A Short Lesson in Modern French Slang

Bon Chic Bon Genre. Observe the first letter in each word and say them as one word. "Baysaybayzhay." Say that more quickly and there it is, "Baisebeige!" Translated, it refers to people who think they're all that. I am exploring the changing values of world culture and expressing through dress the evolving image of the pillar of our modern society.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Brief History of Rag Knits

In my first post I said that the history of textiles is the history of people. Similarly, a person's history can be entangled in the webs we weave, or, in this case knit. I started knitting as a small child when I became fascinated by seeing other people knitting in public places. I spent some birthday money at age three on a child's knitting craft kit. Until that point, I had thought of myself as being the same as other children. All of a sudden I realized that I was a member of a minority of left-handed children and all of a sudden I had some problems I never knew I had!

I had learned to make things up to that point by observation and observation was not serving me well at all here. I had pictures to observe that were created for the benefit of right-handed persons. So, I had to seek assistance from others and others weren't very helpful because they also were right-handed. Curiously, I had spontaneously developed reading and simple mathematics skills so I continued my search at the public library. They had a fine collection of knitting resources all of which were written for right-handed persons. I did persevere and by complete accident, I discovered that by observing illustrations in a mirror I could finally make sense of the process.

I noticed knitting everywhere and it had truly become a passion. I was however continuously challenged by any new knitting-related activity so between the mirror and trial-and-error I made knitting work. In the third-grade, I invented a crochet fabric that resembled knitted fabric and designed produced a tam complete with a pompom for sale to friends.

Many years later, I chose textile and clothing design as a career and, of course, knitting would play a significant role. In the 1980's the choices for knitting yarns had started to somewhat bore me. In college, I learned that a rule of thumb definition for a textile fiber was something that was at least 1000 times longer than its width and could bend back on itself without breaking. I started to play with that idea. I had also been haunted by the image of Anne Frank unravelling knitted things to make new things. Somehow, The idea of creating knitting fiber from used fabrics evolved. The sweater above left is one of my first rag knitted garments made from strips of  a parachute. It was shown at a fashion show produced by a punk rock clothing store and many of the punk rock clothing store models refused wear it in the show because of "too weird" reasons.

The punk rock clothing store hired me so I decided to flunk out of Purdue University with a B+ average and move in with a band called the Zero Boys for a few weeks until I got more settled in Indianapolis. In less than two years, we truly advanced from being the people to ridicule to being the people who were becoming cultural role models. This photograph is from a fashion show that was produced by the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library for a special program they sponsored to connect fashion and music in late 1983. This rag sweater was made entirely from my discarded fitting muslins from one-of-a-kind clothing sewn for customers.

Soon after this show, my work was unanimously accepted by the jury for an upcoming show, Wearable Art '85 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The burgundy and black dress was one of the pieces shown at the museum and was made entirely from upcycled scraps from my studio. I was already toying with the idea of a zero waste clothing company even before anyone ever said those words. I guess you have to live with textiles for awhile to really understand the mess they make. Also, if you have become that cozy with textiles, you probably love them all the way down to their tiniest pieces. The clothes on the right of this photograph were from a line of clothing I made and marketed in Midwest also in 1985. I think, now, that it was truly miraculous that I did as well as I did at time. In 1985, recycling garbage was unheard of. Wearing clothing made of recycled materials was not done!
So, I am truly not apologetic about making some noise about what I love to do and I am prepared for anything that might happen as a result. This artist noticed my sweaters and commissioned this dress as a result. This piece was a deviation from what I had usually done because it is all new fiber and fabric. I knitted it in the round starting with irregular shapes very much like the first sweater in this story. The only seams are shoulder seams. This 12" dance single was on the Billboard charts during the summer of 1986.

I am looking forward to beginning again with this project because this is a point in time to embrace upcycled clothing and accessories. There is a  larger audience receptive to the idea of wearing clothes made from these techniques and to reuse of materials in general. Plus, new textile fiber products made with friendliness to the environment and to humanity are emerging constantly. I can't wait to upcycle those scraps in my 21st century zero waste studio. 


  1. So interesting, Laura! As an instructor, my heart goes out to you and your left-handed knitting adventures. ;) I too, am left-handed, but teach my left-handed students to knit right-handed, if at all possible, but have met a few TRUE left-handed knitters in my life.

    Reading patterns backwards is probably the biggest challenge, don't you think? Yet it is amazing to me, given some patience and the right instruction, left-handers overcome and adapt, making us the most flexible people on the planet, IMHO. lol:)

    Good for you for sticking with it and I love the idea of the rag knitting. I have dabbled a bit with out-of-the-box fibers to knit with. Your textile adventures are wonderful and inspiring! Keep sharing!

    A good day to you, my fellow fiber enthusiast!

  2. Left handedness makes patterns challenging no doubt and that's why I started blazing my own trails to continue with my passion for knitting. I define myself as a left handed writer and knitter but I actually have mixed hand dominance. I cut, for example, with my right hand and cannot use left handed scissors at all. When I was learning how to sew in school, my teacher was fooled by my cutting. When she saw me hand sewing with my left hand, she called my mom and told her I needed to withdraw from her class because I could never learn how to sew. My mom made sure I stayed in class because making clothes was a deep desire for me. I'm glad you make an effort to address left handed knitting and I do know that some people CAN learn to knit right handed. Whenever I am presented with a new skill and tool set, I do experiment with both hands to see where I'm comfortable. Knitting left handed worked to my advantage as a kid because a yarn shop owner paid me in yarn (woohoo!) to teach other left handed kids how to knit. That's how I built up stock to knit the tams!

    I appreciate your comments very much and I'm glad you will be "staying tuned" to my blog. I will be featuring rag knits in my Etsy shop soon and I will be giving simple instructions on making fiber and design in the blog. You will look at your old clothes and household textiles in a new way...Wow! Yarn!