Words off the page

Knitting poetry – can turning a poem into a knitting pattern really work?

By: Jo,   2 minutes

Knitted poem

I was recently reminded of my friend Harriet’s creative experiment from a few years ago, when she made a FTSE 100 scarf, “for the cold financial times” using data from the stock market results to dictate how many stitches she knitted per row of the scarf every day for three months. The finished object questioned both the way we look at knitting and at the FTSE 100, and was exhibited at the Milan Design Show as an example of how presentation can change our understanding.

I’m almost as keen a knitter as I am a reader and writer. I wondered what might result from taking this approach to knitting and words, by combining two things I do regularly, but doing them in a completely different way. If you break it down, what processes are involved in these different activities? When I knit I use a knitting pattern, a set of instructions written in a code that I’ve learned to read and understand, so I can recreate the knitted item as the pattern maker intended. When I read I use a story or a poem, written in a code that I’ve learned to read and understand, so I can recreate the thoughts and images in my head as the writer intended. But what if I used a poem, with its rhythm and meter and rhyme, to create a knitted item? What does a knitted poem look like? And how do you knit a word?

The poem I decided to use is one of my favourites, ‘The Good Morrow’ by John Donne. I thought it could work if I used the number of letters in each word, and words per line, as the number of stitches I should knit per row. I started off knitting flat on two needles, which did quite a good job of representing what the poem looked like on the page, but it didn’t represent what the poem sounds like when it’s read out loud. When you hear a poem you don’t always know exactly where the lines end; what you get is a much more continuous, fluid shape. So I decided to try knitting in the round.

Knitted poem on the needles

Usually, when I knit I count numbers out loud, but this turned into a strange kind of spelling bee as I spelled out the words so I’d know how many stitches to do: I-W-O-N-D-E-R-B-Y-M-Y-T-R-O-T-H. With no picture, unlike with a traditional knitting pattern, it was strange not knowing what to expect and intriguing to see the 3D version of the poem beginning to grow from nothing.

I love the way the result shows how something that looks very neat and regular on the page can turn into an entirely different, very strange-looking being when translated into an object through another creative process. It can still be read, in the way that any piece of art can be read, and the possibilities of what the viewer might understand from it have grown in the same way that the knitting has grown. Or they might just think it’s a woolly jumper gone wrong, which is fine, too.

Unidentified knitted object

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