The Knitting Circle

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It feels good to be blogging again after a hiatus caused by the intensive work required to get the new website up and running.

I wanted to write a little about the Knitting Circle activity I’ve been running as part of the Keep & Share Knitting Tent at festivals this summer, aided by Simon and a lovely team of volunteers: Sarah, Richmal, Cybèle, Tim, Amy, Lily, Kate, Steph and Deb (aka my mum). In the last few weeks we’ve been back to Latitude, and to the lovely Port Eliot for the first time.

This is the fourth year of the knitting tent and my communal knitting projects. Each year I try to develop the project design, to improve the experience (both for those taking part and logistically, for us running it) and to explore emerging ideas. Overall, I’m trying to create an engaging and accessible activity that will provide an enjoyable experience of knitting, and which will embrace knitters of all abilities, from absolute beginners to experts. Hopefully, the idea seems simple to those taking part – though, as always, to design something simple requires a lot of thought and preparation behind the scenes.

Earlier this year I heard David Gauntlett describe his eight principles for building platforms for creativity, and although they were based on the creation of digital platforms, I found that they mirrored the approach of my communal knitting activities. Most of the ideas have been pretty much at the heart of my thinking since my first projects, some unconsciously, some – like set no limits on participation and support storytelling – more consciously. Being aware of them allowed me to think about how to amplify these qualities in this year’s project.

Last year, the project was to knit ribbons, in a game of knitting consequences. People were asked to knit a narrow strip; when they finished, they left the knitting on the needles and attached a tag with a message for the next knitter. At first, we had to actively encourage people to leave a message on a tag. However, as the ribbons grew, and the knitters could see the ‘game’, the activity became more autonomous.

I wanted to develop this quality for this year’s project – to create a project where not only the tagging, but the whole principle, was easily discernable through observation, rather than explanation.

The other idea I wanted to explore was that of connection. I have recently run workshops at a few Craft Club training sessions, facilitating a mini communal knitting activity. Wanting to encourage the knitters to not worry about what they are knitting (important qualities when knitting with kids, in my opinion), I guided the group in knitting narrow strips, which started off as individual pieces but gradually became joined together. I loved seeing how, as the knitting became connected, the knitters had to physically move closer together, and the conversation became more informal and intimate. It was like the intangible experience of connection at a knitting circle, made visible.

I decided to build on this idea for the 2012 knitting activity: the Knitting Circle. I machine knitted 24 metres of narrow-width fabric, and grafted it closed to create a continuous loop (albeit with an unintended knot!). The circle was suspended at waist height on steel fencing pins, to create a free-standing structure. At many points around the circle, we picked up stitches and knitted, so that new strands were growing off the original one. Each set of knitting-in-progress was connected to the circle, and tied in a stripy plastic bag – so those who wanted to take part had a sort of lucky dip in terms of what they found inside. As the knitting grew long enough, we would join it back onto the circle to create additional loops which, in turn, could be knitted off.

Happily, the project has been a resounding success – we had loads of people taking part at both festivals. Lots of people worked out the ‘game’, and joined in without even needing to read the concise instructions I’d put up. The knitting-in-progress was ready at hand for teaching beginners, and we had french-knitting-in-progress and crochet-in-progress attached too, so everyone could be connected to the same structure. As the festivals progressed, the circle became gradually more complex and elaborate. It ebbed and flowed - at times, full of people; at others, empty, with the hanging bags and needles both showing previous activity and inviting interaction. The project became almost autonomous at times - our favourite moment was around 11.30 on the Saturday evening at Latitude, after the headline act had finished, when we looked around and found that the previously empty circle had quietly filled up with late-night knitters.

What I love about the festival knitting activities is the connection between people, the mingling and cross-pollination of conversation, and the sharing of skills and experiences. Like with the Craft Club activity, the physical material of the Knitting Circle both visibly represented these connections, and – hopefully – encouraged them. The configuration of the circle choreographed the spatial organisation of those taking part, combining them as a single (at times, very cosy!) group.

At each communal knitting project, I like to ask people to share their thoughts on tags attached to the knitting. This year, I connected this request with my PhD research: ‘share your feelings about wearing homemade clothes’. I got loads of great responses, and hope to gather more when we take the Knitting Tent and the Knitting Circle to End of the Road in September. I’ll write another post about those responses soon!