Every once in a while, a new story circulates about an unusual knitted feat—a giant stockinette red Ferrari, or a lifesized gingerbread house complete with furnishings, or a windmill that's been hooked to an old sock machine that churns out yard after yard of fabric high above London's South Kensington streets.
Occasionally the stories include a little background information about the person who made the object, and why. But usually they don't, and we're left wondering.
Bringing Stories to Light
Lela Nargi has taken on the task of finding these people, more than 100 in all, and telling their stories. The results have been packed into 240 dense and colorful pages of a book called Astounding Knits! 101 Spectacular Knitted Creations and Daring Feats.
Nargi set rather broad and generous parameters for what qualifies as "astounding," spanning the big and small, the unprecedented and kooky and "extra smart," as well as endeavors whose notoriety comes from the idea behind them rather than from the objects themselves.
Among the Astounding
You have the literally enormous, like the knitted flag made from utility poles manipulated by a backhoe. You have the cerebral and unexpected, an anatomically correct dissected frog, a teddy bear knitted and stuffed entirely out of lead, or ethereal human organs knit from a single strand of human hair.
Other delights include knitted and crocheted sushi, superhero costumes, and a lifesized skeleton.
Some of the oddity is intended to surprise those who view it—Jan Ter Heide and Evelein Verkerk peppering landscapes with their happy, brightly colored knitted objects, or the enormous 200-foot-long pink rabbit that rests, recumbent, on a hillside in Artesina, Italy. Each is unusual in its own eye-catching way.
But you'll also find shorter, lighter vignettes that are more about people and accomplishments than a specific knitted piece. For example, there's a woman in New Hampshire who spins yarn out of black bear hair, there's a man who created a knitting app, and then there's the world's fastest knitter, Miriam Tegels. She even mentions our attempt to set the Guinness Book of World Records at the 2009 Sock Summit.
While many of the pieces profiled are the result of one person's imagination and effort, others are vivid manifestations of knitters' collaborative tendencies. Many projects reflect the creative impulses of dozens if not hundreds of knitters.
Particularly telling is the Knitted River, a rippling blue vein of nearly 100,000 squares knitted by thousands of people around the world. Or the 43-foot-wide, 28-foot-long Dylan Thomas poem, made from 12-inch squares of knitted letters by more than 1,000 knitters around the world.
Other pieces were created by visual artists for a public installation, and those are clearly imbued with deeper social meaning. One of my favorites is Isabel Berglund's City of Stitches, a three-dimensional installation piece that invites the viewer to step into the piece, slip inside one of the garments that's embedded within the soft white knitted walls, and gaze upon the beauty of an even larger knitted tree.
The Voice behind the Visuals
Normally Nargi narrates, but sometimes—in pieces marked "Profile"—she lets the person being profiled tell his or her own story. The pieces vary in length from just one paragraph to one page, with just a few pieces spanning more than two pages in length.
As you'd expect in a book about the astounding and spectacular, nearly every profile or blurb is accompanied by one photograph, often more. The overall layout and design seem to play on the wacky and daring, with bright contrasting colors, funky fonts, and graphic treatment that reminds me of the 1960s animated sitcom The Jetsons. I suspect the exclamation point in the book's title exists for the same reasons.
It succeeds in grabbing our attention and creating a fun feel, but I do worry that it might downplay the sincere intellect, skill, and intention behind many of the pieces.
Still, this book covers quite an impressive distance in its 240 narrow pages. And while it's not intended to be a how-to book, at the very end you'll find five patterns. Kindly supplied by some of the people profiled in the book, they include a helmet liner, gingerbread man, swine flu, penguin jumper, and crane for peace.
This book celebrates the minds and hands that are using knitting for purposes well beyond the purely utilitarian—and it also celebrates, on a broader scope, the creative, sometimes renegade spirit that fuels these efforts. The fact that Nargi managed to identify 101 such feats reflects not only the persistent ingenuity of knitters but also Nargi's own skills as a journalist. Her book is a welcome source of inspiration, providing a broad and quirky vision of this knitterly tribe to which we all belong.