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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.