Polkamania!

Earlier this year when I launched the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Playbook I had this idea that I could knit everything from the book again, sharing the progress of my work as I went and showing how each of the patterns might be adapted. This idea slowed to a glacial pace when my psoriatic arthritis got so much worse back in the spring. I still had the desire to adapt my patterns… I just had to take things a bit slower (boo).

One of my ideas was to show how Bricken might look worked in an alternative, fingering weight yarn. With this plan in mind, at Edinburgh Yarn Festival I picked up all the greys and all the oranges in the Knit By Numbers range produced by John Arbon. This is a rare thing – a worsted spun merino yarn that has not been superwash treated. The result is a soft, smooth, gently lustrous buttery yarn that has good squooshiness, but also still feels like something that’s come from a sheep. I thought it would be ideal for a cowl.

I also loved how many of the colours in my beloved Reading bricks are reflected in the soft peachy oranges and grey brown colourways of Knit By Numbers. These shades appear here in quite a different way from how they are represented in the wondrous palette of Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight, but many of the colours are there… and I’m interested in how many different colour interpretations you can have, in yarn, of a single inspiration source.

With a view to re-knitting Bricken, I cast on in Knit By Numbers only to immediately discover that I had no real enthusiasm to make the same project twice.

The thing is that the original Bricken cowl is a true representation of many actual brick walls in Reading. It contains moments of looking at walls, photographing bricks, analysing their colours, finding matches in the J&S Jumper Weight Yarn range and knitting them, section by section.

It’s like a minimalist, modular representation of details from the walls of the town in which I live. When I created the colouring book that goes with the main book, I asked Nic to lay out the colouring pages for Bricken to aid a similar creative process; there are 2 pages laid out with sections for you to colour in, each of which can be used to celebrate a particular wall that you love, and to plan the shades in which you’ll knit it.

This process of recording places was enthralling and as much a reward of the project as the end result itself. Attempting to replicate the same cowl in a different yarn range held no appeal without the joy of the search for new brick colour combinations. However, the lovely yarns in their brickish shades still sang from my knitting basket and I knew there was still a cowl – and a joyous creative process – tucked up in their cosy plies.

My aforementioned arthritis found me pouring a lot of my creative energy this year into getting well; managing my small business with extremely painful hands and very low energy; finding ingenious ways to do things with malfunctioning thumbs (hurrah for pliers and living aids!); and having a lot of extra medical administration to manage. My bullet journal played a key role in helping me to keep track of All These Things, but I also used its pages as a place to lift my spirits and console myself. Very few things are more useful in this regard than joyous POLKA DOTS.

Dots provide an endless source of pleasure and fascination. The Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, expresses the power of the polka dot beautifully in her autobiography, Infinity Net:

My desire was to predict and measure the infinity of the unbounded universe, from my own position within it, with dots – an accumulation of particles forming the negative spaces in the net… One polka dot: a single particle among billions. I issued a manifesto stating that everything – myself, others, the entire universe – would be obliterated by white nets of nothingness connecting astronomical accumulations of dots… And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious, invisible power.

One day an artist who had found success in Paris and become renowned around the world called at my studio. This ebullient Frenchman, a savvy self-promoter who had gained and maintained popular success thanks to his agility at leaping from trend to trend, seemed to live only to win all the awards he could get his hands on. He berated me. ‘Yayoi! Look outside yourself! Don’t you want to listen to Beethoven or Mozart? Why don’t you read Kant and Hegel? There’s so much greatness out there! How can you repeat these meaningless exercises, day and night, for years? It’s a waste of time!’

But I was under the spell of the polka dot nets. Bring on Picasso, bring on Matisse, bring on anybody! I would stand up to them all with a single polka dot. That was the way I saw it, and I had no ears to listen. I was betting everything on this and raising my revolutionary banner against all of history.

I don’t create anything on the scale of Yayoi Kusama’s magnificent, dazzling, polka dot artworks. But much of what she says here – about dots; about personal conviction; about an inner power; and about her resistance to Patriarchal ideals of artistic greatness – resonates. Dots are a kind of language for me too… a language of self expression and chromatic invention; of self-defining my disability and its representation. When I used a walking stick in my early twenties, it was a polka dot cosy that made it feel like my stick.

I realised that maybe my creative process with Knit By Numbers could be an investigation of different combinations of dots and backgrounds. The playful way in which I might lay red and white or grey or black or translucent or big or small dotted washi tapes beside or over one another on a page might surely become something to do in my knitting, too, no?

YES!

Revitalised, I went back to my delicious yarns. Knit By Numbers offers unprecedented opportunities to explore hue (colour) and value (dark/light) in your knitting; the yarn is made by blending dyed wool tops with successive amounts of white wool, producing colour ranges that move from saturated intensity to delicate pastels. Stranded colourwork is all about the interplay between hue and value, so I decided to sequence my yarns in ways that would give me a really rich sampler of possibilities… orange and grey explored from dark, through light… from high contrast to low contrast. Instead of a search for interesting brick walls in my city, this would be an introspective journey through dots and colour possibilities. I cast on again, taking the large dotty motif from Polka Dots & Dolls as my starting point, and then letting the glorious shades of Knit By Numbers yarns show me the rest of the way.

I knit on through the summer, each section of the new cowl revealing different combinations of orange with grey brown, and different levels of contrast between background and pattern yarns. It was a reflective and happy adventure, recorded in my bullet journal – of course – with dots. Thinking again of Yayoi Kusama and of her fantastic artwork – Obliteration Room – I decided to record progress on the polka dot cowl with a dot shaped sticker, stuck on a dedicated page, each time I knit on it.

It’s an easily memorised stitch pattern and a fairly portable project, so I took it everywhere and worked until it was complete. The result is a wide, soft cowl that travels from light to dark through two of my favourite colours. On Sunday, Mark and I went out to my favourite park to take photos of the cowl against the bricks which, long ago, were part of its design story.

It is, as predicted, warm and massive and snuggly, and I love it.

I learnt a lot about hue and value while knitting my polka dots, and the process has deepened my love of spotty patterns. All this has – as you know – inspired the production of some special knitted, dotty washi tape, and there’s a pattern coming soon. If you have a copy of the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Playbook you can probably work out your own version by combining the charts from Polka Dots & Dolls with the idea of Bricken. However, if you want a nicely laid out pattern that’s ready to go with no maths for you to do, plus a tutorial section on sequencing your yarn shades, there is one in the pipeline which is currently being tech-edited.

Looking for a name for my new cowl pattern, I found the term Polkamania which was used to describe the immense popularity of the polka dance when folk first discovered it. Polka dots are thought to be so-named because of the prevalence of spot pattern fabrics or dotty motifs in costumes worn to dances. The title Polkamania! perfectly summarises my love for the humble dot. It also points to the shared sense of repetition and rhythm that define both music and knitting; and it celebrates how every section in this cowl is like a rhythmic set of steps worked between yarn shade partners.

Stay tuned if you’d like to knit one; I’ll let everyone know when the pattern is out so that the joy of colours, of dots, of Polkamania! can be shared!

Until then –
YOURS IN ALL THE DOTS (and thanks to Mark Stanley for capturing so much joy and mischief in these amazing photos),
FX

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2 Responses to Polkamania!

  1. Enjoyed reading this and learning about your design process. I also have arthritis in my hands so I sympathise with your frustrations and struggles. Despite this or maybe because of this you have created something beautiful and with a great narrative. Happy Knitting

  2. mkg says:

    Oh nice! You are my design maven!

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