Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Knitting - a space for creation and destruction

This month Fabrications' blog has a special contribution from Jonathan Faiers, reader in fashion and textile theory at Winchester School of ArtPart of this text has been previously published in the essay by Jonathan ‘From Rei Kawakubo to Mark Fast: The Void in Knitting, Or How Formlessness Shaped Up’, in Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion, MOMU, Antwerp, 2011
Jonathan has also published a few books and last month launched his latest book "Dressing Dangerously" - Dysfynctional Fashion in Film (published by Yale University Press ) at Hackney's 'Trampery'.

'Dressing Dangerously' book cover Yale University Press

Since 1982 when Rei Kawakubo instructed her knitting machine operators to loosen some of the screws on their machines so that random holes would be knitted into her sweaters, the distressed or 'unravelled' has taken centre stage on the knitting runway. The radical approach adopted by Kawakubo and her contemporaries was simultaneously indebted to punk’s rejection of conventional formulations of body aesthetics as well as a philosophical exploration of the potential of the void or the 'formless'. Holes in knitting imply chaos and order, destruction and creation, and Kawakubo’s apparent random deployment of them suggested the limitlessness of space. This text will utilise Georges Bataille’s investigation of the term informe (formless), to consider Kawakubo’s ‘lace’ sweater as an operation or process that encourages a dialogue regarding notions of craft (knitting and lace), the complete and the partial, and the dysfunctional as an alternative way of understanding clothing and its relationship to the body.

Image sourced from KnitGrandeur

In the early 1980s the appearance on the European fashion stage of Rei Kawakubo’s work, including garments such as the ‘lace’ sweater, has been well documented. The confusion caused by her work as well as Yohji Yamamoto’s is succinctly expressed by Colin McDowell who notes that: “within one season, they gave French fashion an inferiority complex verging on a communal nervous breakdown; excited hopes and dreams in young British designers and students; panicked the Italians and totally bewildered the Americans.”[i] However, whilst the assessment of the so called Japanese revolution in fashion has naturally centred on the most spectacular/difficult/aesthetic/nihilistic collections (any number of adjectives have been deployed to describe their work according to the prevailing perspective of the commentator), it is perhaps a garment such as the ‘lace’ sweater which most effectively conveys Kawakubo’s approach to making clothes.

Knitting at its most fundamental level is an operation that makes something from nothing. The act of enclosing spaces or more precisely setting up temporary enclosures is after all what the practice of knitting consists of. The exploration of tension, both literally as in the tension of the particular knitting stitch and emotionally when conscious of knitting’s potential to unravel, seems in Kawakubo’s ‘lace’ sweater to be its primary function. Furthermore it can be argued that the demonstration of this tension and other states (which will be discussed shortly), takes precedence over its function as a garment. As a dysfunctional garment, however, the ‘lace’ sweater presents a number of opportunities to explore how knitting relates to other crafts, how it oscillates between fashion and non-fashion and how it intersects with the body. 

Image from 'Unravel - knitwear in fashion' exhibition MOMU, Antwerp 2011

On examining the sweater in more detail it becomes apparent that it is a ‘formless’ garment structurally - it is full of holes that position it as a piece of clothing on the verge of imminent dispersal or collapse, and it is also formless in relation to how it might be worn – there is a superfluous ‘peplum’ hanging below the ribbing, the sleeves cover the hands if not folded back and the larger holes offer the possibility of multiple points of entry for the head and arms. Its holes also undermine one of the most commonly prized attributes of knitting, which is to provide warmth. As is well known mesh, or net-like fabrics (such as knitting) consisting of regular enclosures have an ability to trap air and therefore provide a layer of warmth when worn on the body (the string vest effect), Kawakubo’s sweater with its random larger holes disrupts this, negating its thermal properties and transforms it into a dysfunctional sweater. Of course as can be seen in the illustration the sweater was originally designed to be worn over another garment, which would go some way to restoring its heat generating properties; however it could also be argued that this transforms the sweater into a purely decorative garment divested of its chief function.

Dropping Stitches, Step 3

Image from StitchDiva's tutorial on how to purposefully drop stitches!

The apparent devaluing of the process of following a pattern, of not ‘dropping a stitch’ and finishing off the garment sought after in hand and machine knitting alike, coupled with the ‘betrayal’ of knitting’s function to keep us warm positions the sweater firmly as fashion rather than knitting. The bewilderment, and in some quarters, anger that garments such as the ‘lace’ sweater generated when first produced suggest that it presented a threat to accepted vestimentary codes, and in addition it exposed the intrinsic formlessness and impermanence that resides at the heart of the craft of knitting. But, as Bataille proposed when discussing Manet’s painting: “To break up the subject and re-establish it on a different basis is not to neglect the subject; so it is in a sacrifice, which takes liberties with the victim and even kills it, but cannot be said to neglect it” [ii] These “liberties” are presumably what the fashion establishment felt could not be taken, but as we have seen Kawakubo’s desire for the imperfect and the accidental that is found in the operation of formlessness has since become part of the language of fashion.

Image from 'Unravel - knitwear in fashion' exhibition MOMU, Antwerp 2011. Thanks to Shady Chronicles Blog

It is perhaps on the level of economy that Kawakubo’s ‘lace’ sweater diverges most significantly from Bataille’s notion of the informe, and provides new insight into the sweater’s titular reference to lace making. Lace, like knitting is a fabric that is constructed from the enclosure of small spaces, but this structural relationship aside, the two crafts differ significantly. Of course both are labour intensive activities, but hand-made lace far outstrips hand knitting in terms of the amount of time taken to produce an equal amount of fabric. This fundamental difference of course results in lace’s most commonly understood quality – its rarity and therefore value. As a result of its costliness the history of lace is both violent and strangely corporeal, littered with murders, and other more bizarre bodily contacts between fabric and flesh. The stories of lengths of lace bound around the body, of being secreted amongst corpses and even inserted underneath the skinned pelts of dogs, all in order to escape the heavy tax duties imposed on lace during the height of its popularity, suggest a discourse that juxtaposes the prized with the worthless similar to Bataille’s consideration of the “movement from refuse to ideal.”[iii]

But Kawakubo’s ‘lace’ sweater is far from refuse, even if it could be argued it is masquerading as such. Its classification as ‘fashion’ elevates it from its contingent knitting groups of the second-hand, the moth-eaten, and the thread-bare and passes from formless knitting to fully formed fashion. As Bataille warns: “In this way formless is not only an adjective having such and such a meaning, but a term serving to declassify, requiring in general that every thing should have a form. What it designates does not, in any sense whatever, possess rights, and everywhere gets crushed like a spider or an earthworm.”[iv] The economy of fashion is such that Kawakubo’s sweater can only survive fleetingly as ‘formless’, its larval stage as an indeterminate form somewhere between knitting and sculpture cannot be allowed and therefore lasts no longer than its initial showing and then is swiftly transformed into its mature form – fashion.                

 Image by Twisted Twee 'Moth patches'

So it would seem that within the fashion industry at least formlessness is never allowed to remain so for long. Rei Kawakubo's 'lace' sweater momentarily seemed to fulfill Bataille's promise of the informe being not only an adjective but also an operation, however her work was swiftly categorised as conceptual fashion, and has become fossilised as such. 'Formless' fashion it seems is not permissible and as Bataille declared: "…does not, in any sense whatever, possess rights, and everywhere gets crushed like a spider or an earthworm."[v] So perhaps it is fitting that the only true architect or designer of the formless in fashion knitting: "… is something akin to a spider of a gob of spittle." – the moth.[vi]

Jonathan's paper "Knitting and Catastrophe" will be published in Issue 12:1 of the Textile Journal of Cloth and Culture alongside a selection of paper from the 'In the Loop' conference. 

[i] Colin McDowell (2000) Fashion Today, p.134.
[ii] Bois & Krauss, p. 21.
[iii] A concept detailed in ‘The Big Toe’ in Allan Stoekl (ed.) (1985) Georges Bataille: Visions of Excess Selected Writings 1927-1939 , pp.20-3.
[iv] Georges Bataille ‘Formless’ in (1995) Encyclopaedia Acephalica, p.51.

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