I was turned off to knitting in my childhood because everyone was following patterns stitch by stitch. As I've gotten older and more into knitting, I seem to turn more and more to improvisation as a source of inspiration and design. The more improvised the piece, the more I like the results on the whole, not to mention the happier I am with the process. Of course as in all improvisation some grounding in technique helps :-), but it's also worth exploring how to emphasize freedom of design, something which can be done from the start even with limited skills.
Some time ago, as I was driving on the endless California freeways, I heard a very interesting program on the radio (KPFA). No names, as I haven't quite gotten the hang of writing while dodging bridge construction :-), alas. But the guy is a percussionist, originally Iranian (maybe Shirzad Sharif??) also interested in Indian and African rhythms, and he was discussing some gatherings he's been facilitating, and bragging about taking total musical nincompoops (like myself) and getting them to hold their own in a jam session without any difficulty in a couple days, getting into quite complex rhythms. He claims that you can teach people to do their own thing separately, and to keep doing it in a harmonious whole with others. He thinks of rhythms as circular, and teaches that as long as you meet the others at some point in the circle you can pretty much do whatever else and sound good. You could see why I thought that was interesting in and of itself :-).
But then he veered off into discussing some musical software that he's been working on with some of those legendary garage-bound CS students, sort of a karaoke box for percussionists. He admits that banging on your tambourine all by yourself is less than inspiring in the long term, and worse that not everyone has access to weekends on Sproul Plaza (UC Berkeley) with a guaranteed assortment of partners, so this was meant as a personal practice supplement. Contrarily to what you might think I wasn't so hot about the software concept in itself, but his discussion of what makes drumming sound improvised, and human, was fascinating.
Basically, his premise is that if you get everyone exactly together, no matter how complex the rhythm aimed for, you sound like a garden-variety synthetizer, which was true from his samples. Real people lag behind a bit, and catch up, and then overcompensate, and have to drop back a bit. They're all going at more or less the same rate over time, but are never exactly together at any specific time. So his software cycles each 'person' around their set rate, and moreover he can set the range of each person according to their level, ie virtual beginners cycle over a much wider range than experienced 'people'. Neat, eh? I was boggled by such profound observations.
Now you're wondering why I'd even mention something like this on a generally fiber site, but there are definite parallels between visual arts and music. I highly recommend Eli Leon's excellent discussion of improvisation in jazz and in African textiles (and their survival in African-American quilts), in his first book 'Who'd have thought it', the catalog of a show that blew my socks off so far that I started quilting. The concept of improvisation is one that seems to go particularly well from the visual to the auditory and vice-versa.
I've definitely found that when I make African-style quilts, it helps to accentuate irregularities. Making a block that's only a bit off from square looks like I've just missed :-). If I want a good improvised look, I need to make sure that things are firmly off square. When things are looking too blah, I need to cut my stripes further off grain, And so on - you basically can't go too far off as long as you keep to some kind of theme, and even then a small amount of stuff that hardly belongs there at all always spices things up. You can use some radically different colors, or make the block upside down, or use a positive/negative effect, anything really. The only principle seems to be that the more radically different from the whole, the smaller the proportion.
As I've been making hand-spun zigzag scarves I've been reflecting on how to make them more obviously human-made, and how to improvise on that theme. Obviously you'd have the least control when you start by dyeing yarn. But the best method for that I think is to put it in a baggie and pour dye on, the results may be muddy if you pick colors badly or over-mix, but at least the distribution of color will be more varied than if you put the yarn on a table and painted it in formal stripes.
Ann Johnston's book 'Color by Accident' introduced the concept of baggie dyeing, but for quilting fabrics and using fiber-reactive dyes. It's perfectly possible to use the same techniques with fiber preparations from yarn to fleece, and acid dyes. A spring 2004 workshop with Sara Lamb got me enthusiastic about the technique, especially as it's so incredibly easy. I took care in a single day of a good lot of cheap but dull yarn, a ton of roving, and even dyed a whole fleece in a space bag.
You have much more control of variety if you paint roving and spin it rather than start with yarn. If you're buying roving already dyed, it helps if you can open it and inspect it, and make sure it's not too symmetrical. Some dyers, such as Nancy Finn (Chasing Rainbows, Willits CA) take pains to distribute their colors in ways that will look fresh and not too regular, both in terms of uneven color proportion and in terms of their occurence. You should think of these factors yourself as you paint your own.
Then when you have dyed roving, you can accentuate its variations in the spinning, You can get into the obvious possibilities of texture, from thick-and-thin to outright boucle, all of which I heartily recommend :-). But color can easily be improved too. It's hard to spin a very wide roving, so most of us split it before spinning (even though it'll mess up the perfect worsted preparation of real top, but that's another topic). It's easy to consciously vary the thickness of the piece that gets split off, so that your color repeats end up more or less long. Color transitions are shorter in thinner sections too, which subtly changes the general tones. Even if you were trying to get the exact same thickness you'd have a hard time, but as in my off-grain quilting you should try to get really obviously different if you want more variety.
It's also worth being conscious of which end of the roving you're spinning first - someone trying for uniformity would make sure to always start from the same end, and you can do the opposite and flip the section occasionally.
Finally, I started by making these scarves with even-size stripes. Not to the point of counting rows, because that kind of thing bores me to death :-). But I had good visual variety because I had spun in color variation as in the above, and the contrasting color stripes fell on different places on the knitted texture stripes. It's worth observing too how much the exact same color looks different in different textures, an argument for alternating stitches and not just going for blandly reversible garter stitch. I have noticed that I really like fabrics that have independant texture and print going on, such as geometric jacquards with a paisley print, or floral texture with a block print for example. I think many of the best modern African fabrics use that technique to advantage, if you have any on hand to examine, that's one of the reasons they seem so exciting to Americans broken-in to boring uniform fabric texture.
However it finally occured to me as I was working that this particular scarf pattern would end up pretty much straight no matter how wide I made the stripes, as long as I balanced the proportion of stockinette and its reverse. So then I started varying the stripe width as well, and added another layer of complexity to the mix. Of course if you wanted to go really hog-wild on texture improvisation as well, you could knit something using a truly random method such as Priscilla's Probability Pullover.
First published: 4/7/04
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