The art of knitting has enjoyed in the last few years a sort of renaissance also thanks to exciting and intriguing exhibitions.
Yet, though beautiful and well organised, quite often such events focused on designer pieces and, rather than prompting visitors to actively learn how to knit, they often pushed them to passively admire the items on display, without even trying to understand the effort knitwear designers go through to create something unique and truly innovative.
A new exhibition recently opened at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden (The Netherlands) cleverly combines instead the two aspects, inviting visitors to look at knitwear pieces and arty installations, while offering them the chance to learn some skills.
The unusual and extensive textile collection of the Fries Museum is the starting point for "Breien!" (Knitting!), but these historical artifacts are juxtaposed in engaging ways to pieces by national and international contemporary designers and artists who work with knitting techniques.
Visitors are welcomed to explore the world of knitting first via "City of Stitches", a soft and warm site specific installation by Isabel Berglund.
The Danish artist occupied indeed an entire exhibition hall creating a welcoming environment, a sort of knitted structure built around a wool tree where visitors can spend some time before discovering more about the history of knitting.
Twelve dioramas then offer the chance to explore the past via objects such as a maliënhandschoen (chainmail glove), immersed in a landscape comprising a knitted medieval castle surrounded by knitted trees, or the oldest knitting sheath (tool to knit faster).
From knitted sailor hats, traditional fishermen's sweaters and Norwegian woolen pieces, the exhibition then moves through patterns and styles to show how knitting fluidly and constantly develops as the years pass.
The media also play a key role in spreading specific trends and the exhibition looks at this aspect via vests à la Starsky & Hutch, and the jumper donned by Detective Inspector Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Gråbøl) in the Danish series The Killing, a garment that helped shaping her character, spawned an interest in all things Danish and became so popular that it contributed to turn the series into a cult show.
Historical pieces, knitted modern artworks and trendy designs show the versatility of knitting in the main room: there are actually quite a few highlights in this section, including beaded handbags and traditional finely knitted pieces from the 18th century from the Fries collection.
Further interesting pieces include gold Frisian oorijzers (ornamental metal ear pieces), the gossamer-thin Frisian lace caps and delicate mittens from the 18th century.
Yet visitors into modern avant-garde designs will probably like more London-based artist Zoë Landau Konson's crocheted, stitched or woven sculptures that look like masses of assembled forms, but hide a deeper and darker side, and the work of Chrystl Rijkeboer, charged with a magical quality, yet slightly upsetting at the same time as the artist mainly uses human hair to make it (check out the wolves and birdhouses made with this material).
There is also another point to make about this exhibition - it doesn't only look at fashion, traditions and the possibility to create installations via knitting, but also introduces another category - interior design.
Christien Meindertsma's thick and solidly knitted hassocks are indeed juxtaposed to Stephen West's swants (sweater pants - trousers made from pullovers) and to a multi-coloured monster-like costume by Bas Kosters.
The exhibition - designed as a fairy tale environment by Studio La Meul - shows how knitting is not just about group identity, mindfulness and nostalgia, reminding visitors that this art offers freedom of creation and has therefore no limits.
An exhibition about knitting is not complete without offering visitors the opportunity to pick up the needles themselves, and the museum gives the chance to do so by joining museum knitters on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday or ask them for tips and tricks, while organising also knitting courses and a knitting cafè, plus competitions such as the ugly Christmas sweater party (who can resist such an opportunity?).
As a whole "Knitting!" is worth seeing also because it is open to any kind of age group, from skilled knitwear enthusiasts to fashionistas with an amateurish passion for knitwear and children who will enjoy the touch trail routes and peep boxes, dioramas, mannequins with animal heads, and fun installations such as geese wearing traditional hats or busts of deer dressed in fishermen's sweaters.
Stephen West, one of the designers featured in "Knitting!" is also the inspiration leader of the Westknits Fun Squad, a team of yarn obsessed crafty people interested in spreading the love of yarn and taking it to hilarious levels with their crazy and fun videos.
Stepping inside this event at the Fries Museum may not turn you instantly into a knitwear designer, but will definitely introduce you to a beautiful soft world and, who knows, it may even prompt you to start your own knitting squad and take yarn bombing to the next level.
Knitting! The Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, until 28th August 2016.
All images in this post courtesy of The Fries Museum.
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