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.

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