Sunday, November 2, 2008

Knit-Free Neckware

Seeking that Spark of Inspiration
(Originally published Nov. 1, 2008 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

ast month’s Open Studios Art Tour was abundantly inspiring—I came away from many of the 20 or so studios I toured thinking about how I would incorporate elements of what I saw into my own creative endeavors. The literal meaning of “inspire” is to inhale. For me, breathing in the ideas, techniques and sources of other artists’ inspiration is very exhilarating. I can only guess at what inspires other artists, but here are some possibilities.

The natural world has always provided inspiration to artists such as Tina Tucker, who paints elegant rural landscapes of Santa Cruz County. Or to Karen Card, whose raku-fired torsos remind me in a whole new way of the timeless beauty of the human form.

Other artists, like Robert Larson and William Marino, take their inspiration from reusing manmade objects. Larson creates patterns of subtle and infinite variety using the graphic designs of weathered Marlboro cigarette packs. Also a recycler, William Marino unwinds the thin strips of paper that make up flea market dartboards, and then rewinds them into circles, spirals, cones and other shapes that transcend their humble origins.

Still other artists seem to be impelled not so much by their subject matter, but by their methods and use of materials, such as Daniella Woolf, who buries bits of printed paper in layers of colored beeswax and resin to create images of depth and irresistible tactile qualities.

Of course, the whole point of my monthly column is to provide inspiration and the know-how to create. Even if you don’t think the project of the month is for you, my hope is that you may find one small aspect of a project inspiring--whether it be in the subject matter, the techniques, the materials, or even in some deep-seated, visceral response.

First spark—I’ve got to try that!

I recently saw a scarf in a Morgan Hill yarn shop that was made without knitting. It was basically an abstract, lacey combination of colorful yarns and threads. The shop owner described the technique, and I sought out the water-soluble stabilizer that makes the process possible. It’s found by-the-yard in the interfacing section of a fabric store or in various pre-packaged dimensions under the Sulky or Aquabond brand names. Water soluble stabilizer feels and acts just like a medium-weight interfacing until you get it wet—then it just dissolves. (Note: Aquabond has a paper-backed adhesive, which may have saved me a lot of time and trouble, but I didn’t have a chance to try it.)

Trial-and-error take one—Scarf #1

To create a “wash-away” scarf or shawl you can combine any materials that can be sewn and can get wet. Ribbon, yarn, fabrics, felt, thin plastic, are all possibilities. The instructions I found online suggested getting the stabilizer damp, a little at a time, in order to adhere the materials to its sticky (but not wet enough to dissolve) surface. I made a ribbon scarf this way, but I wouldn’t recommend it since the right amount of dampness is difficult to gage, and if the stabilizer gets too wet, it turns into a big gluey mess. A spray bottle may work better than the sponge I tried, but it’s probably best to avoid water altogether.

Second spark—seeking help from a pro

After my first scarf attempt, I visited Open Studio artist Mary Hammond, who makes a wide-ranging variety of beautiful no-knit scarves and shawls, and she gave me a few tips. She said to try a light coating of spray adhesive if I needed the materials to bond to the stabilizer before sewing; use no water until I was ready to dissolve the stabilizer; and wash the finished piece numerous times to remove all the stabilizer residue and soften the materials. (Mary may also be teaching a class in her techniques; for more information, contact her at

Trial-and-error take two--Scarf #2

Back at my kitchen table, I made my second scarf with several different yarns, ribbons and fabrics. I arranged the materials on top of a piece of stabilizer, then added a second piece on top to create a sandwich. I pinned the sandwich all over to keep the design in place, then randomly quilted it all in a narrow zigzag stitch. Some of the narrow yarns shifted, but basically things stayed in place. The problems with this scarf are multiple: I didn’t really consider the negative spaces—where only the stitching shows to give the scarf that lacey effect; the stitching is in a light-colored thread which doesn’t show up against all the other pastels---again, I missed the whole point; and the sewn-down eyelashes of the eyelash yarn just looks messy. I still felt inspired by Mary Hammond’s scarves, but the learning curve was steep.

Some modest success—Scarf #3

For my third scarf I tried to keep the design simpler, with materials that had some built-in traction and wouldn't slip around. I used some felt cut-outs from a previous project and some crimped yarn. I laid the design down on the stabilizer, then sprayed lightly over the top with a fabric adhesive, before adding the top layer of stabilizer and sewing.

Combining inspirations—Scarf #4

For my final scarf I thought back to Daniella Woolf’s encaustic works featuring vertical patterns of shredded journal pages. I scanned and printed an image—a page from my daughter’s 8th grade science journal—to fusible ink-jet fabric. I adhered the printed image to cotton fabric and cut it up into strips with a rotary cutter. Instead of using the stabilizer, I sewed the strips together without spaces, and then added yarn. I’m not sure it’s a scarf exactly, but it may be the genesis of another project altogether.

Final thoughts

All the Open Studio artists I’ve mentioned (except Mary Hammond) have great, inspiring websites. You and I may never paint like Tina Tucker, or sculpt like Karen Card, or do collage like Robert Larson, or wind paper like William Marino, or make encaustic images like Daniella Woolf. But their work may lead and inspire you to create something wholly new, with a vision and a voice all your own.