My life as a revolutionary knitter

A story by Katharine Cobey from 1980s-2017

Katharine Cobey

My husband David and I moved to Maine for a quieter life. We had been living in Washington D.C., and I had a studio at the Torpedo Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia. I loved the atmosphere at the art center but having an open studio year-round, also meant being responsive to the public full time. I had grown up living in the Berkshires—miles from the nearest town. David was from New Haven. Maine seemed like what I had known and loved as a child, plus it had an ocean for David.

At the time, my youngest son, Michael, was at Bates College. We looked at property in Brunswick. Although a college town was a plus we could not afford anything near, or on the water there. When we looked further up the coast we found an old house on a hill overlooking a tidal bay. We knew very little about the town, only that it was as very small, with most of the people moving into it artists. There was only one store and a small elementary school. We bought our house in Cushing, and I began coming in the summers.

In 1989 I moved full-time to Maine. David moved back and forth, still working in D.C. In 1992 he moved his office here. After going to the Shelter Institute in Bath, he himself built my extraordinary studio on our hilltop overlooking the Meduncook river.

I started to knit when I was eleven, loving the ability to turn a simple yarn into shapes, but it was not until much later that I began to think of knitting as a sculptural skill. Knitting is still so fixated on making pretty, useful, things that using it to express oneself takes quite a shift. And then there are patterns. While weaving was being used in new creative ways by people like Magdalena Abakanowitz, knitting kept basically to pleasing, functional work.

Many knitters rely on literal, stitch by stitch directions. It is since Elizabeth Zimmermann’s and Mary Phillips, and Mary Thomas’s technical books became better known that American knitters have been encouraged to work without patterns, making their own plans.

Working with hand spun yarns was further incentive to learn to design my own plans. There are no paper collars around hand spun skeins stating what patterns and needles to use. By this time, I had a studio at the Torpedo art center and realized that where and how much I increased or decreased my stitches, determined shape and was sculpting. Knitters shape their material as well as making the fabric with its own integral surface design.

I take traditional knitting techniques and use them in new ways for different ends. I refuse to let knitting belittle itself. As a feminist I find it especially important to take something that has been used to illustrate our limitations, and to use it instead to demonstrate how innovative and creative women can be.

When I first started knitting I kept to traditional yarns, using mainly wool, linen and silk, but during the first Gulf War I began to experiment with yarns cut from plastic bags. I had been very struck by the films of oil covered birds. They were dragged along the water’s edge, dying as they moved. Instead of making place mats with the plastic yarns, I made a coat and mounted it on a frame, crawling, like the dying birds. Washington D.C. was awash, confused with the show of elegance of the first Bush administration and the real war in Iraq. Later I made MIME FOR THE GULF WAR BIRDS. In its first installation at the Textile Museum in Washington D.C. it lay flat. Since then it has been worn by a young dancer, or shown standing.

I have come to love the plastic yarns I cut. Anything I make with them seems to me to have an inherent irony, and I love their shine, the rustle they make when moving, and how well they ”knit”.

I buy silk from afar, but also purchase wool from local farms. When I make something from sheep my neighbors raise, I know I am working with something that has stood out under the night skies I stand under. That enriches and grounds the work for me.

Maine is a wonderful place to be doing what I do. It teems with traditional knitters and spinners, and with revolutionaries. In Union, a town near me Brian White makes dresses with clam shells. Annually, Fiber College in Searsport brings artists like the quilters from Gees Bend and Susan Mills the mask maker, as well as my own students for me to be inspired by.

Katharine Cobey, "Mime for the Gulf War Birds", 1991 bird costume, made of black plastic from garbage bags, hand cut into “yarn”, and hand knit

Katharine Cobey at work

Katharine Cobey, Loose Ends