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Strange Material

Strange Materials Cover

November is Art Books Month at 49th Shelf, for which there's no one better to turn to than Leanne Prain, the Queen of Canadian Cool DIY. Her latest book is Strange Material: Storytelling Through Textiles,and we're pleased to feature an excerpt from her chapter, "Technology and New Methods of Storytelling," which explores the ways that textile artists are using digital and social media to further their craft. 



"I really enjoy the way that the Internet has enabled an interest in knitting to spread much further. I love the way that so many knitters embrace technology." —artist Freddie Robins


The digital world has brought about a variety of ways to communicate, including blogging, tweeting, and texting. Textile artists are exploring new technologies, weaving stories into QR codes that can only be read by a smartphone, re-creating Internet memes in their stitchwork, or journaling on fabric about online matchmaking. The urge to share our experiences through the handmade arts is not a notion lost in historical reference but a vibrant part of the community. Why shouldn’t our textile work reflect how we communicate today?

Crafters have long embraced the opportunity to share stories about themselves and meet each other online. The popular website Knithacker asks knitters to submit images of items made from hacking two patterns together in order to create something “gloriously unique and knitty-licious.” A community of Knithacker readers votes on what they think are the most successful knit hacks. Pattern sharing sites like allow crafters to swap and disseminate their designs in a way that transcends international borders; the site has become a virtual test kitchen for knitting and crochet, where one can see how a pattern has been made in hundreds of different yarn specifications, alterations, and gauges by other knitters. The way we learn to knit, weave, embroider, or crochet is changing too—new techniques can be picked up through online tutorials on YouTube or educational sites like Skillshare.

The ability to share images of work online proliferated with the craft blogging and yarn bombing movement, and crafters can now see what is being made halfway around the world. They can inspire each other through image-sharing sites like Flickr, Instagram, and Pinterest. Pink-collar e-commerce has emerged on crafting mega-retailer Etsy and proliferates in smaller sites such as Big Cartel and Shopify.

Phillip Stearns 210

Phillip Stearns, DCP_0242 Open Edition, made in the US by Pure Country Weavers, 2013, 100-percent cotton, 53 x 71 in (134.62 x 180.34 cm). Photo: Phillip Stearns. Custom design made using a modified digital pointand- shoot camera

Maker workshops and hackspaces have also popped up, allowing for collaborations between those who make things by hand and those who are into technologies such as 3-D printers, electrical wiring, and computer code. The line between people who craft and those who do not is disappearing. It is not uncommon to see fields such as computing and textiles merging, to find fabric that contains conductive thread or a character from a video game portrayed in some complicated intarsia knitting. Since 2011, the San Francisco Bay Area MakerFaire has hosted an e-textile lounge that highlights wearable technologies. Many of the garments shown in this space react to the environment, changing under variations of temperature, sound, or motion.

Technology gives us the opportunity to play with textiles in previously unexplored ways, and great opportunities exist to explore the relationship between how we share our human experience and how it is reflected back at us in the items that we choose to make.


Canadian textile artist and educator Ruth Scheuing has been tracking her movements via GPS since 2005 and using these tracks as patterns that she incorporates into her weaving. (See


Phillip Stearns’ Beautiful Faults

Phillip Stearns 211

Phillip Stearns, DCP_0209 Knit Open Edition, made in the US by Pure Country Weavers, 2013, 100-percent cotton, 53 x 71 in (134.62 x 180.34 cm). Photo: Phillip Stearns. Custom design made using a modified digital point-and-shoot camera.

In late 2011, Brooklyn-based artist Phillip Stearns started Glitch Textiles, a project dedicated to exploring the intersection between textiles and digital art. The patterns and designs of his machine-knit and woven wall hangings and blankets are based on glitches—technical processes that manifest as errors from digital cameras and other misused hardware and software. By capturing the hidden structures of data or the hallucinations of machines misinterpreting signals and weaving the resultant images, the digital experience is transformed into a sensory one. Stearns has transformed the “hard” world of binary, computational logic into soft and cozy textiles.


Iviva Olenick’s @EmbroideryPoems

Iviva Olenic @EmbroideryPoems

Iviva Olenick, @EmbroideryPoems at their 61 Local Embroidery Slam debut, 2013, embroideries of various sizes on 24 x 18 in (60 x 45 cm) bulletin board. Photo: Michaele Olenick, a.k.a. Mom. Poem credits: Top row from left to right: Angela Meyer (@candylecoque), Iviva Olenick (@EmbroideryPoems), Iviva Olenick, Lisa Kim (@ lisakimlisakim). 2nd row: Iviva Olenick, Iviva Olenick, Melissa Broder (@ melissabroder), Melissa Broder. 3rd row: Marcia Annenberg, Sandy Denarksi, Spencer Madsen (@spencermadsen). 4th row: Anonymous, Melissa Broder, Danielle Maveal (@daniellexo), Iviva Olenick. 5th row: Kevin Kinsella, Iviva Olenick. Final row: Montana Ray, Monte Olenick a.k.a. Dad, Monte Olenick, Elizabeth Rose Daly.

“For years, I’ve struggled with reconciling my desire to make things by hand with the threat of being 'left behind’ in an economy and social scene driven by technology,” explains Iviva Olenick. “As a result of these concerns, I’ve sought ways to use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in my art making.” She’s diarized her dating life on embroidered hankies, stitched her neighborhood jogging routes onto plastic shopping bags, and captured the letterforms of Brooklyn graffiti in French knots. In 2013, she started embroidering the tiniest of stories—140-character statements and poetry written via Twitter.

The technology of Twitter appealed to Iviva for several reasons. She said, “Twitter allows me to interact with people from all over the world and to collaborate without actually meeting face-to-face. The conciseness of the medium is appealing too. For years, I’ve been stitching epithets on scraps of discarded and recycled fabrics. The texts were often stream-of-consciousness, similar to the process of writing poetry. I felt as though I were saving scraps of my experience through stitch; hence, I used fabric scraps. Through Twitter, anyone can compose and broadcast to the world scraps of experience.” By combining other people’s tweets with her embroidery, Iviva creates a link between Internet-based behaviors and craft as a communication tool. She has written, “I’m hoping to collapse the divide between technologically based socializing and marketing and the process of making objects by hand. Of course, there are still some very obvious differences, like the amount of time it takes to compose a tweet versus the time required to stitch one. I’m hoping that the process of making physical objects from tweets will encourage more thoughtfulness in terms of what we tweet.”

Iviva Olenic 213

Iviva Olenick, Sundays i make him whisper, 2013, embroidery and watercolor paint on fabric with excerpt of poem by Montana Ray, 7.25 x 4.25 in (18.125 x 10.625 cm). Photo: Iviva Olenick

Iviva has created 33 embroideries in the @EmbroideryPoems series, of which she says: “The physical act of writing down poetry is a way of making the intangible ‘real.’ Like poetry, tweets exist in a liminal, intangible space. I feel as though there is something poetic about tweets, even if they are not written as poems. Through embroidery, I capture these ethereal thoughts and moments, giving them a place to live.”

In June 2013, she organized a poetry slam at the Brooklyn bar 61 Local. She invited her favorite poets and musicians and started the evening with an embroidery lesson. As the musicians performed, the embroiderers captured selected phrases with stitching, creating found poems. To see more embroidered tweets, visit @EmbroideryPoems tumblr or see pp. 205–06 of Strange Material to learn how to stitch your own embroidered poem.


THE SOCIAL KNITWORK: Lea Redmond’s participatory project The Social Knitwork encourages knitters to create scarves that reflect the online interactions that they have with others. Using balls of wool in colors that represent popular sites Gmail, Pinterest, Blogger, Twitter, and Facebook, she knits a stripe to represent each status update created by her friends. The finished scarf becomes a record of social interactions online. As a community-engaged project, Lea encourages other knitters to try this pattern and offers a free download from her website as well as tips on how to use each social network.

From Strange Materials: Storytelling Through Textiles by Leanne Prain, 2014 Arsenal Pulp Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Leanne Prain

Credit: Nicol Lischka

Leanne Prain is the co-author (with Mandy Moore) of Yarn Bombing, now in its third printing, and the author of Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery. Strange Material: Storytelling through Textiles is her third book, published in Fall 2014. She co-founded a stitch and bitch called Knitting and Beer in order to expand her skills while knitting at the pub. A professional graphic designer, Leanne holds degrees in creative writing, art history, and publishing. She lives and knits in Vancouver.

November 13, 2014

Books mentioned in this post


Strange Material

Storytelling through Textiles

by Leanne Prain
edition: Paperback
tagged: fashion, textile & costume

The art of storytelling through textiles, exploring the many ways in which narrative can be expressed through cloth and needle.

Strange Material explores the relationship between handmade textiles and storytelling. Through text, the act of weaving a tale or dropping a thread takes on new meaning for those who previously have seen textiles--quilts, b …


Yarn Bombing

The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti

by Mandy Moore & Leanne Prain
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged: crocheting, knitting


The Art of Unexpected Embroidery

by Leanne Prain, photographs by Jeff Christenson
edition: Paperback

A Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Alcuin Society Book Design Award winner (1st place, reference books)

Hoopla, by the co-author of the bestselling Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet & Knit Graffiti, showcases those who take the craft of embroidery where it's never gone before, in an astonishing full-colour display of embroidered art. Hoopla rebel …

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