There’s a little more to knit one, purl two with Alana Clifton-Cunningham

Alana Clifton-Cunnungham

Machine knitting is not an easy craft to master. It can be frustrating and time consuming. Perhaps I am old school recalling my mother struggling on an early model Pfaff in the 1970s but it appears to me Alana has refined machine knitting to a fine art. Recently she has ventured to India on a tour with her students to extend their opportunities and knowledge of traditional Indian crafts, that of recent, have come under threat. I am very grateful she has found time to turn her attention to some questions I had to ask.

Shoulder wrap, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2009, Photographed by Seung Rok Baek

Shoulder wrap, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2009, Photographed by Seung Rok Baek

 

What type of machines are you using for your work and how has the technology changed? 

Machine knitting does take a lot of patience. I first started when I was studying at university in the late 80′s and I really didn’t like it at first. We had clunky domestic machines that seemed more intent on making your work fall off the machine rather than stay on it. With a great deal of persistence I managed to enjoy the fact that while knitting and through the making textiles, you could create a garment so it was a perfect medium that straddled both the creation of fashion and textiles. I still use mostly domestic knitting machines. I have three Singer machines that are approximately twenty to thirty years old and an Empisal machine. Each has its own personality.

What are the advantages of machine knitting to hand knitting and does it make it easier for you to achieve your objectives?

Some people would say it is quicker but I don’t always agree with that. As the machines I use are operated manually each stitch still needs to be manipulated by hand using a tool so it can be quite laborious. I work a lot with three dimensional textures which I realise more easily by machine than hand knitting. The fineness of the yarn that I use and the evenness of the stitch is also important.

When did you first realise you were interested in knitting as a means of expressing yourself?

Probably during university in my third year. When I worked in the industry I didn’t have a lot of time to experiment but I still enjoyed the process and outcome of knitting. I commenced my Masters at COFA, UNSW in 2003 and based my thesis on the perceptions of knitting. So this was the perfect opportunity to focus on what I was doing.

Drape experimentation, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2007

Drape experimentation, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2007

I’ve noticed a lot of your work is extremely textural and is often made up of configurations of smaller parts to make intricate pieces. Tell us about this process and concepts behind the work.

I work with the concept of scarification. I love that messages can be inscribed onto skin, similarly, I do the same with knitting and combinations of knitted stitches and textures such as Aran. I call them ‘body pieces’. They are neither accessories nor garments but pieces that can be worn on the body, in a variety of ways, and arranged with alternative garments or other knitted body pieces.

Neck pod, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2007, photograph by Seung Rok Baek

Neck pod, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2007, photograph by Seung Rok Baek

In designing I use the process of ‘drape’ where the knitted pieces are worked on over a mannequin. I like to see what type of combinations I can create without having too much of a pre-set idea. I think this process of designing can take you in interesting directions and journeys. I often develop ideas that I would have never thought of if I were to design directly on paper. Working with the actual material is a much more interesting process. It is also interesting to make mistakes and work to turning them into something.

As an artist/ designer, your work steps over the boundaries that once defined the craft of knitting. Can you outline how you approach fashion?

Designing for fashion is quite different isn’t it. You consider who you are making things for, you approach it more from the point of view of and from an understanding of the market, the client, the right price-point. When knitting and creating a body piece as I do, I try to not concern myself with these aspects and just let the creativity flow. My knitting isn’t a commercial venture but more of an artistic and research based process.

Second Glance, 2011, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, Photographer Jennifer Chua

Second Glance, 2011, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, Photographer Jennifer Chua

What is your latest body of work and what it is based on?

The latest work I produced is titled ‘Second Glance’. The work examines notions of Trompe l’oeil and illusion through playing with shades and highlights to give the illusion of a three dimensionally knitted pattern but it is actually two dimensional. The process to make this work required knitting a garment with textural surface patterning, photographing it, manipulating it and then creating a digital version through jacquard knitting. For this work to be produced I worked with a Sydney company called Calcoup who kindly allowed me to access their industrial knitting machines.

Second Glance, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2011, Photograph Jennifer Chua

Second Glance, Alana Clifton-Cunningham, 2011, Photograph Jennifer Chua

Sustainability and the idea of developing a sense of community is in everyone’s thoughts today. Do you feel you are also impacted by these issues?

Most designers nowadays are concerned with sustainability. I guess I have always included a sustainable element in my practice. With yarn you have little wastage as you knit to shape. I also keep in mind colour palettes when I design, as these can sometimes be the biggest give away for a particular season, trend, year. So the work I produce is not on trend regarding colour. I also work with a colour palette that is non gender specific. I think about the shelf-life of what I am designing to transcend several seasons rather than just for the one. I source yarns that are more sustainable using natural rather than dyed and look at sourcing locally rather than off-shore product. I also often think about how an item can be changed or redesigned in the future to extend it’s life.

You are currently doing this interview from India. Is it your first visit and are you finding it inspirational?

Yes this is my first time in India and I am loving it. I lecture full-time at UTS and this year we have been lucky enough to take nine second year students to India to learn a variety of traditional embroidery and printing techniques. These are techniques which are very native to certain regions in India but there is a fear that these could be lost in the future with the advancement in use and popularity of digital and new technologies. We are also very fortunate to have a postgraduate student currently undertaking her masters at UTS who over the past 10 years has made numerous trips to India so it is a great opportunity for the students to meet artisans, and people such as Robyn Beeche, an Australian photographer who spends six months in Vrindavan, India each year, and the very talented and supportive Rajeeev Sethi.

Do you think you will return to India?

I would love to return to India, but next time without the students. It’s so culturally rich. I’m not sure at this stage how it will influence my work as I was focusing so much on my students to help them gain the most they could from this opportunity but it is just such as fascinating place.

Have you used or experimented with other materials or do you think you will use other materials in your work?

I have used other materials in the past but I love the softness and flexibility of wool. You can create quite hard and visually rigid forms yet to touch they are malleable and soft. I do combine other materials within my work such as leather and timber veneer. These are used to either frame the work or to distort it in some way.

Armsling, Alana Clifton- Cunningham, 2007. Photographed by Seung Rok Baek

Armsling, Alana Clifton- Cunningham, 2007. Photographed by Seung Rok Baek

What do you think could be improved in the fashion industry?

It is probably best not to quote me on this one, but I feel there could be more creativity. In Australia we have these amazing and very talented designers but the market is always demanding the fashion that is happening overseas to determine who will be successful. I would like to see our designers less influenced by trends, both local and international and  create their own directions and concepts.

You have the opportunity to meet and join Alana in her workshop for Craft Punk on 11 and 12 August.