Make & Hue

Something Old, Something New

Exploring and Reinterpreting Textile Traditions for our Modern Age

When Tabetha and I were brainstorming tradition-themed ideas for this edition of Make & Hue, we knew it needed to be more than just “doing things the way they have always been done before.” We were looking at tradition being the starting point for innovation and evolution. The big question we are asking is “Where do we go from here?”

Many years ago, I took a series of workshops in the textile arts that were very much about replicating techniques and aesthetics that originated from a regional tradition. We studied with masters in the technique who had developed and honed their skills over their entire lifetime, having had their artisan career handed down to them from multiple generations of artisans. The knowledge was in their fingertips and they had to bridge geographic, language, and cultural barriers to share their work and experience. It was an impossible challenge to absorb all they offered, and so the best I could do was be there as openly as I could and try to assimilate as much wisdom, knowledge, and understanding as I could in a few short days. And then, with my inexperienced hands, all I could do was a poor application of what I had witnessed. There was so much to be learned from these textile traditions and I felt a moment of grief for not being better equipped to absorb the material faster, more effectively, and more permanently.

Often when I mention I’m building a school for the fibre arts, I’m reminded about how important it is to document, record, and archive masters of these old traditional techniques, lest they be lost forever. There are artisans who know how to spin silk in a certain way or weave cloth a certain way, and without new generations of artisans to study and apprentice with those masters, who will continue these traditions and skills?

My husband and I were talking about a certain medicinal tea blended and produced in Hong Kong for centuries and how the secrets of 28 different herbs are mixed, dried, extracted, and dried again. Because of competition from other forms of medicine, this century-old Chinese medicine might become lost forever, especially if a future generation doesn’t learn the recipe.

The potential loss of traditional textile skills and techniques is tragic and so I am compelled to preserve these artisan crafts and the mastery of them. The first step is to document, record, and archive that knowledge the best we can. But even more important to me is how we build upon that knowledge and tradition. How do we innovate? How do we take what we know about those traditional textiles and progress towards using those techniques to express our modern age? A textile of our time. A textile of our future? I am forever obsessed with the idea of progression. Where can we take this? What can we do with it? How can we use this to make things better?

While some corners of the textile community are focused on passing down traditional textile techniques from masters to apprentices, the polar opposite is happening among other textile researchers and educators. About ten years ago, just before I relaunched SweetGeorgia in 2008, I was on the cusp of sending in my application to Central St. Martin’s Master’s program called Textile Futures (now called Material Futures) in the UK. Textile Futures was about materials-led research in the design and production of textiles, specifically about finding alternatives to animal-based fibres and looking at ways of creating more sustainable and ethically minded textile sources for the global design industry. Think about technical fabrics that wick away moisture or are fireproof, bio-sensitive fabrics that detect changes in body temperature, and even fabrics embedded with electronics that will someday become wearable computers. Or, consider the Nordic fish skin leather process wherein the leather is processed from food waste for sustainability. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s all about innovating textiles for our collective future use and application. It’s incredible what we can create when we veer away from the way things have always been done before in order to find new, modern applications for old techniques.

Colourwork Swatch from Modern Colourwork in Knitting Course from The School of SweetGeorgia

This past winter, I created a course called Modern Colourwork Knitting. Despite the focus on “modern” colourwork knitting, I spent a significant chunk of time researching and learning more about the history of Fair Isle knitting, Bohus Stickning, Selbu mittens, and Setesdalgensers. I find it brilliant how so many regions of the world could come up with stranded colourwork traditions that were technically similar but also aesthetically and stylistically so different. To me, it meant that no matter where we are or what culture or region we are from, we can use the collective techniques and tools of stranded colourwork knitting to express who we are individually or as a community. The Selbu village created a style of mitten that distinctively describes their region. The region of Fair Isle has a distinctive aesthetic of stranded colourwork that describes their region and time in history.

Throughout history, art and craft have expressed the zeitgeist — the feeling “of the moment.” Even in the tradition of Fair Isle knitting, historically what was done only with natural undyed wool colours (beige, fawn, grey, brown, etc.) and naturally dyed colours (red from madder, yellow from a local native plant, and blue from indigo) was augmented and changed after the 1920’s when chemical dyes became more readily available. Fair Isle designs began to incorporate more green and orange which was produced with chemical dyes.

The only thing permanent is change.

It’s absolutely possible in this day and age to produce a style and aesthetic that represents our time and our age, our culture, and our global knitting community.

And so it’s with this lens that I look backward at the traditional skills and techniques of something like stranded colourwork, and then look forward towards the question… what can we make with it now? What can we do with this fascinating textile technique to employ multiple colours in the same fabric and how can we use this to create something that is of our moment, right now.

In the Modern Colourwork Knitting course, I have the honour of highlighting a few knitwear designers who are doing fantastically fresh things with their designs. Either shifting towards contemporary colour palettes, drastically changing the garment silhouettes to create more body-conscious designs, or even creating very minimalist and bold graphics for use with stranded colourwork. In combination, these changes are making for irresistible knits that are stirring many knitters towards casting on for their first colourwork yoke sweater.

Try this with everything. Any traditional craft or skill can be learned, absorbed, synthesized, and reinterpreted into new and vibrant ways that reflect our time. Stranded colourwork. Cable knitting. Lace knitting. Mosaic knitting. Intarsia knitting. Amigurumi. Tapestry weaving. Rep weave. Krokbragd weaving. Even something as humble and practical as a hand knit sock or a handwoven dishtowel. How could the yarn be spun differently? How could the fabric be designed differently? How could different colours be used? A different visual design for a dishtowel? How could it be made modern? Think about all the textile arts that have come before and where we can take them into the future.

So that’s my battle cry — learn a traditional technique, preserve that knowledge, and archive the mastery of the skill so that it will never be lost. Then get inspired by how people are reinterpreting the past and see where you take the technique. Use it to create a better, more sustainable, more functional, or more ethically-minded textile for the future. Use it to express who you are and what you love, today. In this way, we both preserve a craft and create art that reflects our modern age.


About Felicia Lo

founder + creative director of SweetGeorgia // designer + dreamer // wife + mama // dyer, knitter, spinner, weaver, youtuber + author // been writing this blog about colour and craft since 2004 // see what I am making @lomeetsloom and @sweetgeorgia.

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