Saturday, 20 September 2014

Celebrating crystallography with knitted sculpture!

It's ages since I posted something. It's been a  busy summer with, Open Studios, Festival Exhibitions and assorted other things.  The project that's keeping me busy just now is a great big heap of fun though - and I thought my readers ought to know the story so far.

Sometime back in the summer I spotted a tweet from a science communicator looking for an Australian fibre artist to create a crystallography-inspired sculpture. I retweeted to spread the word and replied that it was a shame the project wasn't in Scotland or I'd have been very keen.  Never thought any more about it Then I was contacted again by Helen Maynard-Casely, one of the organisers of  the Australian celebration of  2014 International Year of Crystallography. Turned out they couldn't find a local artist  but the did find extra funding for shipping so if I was serious about doing it the job was mine. Wow!   Such a good opportunity but such a difficult time to fit in the work. I already had summer commitments for my art work and family & day job obligations so their original hoped -for delivery of August was out of the question - I could only start the bulk of the work in late August. They were happy to wait a bit and now I'm in the middle of building a 1m square, fairly representational interpretation of Neuraminidase.

"Of what?" I hear you ask

Neuraminidase - a protein molecule that forms part of the flu virus.  It's the part of the virus that's attacked by drugs like Relenza and Tamiflu. Australian academics were the first to discover the structures and develop the drugs using crystallography.  Work like that is worth celebrating when the opportunity arises.

This is all part of the Crystals in the City project which is placing different crystal structures in Australian cities.  There a website all about it here. Most of the structures are more what you'd expect of a crystal - hard edged, regular, repeating shapes.  Neuraminidase has it's symmetries but from some points of view it's a big unruly mess of atoms.  I was sent some computer rendered images of the structure to work from - you'll see one top left in the image below - the blue bits are the Relenza drug and the rest is Neuraminidase.

The first images I was sent were in bright blue, magenta, green and yellow.  I asked if I had to use these colours and was told the pallette on the right was probably better.  I totally agree.  As well as being agreeable to look at, they are all colours that can be obtained from dyes derived from the Australian eucalyptus trees.  If time had not been so short I'd have tried dyeing the work using India Flint's ecodying techniques.  As it is I've sourced Scottish lambswool in the appropriate colours from the immensely helpful Kathy's Knits.

So how do you make a giant molecule from wool? My first idea was for a community-based project, collecting pompoms from knitters around Australia and have the local scientists assemble it.  Well, part of the brief was that it should be cuddly and what would be more cuddly than a huge pile of pompoms?  Practical difficulties organising and building this soon ruled it out and I came up with the method I'm using now.

The atoms in the images look to me as though they're struggling to escape form some kind of boundary/force field. If I could create a skin and stuff it then I should be able to replicate the look and feel of that struggle. It was my good fortune to fall heir to a twin bed Passap knitting machine this summer (see earlier posts about the machine and my first shots at using it). With this machine I can knit tubes of all sorts of widths.  After a lot of swatching to discover the best tensions and tube widths and some back of the envelope estimates of sizing I knitted a total of 80m of 28 stitch tubing and ordered 2000 4cm polystyrene balls to stuff inside them!

Machine knitting yarn is oiled so that it slides through the mechanism more easily.  Once it's knitted it has to be washed - twice - to remove the oil and fluff the yarn up a bit.  The colour usually brightens a bit too.  Washing is now done and the stuffing will begin this afternoon.

I'll be tweeting about it so follow @madeleines if you want to keep up to date as it happens. The tweeting is being summarised by Crystals in the City on Storyify.  There'll be another blog post when I've got more to show of the structure.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Luxury yarn in the Passap Duo 80

Last Saturday my knitting machine guru came to visit. We spent two hours going through the basics of how the Passap makes stitches and looking at all the bits that came with the basic machine.  I'm so grateful for the confidence this has given me.  I'm giving some thought to an appropriate reward - John Lewis vouchers seem a bit lame.

Having practiced some plain rib and fisherman's rib in basic Shetland yarns, I decided to try out some of the more exotic yarns in the stash.  In the picture you'll see 4-ply baby alpaca in grey and a fine lace weight silk merino mix in cream. Both are knitted in plain rib - the only change to the settings is the stitch size.  The alpaca was a struggle to knit and dropped a couple of stitches.  I think it might be at the limit of what the machine can handle.  The lace weight yarn knitted much more easily and I only stopped because the yarn caught in the tension wire and broke - otherwise I might be wearing as a scarf now.

More practice this afternoon - with Shetland, Exmoor and Bluefaced Leicester 4-ply.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Un-jammed!

After failing to find much online help about troubleshooting the Passap Duo80 I went back to the studio on Saturday afternoon and loosen a few screws.  I tugged and shuffled the locks and suddenly everything was moving again.  So I tightened the screws again and changed the needle that broke to release it all. Luckily I had been given a massive box of needles along with all the other gadgets and add-ons I've yet to figure out.  Also luckily, changing a needle is very straightforward and much like it was on the Toyota machine I had 30 years ago.

With a sigh of relief, I cast on with my practice yarn and knitted a fairly scraggy bit of lambswool rib. That's proof it will work once I work out what I'm doing.  We'll see what happens over the next few weeks - there might even be some prototypes and samples ready by Open Studios Weekend 2&3 August.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Machine knitting without a safety net!

The Rolls Royce of knitting machines (Passap Duo 80) arrived in my studio last night.  I've got it clamped to it's stand and done the equivalent of crashing the gears already.  Got the locks stuck while sliding them on for the first time because some needles had been pushed up into working position without me noticing. Now they're tangled together and I can't take the locks off to start again from scratch. 
Any advice is welcome - except giving up!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Finally got to Vet School!

Once upon a time there was a little girl who was nuts about animals. She went to the zoo and the museum regularly and lived round the corner from the veterinary college. From about the age of 2 she wanted to be a vet and work at the zoo. She collected plastic animals and memorised lots of facts.  She also loved plants and did the same for them, visiting the botanic gardens and leafing through her father's textbooks.  Then she went to school and it all went wrong.  How it went wrong is long and complicated, took 50 years to work out and doesn't belong in this blog post. 

The little girl never went to vet school.  The college round the corner eventually moved to an out of town site.

The old college buildings have become a wonderful arts venue in the heart of Edinburgh.  After a twisty turny careery thing, the little girl realised she had been a textile artist all along. At last the girl and the college have come together and the arts centre is home to her textile work for the next two weeks of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Visit:
Botanica Mathematica
part of the Sci-Art trail at
Summerhall
Summerhall Place
Edinbrgh
5-20 April

Monday, 3 February 2014

Mining the wool mountain!

Over the last 30 or more years I've been collecting yarn. Travel souvenirs, online bargains, local sales, charity shops and abandoned projects have all contributed.  In December my brother christened it the European Wool Mountain!

So I've decided to start mining the wool mountain.  So far I've discovered
Noro Furin and Silk Garden
Natural Dye Studio cashemere alpaca and silks
Rowan cotton chenille, tweed and some of their R2  "street" yarns
Debbie Bliss tweeds
Colinette in all sorts of colours and yarn styles
1980s mohair on cones
vintage Bernat Klein cotton
and a matching skirt and jumper pack of turquoise tweed fabric and 4-ply yarn from the Isle of Skye

I've developed a few ideas for simple yet dramatic pieces that will turn things found in fairly large quantities into an interesting collection for Open Studios events.  A couple of them are pictured below in Rowan Kidsilk and Noro Furin. I love the way the stripes end up at right angles and are vertical across the back.

This week I also made a much smaller one that's more of a neckerchief so single skeins of sock yarn are getting used up this way too. Expect more variations on the shawl/wrap/poncho/cowl/scarf theme in a few weeks.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Decorate Transreal!

Today was light up day for Decorate Edinburgh and that means a full reveal of the Transreal Fiction  tree I've been decorating with mathematical knitting and crochet. Decorate Edinburgh is a fund raising project for local charities. Around the city, small businesses have given money and received trees to decorate in return. Their Tree Trail leaflet lists all the participants so you can see how they've all gone about decorating Edinburgh for Christmas.

I volunteered for the decorating without much persuasion. This seemed like the perfect reason to finally knit Norah Gaughan's  stellated dodecahedron. After all, her father, Jack Gaughan, illustrated science fiction books and magazines. So now my version of her design top of Transreal Fiction's Christmas tree. (Want to make one too? the pattern is here and it's free www.berroco.com/patterns/celestine).

So much for the tree topper but what about the rest? Well, having started with a mathematical idea I figured I could crochet and knit lots more in the sparkly yarns sitting in my stash for just such a project.  Hyperbolic pseudospheres have been used as baubles since mathematicians started crocheting them so I made some of those.  Strips of hyperbolic surfaces make lovely garlands - a couple of those were made.  Mobius bands are a perennial favourite and so I crocheted a few small ones.  I also found a couple of patterns using modular knitting to make stars by tiling parallelograms and made a whole bunch of them. The most comprehensive web page mathematical knitting information is maintained by sarah-marie belcastro on her Torioidal Snark site.

So far so straight forward.  I went hunting something a bit more obscure and I found the Seifert surface patterns by Hugh Griffiths.  Hugh helped me design a large scale hyperbolic knit when he was a PhD student in Edinburgh a few years ago.  It was exhibited in Transreal Fiction's previous shop. So a Seifert surface was duly knitted.  This one is related to the trefoil knot but there are are others for other knots.  You can find out more about the maths and get Hugh's pattern here.

Once I assembled all the sparkly knitting I realised my subconscious had added another layer of maths to the project for I had made:

8 parallelogram stars

5 hyperbolic baubles

 3 Mobius bands

 2 hyperbolic garlands

1 Seifert surface

 1 stellated dodecahedron

The quantities turned out to be the Fibonacci sequence!  I'm thinking of adding 13 little knitted knots and maybe 21 other things if time allows between now and Christmas. Pop in to Transreal Fiction at 46 Candlemaker Row and see how I've got on...