Picture from the now defunct textile mill “D’Aoust & Brothers” founded in Brussels 1829
“Why We Knit” is a series of blog posts where I interview knitters and ask them hard hitting and poignant questions about their knit-experiences. In this series we will endeavor to answer the question of “why we knit”, or at least get some pretty interesting stories.
An Interview with Rachel MacHenry
I met Rachel MacHenry back in the days when Kate Austin and I were full time Textile Designers traversing our way through the craft scene in Toronto and trying to make a go of it. Rachel was the head of Sheridan College’s Textile Program. What brought our little venture Ruckus Designs to Rachel’s attention I don’t know but I am awfully glad it did. If not, we would never have met our lovely Iwona. Can you imagine? Iwona was a student at Sheridan and was chosen by Rachel to do her coop placement at Ruckus Designs.
In addition to her matchmaking prowess Rachel is one talented lady! She is an artist and a wonderfully innovative educator, skilled in many textile mediums. She has travelled the world designing and creating textile collections. She is also one of the founding members of The Contemporary Textile Studio Co-operative, a communal studio space made just for textile artists. You can take classes there too and they look wonderful! I could go on, but instead why don’t we let Rachel do some talking. Let the interview begin!
The Contemporary Textile Studio Co-operative
How did you learn to knit?
I first learnt to knit from a family friend when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and I was absolutely terrible at it! Then, when I was 12, I worked my way through my grandmother’s “Modern Fancy Work”- a late-Victorian handwork manual that included patterns for things like corset covers and smoking caps…and really figured out how to make things. My family was living in France at the time, and I also used french knitting magazines for assistance, so I knit in the continental style. There was a wonderful French “how to” magazine called “100 Idees” that had lots of interesting knitting patterns, and I made many things from it.
What first attracted or inspired you to pick up knitting?
I’m not really sure… I always loved making things, my brother and I had a whole miniature town that we built out of cardboard boxes, and I always made all sorts of things out of yarn and fabric, wood and cardboard. I also loved to draw. I guess knitting was just another way to create things.
Who or what are your knitting influences?
When I started knitting, the 1980’s “designer” knitters, like 80’s colourwork designers “Artwork”, and Susie Freeman’s “inclusion” knits were a big influence, but I also looked at other kinds of textiles, and at painters, illustrators, film, theatre and dance. I always loved the approach of Sonia Delauney and how she treated textile surfaces like a painter. And, my biggest influence has always been my mother, an extremely creative woman who was always making things with us.
What sort of things did your mother make? And what was her approach to knitting?
My mother didn’t actually knit. She was trained in Fine Art and then in Textiles and studied in the 1950′s at NYU in New York and then at Black Mountain College, an experimental arts community. At both institutions, she was exposed to contemporary ideas about art and design and had the opportunity to study under some influential teachers as well as having some very interesting classmates. As I was growing up, she drew, made prints and collages, created modernist appliqued textile pieces and assemblages, and finally got involved in hand-weaving. She still makes us all the most wonderful birthday cards…
What sort of unique experiences has knitting brought to your life?
Knitting has taken me to other parts of the world, and introduced me to artisans in other cultures. For much of my design career, I have worked with artisans in South Asia, and particularly with knitters in Nepal, where my knit line was made with community production. I have also worked for other companies, designing and over-seeing production of hand knits in India. These were wonderful experiences. During the past year I have been working with textile artisans in Haiti as part of the Brand Aid Project and these collections will be part of a pop-up shop at The Bay in November. Currently, I am developing a line of naturally dyed trimmings and threads with a research project in India.
Rachel will be launching this trimmings collection called Botanica Tinctoria in London, UK in September through The Sustainable Angle’s Future Fabrics Expo Hear more about this venture here.
What was your knit line called? How was it distributed? What were the products?
My knit line was produced under my own name. The line was primarily focused on children’s wear (hats, mitts, scarves, sweaters), but we also did soft furnishings, like blankets, throws and cushions. I worked with an agent in the US who distributed the line through trade shows like the New York Gift Fair. We also had clients in Europe and Japan. We worked with clients such as Anthropologie in the US, and Takashamaya and Barney’s Japan in Japan.
Do you feel that the women you work with in India/Nepal have a different view of knitting then we do here in Canada? Both in the process and in the finished goods.
The women knitters I work with in Nepal see their work as knitters as a way to supplement their families’ income. Many of the women also have extensive duties within their homes and farms, so knitting fits in around the many different things they do in their day. For most of the women, knitting is a very practical skill that allows them to earn money, and is better paid than the other limited options available to them. As far as knitting for their own families, knits are not generally worn, but women do make waistcoats for their husbands, and little knitted caps for their babies.
I know you primarily as a sock knitter. Why do you think this is the project that has kept you most occupied?
I was commuting on the GO train a lot, and socks were an easy but interesting project to work on. They also make a great gift and I like to give people handmade things that are useful.
Do you have a tried and true, favourite sock pattern?
I do! It is the “Embossed Leaves Socks” from the Interweave sock book. I like to knit lace socks; they are surprisingly warm and feel like a simple luxury.
Do you have a favourite sock yarn?
Lorna’s Laces is my favorite – a pleasure to work, lovely colours and makes a great sock.
What are you knitting now?
Still more socks!
Do you have a favourite place to knit?
Not really – I have knit in all sorts of places…even I a little dirt-floored hut with water buffalo looking in the windows and chickens strolling in and out.
When do you knit?
Often, I knit to relax; it is a soothing activity and I find it very calming.
What do you tell people about knitting when they are interested in learning?
Anyone can knit! But, it is easiest to learn from someone else, rather than from a book or video…
As an educator have you noticed that there is any increase in interest amongst your students in knitting?
Yes, certainly there is a surge in interest. While I was teaching at Sheridan, lots of the students took up knitting, and we even had a knitting club for a while. In addition to this interest, hand knitting was part of the curriculum, and lots of students experimented with knitting unconventional materials like wire, paper yarn, rags, found materials…
When it comes to their explorations in this medium do you find that they are interested in pushing boundaries or are they more interested in understanding traditional and historical work?
There is a lot of interest in knitting scarves and hats for friends and family, but some students do really explore what knitting can do, and are interested in pushing the boundaries, playing with materials, scale and context.
Personally, I’ve noticed a real increase in textile based arts; including quite a bit of knit art work. Have you found the same?
Absolutely. There is a huge upswing in popular interest in all aspects of craft, domestic arts and the handmade and this includes increased attention on textiles: quilting, knitting, crochet, silk-screen, home dyeing, sewing your own clothes, etc. And at the same time, Fine Art practice has embraced craft, and many more artists are making use of processes traditionally seen as “crafty”, including knitting.
If so – What do you attribute this to?
I think on the one the one hand, it is a reaction to our increasingly speedy and digital lives; people are seeking real experiences and the opportunity to slow down, perhaps to share the haptic experience of making with others. Hand made objects also offer us an alternative to the rapid pace of consumerism that characterizes our time; the cycle of production, consumption and disposal moves stunningly fast. Hand made objects offer us a more sensory experience, perhaps providing a more reflective engagement with material culture.
Are there any knit-artists that you are particularly fond of?
Claire Anne O’Brien
It’s always interesting to see traditional crafts used in new ways. I really like the work of Freddie Robbins, and I love Irish designer Claire Anne O’Brien’s huge scale knit used in furniture.
What do you think knitted or textile-based arts add to peoples understanding of knitting as a craft?
Knitting sits in a funny place; it is the quintessential “granny” craft, but in the current craft revival, it is “cool”; its use by artists within their practice definitely changes the context and people’s perception of it.
Do you think exposure to crafting in an artistic or gallery context changes the way people might feel about the everyday knitted objects in their lives?
Knitting has only recently been introduced into a gallery context as an expressive textile form – before that, hand knitting really was seen as a product of the domestic sphere (with the exception of its use in fashion), and as a way of making practical and useful things for everyday use. So, yes, I do think it makes people re-consider knitting when they see it used within a gallery or fine art context, and perhaps even to value those every day objects differently.
You are a textile artist with so many skills and practices. What do you think it is about knitting that sets it apart as a unique occupation and keeps you doing it?
Although I currently work across many different textile techniques and processes, knit was the first area that I worked with in textiles. Knitting gave me so many different experiences; it took me to other parts of the world and through it, I learned about other cultures and textile traditions. In practical terms, knitting is portable and flexible; always an easy thing to bring along…
Do you have a most memorable knit project or most memorable knit experience to share?
When I worked with hand knitters in Nepal, they thought it was hilarious that I depended on all sorts of pieces of paper to remember how to knit something – although many of them were illiterate, they were incredibly skilled and able to remember entire knitting patterns in their heads! This experience really taught me to respect the working methods of the various artisans with whom I collaborated.
Find out more about Rachel HERE
Thank you to Rachel MacHenry for being so darn interesting, and giving me even more reasons to knit.