Last week I spent a few days in the East Midlands, on the trail of all things knitted in Nottingham and Rugby. Previous visits to Nottingham have been limited to my first Muse gig as a teenager, followed by a hen-do there last year. Trotting round the Lacemarket with the hens, I made a mental note to come back and learn a bit more about the area’s textile history and culture. And I’m very glad I did: one visit became two simultaneous trips into knitting’s industrial past and its individual creative future.
First – the Framework Knitters Museum is a fantastic place to spend a few hours. A twenty-minute bus ride from Nottingham, Ruddington is home to this gem dedicated to the history of industrial (framework) knitting. Tucked away at the back of the High Street, the museum is made up of a central courtyard edged by two cottages, two frameshops, and a small shop and tea room. For the princely sum of £5 you can try your hand on one of the museum’s circular knitting machines, watch one of only 12 people in the country who can work traditional knitting frames, and learn about the revolutionary history of knitting and knitters in the Midlands: Byron, blind knitters, King Ned Ludd and cricket all make an appearance.
Second – Amy Twigger Holroyd’s amazing exhibition, Units of Possibility: The Reknit Revolution. Hosted by Rugby Museum and Art Gallery until 2 September, it is a beautiful and thought-provoking exploration of the art of reknitting. For those not familiar with the term, ‘reknitting’ is a word that’s been with us since at least the sixteenth century and refers to reconnecting and reworking materials, most often yarn. In Twigger Holroyd’s hands, reknitting is truly an art.
The exhibition starts with an enormous knitting spectrum (pictured left). Plotted like a family tree, this huge schematic takes a single jumper and traces the possibilities of reknitting that garment. From five technical starting points (‘keep intact’, ‘open part row’, ‘open row’, ‘open seams’ and ‘cut vertically’), Twigger Holroyd offers multiple methods for reworking knitted clothes into new garments in a series of spot-the-difference jumpers in red and white.
‘Cathedral Cardigans’ explores similarities between Gothic tracery and crochet, architecture and textiles, sculpture and stitching; five further pieces of knitwear question ideas of ownership and the politics of fashion through ‘stitch-hacking’ (right), the process of reworking individual stitches within a complete garment. The exhibition closes with a showcase of reknitting projects completed in a series of workshops with visitors to Rugby Museum and Art Gallery. Including pieces by people ‘like you and I’ is a powerful way to finish an exhibition and I left itching to get stuck in to reknitting.
Not only is Twigger Holroyd’s skill with needles and yarn considerable – like a sculptor with a block of stone, she has a magic ability to see a new garment hidden within the folds and stitches of another – but her engagement with broader issues of art vs craft, individual creativity vs mass production, comes in the form of a call-to-arms. Not for nothing is the exhibition subtitled ‘The Reknit Revolution’; Twigger Holroyd urges us to turn our needles on mass market fashion and explore our own possibilities for creativity through reknitting. Her website ReknitRevolution is full of tips and techniques to attack and reimagine your own wardrobe, and her book Folk Fashion: understanding homemade clothes (2017) is available to buy from publishers I.B. Tauris here. If you’re not able to get to Rugby before September, you can also see the exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching shows in London and Harrogate later this year.
Many thanks to Amy Twigger Holroyd and the staff at Rugby Museum and Art Gallery and the Framework Knitters Museum for sharing their knowledge and expertise with me during my visit.