These Artists Are Giving Knitting a Place in Art History

Subversive knitting. Radical crocheting. These phrases may sound contradictory, but marrying “craft” to “cool” has become commonplace in the last decade, as once-dowdy domestic hobbies have metamorphosed into trendy pastimes for the creative set. (Think knitting-focused Instagram accounts that draw hundreds of thousands of followers, and viral articles featuring knitted pajamas for chilly elephants.) In this atmosphere, the art world, too, has seen an uptick in the use of knitting and crocheting as a medium. But this is by no means a new phenomenon among artists.
As early as the 1970s and ’80s, artists like , Faith Wilding, and  employed knitting and crocheting as both a material and a feminist tool, connecting the history of craft as “women’s work” to that of repressive domesticity. Since then, countless contemporary artists have built on the work of these feminist pioneers, using knitting and crocheting to mine a wide range of themes. Below, we highlight eight creatives that prove knitting and crocheting can be boundary-pushing, politically charged mediums.

Yang builds her mesmerizing, delightfully absurd sculptures from everyday objects ranging from frosted lightbulbs to hair rollers to fake plants to hand-knitted cosies. While not all of her works incorporate knitted and crocheted elements, allusions to craft and homemade trinkets appear across her oeuvre. When paired with industrial materials and commercial products like clothing racks, Venetian blinds, and canned goods, they become icons for contradictory feelings of belonging and alienation, safety and suffocation that domestic life can inspire. These are dichotomies with which Yang, who splits her time between Seoul and Berlin, is intimately familiar, and they emerge in big, immersive works like Sallim (2009), an abstract reimagining of her Berlin kitchen, and Cup Cosies (2011), as well as a cohort of small plastic cups blanketed with knitted covers.

Genger’s crocheted sculptures are most succinctly described as monumental. For a 2013 public installation in New York City’s Madison Square Park, she looped and stitched 1.4 million feet of lobster-fishing rope into immense, meandering forms that, from afar, resemble outdoor sculptures by modernist male greats, like  or . But there is one key difference: Genger uses a technique traditionally associated with women and craft. This is the crux of the American artist’s practice, which reimagines, enlarges, and subtly lampoons big, hard-edged works made by men. In this way, Genger draws an approach oft-described as “women’s work” away from a domestic environment and emphatically plants it in the public sphere.

Goldrajch’s crocheted masks investigate central themes of his practice: the impact of hierarchical terms like “insider” and “outsider,” and “high” and “low,” on the art world. The Israeli, Brussels-based artist fuses a technique traditionally associated with craft (one still struggling for art-world legitimacy) with subjects drawn from the paintings of celebrated artists, like , whose work hangs on walls of big-name institutions. In this way, Goldrajch brings to light limiting prejudices—toward certain materials and artists—that institutions and traditions often reinforce.

Drain began knitting as a student at RISD in Providence, a city that was once the center of the American textile industry. Since then, he’s incorporated both knitting and embroidery into his diverse sculptural practice in order to synthesize the history of craft and artmaking with contemporary culture and technology. Sweaters patterned to resemble pixelated 1980s video games and early computer iconography tap into the proliferation, and obsoletion, of new trends and innovations. Drain has also embedded knitted elements into multimedia sculptures. Their angular patterns, made from uniform webs of yarn, at once refer to the networked, viral nature of contemporary technology and the undying human desire for physical comfort.

The Polish, New York-based artist, who goes simply by Olek, has crocheted potent political messages—both overt and subliminal—across city streets since 2002. To underline the importance of expression and play, no matter the environment, she has covered bicycles and carousels in hand-crocheted, neon-hued sheaths, as well as dressing people up in her textiles. She also uses her work to communicate urgent social issues, from free speech to refugee relief to women’s rights. Case in point: during last year’s election cycle, she crocheted a 16-by-46-foot banner, which was tacked to a New Jersey highway billboard, depicting Hillary Clinton’s face and the candidate’s viral hashtag #imwithher. In the last month, she’s also created anti-racism and feminist messages on public walls (a quote from Martin Luther King Junior in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood) and on protest signs (“Love Always Wins” at the Women’s March on Washington)—all with her trademark threads.

Brazilian artist Neto’s immense installations resemble giant swollen body parts, aroused sexual organs, and gooey, dripping stalactites. And he achieves their organic, fluid contours by suspending sprawling networks of crocheted yarn, weighed down with heavy objects like glass balls, from tall ceilings. Across his body of work, loosely-woven, crocheted and knitted sheaths allude to cellular structures, human skin, or celestial constellations. Other sculptures draw on the history of craft and culture in his native Brazil by embedding objects from everyday life, like beer cans and green coconuts, into webs dyed to conjure the vibrant colors of Rio de Janeiro’s streets. In this way, Neto explores the connections between molecular science, human life, and the overarching cosmos—from the micro to the macro.

Jackson is interested “in the role of objects in a good life,” as she’s explained. She makes “non-traumatized” objects that fuse craft mediums, like knitting and crocheting, with symbols representing nature, joy, and other calming, comforting forces. Both her materials and the images and garments she forges from them—blankets covered in icons of a waning and waxing moon, sweaters embedded with serene illustrations of the sea or baskets of fruit—allude to the soothing power of the natural world, one that contemporary cultures tend to ignore in favor of technology and industry. She also lends her self-taught knowledge of textiles and knitting to the collaborative furniture she makes with her husband, painter . Like the rest of her work, these chairs and couches are meant to be lived with, worn, and nestled into. 

Chandler uses the graphic quality of the crocheted technique (whose stitches create blocks of color and hard-edged patterns) in order to emphasize certain physical characteristics of her smiling, cartoonish subjects. In Rainbow Bright (2015), for instance, the thick, rainbow-hued lines that underline two red nipples signal that the character has undergone a double mastectomy, perhaps as part of a sex change. Observed closely, many of Chandler’s figures proudly bear the marks of gender reassignment or joyfully resist rigid genders. Both the subjects in Erica (2015) and Under Construction (2015) are decorated with vertical lines where a penis or vagina might be, which could read as either, both, or simply a colorful undergarment. His use of crocheting, a hobby associated with female domesticity, further emphasizes her celebration of gender subversion.

Alexxa Gotthardt