Waltener’s Garlands offered bold celebrations of scale, colour and texture. One of the Garlands was created as part of a community project. Inviting the public to engage with materials and creating objects that reflect the group, rather than the individual, are all worthy undertakings. But it may be time to consider the potential of these increasingly familiar projects. In this exhibition, the two areas set aside for individuals to knit a communal textile resulted, at the time of my visit, in the creation of the inevitable communal tangle. In future such projects could be used to invite the public to think about knitting in relation to technology, health or simply other artic disciplines. Jeff Goddard’s recording, for example, which plays very quietly in one of the two knitting areas felt like a fresher approach to the theme of communal making. A combination of recorded sound from metal and wood needles accompanied by the chatter of conversation, the work offers a much-needed example of thinking differently about knitting.

Throughout, exhibition labels lacked key information. An assortment of historical knitting patterns offered a nod to the past popularity of knitting, but failed to communicate a specific exhibition theme. Samples by Rebecca Holmes “won the Knitted Textile Student Award in 2007” but from where or whom remained a mystery. Sadly the most exciting knitting was to be found next door in the Vivienne Westwood exhibition – inhabiting a much larger space, drawing more crowds and charging for the privilege. The contrast between the atmosphere and quality of the two exhibitions could not have been greater. The distinction says less about Vivienne Westwood than it does about how we currently attempt to encourage public interest in textiles. Get Knitted isn’t good enough, and until it gets better we can’t complain if the crafts remain misunderstood.

Crafts Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2008: 66)