Knitting Subjectivity

Cold Mountain Stole Chart A

This chart is from the Cold Mountain Stole pattern by Keiran Foley, published in Summer 2009 issue of Knitty:


Knitting Subjectivity

Transcribing Bertillon cards last week I got to thinking about knitting.  When I was a more prolific knitter, people would sometimes admire my creations (not that I was particularly gifted – just good at following instructions) and say things like, I Could Never Do That.  In response, I’d try to explain why it seems hard but isn’t.  After a while I began to think that knitting is, in many ways, like computing.  Writing a knitting pattern is a lot like writing a computer program – forget one step and it might not seem like a big deal until many thousands of stitches and rows later when your delicate lace sock more closely resembles a glove knit by cats for an octopus. 

Designing knitting patterns can be hard and requires the skill, patience, and creativity to understand how each stitch constructs the whole.  Like the 1s and 0s that make up binary code in computing, knitting stitches are in the binary knit and purl.  The most complicated patterns are conceived of in charts where each “cell” contains a symbol representative of a stitch.  The comparison to pixels is not only irresistible; it is almost an exact translation. 

Though not binary, Alphonse Bertillon tried to do something similar, encoding the features of the human body in to an elaborate (and problematic) classification of measurements and codes.  At least one goal here was to break down the human form in to objective constituents that can be consistently interpreted by anyone (purl and knit each mean one thing, whether accomplished in English, Continental, or other style) in order to solve the problems of recidivism and identification of defectors.

Yet, as Dr. Langmead is prone to pointing out in her classes, none of these things are done in a vacuum of objectivity.  Computing platforms, programs, algorithms, and displays are designed by humans with human biases.  Subjective humans likewise construct knitting patterns.  Knitters use different yarns and needles and knit with different tensions, all of which contributes to a slightly different stitch or purl.  Bertillon officers inscribed their own prejudices and meanings to the system they employed. 

The danger of subjectivity in knitting a scarf is obviously not equal to the danger of subjectivity in “objectively” describing the human body (see post by Jen about agency, authority, and control).  I’m excited to participate in the transcription of these cards and I look forward to seeing how these issues are explored in the work that results, including the installation proposed by Jen in the aforementioned post.  What other standardized systems do we conceive of as objective and what are the implications of overlooking their subjective origins?   

  • Decomposing Bodies
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Graduate Work
  • Faculty Work
  • VMW


Thank you for making this

Thank you for making this analogy, Katie! It certainly has enriched my experience of Decomposing Bodies and made me look at this work in a new light.

I second the thanks, Katie.

I second the thanks, Katie. Thank you for your thoughts on this.