Comeliness – the workmanship of risk

jamieson & smith and lurex lace

‘Comeliness’ – the workmanship of risk….

… ‘If I must ascribe a meaning to the word Craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it simply means workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus in which the quality of the result is not predetermined but depends on the judgement, dexterity of care which the maker exercises as he works.  The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making, so I shall call this kind of workmanship ‘The workmanship of Risk’

With the workmanship of Risk, we may contrast the’ Workmanship of Certainty’, always to be found in quantity production and found in its pure state in full automation.

‘The Nature of Art and Workmanship’ – David Pye

 

In short, when I was five, David Pye was writing the text above about workmanship and it still stands true nearly 50 years later. Reading his words in relation to ‘craft’ gives me a deeper understanding of what I am doing with a needle and thread, an eye for detail, a mind to experiment and a power knit machine that, although can turn out ‘workmanship of certainty’, the route to that can be long and more fulfilling with its errors, mistakes and risks.  Every turn I take with the lace knitting is ‘workmanship of risk’ – craft  – though the journey starts with a thought and a hope, travels through time in design and out at the other end from a power Knit machine. Every step is gradual, considered and handled carefully even through the power process, it is considered.

 

For some time, my knit has drawn upon my love of Shetland, the islands, its landscape and language. My knit is not just stitches and a pattern and here lies the art / craft.  Or, as David Pye later writes, ‘Comeliness’ which implies the ability to give an aesthetic expression, or to add to it.

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I’m knitting vests, or so I am led to believe. But I keep straying. Comeliness is not a word linked to vests but is a word associated with women. The life of these vests stem from Shetland to Nottingham through conversations that opened up discussions of it being ‘visually polite’ on to questioning mending the errors thrown out by the power machine which found my patterns too difficult to master due to conditions.

The vests are comeliness – not in shape but in aesthetic.  Within them is a life and a story. Each one will be ‘crafted’  Each one will have a name.

 

I am learning technical conditions and terminology and can do nothing but learn to speak in ‘take down’, ‘tension’, ‘ transfer’ ‘technical file’ and ‘half-gauge’. Coming from a long life of drawing with a line of yarn in hand-knitting, initially, I was out of my depth with Power Knit machines and Computer Aided Design (CAD) – splashing around in an unknown sea of errors.  Now, I tread water like when I thought I could swim as a child but could not.  I tread water alongside the technician at Uni who is aware of my errors, guides my ways, shows me steps at such great speed that I am left back at the shore only to tentatively swim out again and have a go.  Repetition is the key.

 

The start is pleasing. Each time I look back at my previous work – even if only a month ago, it looks naïve.  

 

If, as David Pye suggests,  workmanship is judged by a criteria of ‘Soundness’ and ‘Comeliness’ –

Soundness being – the ability to transmit and resist forces as the designer intended, there must be no hidden flaws or weakness. 

And Comeliness being the ability to give that aesthetic expression which the designer intended, or add to it

 – then I’ll embrace Comeliness every time.

 

Thanks to Jamieson & Smith for sponsoring me with the Shetland Supreme lace weight – the darned knit in image one.

http://www.shetlandwoolbrokers.co.uk/Shetland-Supreme-Lace-Weight

 

 

 

 

There is a saying in Shetland…

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“There is a saying in Shetland that the longer the end of the yarn left over after casting on, the longer it will take to complete the garment” (Sarah Don, The Art of Shetland Lace, 1980, p25)

 

To this end, after reading this line, I continue to take a random chance without any hint of calculation and guess the length of yarn I may need each time that I cast on for hand lace knitting.  Never once have I guessed the length correctly and either cast on in the hope that the length will be enough or, as mostly, I have over calculated leaving a tail left over.  This line of text both fascinates and maps a story.  An interpretation could be that a knitter’s overall experience and knowledge is marked / judged by their calculating the right amount of yarn that would be required for the amount of stitches to be cast on.  Additionally, maybe when  money and hand-spun yarn was scarce, the quote could have been born from careful frugality.

I imagine the sideways glances  in a group gathering to knit together many years ago, at the cast on edge of each other’s knitting, and that the cast-on tail’s length did not go unnoticed.

I’m interested in process. I think I was working to a definite idea of a finished product but not now (it moves and flows like water) but my initial inspiration remains strong.  Patience has grown to see what can or will  evolve from what I am doing – allowing the process to dictate the end product.  This has never been more apparent than when I tried to recreate a Spencer Vest both by hand and machine knitting. My Charity shop Spencer Vest purchase seemed such a simple utility item yet when you hold it and open it, you can see that it is skilfully knitted in the round with grafted shoulders and simple shaping to create a cared for design. I am in love with a simple vest that is far from simple.

 

 

I can knit, right? So I put a call out on a large facebook knitting group that I was a member, for a Spencer vest pattern so that I could understand its process. So many answers, all interesting but nothing was thrown up like the vest that I could hold or calculate. Ideas and patterns came in so I set to and knitted the front of a vest in a half size and liked it. I thought I could translate it on the domestic Silver Reed machine and came up with a forced, broken, unattractive disaster in which I learned that I was trying to make the machine do something that I could do by hand but everything was wrong. The tension, the shaping, the feel and outcome and at that point, I wondered why I was doing the course at all. I’d forgotten all I knew before and had no idea what I knew now and I questioned everything.  But what came out of this was a discussion and a turning point to change my attitude and find out what can come out of the knitting from a machine without having any prior demand.  Just to feel it, live it, make it, remake it, learn from it – warts and all.

 

Free -hand style knitting took over and the work began to grow a life. But I still wanted to make a vest inspired by the Charity shop vest and by the delicate lace patterns that I had seen in Shetland. I began to learn the processes of understanding how knitting by hand and domestic machine is different and then how power knit on the Shima machines is different again using CAD.  I’ve had to relearn everything in a new language. The old knitting patterns are in long lines of words – a code deciphered by charts but the charts are in different languages to CAD.

Here is my new language.  In the beginning, it is a story from a pattern library in CAD but a pattern library is not designing – just a starting point to learn how the stitch patterns move the needles to make a lace that will open up into the beginning of another story. It was an exciting start.

 

The simulations of the patterns opened up how the stitches lie and are formed       – I followed their lines.

Until I made my own designs, inspired by Shetland patterns, written in a code that was new to me, opening up another process to the next stage. I knit with my eye and  line of yarn like the stroke of a pencil. I’ve always done this with colours, shapes and patterns.

The place I am at now is no different. But I start from a 2D visual design drawing lines and patterns on a computer without any idea of outcome. The CAD process has loosened me up to go back to paper draw with a pen and paint and knitting needles and fine yarn.

I have drawn with knitting needles for years but my current journey is informing the loops and lines without any real end result in mind and this is where the journey takes on its own route.

 

It is in full circle.

Lace Archive

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Just by chance, we knocked on the door to the Lace archive at Nottingham Trent to see if I could take a look. I had twenty minutes, tops, to skim-view the Lace archive.  How could it be possible to take in the wealth of history and joy within those books and drawers in such a short time – but I got an idea of what lies inside that tiny room.

The lace archive holds 75,000 samples of lace acquired by donations from the late 19th Century to mid 20th Century.  Here lie books of technical drawings made by and for students.

When the Nottingham School of Art was set up in 1843 and young men were taught lace design, the sample books and drawings and books began to be donated for the students to use as reference and inspiration.  The same is happening today – I have done the same.

My experience of that brief fleeting time in the archive room is of being completely blown away by what I saw and felt.

I was lucky.  Gail Baxter, a Contemporary lace artist and Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University Lace Archive was in the room and in twenty minutes explained and showed more to me than I could taken in during a whole day by myself.  Gail showed me Paraguay lace and when I said that I would have cut the little fringes off on the lace samples – she said, ‘they are the eyelashes’ and I fell in love with the black lace with wheels and eyelashes.   There was flocked lace, net, hand and machine lace, underwear and books with all manner of financial transactions in.  I know where the Paraguay lace is, because Gail put it safely away for my next visit.

 

Genuine joy and enthusiasm raced through me when I was able to look at, hold, touch the samples.

A lasting memory is seeing the book that had been closed for many years to reveal the embossed impression of the lace sample pressed into the opposite page over years of time of waiting to be seen.

 

 

knit . darn . knit

Blue Bronze

knitted-darn
hand knit darn into a machine knit sample

 

Winter.

I’m spending time learning CAD. I don’t find it so easy but I’m not giving up.  I’ve been a hand-knitter for about 35 years so I read knit in hand design and patterns and words.  CAD is another world to me. The Blue sample above is a machine knitted sample that the Shima power knit machine at Uni chewed up and released rather begrudgingly after another person’s work was left on the rollers.  The waste and cast on had a ladder and the pattern that I had designed from a hand knit idea inspired by Shetland lace, was not suitable in places, for transferring stitches on the Power knit machine.

What came out of the Shima, was something rather beautiful.  Something ragged and torn with a raw cast off edge.

I used two double ended 2.5mm needles to pick up the cast off and cast it off safely and then I worked into the ripped part of the sample without plan or forethought.

The hand-knitted section in this machine knitted sample is knitted using very fine metallic and wool yarn in a lace edge pattern which mirrored the diamond that had been ripped away.

The result is raw, it’s rough, it’s unusable but I like it. It is not visually polite.   I like the dirty blue colour of the sample and the bronze metallic yarn used to patch it.

What I am interested in is the palimpsest, the traces, the layers and stories:

The traces on the wall of the wallpaper / paint/ borders once layered over each other in a derelict house, exposed to the elements.

The 300 year old graffiti written into the walls of a castle.

The impression of lace on the opposite page in a sample book, after it has been closed for years.

A tear in a shirt.

The darn on an elbow.

The palimpsest of layers of words written in an old book.

I’m looking to express this in darning into the errors, holes, tears, rips in machine knitted lace to make something that both tells a story and can be beautiful.