Special Feature: Extreme Knitting
Eight-ply cardis knitted in the comfort of a fireside armchair? Way too easy! Knitting fair-isle socks and vests for hubby – a little more testing, but as nothing compared to some of the remarkable knitters Janai Velez has been meeting of late.
Some ultra-creatives have decided that simply purling and plaining isn’t challenging enough, and have turned knitting into an extreme sport. One yarn wizard has travelled deep into the sea for some aquatic knitting. Another has stitched up a beanie while abseiling down a canyon. And yet another dedicated crafter has knitted a scarf while running a marathon – truly! They’re taking multitasking to a whole new level and making a hybrid hobby of their two favourite activities in the process.
Other experienced stitchers have ditched yarn and opted for unusual materials – knitting with instant noodles and making knitted glass sculptures. They show us how using a familiar technique with a new medium can produce surprising results.
Now let’s jump from one extreme to the other – there’s a designer who makes giant knits with PVC pipe needles, creating super-chunky homewares, and an artist who knits in miniature using wire needles and creating art pieces that are so small they fit on a fingertip. Such fine work really tests your eye sight, whereas the large-scale work gives muscles a workout. All truly remarkable -and we haven’t even mentioned the life-sized knitted Ferrari yet!
The following knitters all have talent and perseverance in equal measure. A ‘what if…’ thought was the starting point, and they’ve made it a reality. They’ve got some great yarns to share about the experience.
It doesn’t get much smaller than the exquisite work of Althea Crome. Her tiny socks, jackets and gloves are a marvel of skill, precision and creativity.
Her interest in knitting began when a college room-mate taught her the basics. After each new project, Althea would seek more challenging patterns until she was designing them herself. Meanwhile, her childhood fascination with miniatures was reignited while building a dollhouse for her triplets. It wasn’t long before she was combining ‘knitting’ and ‘miniatures’ for her own unique artworks.
Althea has pioneered knitting at a 1:12 scale. She’s tested different techniques and needle prototypes until she mastered the tiny scale. “As per my nature, I worked and worked until I could figure out how to knit with silk threads and fine needles,” says Althea.
She makes her own needles from surgical stainless steel. “This has a very high tensile strength and never rusts or breaks.” She cuts the steel to four, five or six inch lengths before grinding and polishing the ends. She always uses double pointed needles and the needle sizes she works with are anywhere between 0.01-0.04 inches. “Most of my threads are fine silk—100 weight. Sometimes I use cotton and occasionally, very fine wool, but silk is my favourite.”
Over time her work has gotten smaller and more intricate. “I do go smaller, but more significantly, I get more stitches to the inch, which allows me to get more detail.” One of her favourite parts of the process is creating the facial designs. “If a piece has a face in it, I am always eager to get to the face, which helps me visualise everything so much better,” says Althea.
Medieval art and religious iconography inspires many of her pieces. “I am enjoying translating art that I love into my own knitted art form. The next piece I am designing is a byzantine icon of the Madonna and child,” she says. Her work is showcased in galleries and museums and some pieces are sold at shows.
KNITTING FOR GIANTS
Jacqueline Fink, of Little Dandelion
Jacqueline Fink describes large-scale knitting as “mindfulness on steroids.” Her mum taught her to knit as a child, but her skills remained very basic. “Then, as it is now, my focus was on the therapeutic quality of the exercise, not the functionality,” says Jacqueline.
She began “knitting big” after a very traumatic period in her life, when the calming qualities of crafting were most needed. “I had my dad make up a set of industrial-sized needles and I set about teaching myself how to knit with roving [unspun wool] on such a large scale. It wasn’t easy and I made a load of mistakes,” she says. “Roving is a difficult material to knit with. It’s as delicate as fairy floss and prone to excessive pilling and breaking with use. But I was so determined to find a way to successfully use this delightful and beautiful material that I was undeterred.”
It took Jacqueline two years of research and experimentation to refine her process, including teaching herself how to felt her knitted pieces to give them stability and inherent functionality. She uses knitting needles made from PVC pipe which are 5cm in diameter and 110cm long. For the larger pieces, she tends to use her arms instead of needles.
Jacqueline says that extreme knitting is like a whole-body workout. “An average throw weighs no less than five kilos. My larger installation pieces can weigh over 80 kilos. That’s a lot of weight bearing,” she says. She makes bespoke wall hangings, blankets, throws, decorative ottomans and installations, using mostly merino wool from a farm in Australia. She’s also developed her own brand of yarn and needles. Jacqueline’s work has been admired by bloggers and stylists and featured in interior and lifestyle magazines.
“My work continues to evolve and I am on a constant quest to increase my scale and challenge myself physically to see how big I can go,” she says. “My lack of technical know-how has been a blessing in disguise and my passion for merino wool underpins everything I create.”
KNITTING ON THE RUN
Guinness World Record breaker David Babcock says that running while knitting is like running while trying to hold a cup of water without spilling a drop. As difficult as it sounds, David has mastered this unusual knitting/running skill pairing.
The idea came about as a way to save time. David was keen to pursue both running and knitting, but his busy schedule didn’t allow much time to devote to either. While online he came across Susie Hewer in the UK who held the Guinness World Record for longest scarf knitted whilst running a marathon, which she undertook to help raise funds for Alzheimer’s disease research. This intrigued David, who had been experimenting with running in a smooth style while crocheting.
After completing his first marathon, David decided to give running while knitting a go. “My brother-in-law wanted to run a marathon too. I knew that he was going to be super slow so I figured it would be a great opportunity to try a knitting marathon and run with him. I went about the application process and decided to run for Alzheimer’s to honour Susie’s record intent,” he says. “Since then I have run many knitting and crochet themed races, all with Alzheimer’s fundraising in mind.” David now holds the Guinness World Record, knitting a 3.7m long scarf while running in the Kansas City Marathon (USA) in 2013. “As the scarf got longer it was attached to my waist pack with cords and carabiners,” he says. “It had to be wrapped around my body at the waist and reattached to keep it from falling down around my legs or making me too warm up top.”
He’s a seasoned knitter/runner now and knows all the potential pitfalls, including sweaty fingers, unnoticed dropped stitches and knitted fabric swinging around as you run. “It helps to know your running route well and have a wide, safe, shoulder on the road. One time when I was still learning and experimenting I tripped in a pothole. The needles, of course, are always pointed across my body. I caught myself a little late with my hands on the pavement and scraped them up a bit,” says David. You need to keep focus on the knitting, the road and other runners and he says a smooth flat gait without much up and down bouncing is ideal. “Getting a quick drink from volunteers while on the run is also a handful.”
KNITTING WITH NOODLES
Cynthia Delaney Suwito
Of all the materials to knit with, noodles would probably have to be one of the trickiest. They’re slippery, delicate and perishable. But Cynthia Delaney Suwito was up for the challenge, a task that many would have thought impossible.
The idea started as a school project. “I got interested in using instant noodles as a material because of its cultural positioning in this world,” says Cynthia. The project explores the contrast of a material that is fast to prepare (instant noodles) with an activity that is time consuming (knitting). “The use of this material makes the process of knitting slower than it should be thus disregarding the object’s instant-ness. The project aims to slow viewers down.”
To prepare the noodles for knitting, Cynthia cooks them as they’d be cooked for eating (sans seasoning). She’s trialled different techniques, noodle brands, cooking methods and timings to work out the perfect recipe for knitting. “At first, the noodle will constantly break and fall apart due to its fragile nature, but after trying again and again for a few months, my hands started to get the hang of it. It still breaks now and then so sometimes you can see holes in the knitting but it still holds together.”
SHATTERING KNITTING CONCEPTIONS
Knitting usually means warm and cuddly clothes and soft furnishings – but mixed-media sculptor Carol Milne has other ideas. Carol has united her passions to create unique artwork collections. “They’re a combination of three things I love: knitting, sculpture and glass,” she says. “I’m still surprised, delighted and challenged by what I do – that’s important.”
Carol has been an obsessive knitter since she was 10. She has a landscape architecture degree with a Masters in sculpture, working in cast metal. These studies eventually led to experimenting with combining knitting and sculpture. “One day when I was working on a bronze sculpture, I kept looking at the sprue wax I was using and thinking, ‘It looks like yarn – I wonder if I could knit with it.’ Then I began knitting things in wax that I was knitting in yarn, such as gloves and socks. It progressed from there.” Many materials, such as plaster, clay, wood and metal, are also used in the process. The sculpture is revealed by chipping the plaster away from the encased glass. Carol explains that many of her metal casting skills are transferable to glass.
“[The pieces are] more fragile than window glass or drinking glasses, but less fragile than they look. You can’t break one by touching it, but like all glass, it doesn’t flex. If you bang it with a hard object or drop it on the floor, it will break.” Her knitted glass artworks range from clothing accessories to bowls and baskets to ‘work in progress’ pieces with the knitting needles still attached to the ‘yarn’.
KNITTING ON THE EDGE
Cheryl Arasim, of Acorn to Oak
Adventure-seeker Cheryl Arasim takes her knitting with her just about everywhere – hikes, errands, tandem bike rides with her husband, trips to the beach, camping and even canyoneering. The latter is what we’re showing here – she calls it “knitting on the edge”. Having her knitting with her on this challenging adventure gave her some comfort, and made for some fun photos.
“We had to pack all the equipment and food for the whole day. So, I had to find a way to squeeze in my knit project,” says Cheryl. She put her knitting into her dry sack, as the trip included rappelling through icy cold waterfalls and swimming through sections of water. “For this photo I had to tuck the knitting into my coveralls so it would be ready to pull out easily when I was hanging on the rope,” she says. “When I reached a good spot on this rappel for our guide to get a picture and my husband had me secure on the rope from about 80 feet below, I pulled out my knitting and knitted a few stitches for the photos. My knitting had gotten soaked but I was able to dry it out that evening with a blow dryer.”
Combining two of her favourite things – knitting and outdoor adventure – plus the reactions from people when they see the photos, makes the experience all the more special. “The guide joked about one of the photos being on Extreme Knitting Quarterly. Of course, that magazine doesn’t exist but it was all fun. It all adds up to great memories.”
Spinning wheels refer to yarn and tyres, in Lauren Porter’s work. Her life-sized knitted Ferrari, parked at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! London, UK odditorium (part of their permanent collection), has heads turning.
“I wanted to challenge people’s ideas about art craft and design. I wanted to draw on the social and historical connotations of the craft of knitting and turn it on its head. A Ferrari was the most far removed object I could think of,” says Lauren.
The piece is called 12 Miles of Yarn, as that’s how much yarn was needed to complete the project. It took 10 months to make, with the help of family and friends. “My father had recently passed away and I got my friends and family, all over the country making red squares for me (although, I did a lot of it myself!). Looking back on it, the project felt like a really positive ‘knitting together’ after a tragedy,” she says. “It was all very well having people knit for me, but everyone, of course, has different tensions to their technique. I was receiving squares in different sizes! I had to allocate each size to certain parts of the car.”
The construction of the car is based on the principles of a tent frame. Lauren used poles and pegs, plus panels of either wood or chicken wire covered in wadding and knitting, which clip to the assembled frame. “The excess knitting wraps around to hide the joins, creating the illusion that it’s one solid object,” says Lauren. She designed and welded the four sections where the wheel arches are. “The whole piece packs down like flat-pack furniture,” she says.
Lauren’s knitting skills are gifts from her family. “My mum taught me to knit when I was five. I started again when I was at university, however, I didn’t know how to cast off, so my dad explained how to do it over the phone! My auntie Annie taught me to crochet as I needed to learn how to make round shapes for headlights!”
DIVING INTO KNITTING
Terry Morris’s love of trying new things led her to a peculiar diving experience in the Caribbean Sea. During a mandatory ‘safety stop’ while diving (stopping for a few minutes before reaching the water surface) to avoid decompression sickness (caused by ascending to the surface too quickly), Terry decided to put the time to good use and give knitting underwater a whirl.
“Before this dive, I prepared by casting on some stitches to the largest sized needles I had on board my boat,” says Terry. “The yarn I choose was the brightest coloured yarn I had so that it would show up in the photos underwater. I tucked the yarn and needles into my weight belt and enjoyed a beautiful dive of the reef before the knitting attempt.”.
Controlling the yarn in the currents underwater was very challenging. “The yarn swirled about me with a mind of its own. It’s hard to knit when you’re laughing so hard,” she says. “I was concentrating so much on getting the yarn to behave so that I could knit, that I didn’t do a good job of keeping a neutral buoyancy (keeping myself at the same depth in the water) and I kept sinking down, down, down. As a responsible diver, I didn’t want to damage the coral reef.”
Terry lives aboard a 50-foot sailboat full time and is well prepared for all sorts of knitting adventures. “I’m always looking for new and odd places to knit – on a 16th century Spanish canon, in the air, on a bear statue, on a pile of canon balls, etc. Knitting underwater was indeed a challenge, and a lot of fun.”