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Idle hands

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.

"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."


"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."

Her current 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 an ab roller. 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.


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 blog.

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."

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."

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 about knitting?

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 her website.


Larissa Brown is an artist who experiments with traditional craft methods using corporate workplace materials. Her most recent project involved weaving strips of books of statutes that were being thrown out by her patron, a law firm.

Her knitting, office art, and life as a new mom can be sampled on her blog.