Knitting and the Scale of Things

16 February, 2009

A couple of years ago, I saw a pattern by Wenlan Chia (of the design label Twinkle) in an issue of Interweave Knits.I immediately dismissed it, and uncharitably wondered why so much ink and paper was being wasted on such an uninteresting – and unflattering — sweater.Then I found out she had quite a following amongst the young and hip fashionistas, but that extra bit of information did nothing to alter my opinion of her knit designs.Her “signature look” sweaters rely on super-bulky yarn worked on super-fat needles, thus resulting in super-sized stitches and motifs.I didn’t see then how anyone larger than a size 0 could possibly look half-way decent in her designs – and that impression was reinforced after perusing many pictures of FOs out there in knitting land.Reminder: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Tonight I started thinking about why Wenlan Chia – or anyone else, for that matter — might choose to work with such thick yarns.During one of my graduate school stints, I read an article that challenged historians to think about scale in their work; I suspect this was a reaction to the prominent trend that has produced so many “microhistories” (of the sort that might, for example, examine the life of a pregnant teenager living with her widower father in some little village of 150 people in 16th century Europe, and how this life might be used to illuminate the struggles of peasants during the Reformation).Sometimes a microhistory really is just a microhistory, but sometimes it can be – and should be – so much more.So when I was writing about the Cheyennes trading at Bent Fort in the 1840s, I had to remember that they were middlemen on the plains, a conduit between other tribes as well as between the white and native worlds.Even more than that, the network they operated within was not confined to the plains – it was also continental in scale.

And this has to do with knitting because … ?When I look at a piece of knitting done in a sane gauge, I seen the work as a whole.But when you knit with rope and needles the size of tree branches, the effect is extravagant and exaggerated – it is as though each stitch becomes its own statement, each a sweater in miniature, and the fabric created becomes a landscape of ridges and valleys, of light and shadow.And that is a drama.But another way that scale operates in Chia’s work – and much more important to her as a purveyor of yarn goods than to someone who just wants to knit – is the economy of scale.Boutique knits must grab your attention, whether for the good or the bad.They therefore need to be “different” but reproducible, and they need to be handmade, though not necessarily well made.Twinkle sweaters do all three.So while I personally will never go anywhere near size 15 needles, I understand those who would do so.A few hours’ work for hand-knittersis instant gratification, and they get the satisfaction of knowing that the “Twinkle” sweater they have knitted has been stamped as designer chic.Judgments about body type, fit, and flattery are, of course, optional. Then again, I might be reading way too much into the intent of the high-fashion designer.It really could be just sheer laziness.

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