Ada M. Patterson had never knitted before she came to the TextielLab. Now she is creating flamboyant creatures with product developer Damien Semerdjian. Using 3D-knitted shapes turned inside out, she is bringing an enchanting but deformed galaxy of starfish to life.
“I didn’t know anything about knitting before I came here,” says Ada M. Patterson. But that didn’t deter her from knitting a new work for the TextielMuseum collection with product developer Damien Semerdjian. They are currently developing ‘Dark enough to see the stars’, an installation that draws a parallel between nature’s struggle with the changing climate and the struggle of trans people with their environment. The leitmotif is the survival mechanisms that kick in when you are different, in a transforming body. The work-in-progress visualises the beauty as well as the tragedy of nature through a galaxy of beautiful but unusual starfish: they have been affected by rising sea temperatures. Normally, starfish can shed an arm when attacked, which then simply grows back. But climate change is causing a parasite to thrive that is wreaking havoc on starfish: their arms are unnecessarily shed and no longer grow back.
“Machine errors only make it more beautiful.”
The symbolism is clear, but how do you capture that on a flat knitting machine? In 2022, Patterson used woven pattern pieces to sew her first starfish by hand, suspending it from a fishing hook by a nearly severed arm. She envisioned a collection of these creatures; a melancholic landscape full of deformed starfish. The TextielMuseum commission came at the right time. “But when I saw that knitting machine, a kind of gigantic printer, I wondered how?” The museum’s ‘knowledge clip’ video about knitting and a visit to the Sample Studio were a useful introduction, but when the programming started in the lab, she felt daunted: “I didn’t see a starfish at all in all those pixels on the screen. And I also found it difficult to give up control in the beginning.”
Learning to speak each other’s language is vital, say both the artist and product developer. “In the first development days, you’re not developing anything yet, but mainly communicating about what is and isn’t possible,” says Semerdjian. “The easiest way to do this is to use samples from the Sample Studio and samples that we make on the machine on the spot.” He says that as a product developer, he is constantly trying to translate the artist’s creative ideas into technical applications that the knitting machine can use. A hurdle to overcome with knitting is that translating a sketch into a product is less direct than with weaving. The shape is built up pixel by pixel, and it takes a while to understand how that works and what it can lead to.
“Turning the knitting inside out makes it looks less knitted.”
It became a process of ‘learning by doing’, using the product developer’s technical knowledge to create organic creatures that did not look too machine-made. After several weeks of back and forth, the duo landed on the right basic shape for the starfish. A crucial step was the decision to turn the knits inside out to make them look more natural. “I definitely didn’t want something that resembled the knit of a sweater or a sock,” says Patterson.
Semerdjian also added an extra yarn mix, so that seven or eight different yarns are now used. The unusual combination of mohair, linen, Lurex, monofilament and elastic, wool, Elirex and cellulose has a surprising effect on the look and feel of the starfish, says Patterson. “I was amazed at how much influence one different yarn can have in a knit. For example, adding the elastic yarn turned out to be the key to a more organic shape.” She also discovered the beauty of machine errors in the process: “Unplanned floats, holes or parts accidentally knitted together only made it more interesting.”
Productontwikkelaar Damien Semerdjian aan de slag in het TextielLab. Foto: Josefina Eikenaar
Artist and product developer are both happy with the result so far, which comes close to Patterson’s initial sketch. They are now working on the affected part of the starfish, the ‘tatters’ of the severed arm. The design will then be replicated: the idea is to make at least 50 starfish in different versions. Although Patterson still describes herself as a beginner, she has made significant steps in this technique. “It has been an interesting learning curve. I now know more about knitting, but I have also learned to trust the people and machines in the lab. It’s not a matter of losing control but of sharing it.”
Watch the knowledge clip about knitting in the TextielLab.