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January 26 2012

Why I hacked a knitting machine

Artist Andrew Salomone makes innovative knitwear, from a Bill Cosby jumper to a sweater that lights up when music is played. John McDonnell finds out how - and why

Some people use hacking to attempt bold endeavours like undermining the governments of tyrannical superpowers, while others use it for more trivial purposes, such as making all of the female characters nude in Skyrim.

Brooklyn-based artist Andrew Salomone's innovative use of hacking to make custom knitwear will neither change the world nor impress gaming nerds, but it is going to make a lot of crafters very, very excited. After getting the help of some tech-savvy friends who fiddled with a USB cable to connect a Brother KH-930e electronic knitting machine to a computer, he is now able to make the machine knit photorealistic copies of digital images, sort of in the same way a desktop printer reproduces an image.

Using this novel technology and his vivid imagination, the 29-year-old has produced a number of brilliantly intricate pieces, including a jumper featuring a recursive image of actor Bill Cosby (Bill Cosby wearing a jumper with Bill Cosby wearing a jumper on it), a scarf with the waveform of a well-known drum break, and even a jumper based on a YouTube video.

How did you come up with the idea of hacking a knitting machine?

I used to live in a really badly insulated house and I ended up sleeping in a balaclava in the winter. Then I realised that my neighbours might see me walking around the house in it, so I decided it would be a good idea to make a balaclava with pictures of my face on it. A friend of mine, Becky Stern, had an electronic knitting machine from the 80s and I asked her if it would be possible to knit digital images with it. She thought it was, so she contacted a friend who is an electrical engineer and they figured out how to hack it. Then my friend showed me how to do it and let me use it to make the balaclava with my face on it.

How do you get from the design stage to making the knitwear?

The process basically consists of messing with the image in Photoshop until it looks right as a pattern. It can be tricky, though, because the dimensions of the image will come out differently depending on how tight the stitches are set on the machine, so designing an image to be knitted to a specific size can take some trial and error.

Can you print any design you want, or are there limitations?

I can print any design that has been converted into a 1-bit bitmap file, but there are a lot of limitations. There are only 200 needles on the knitting machine, so a piece of fabric can be only 200 stitches wide – that means I can work only from designs that can be reduced to a maximum of 200 pixels wide. The machine can currently knit only two colours per row, but I'm experimenting with ways to get more colours per row, and changing colours between rows, too.

Have you long been a fan of knitwear?

Well, I'd say I was a fan of sweater weather but I didn't really know anything about knitwear until I started working with the knitting machine. I originally had no plans beyond that first balaclava project, but by the time I finished that I started to have an inkling of how interesting and complex knitwear is. It's like learning a foreign language I never knew existed. Now whenever I am out I'm constantly staring at the knitwear people are wearing and trying to deconstruct how it was made in my head.

What was the inspiration behind the Bill Cosby jumper design?

I was thinking, "OK, what can I make with this knitted fabric? A sweater? OK, what kind of imagery relates to the idea of what a sweater is?" and I just kept on coming back to Bill Cosby. Then the challenge became trying to see how much detail I could get and still make the imagery recognisable. I also made a project about Bill Cosby a few years ago and I made a sweater for Amy Winehouse, so I liked the idea of bringing those past ideas together. Plus, Bill Cosby seemed like someone worth making something for.

Tell me about the Amy Winehouse piece

I embroidered a sweater with all of Amy Winehouse's tattoos in all the correct places so that, if she were to put on the sweater, the embroidered images would be on top of the tattoos they covered up. She seemed like someone who had enough problems and really just needed to put on a good sweater. I wondered if she didn't wear sweaters much because she was preoccupied with showing off her tattoos. So the sweater was an unsolicited solution to a problem I perceived Amy Winehouse to have. I sent her pictures of the sweater, because I meant for her to have it, but I never got a response.

What other designs have you made?

I made a scarf with the waveform of the Amen break – which is a drum sample a lot of early drum'n'bass was based on. That was basically a project for audio geeks, because pretty much anyone who knows breakbeats also messes around with audio software and knows what a waveform looks like.

How did the YouTube video design come about?

I saw a Christmas lights display video set to a Slayer song on YouTube and I loved it. I thought it would be a fun challenge to see if I could make a jumper that was a reasonable facsimile of a popular YouTube video. So I knitted a screenshot of the house in the video and then Becky Stern installed electroluminescent wire on the inside of the jumper and hooked it up to a sound driver. The jumper lights up when it detects sound above a certain level; it works with any music and it works really well in the dark. 

Do you plan to sell your knitwear commercially or is this just an art project?

All the stuff I've done so far has definitely been art projects, but a lot of people have contacted me asking me to sell things. I'd love to be able to oblige them, but I'm still figuring out whether it would be feasible to produce work commercially. A lot of people have asked if the Cosby sweater is for sale, but I'm still holding out for him to wear it one day, so it's not. But maybe in the future I will make an edition of Cosby sweaters. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 11 2010

Craftism | Visual art review

Arnolfini, Bristol

This exhibition, knitting ­together craft and ­activism, could hardly be more timely. With its enthusiasm for making and ­doing, its commitment to local ­context, and its determination to get us all ­foraging (bring rose hips to the gallery in exchange for a free drink), Craftivism cheerfully exemplifies the zeitgeist.

It is also participatory, and the ­suggested interactions are hard to resist. In the main gallery, Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler's Bau-Stelle invites us to work on a giant wooden sculpture, attaching and removing sticks of wood. Both architectural and toy-like, it's the antithesis of grim hours spent battling flat-pack furniture. Playing on primary-coloured gym mats, a community of small-scale builders quietly forms.

Mandy McIntosh, working with local knitters, has created a social space with seats, hammock and craft-book library fashioned in rope, while recycled clothing is reworked into vivid, traditional Nigerian dresses that you can wear around the gallery. There's a knitting bench, a cluster of computers converting keystrokes to music, and a map of food to forage for around Bristol. Even local wrestlers join in, making masks from their clothes and personal effects, and displaying them in bill posters.

While the artworks are engaging, the themes feel familiar, ­overlapping with many other current invocations to grow our own, make do and mend. ­Ultimately, the most ­radical point is the act of ­bringing craft into a slick gallery ­setting. Too often modern art has sidelined craft, its homelier sibling, and it's good to see this challenged with such spirit.

Rating: 3/5 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 13 2009

Who says knitting is easy?

There is a grave danger, given the straitness of the times, that this Christmas will call forth a grisly parade of handcrafted gifts. It is too late now to snatch the needles from the hands of those stitchers and knitters who have been enmeshed in their self-imposed labours for weeks but, if I can woo any of them back to common sense, I shall have reduced the quantum of human suffering this Christmas.

Mischief-makers will keep telling us that "homemade stuff is just filled with more love and goodness than anything you can buy". Knitter Sonia Simone assures visitors to her website: "You really can knit your own presents this year. It's fun and easier than you think, and you don't have to be an expert knitter." This is untrue in every sense. Knitting is not fun unless you know what you are doing, and to foist clumsily knitted goods on loved ones is to drive them to acts of hypocrisy that carry ineradicable guilt. Anyone who receives a multi-coloured scarf with "fingerless mittens knit right in" this Christmas should send it back to and tell them to get Kate Moss to wear it.

To burden people with hideous objects loaded with "love and goodness" is utterly oppressive behaviour. I have never been able to pluck up enough courage to bin the needlework picture made for me by an old gentleman of my acquaintance, or the wooden salad bowl turned for me by another. Both will follow me to my grave. Which is why the champions of homemade gifts call them "treasured family heirlooms of the future". Among the effects of my late grandmother was a piece of leatherwork I had made for her when I was 10. It consists of two discs of leather with holes punched around the edges through which I had threaded leather thonging, to make a sort of sheath for her powder compact. If I'd known she had kept it, I would have begged her to throw it away. Even if I had, I reckon she'd have hung on to it. That's the sinister power of the handmade gift.

The recession coincided with one of our recurrent bouts of craft mania. A friend, whose wisdom and common sense I entirely rely on, gave me for my 70th birthday this year a selection of handcrafted goods, which included a pair of bedsocks. One of my godchildren, who is so gripped by knitomania that she runs a knitting circle from home, pointed out that one of the socks, which had been knitted in garter stitch on huge needles, was half as big again as the other. I wasn't surprised because one of the pitfalls for the inexperienced knitter is maintaining uniform tension. As we looked more closely at the socks, we realised that my friend's cat, who was probably jealous of her knitting, had made a habit of using it as bedding. Half an ounce of Burmese cat hair had been knitted up with the wool. I shall never part with my socks, but I'll never wear them either.

Craft was not always so revolting. Long ago, the same friend who knitted the bedsocks gave me a great craft object, an old New Guinea bilum. This versatile bag has been made rather as a throwing fishing net is made. The technique involves 10 needles and four strands of string which are twisted, untwisted and re-twisted together with the aid of a spacing strip that keeps the knots uniform. When the bilum is empty, it hangs slack and weighs no more than a few grammes, but it easily expands to hold a baby, a piglet or a hundredweight of taro. I use mine for my weekly shop. I can load it up in the supermarket trolley and wheel it to the car, but when I get home I have to carry it up the garden path as any Papuan woman would, with the single broad carrying strap across my forehead, and the weight on my back. The fact that I can is all the evidence you need of the functionality of the design.

As long as people made craft objects for their own use, they were like my bilum: functional, durable and dignified. Once they begin to make craft objects for other people, the work becomes coarser, the time taken for manufacture is rationed, and the design becomes repetitive and perfunctory. The intrusion of commercialism completes the degradation process. Most bilums nowadays are made to sell to tourists, not of natural fibre but of synthetic yarns in Day-Glo colours.

Knitting is a great craft, but the grand-daughters of women who knitted greasy wool into weather-proof jerseys for working men now follow commercial patterns that parody the ancient tradition. No feminist can disparage women's web-weaving in principle, but the treasure house of such artwork has been ransacked and laid waste. For 50 years or more, crochet has been used for objects as unspeakably naff as mobile phone cosies and toilet roll covers. We are now waiting to see how Shauna Richardson will use crochet to cover the three 10-metre high polystyrene lions she has been commissioned to make for the Cultural Olympiad. In her hands, crochet is a wonderfully expressive medium. I hope she resorts to another female tradition, the working bee, and doesn't cripple herself by trying to crochet every square inch of house-high woollen lion skin herself. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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