At least since the Middle Ages, the devil
has been finding work for idle hands -- or
so the old saying goes. And for probably
at least that long, knitting has been one
of the favored ways to occupy a pair of
potentially sinful mitts.
Suzen Green is a believer.
The Knitting Project, 2005
"My mother would always say to me,
"Idle hands do the devil's work."
When you're not doing anything, that's when
all the bad things can happen. You knit,
bake, to keep active." No exploding
the myth -- or even any wry commentary --
from Green. "I believe and live it."
Her overwhelming, near-physical need to
keep busy started her on the path to The
Knitting Project , a performative work
through which Green knit in public locations
for one hour each, taking a photo every
five minutes to equal twelve photos per
session. A new form of diary, The Knitting
Project documents hours and hours of a sort of active inactivity, with
the world changing slightly around Suzen
as she sits in the center making an ever-lengthening
fuzzy knitted thing. Parking lots, a pub,
a graveyard, are all backdrops to her clicking
on giant needles with a tremendous red ball
of yarn. "I'd knit in a bar, random
locations," she recalls, "taking
knitting outside of a domestic context,
into the city."
The Knitting Project, 2005
Hand painted wool yarn, wooden chair.
"I'm a little more focused on the objects
now," says Green, a fourth-year Bachelor
of Fine Arts student in Calgary, Alberta,
Canada. Her public knitting is on break. "Now
the objects I choose are what take the knitting
into a different context."
sculpture series is about idleness and an
addiction to activity. Inspired by the need
for a bowflex
cozy to tidy up the living room, Green is
knitting covers for domestic objects from
chairs and rolling pins to hand weights and
. A watering can. A dustpan. Some
include text, to deepen the meaning and open
up new questions. While her chair is pretty
straightforward ("She was allergic to
inactivity"), a rolling pin that simply
reads "NEED" leaves room for people
to each bring their own associations.
And that's what Green likes. She rides
knitting's connotations like a wave, never
minding that the old and trite saying about
the devil and hands is, well, old and trite.
"I like the connotations that come
with knitting." Like a pre-packed suitcase,
knitting works for Green as a medium she
can "pull so many things from."
"I like the idea of idleness, and
how especially with what I'm doing, covering
objects with knitting, when you look at
it you automatically think of soft things.
I like to knit around things that are quite
hard. It's a weird feminine compulsion to
make hard things soft."
The pieces remind different people of different
references. One recalls a mother's admonition
to stay busy, another (an instructor of
Green's) thinks her chair's variegated yarn
calls to mind turn of the century "shoddy"
recycled rugs and mops, sporting all the
colors of the boiled-down sweaters they
were made of.
Hand dyed 100% wool, wood rolling
Viewers say there is an eeriness to Green's
work. Not inherent in the objects themselves,
but in how manic and entranced she gets
while making them. "I become a little
oblivious to everything while I'm doing
it." Her knitted art is quite personal,
a study in her own activity addiction. She's
learning to dye and spin, and plans to incorporate
her handspun yarn into these idleness pieces.
"I like the idea of being able to make
something completely from scratch. Get the
fleece, dye the fleece, spin the wool, knit
whatever I want with it, and then have an
object there. I've done everything except
shear the sheep."
But she's not sure the hand actually changes
the final object, and admits that after
all that work, viewers wouldn't know she
made every stage of the piece unless she
told them. "I think it might make the
object a little more precious, it might
not. There's really no need to spin yarn."
Of course, with mass produced objects so
easy to get, there's very little need to
make anything at all. That's just one of
the built-in ironies in Green's work (Who
really needs a dustpan cozy, and does it
need to be made of handspun?) The other
built-in irony in keeping her hands working:
"In busying yourself, you distract
yourself from things that actually do need
your attention. When I look at my pieces
that's what I think about."
Suzen Green can be reached via her
J. Meredith Warner is skeptical.
The artist says a mythology surrounds knitting.
When someone makes something with their
hands, there's a widespread belief that
something magical or spiritual occurs -- that
the hands have transformative power. And
that the maker is, of course, grandmotherly
and caring. Or perhaps suspiciously, supernaturally
wise, able to conjure a sweater or muffler
from a single string.
Warner criticizes this notion, "particularly
in the case of women, because it just plays
into an old stereotype of what women do."
Women as nurturing, women as witches. She
works to bend the old saw about idle hands,
and tries to find its breaking point, through
performative works and video. She wants
look at the notion that "if women are
given the time to just sit and think, they
might have some force in the world or cause
some kind of problem or ruckus, so knitting
is busy work to keep that suppressed."
Knitting (found), 2005
This spring, she created Knitting (found)
-- a video in which she culled scenes from
popular movies, all in which women use knitting
as a prop. What she found is remarkable
-- "My expectation was that knitting
would be this maternal gesture. But 9 times
out of 10 it connoted violence, someone
who was lying, telling stories, being vindictive.
Spinster, schemer, liar."
Though she doesn't feel oppressed personally,
her experience in making the video has shown
her there is plenty of powerful belief about
knitting reflected in popular culture. With
film as a gauge, she feels there are likely
many people in the world with strong beliefs
about handiwork and women's roles, which
are notions that have been submerged in
movie stars' knit stitches. These submerged
beliefs come bobbing up again in Knitting
(found) . "The video confirmed
for me that knitting was a potent material
for my art work."
Knit Glove Railing, 2003
Warner explodes the ideas that surround
knitting by doing it in public, always with
a twist, and often with a surreal effect.
She's taken found hats and mittens, unknit
them, and reknit them -- attached to the
parking meter or bus stop sign where she
found them. She knit for the whole duration
of her graduate school art critique, with
only her hands showing through two holes
in the wall. Most recently, she visited
sites of political resistance in Germany
and deposited crocheted red, white, and
blue badge-like targets, as markers of her
American and feminine presence.
So what does Warner personally believe
It's a tool, to use the way she would use
paint or charcoal. It's a form of productivity,
like chopping wood or carrying water. And
it's the basis for women building their
own economies based on things they make
with their own hands.
However, she may be a little torn.
"I think of it as domestic graffiti.
This kind of surreal thing you might stumble
upon when you're walking through an abandoned
urban space. This thing from inside the
home, this feminine gesture, that might
appear in an urban site." This stunning
and somehow post-apocalyptic vision does,
after all, belie a feeling that the knitting
act has some kind of power.
And she admits to the following story.
Two years ago, when superlong scarves were
in vogue, the artist cruised the big-box
stores like Target and Wal-Mart, looking
for hours at the mass produced knitwear.
"And though most of those scarves are
made mechanically, even though you use a
machine, at the end you bind off and still
have this long piece of string. I kept trying
to find the place where I could find the
human, the person who may have wound that
string back into the scarf. Hundreds of
scarves so alike, clean and new. I'm interested
in where the hand is in that."
In the end, believing she can find some
essence of an individual factory worker's
hand by examining all those squeaky clean,
fluorescently lit Target scarves seems a
bit, well, mystical.
J. Meredith Warner can be reached via