Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Hannah Greenaway’s Knitted Busts

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Hannah Greenaway’s Knitted Busts
Heat-treated plastic gives form to sculptures of strong women.

“Sustainability?” I suggest eagerly when I first meet the British textile artist Hannah Greenaway to discuss her knitted plastic sculptures. The term feels as though it has recently become a buzzword for the textile arts, and I hastily jump to the conclusion that Greenaway is yet another textile eco-warrior. I stand corrected. While she is not opposed to the association, the plastics she uses to create her loosely figurative sculptures were first determined by economics rather than ecology.

Greenaway chose to study textiles because, as she explains, “it was what I could do.” Her grandmother ran a haberdashery shop, and sewing, thread, and fabric were a part of Greenaway’s life from an early age. As an undergraduate student at the Glasgow School of Art, she “felt restricted by the loom” and began to explore the possibilities of machine knitting cotton, which was then dipped in wax to create three-dimensional shapes. The wax afforded her pieces some solidity and responded to her desire to create work that could “stand alone,” but she found, to her dismay, that this sculptural quality was fleeting: the heat of the lighting at her degree show melted the wax, taking each of her sculptures’ forms with it.

Aware that she had yet to settle on her ideal materials, Greenaway arrived at the Royal College of Art for her graduate studies and continued her search. While she remained intent on exploring images of women found in sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings through knitting, she discovered that scale was necessary to protect her work “from the cutesy factor.” The bonnets that appear throughout her work reflect the era of her inspiration, a time when it is unusual to find images of women without their hair covered. But Greenaway determined that she needed to work on a large scale to create the result she desired: strong images of equally strong women. Inevitably, scale demanded the availability of materials in quantity. Recycling plastics that were destined for the trash provided the answer, and further experimentation led to her use of heat to fuse her knitting and create sculptural forms. The combination turned out to be just what she needed. The ubiquity of the materials meant that she could work on the scale she sought, and heat-setting the forms meant that the works “held their own” as sculptures.

Today Greenaway creates pieces for exhibitions, takes on work by commission, and holds a patent for a version of heat-pressed plastic paper that is sold in London’s Paperchase store on Tottenham Court Road. Agreements brokered with several London hotel laundries, which dispose of a shocking quantity of plastic bags each week, provide the bulk of her materials. Friends also chip in, saving eye-catching carrier bags they obtain on travels. In spite of these donations, the delicate hues in her sculptures are the result not of chance but of hand dyeing her plastics with disperse dyes for each project.

While she readily accepts commission work, portraiture in the traditional sense is tricky. She can capture accuracy in the clay forms she first makes, but the hot knitted plastic, which is laid over the clay, tends to take on unpredictable shapes as it cools. Instead of facial features, it’s the clothing Greenaway recreates that she relies on to capture a person’s character or personality. The results may reflect our increased attention to sustainable textile design, but in Greenaway’s case it all began with a refreshingly unself-conscious requirement to recycle and make anew.

The artist’s website is www.hannahgreenaway.com.

FiberArts Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2006: 52-53)