Textile Artist Ruth Chalk talks about the creation of her Knitted Buildings series.
First, choose your building
Or rather, let your building choose you.
The latest piece, House and Garden, is in some ways a departure from earlier works in the series, as the piece depicts an Edwardian terrace house rather than a Modernist building. However in other ways the piece fits right in. With the exception of a commissioned piece based on Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, all the buildings I have knitted are Leicester ones I walk past regularly, that have embedded themselves into my consciousness for one reason or another.
I have spent most of my 16 years in Leicester commuting to work elsewhere, and someone who knows the city may be able to trace my route from home off Narborough Road to the railway station in many of the buildings I have knitted in the series. I have previously described the series as being about having a relationship with certain buildings similar to the relationship you have with people you see regularly and recognise, but don’t know, which I assume is a common experience for anyone who walks a regular route to work in a city. The chosen view, and in the case of 2 of the pieces, the particular sunlight effects, are directly related to the viewpoint from which I usually see the buildings, and the time of day I see them.
Build the foundations
I am not a great or even a very good photographer, it has to be said; nevertheless photographs underpin the series. In the case of the Leicester buildings these were mainly used as an aide memoir of colours, textures, proportions etc., as the overall design was already in my mind based on my usual view of the building.
On the other hand, the piece based on Park Hill flats, ‘Snakes And Ladders’, required a wholly different approach. Firstly because there was no familiar view to base the piece on. Secondly, when I went to look at Park Hill to prepare to make the piece, it very quickly became apparent that in any case no one view could possibly do justice to this Brutalist leviathan, which is in fact several linked blocks covering a huge site. After taking literally hundreds of photographs I used these as a design tool by cutting them up and rearranging the bits and photographing the results until I had a composition I was happy with, that incorporated what I felt were the key elements of the structure that gave it its essential character.
Collect building materials
The whole series was sparked by a material – blue plastic from carrier bags. I realised that at that time St George’s Tower was painted in a very similar shade of blue as those flimsy plain carrier bags that litter our streets. From there came the idea that I could use ‘plarn’, plastic yarn, to knit the building. From this small and rather whimsical idea the whole series grew.
All the pieces use yarn, which I buy from charity shops whenever I see any, but various pieces in the series also feature knitted cassette tape, a batch of end of line tights made into yarn, and the aforementioned plarn. I ran out of coloured carrier bags partway through knitting George and Elizabeth but a short walk along the great Central Way soon provided me with enough extra discarded ones to complete the piece, something I have very mixed feelings about.
Consult the architect
One of the first, crucial, decisions to be made is whether to create the piece with the rows of knitting running horizontally or vertically. In several of the series, such as ‘The Golden Hour’ where the subjects are seen in perspective, the obvious answer was to use vertical rows and different sizes of needles to create the illusion of depth. On the other hand a building seen face on and with obvious horizontal details, such as the New Walk council building depicted in ‘Another View’, seemed to require horizontal rows.
Something I am often asked is: do you use a knitting pattern? A reasonable question to which the answer is, yes, but only very recently. The very regular geometric patterns of the earlier pieces in the series were simple and repetitive enough not to need a detailed pattern, and the working out was done by means of knitted samples to get an idea.
Even ‘Snakes and Ladders’, a more complicated piece, was designed by creating knitted samples, then a 1:1 scale drawing was made of the outline of the piece to work from to ensure each section was knitted the correct size.
In fact it was only the most recent piece, ‘House and Garden’, that had anything like a formal pattern drawn onto graph paper. This was mainly because not being composed of a repetitive geometric pattern this was needed to get the proportions between the various bits looking right.
Call in building control
Working out how to mount the pieces for display has been a process of trial and error, with the solution of stitching the knitted piece through cardboard to keep everything sitting in the right place arrived at after the first couple of pieces were completed, necessitating remedial work on the first couple of pieces to improve on the original idea of simply stitching the knitting to fabric. A recent innovation in knitted building technology has been to use striped fabric to mount the knitting on, which has the advantage of having guidelines to help keep everything in line.
And that is how you knit a building!