Influence: Part 1

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A few days ago a fellow Portlander and acquaintance of mine, Diane Gilleland, wrote a thought-provoking post about originality and creative cross-pollination. I'd encourage you all to go read her thoughts; I agree wholeheartedly with her championing of creative openness paired with credit freely given.

It's true that sometimes people out-and-out copy another's ideas, and that's worthy of condemnation. I'm not saying it's okay to redistribute someone's pattern without their consent, or make a few token changes and pass something off as one's own. But I think, in our eagerness to honor the originality of the artists and designers in our midst, we sometimes go too far in the other direction, minimizing the validity and importance of creative influences.

In the knitting world, I've noticed that sometimes, when a design is influenced by another knitted garment, people can be a bit dismissive of it—it's pretty, it's okay, but not as impressive as a design might be whose inspiration arrived in the designer's head from a mysterious and unrecognizable source. But why should this be? Why should a sweater inspired by, say, ironwork scrolls, or the veins of a trillium leaf, or pure geometry, be any more valid or impressive than one inspired by another sweater? It seems to me that we have become so afraid of copying that we are ending up with an unrealistic idea of how the creative process works. Knitwear inspired by other knitwear needn't look derivative, after all, or even that similar. And knitwear that DOES look similar to another piece wasn't necessarily inspired by it in any direct way: as Diane points out, artists are often developing similar ideas simultaneously, without consulting or discussing them at all.

As an exploration of these ideas, I'd like to do a little experiment in making my influences explicit.

breezefront.jpg

Meet my Autumn Sweater. The pattern is Kim Hargreaves's "Breeze," from Rowan's A Yorkshire Fable (both of those are Ravelry links). While not the first sweater I ever made, Breeze happened early in my knitting career—I completed it about four years ago. Since then, it's become THE go-to sweater in my wardrobe: the one I pull unthinkingly from the closet whenever I need a quick cover-up to take the dog for a walk or head out the door for dinner with friends. It's also an integral part of a number of my favorite work outfits. I just love the way it fits: it's so versatile, yet flattering, and the color goes with almost everything I own. Needless to say, after four years of heavy (read: almost daily) wear, it's starting to show its age.

breezesnags.jpg

The snags are getting too numerous to be constantly pulling to the other side with a crochet hook. A few spots are getting fuzzy from the place my bag rubs when I walk to work. It's still perfectly serviceable for wearing around the house or out for a potluck at a friend's house, but I'm starting to feel odd about wearing it to work, even to my casual office. The time has come to replace this sweater with another that can take its place in those work outfits that usually involve this one.

breezefuzz.jpg

Of course, I could just make the same pattern again. I do own A Yorkshire Fable, after all. But instead, I'm going to try something a little more interesting: I'm going to design a sweater overtly inspired by this current favorite.

Now let's be clear: I am not going to use Ms. Hargreaves's numbers, nor her cable motif. My sweater will not be a "copy" of the Breeze pattern in any sense. In fact, just to make clear the divide between "influence" and "rip-off," I pledge not even to open A Yorkshire Fable at any point during this project (nor have I looked at the book, except for a couple casual glances through it, for the past three years). I will be taking the measurements of my sweater in its current form, which means it will have stretched significantly away from Hargreaves's original schematic measurements, if indeed it ever matched those. I'm just going to use my current, beloved sweater as a jumping-off point, a baseline that will include some of the things I adore about this garment. The finished product may look completely different, but hopefully it will share the basic shape, certain construction details, and a general retro maritime feel with the original.

Ready? I have a good start on this project already, so I'll be updating again soon.

breezeback.jpg

16 Comments

  • While I was being honest when I tweeted that I know NOTHING about knitting, I'm afraid I have to confess I also have a terrible tendency to talk loudly about things I know nothing about. Sorry.

    That being said...

    I do write poetry (very badly) and prose (even worsely), and the whole 'influences' thing comes up there all the time too. And it's one of those things where, if you're an American and you're not at least a LITTLE bit influenced by, say, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman, then I'm really surprised. I think that's true in all art. It's impossible NOT to build on the shoulders of giants, and pointless to do so. How else do we progress? Why shouldn't we keep the things we've all learned? But yes, the line between influence and plagiarism is an important one :D.

    I wonder if it's the same in knitting? I'm not inside the community, obviously, but OUTSIDE, I'd have to say, a lot of people probably don't even think about the fact that there IS an artist designing the pattern of a sweater/scarf/crocheted stuffed vampire/whatever, which is, at least in my limited power of observation, pretty common in handicraft (kind of an artificial distinction anyway). With that anonymity of sorts, are people as vicious with each other in the knitting community? (Now having this lovely image of Virginia Woolf sneering at James Joyce's stocking designs, "Cable knitting where the ladder stitch on silks would go is vulgar and showy, just what I'd expect of that slob.") Alright. Now I will dream all night of knit stocking with a cable knit up the back on the jitterbug line... honestly, I don't even know whether that's possible to knit or not.

  • That's an interesting thought!

    I agree with you that knitters seem allergic to acknowledging influences, and it's strange and worth talking about. I have a hard time reading ravelry threads or blog posts that are quick reviews of new issues of knitting magazines, in print or online, because so much of the commentary is "This pattern is stupid because it is similar to this other pattern."

    What strikes me as weirdly inconsistent is that some of the same critics are totally okay with taking patterns directly from stitch dictionaries and plugging them into a regular old sock template, then reverse-engineering an inspiration ("I was thinking about falling leaves in the autumn when I created this design"). I find it refreshing when I see someone say, "I saw this pattern in Barbara Walker and thought it would be great for socks."

    I guess that is tangential! But you drew out an insecurity I have about the knitting-designing community, and about making my own patterns. I'm a history of philosophy student and a lot of what I work on is tracing trajectories of ideas backwards and figuring out what someone's influences were (or could plausibly have been), acknowledged or not. I end up thinking a lot about texts as responses to other texts. So when I think about knitting patterns I am equally worried about people dismissing new patterns as copies of old ones, and about designers talking about their work like it came out of nowhere. There should be a happy medium!

    Anyway your sweater is lovely, like all your knitting, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the new version looks like. I like spines a lot and the cable up the centre of the back is very elegant; I hope that feature ends up in your new sweater, too.

  • As with any artistic endeavor, there is a difference between copying something exactly and using similar techniques to create your own version.
    I have spent my adult life as a professional cook/chef and have never had the patience for following recipes. I can tell you the ingredients of the things I make but you'd have to know how to cook, the science of it, in order to combine them in a way to produce something similar. Does that mean that my cooking is original? I've never understood the need for so many cookbooks, does changing the herb in a dish suddenly make it new? and can't we all improvise without announcing every person who improvised before us?
    As for knitting, I am the same way, not good at following a pattern. I see elements that intrigue me and eventually when I go to knit, I incorporate several ideas I've had in mind and make something that fits. It is maybe an original combination but, I've not invented sweater knitting. And surely, anyone anywhere may have been combining the same elements and making up the same pattern simultaneously. I think the difference is that where I crumple up my notepaper and chuck it when I'm done, a designer goes on to develop the pattern for other knitters ie. figuring out the other sizes, test knitting in different yarns . . . doing all that work.
    Also, a good pattern finesses the details that make a garment fit well. It's so much more than just plugging in stitch patterns. We all have access to the same stitch libraries and techniques but that does not make us all knit designers. My opinion is that it would be impossible and absurd to include pages of footnotes about everyone who ever used a yarnover, etc. with a pattern. People into knitting see the influences and appreciate them, i think.
    Art is always subjective. I have written sonnets and haiku, etc. but of course did not invent the forms.And I'd be foolish to mention who had. Most people know when something is a rip-off, don't they?
    i sure hope anything i said makes sense!!
    BTW, i

  • Emily this is too fun! As usual you've come up with a great idea to add illustration and reality to a theme. Can't wait :)

  • Jason, you are cracking me up with your Woolf/Joyce knitting scenario. "Pssh, cabled cardigans are so underbred." :-D (I shudder to think what Joyce's knitwear would actually LOOK like, but that's a post for another day!)

    It's interesting to compare the literary and knitting worlds. In my experience, I might guess that it's exactly BECAUSE of the wider ignorance you mention—the fact that most people don't think about a sweater being designed by a real person—that the knitting community can be a little defensive about whether things are derivative or not. I think sometimes people feel there's all this education to do, and if you "give an inch" of admitting that a design was inspired by someone else's design, the public will take a mile & figure they don't need to buy your pattern/respect your copyright/etc. Let me tell you, it's a WHOLE BARREL OF WORMS in the knitting community.

    But thinking more along the lines of literary influence, you're exactly right - nobody would deny, for example, that Roberto Bolano was influenced by Julio Cortazar, and that Cortazar was influenced by the Woolf/Joyce juggernaut. Nobody is THREATENED by that. People are just...interested! They're interested in the history and the chain of thought and feeling that led from one to the next. Which is one thing I feel we knitters are losing by being so defensive about the proprietary nature of our designs: we're not preserving and honoring the chain of influence that came before us.

  • B: Aw, I actually got rid of your center-back cable. Sorry about that, but thanks for the insightful comment. As a student of philosophy, I imagine you're coming from a similar place that Jason & I am as lovers of literature - it seems like just common sense that there is a history of influence and evolution in art forms, and I am concerned to see that being denied or downplayed in favor of some kind of Absolute Originality. A few knitting forbears and celebrities are kind of fetishized (Elizabeth Zimmerman leaps to mind), but there's a lack of acknowledgment that individual patterns can be influenced by other patterns, and that's OK. I thought it was really refreshing to see that kind of direct thank-you from Jodie Gordon Lucas in her recent Twist sock pattern in Knitty.

    Of course it's unreasonable to think one is even conscious of all of one's influences, but that doesn't mean we need to pretend they don't exist!

  • Jennifer: You are cracking me up! :-) Well, of course it would be ridiculous to think that one should name every single person of note who has ever practiced one's form as an influence. As Diane and B. (above) note, many times our influences are operating at a subconscious level anyway. But at the same time, I have found certain artists very inspiring, and certain things about their work have made their way into my projects. I think it makes for a better, more open and creative community if we encourage and acknowledge that kind of inspiration and influence, rather than feeling like we're making an admission that detracts from our own originality whenever we mention it.

    I guess what I'm saying is that while I agree with you that a lot of what distinguishes "creative knitter" from "designer" is the hard work of actually getting the thing into pattern form, I do believe that certain people have signature "looks," signature traits to their work that might inspire other designers. I tend to love Kim Hargreaves's designs for their tailored silhouettes and flattering shaping, for example, and for the way she incorporates elegantly simple design elements in original ways. Eunny Jang's designs were also a big influence for me - retro styling, combined with a modern cleanness, and intrepid use of advanced knitting techniques like steeking and stranded colorwork. Ysolda Teague's stuff tends to be beautiful and sweet, easy to fit and easy-yet-interesting to knit, with lots of prettiness. Connie Chang Chinchio has an amazing way with little cabled/lace details. Etc.

    And I guess also, more than just the moral question of whether we OUGHT to acknowledge influences, there is also just the fact that I find it really interesting to think about how threads of influence become established, how one thing leads to another, how thought processes progress. :-)

  • Margaret: Thanks! Should be an interesting experiment; we'll see how it goes. :-)

  • Excellent post again, Emily. I look forward to seeing your development of YOUR sweater, with reference to the one you've loved so long. I do agree we over-twitch on this in the knitting community.
    I use patterns because they save me doing all that complex working out of numbers (or they give me a really good start if I'm using different yarn) as well as because I love the ideas. But they're not photocopies of the original - I've made choices and have skills and preferences that make those objects my own. And conversely, everything I've ever knit is an influence when I knock something up myself, without a pattern - as well as all those tips and pictures and ideas I've been exposed to.

    Great idea for a series!

  • This makes me think of music. My composition professor in college always commented that the best composers "steal outright" from other composers. He tells a story about the premier of a Brahms piece. A LOT of people noted, in the style of the Ravelry threads B. refers to, that, "This sounds just like Bach! Pssh." Brahms' response was, "Of *course* it sounds like Bach! I meant it to sound like Bach!"

  • Emily: Glad you like the idea! As you point out, the divide between designing something from scratch and using a pattern (in some capacity) is often not as clear-cut as people think, which is an interesting thing to consider. I started working up my own designs when I realized I was altering other peoples' to such a degree that I was really modifying almost everything about the original design anyway...I thought "If I can do this, why not start from scratch?" The question is, how "from scratch" are we ever starting?

    Beth: Totally! There's that famous TS Eliot quote along the same lines:

    Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

    I get why people are uncomfortable getting near any kind of slippery slope that might lead to excusing plagiarism, but I don't think it's realistic to stay so far back that you never stir a toe out of doors. :-)

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