Karie Westermann and This Thing of Paper


As promised yesterday, today I have Karie Westermann here on the KNITSONIK blog speaking about her forthcoming tome, This Thing of Paper. In case you have not heard about This Thing of Paper, it is a knitting book inspired by Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press. Karie has been working with primary sources ranging from 14th century illuminated manuscripts to 16th century embroidery manuals and the book will contain ten knitting projects with accompanying essays.

If you have not yet visited Karie’s Kickstarter page, I hope today’s discussion will inspire you to pop over there for some intriguing glimpses at what promises to be a beautiful, thoughtful and unique book combining Karie’s passions.

I just love the buzz and enthusiasm surrounding this project – hurrah for all the backers who have ensured that this book is really happening!

Myself and Karie found we had much to discuss so I will dive straight in with the caveat that you might want to FETCH TEA before sitting down to read this!

Felix: As you may know, I like to work with knitting and sounds and am always searching for interesting connections between the two. I’ve found that once you go deep into something like that, there are all sorts of lovely links. I wonder if it is a little bit similar for you with books, and if you could talk a bit about the correlations for you between knitting and books; what are some of the different ways in which their relationship will manifest in This Thing of Paper?

Karie: I come to knitting from a literary background – a theoretical literary background, really – and I think that shapes the way I view knitting.

Because I teach a lot and I talk a lot about the importance of swatching, I always draw attention to how handwriting and knitting relate. We all have the same tools – whether that be a pen & paper or specific yarn & needles – but the end result is always slightly different. Both our handwriting and our knitting a fabric change depending upon circumstances: is this writer or knitter tired? stressed? tipsy? The movement of our hands change over time as well. Mark-making is so very individual – and there are autobiographical notes to all this mark-making too.

So there is that basic connection.

I also think about writing, reading, books, and knitting in another way. Quite apart from the whole textile/text collision, I was also struck by something the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about the reading eye and how we follow written words on a page. He had this whole (somewhat dubious) theory about how Neolithic farmers tilled the fields and how writing grew out of those lines enforced by mankind on the landscape; how the movement of the reading eye can be traced back to farming. I’d argue that you could say the same way about textiles were worked: the movement of a shuttle moving across a loom, for instance.

But we do have very specific ways of engaging with both text and textile: in the Western world, our reading eye moves from left to right – and I’ve had pattern support queries where the problems genuinely arise because people were reading their knitted textiles (and charts) in a similar left-to-right fashion when in fact knitting is worked from right to left.

There is a lot of scholarly work being done about ‘the hand’ and ‘handling’ that can be applied to both knitting and books. I definitely do not think they are as separate or different as they may appear.

Teaser_image TTOP

Felix: I was very intrigued by an image on your pinterest board showing the palette available to mediaeval manuscript illuminators and wondered how you have approached your design palette for This Thing of Paper?

illuminated border

Karie: It was such a joy to work on this colour palette. With my previous collection, Doggerland, I was limited by the very few material remains that had survived from Mesolithic times. As a result, the palette was very limited and very influenced by nature: flint stones, mud, green seaweed, lichen etc. With this collection, I had a lot more source material! So much of it has been digitised as well, so I was able to get very close to the sources.

However, I think many people don’t realise that richly decorated manuscripts are relatively rare objects that were made for an elite few. Illuminated manuscripts are gorgeous – but maybe not as representative as you’d think. I started looking at the way ordinary manuscripts looked: the play between surface decoration and the background. The idea of negative space became really important to me.

Once you begin to move away from illuminated manuscripts and begin to look at early printed books (which is actually where my real passion lies), the colour palette becomes even more intriguing. You start noticing things like rubrication – red handwriting inserted into printed books – and I started thinking about the colour red. Why was it significant? Woodcuts begin to be inserted and they are usually hand-tinted. That interested me as well.

And then when you hit the 16th century and printed books have become increasingly common, the colour palette is really quite limited. You have the cream colours of aged paper and the dark brown ink. Occasionally red lettering appears, but getting a second colour onto a printed page is a technical feat.

So, I had a core colour palette and then three different colour stories where you have this really rich mineral-derived colour palette but also very beautiful, subdued colours. And the way they interact with one another is really interesting.

Felix: I also wonder about the other ways in which the BOOKISH-ness of books has inspired your designs; are there more physical elements – paper, pages, ink etc. – that have also informed your plans?

Karie: Yes! When I was a young girl, I had penpals from all over the world and this one girl used to send me her letters in beautiful, beautiful envelopes. She really spawned an obsession: I began doing calligraphy which led to collecting typefaces back when I got my first computer. And so I’ve always been really interested in the materiality of books and what’s known as paratextuality – all these small elements that turn a text into a book like pagination, footnotes, title pages, end papers etc.

The designs in This Thing of Paper really reflect that. Each design is inspired by an aspect of book production – every pattern is part of a book both figuratively and literally.


Felix: Like I was saying yesterday, I find books like This Thing of Paper really exciting because they offer ways of connecting knitting with other interests, and ways of embedding extra meaning into everyday garments. I am fascinated by the idea that knitted garments can contain a sort of personal symbolism, or connect everyday clothes with stories and identity; I wondered if you could say a bit about what it means to you to produce knitting patterns that – while being wearable, knittable designs – have these links to wider concepts?

Karie: As a designer I really struggle to not tell stories. The way my design process works is quite laborious: I start with a story or a concept I want to communicate. I then work my way towards a design that communicates what I want to way whilst still being an accessible, easy-to-wear piece. Sometimes it can take me months to go from concept to workable design – thankfully I do have a lot of ideas and stories, so I have a steady workflow.

With Doggerland, I wanted people to reflect upon what it means to be human and how we define ourselves in the landscapes around us (and inside us). Some people just loved the pretty patterns and that’s okay too. Once I release a pattern, I cannot control how other people interpret it or modify it – and I find that so exciting that other people write/knit their own stories into a framework I have provided.

This Thing of Paper is the second part of what I tentatively think of as a trilogy of works about what it means to be human and how we relate to the world. This time I will be writing about objects and how we experience the world through our bodies. It is so exciting that knitting as a medium can both be a story-telling exercise and something that keeps us warm. I’m quite thankful that people seem to appreciate what I’m trying to do – mostly because I don’t know how to create things in any other way!

Teaser_image TTOP2

Felix: There have been quite a few crowd-funding projects for very individual styles of knitting books – including, ahem, my own Kickstarter campaign and related book! Taking the crowd-funding route allowed me to put my own stamp on the book, and to include elements that no traditional publisher would have allowed, such as including a dirty old A-road and my beaten up old Edirol R-09 field-recording device as an inspiration source for stranded colourwork. There was some risk involved in ignoring traditional conventions of beauty to include these things. However, since I published my book, I have received feedback indicating that people really enjoy seeing mundane and everyday things cast in an inspirational light, which makes me glad that I took those risks. To me it seems that taking the crowdfunding route for This Thing of Paper will enable you to produce the book exactly as you want to, and to put your distinctive own stamp on it! Can you tell us a bit about how you will use that extra freedom, and perhaps about some maverick element of the book that you are sure you wouldn’t be allowed to include, if working with a mainstream publisher?

Karie: One of the things I love about contemporary knitting is how broad a church it is. You have mainstream craft publications written for casual knitters who like a quick chunky hat; you have gorgeous small press magazines catering to knitters who like luxurious high-end projects; you have capital-K knitters who go on retreats & visit indie yarn festivals; you have people like Deirdre Nelson who use knitting as an art practise. I love how there is room for many, many different takes on what knitting and being a knitter means.

I chose crowd-funding because I know that a mainstream publisher would have found a knitting book about the invention of the printing press a tough sell. I used to work for a yarn company and I have worked with several mainstream publishers over the years, and they need to make numbers work in a whole other way to how me as an indie designer can make it work. I can take creative risks because I don’t need 20,000 people to buy the book. It is a privilege to work on a small scale and I can get away with much more such as writing semi-literary essays in a knitting context and designing projects inspired by footnotes in 15th century Latin treatises or blemished paper in 16th century pamphlets.

Thanks to Karie for dropping by today and sharing your vision for your forthcoming book! This post is part of a tour continuing on from Jacqueline’s lovely tutorial on making your own notebookyesterday, and traveling tomorrow to the blog of Clare Devine. You can find a full list of all the posts created during the blog tour here and, taken together, the posts offer a rich insight into the creative community to which Karie belongs, and to which This Thing of Paper will contribute.

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