By Lela Nargi
From Katharine Cobey’s bird-headed cape fashioned from garbage bags to Dave Cole’s steel and fiberglass teddy bears, contemporary knitting sculptors have long embraced unorthodox (and in the case of fiberglass, downright dangerous) materials in their explorations of texture and the meaning of fibercraft. Since 2006, Seattle-area artist Carol Milne has been undertaking an ongoing experiment with the vagaries and complexities of knitted glass
It began on a whim. “Back in the ‘80s, I was working on bronze sculptures,” Milne explains. “I had to use sprues—thin strips of wax that are attached to a mold so the hot liquid metal flows in more readily and accurately. One Christmas, I was also knitting a lot of gloves, and I kept looking at these skinny strands of wax and thinking, they look like yarn!”
Knitting up the sprues the traditional way was impossible, however, since the wax, though pliant, doesn’t stretch the way spun fiber does. That didn’t stop Milne from trying (and failing), then experimenting with other ways to stitch it. Eventually, she hit on the method she uses to this day: wrapping the sticks of wax around a knitting needle to get a tight coil, then removing the needle and folding out the stitches. She then weaves the ensuing rickrack of loops together with her fingers—building up the knitting row by row rather than stitch by stitch. This process, “Sent me down a rabbit hole,” says Milne, “where I’ve been ever since.”
It’s distinctly—and for knitting, perhaps uniquely—labor intensive. After Milne has manipulated her wax rods into the desired shape, she solders all its joints together with more wax, so the piece is structurally sound. She makes a mold around it using a silica-based glass-casting material that she slathers on in layers to a thickness of up to two inches. Then she melts the wax out of the mold with a wallpaper steamer.
Now it’s ready for the kiln. Milne fills divots built into the mold’s structure with chunks of colored caster’s glass she sources from a company in New Zealand. More glass pieces are heaped into flowerpots Milne sets above the mold—these will melt in through feeder tubes after the glass in the divots is dispersed. The process takes what must feel like forever: two days at the top temperature of 1500 degrees F. It takes another five or so days in the kiln for the glass to properly anneal—cool it too quickly and it will crack. Likening the process to an archaeological dig, Milne then painstakingly whittles away the mold from the sculpture it hides within, using dental tools.
Then, and only then, does Milne get a look at the creation she’s wrought.
The first shapes she was compelled to knit were bowls—even though she admits, “I’m not much of a vessel maker; my preference is for sculptural work that’s not good for anything.” These helped her begin to understand what sorts of stitch patterns would most thoroughly fill with glass (stockinette, yes; seed stitch: not so much); and how color would move through the piece. “And the good news is, people like bowls,” Milne laughs, referring to the response of would-be collectors.
More recently she’s been experimenting with pieces that look like actual knitting: socks in singles and pairs that can stand up on their own—like real wool garments several years overdue for a washing—and strips of “fabric” that unfurl from “needles.” “At first I thought, oh, it’s so obvious,” says Milne. “But I realized that people often don’t see the knitting until they see the needles themselves. Then they get it.”
One of these pieces measures 18 x 12 inches, and a certain sock has a foot-length of 15 inches. This may not seem extraordinary in the scope of fabric knitting but in glass casting, molds to accommodate pieces this large can weigh upwards of 100 pounds. “I do have a huge kiln I just bought,” says Milne. “But molds that size are pretty fragile going into it. I’d like to work bigger, but I don’t know how.”
While she mulls over this challenge, Milne has also her mind set on another one: namely, colorwork. It’s what she’s drawn to in her yarn knitting, although she wearily admits that in glass casting, “It would be a nightmare. I’d have to have separate feeds for each color, and I’d have to cast every stitch and then put them together.” Although, “I haven’t entirely ruled it out—I’m kind of excited about 3D printers,” and how these might help her make workable molds. Mostly, though, she works without a plan. “I just like to go into my studio and play,” she laughs. “Whatever comes out, that’s it!”
You can see the results of Carol Milne’s studio play at the “Reaching Beyond” group show at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, (through January 4, 2015); on her website, carolmilne.com; and in her knitted glass-casting workshops, which she teaches across the country throughout the year.
Lela Nargi is the author of several books about knitting, including Astounding Knits and Knitting Around the World. Visit her at lelanargi.com.