Unconfirmed reports of a giant starfish washing up on Scolt Head Island, a sandy spit of land off the Norfolk Coast in England, sent Anita Bruce, a textile artist and amateur zoologist, out combing the shoreline.
Finally, her big break came. “Today, I have made an exceptional discovery in a pile of sea weed and other detritus dragged high up the beach by the fierce tide,” Bruce reported on her blog. “At first glance, it appeared to be just another dumped plastic bag, but closer examination revealed something far more exciting—a patterned structure that seems to be made out of stitches and thread. Could this be part of the famed starfish that I’ve been searching for?”
Bruce sketched the sinewy limb in a spiral-bound field notebook; measured it (51 cm at length, tapers in width from 15 cm to 3 cm); and made these notes: “The skeleton appears to be made from a fine coarse white fibre. Further analysis … will need to be carried out in the lab.” What that analysis confirmed was that she had just found her first fragment of Linumasteroidea, the Thread Starfish.
Of course, the Thread Starfish doesn’t actually exist. It’s one of Bruce’s “hypothetical creatures,” which so far include several new genera of the Linumharpago family, or Hooked Thread Starfish, and a series of delicately knit wire plankton. She considers the plankton an ongoing investigation into evolution—there are 15 of them so far—and they, too, have been named according to Linnaean taxonomy.
On the other hand, Bruce’s degree in zoology and her recent degree in textiles are very real. As is her grand, admittedly playful experiment of weaving a bit of biological science into the knit arts.
“You need to vindicate it really, to give that authentic feeling,” says Bruce, offering something of an explanation as to why she subjects her crochet and knit works to such rigorous scientific standards. Her biologic sciences background is her guiding principle, for she is knitting her way into uncharted territory, reimagining the classic knit arts, which long ago were relegated to decorative doilies, holiday sweaters and other superfluous kitsch.
But in fact, Bruce is not alone. Helle Jorgensen, a biologist by training, for years has been crocheting corals, barnacles, anemones, and other “wooly little sea creatures” using yarn made from reconstituted plastic bags, needlepoint leftovers purchased at thrift shops and bric-a-brac from the beaches of Sydney, Australia.
Jorgensen methodically categorizes and classifies her sea refuse, the total catalogue of which now numbers in the thousands of items. They’re pretty, really, in the photos on her blog that display samples of the sponges, driftwood, bones and plastics laid out according to size, shape and kind.
This system represents Jorgensen’s aesthetic in a nutshell: “I love the idea that you can find beauty in things that have been discarded. And also the arranging, the categorizing … the different connections between species,” she says. “It relates back to continental drift and the history of the planet, really.”
Usually it’s these found treasures—recovered from the ebb and flow of ocean tides or jarred loose by the ebb and flow of human life—that drive what she makes, not vice versa. Admiring the color and the bead-like shape of a number of identical bright red caps she found on the beach recently, Jorgensen was inspired to affix them to the ends of the tentacles of a sculpture she’d been working on—adding a pop of color to the otherwise monochromatic white creature. She later identified the specimens as the screw caps of small, disposable, fish-shaped soy sauce squeeze bottles popular in Japanese restaurants in Sydney.
The things she finds often come in waves like that, says Jorgensen. “You sort of think, why is it that all of the sudden you get one kind of object?” It gets you thinking about what must be going on with the waves and currents, she says. “It all ties together with what’s going on in the ocean.”
Arguably the grandest example of the scientific renaissance in the knit arts is the Hyperbolic Coral Reef, a crochet project founded and curated by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. The reef—whose components include anemones, sea urchins and many other creatures, in addition to more than a dozen different types of coral, nearly all of which are contributions from volunteers around the world—is based on the principles of an advanced form of mathematics called hyperbolic geometry.
The easiest way to describe a hyperbolic plane is that it is the curvilinear inverse of a sphere: something like the crinkled edges of lettuce leaves, or the tendrils of a jellyfish’s flagella. Take those crenulated curves and the wave shapes they make, and imagine them undulating outward towards infinity.
In actuality, it is impossible for a hyperbolic plane to be fully realized in nature, given its mathematical precision, nature’s imperfections and, well, infinity. But if you are a mathematician like Daina Taimina, a research assistant (and lifelong crocheter) at Cornell University, you may discover that crochet is perfectly suited for teaching purposes. Taimina first modeled a hyperbolic plane with crochet in June 1997. Her earliest model—a modest, plum-colored, ruffled thing that measured 6" in diameter—was in fact only the second physical model of a hyperbolic plane ever to be made (the first was constructed of delicate, awkward, thin little paper strips woven together).
Margaret Wertheim, herself a mathematician, read about Taimina’s model in an issue of the journal Science. As the sisters began to crochet their own versions, Margaret took delight in the mathematic integrity of the forms. Christine, who has a background in fashion design, got bored and began using bright pink wools, green wools, fluffy wools (much to her sister’s dismay), and she began experimenting, crocheting big ones, little ones, ones far less than perfect mathematic models of a hyperbolic plane.
And as these bright spots began to pile up on their coffee table, Christine began to see another form. “As soon as we got past the purely mathematical stage and onto the crochet stage,” she says, these beautiful, swirling, undulating things, clustered together just so, began to look like coral.
Crochet begins with one tiny knot. Which is built upon with another knot, and then another. In the simplest definition, crochet is the tying together of hundreds, thousands, of individual knots. Or, instead of knots, you could also call them units—which is why it makes sense to use crochet to make a coral reef. A coral colony is built of literally thousands of tiny individual units; in structure, it’s much more similar to a beehive than any sort of terrestrial plant life.
Or, maybe you could call them cells. Why not? “You’re building at one stitch at a time, which is just as an organism would grow,” says David McFadden, a curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. In fact, many of the complex coral structures and sea creatures actually look very cellular. Studying some of these fantastical works closely, such as a handsome white cephalopod crocheted by Jorgensen, it seems possible to actually follow the progression of the stitches, to see just how it was made.
Zoom out. From the macroscopic perspective, crochet is a fitting medium by which to make these creatures of the sea because it’s a self-supporting model—no framework or architecture is necessary. “You can build shapes with crochet and with knitting that don’t require bones, and yet they support themselves,” says McFadden. “It’s perfect for these complex organic shapes.”
It’s also perfect for soft-bodied creatures that live underwater and take in nutrients through their skin. The ideal body type in these circumstances has maximum surface area with a minimum volume—shapes just like the reef’s hyperbolic corals. “If they can have it [their skin] all ruffled, they can have lots of surface but in a nice dense cluster … so they’re not so vulnerable to being bitten in half by anything that swims by,” Christine says.
Ernst Haeckel, a zoologist of Darwin’s era, in 1904 published a collection of 100 plates featuring remarkably detailed studies of animals, mostly fantastical sea creatures, called Kunstformen der Nature (Art Forms in Nature). The book was Haeckel’s visual thesis intending to prove the theory of evolution’s increasing complexity. It was also aesthetically beautiful.
Haeckel’s plates have inspired many artists—Rene Binet, who designed the entrance gate to the Paris World Exposition in 1900, directly cited Haeckel’s radial forms—and no doubt Haeckel has also inspired this current movement in the knit arts. Who’s to say where the line is drawn that separates the sciences from the arts? Who’s to say that they are separated at all?
As the Hyperbolic Coral Reef tours—through Chicago, New York and London so far—a new reef starts. And already there is a local reef in the works for a show in April 2009 in Scottsdale, Arizona. To put it in scientific terms, the Hyperbolic Coral Reef has spawned, just as coral colonies do in the ocean.
Anita Bruce’s ongoing investigations into evolution can be seen at anitabruce.co.uk.
Helle Jorgensen’s work will be part of group show this winter in New York.
The Hyperbolic Coral Reef is touring: a show opens in January 2009 in Los Angeles and in April 2009 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The reef will be a part of a show at the Smithsonian in 2010. A book tentatively titled Crocheting Adventure with Hyperbolic Plane by Daina Taimina will be published by AK Peters in Winter/Spring 2009.