During the time I lived in Japan, I discovered the work of artist, poet, and calligrapher Mitsuo Aida. He has a very unique style of calligraphy, which breaks from tradition but has a grace and balance of its own. One of my favorite pieces simply states isshô benkyô isshô seishun (一生勉強一生青春), literally “a lifetime of study, a lifetime of youth.” It means that to fully embrace life, such as youth does, the heart and the mind must remain flexible, must be able to continue to learn and grow.
I strongly believe in lifelong learning, and as I am a very curious person, there is always motivation to learn. After Japan, I moved to Washington, D.C., and during my four years there, I was often taking one class or another. Japanese language classes to retain the competency I had worked so hard for. A Korean class, because I fancy myself a pseudo-linguist. Creative nonfiction writing. Piano lessons. And the last class I took there was a beginner’s knitting class. I learned one method of cast on and bind off and how to make knit and purl stitches. Very basic.
Probably like many people, my first project was a garter stitch scarf. It was for my nephew, a baby at the time, and thus small and quick. I was hooked and since then have steadily explored the world of knitting. Being a knitter in this technological age is fantastic – I have continued to acquire new skills and techniques with the help of online videos and tutorials, and by choosing knitting projects that challenge me.
I have been a maker and an artist all my life, and the evolution from knitter to knitwear designer came naturally – I can’t help but experiment and tinker! I often compare knitting to language. The different types of stitches and techniques are like parts of speech, units that can be rearranged into infinite expressions. Knitting is a type of visual communication, and it fascinates me.
I was asked to discuss my inspiration as a designer, and it’s certainly a word I have used freely and frequently, but upon deeper reflection, I realized that inspiration is too intangible as a concept and a practice. My designs stem from curiosity, something much more concrete and attainable than inspiration. I really love charts (of all kinds – not just knitting!), and sometimes I’ll sit down with graph paper and a pencil and just start drafting. Then I’ll knit a swatch because I want to know how the chart translates into actual fabric. Sometimes I have a good idea of what to expect, and other times I’m in for a surprise. I’ll look at the swatch and ask myself: What do I like about this texture or motif or shape? If I change this one thing, what will happen then? And then I make another swatch.
I do this with existing stitch patterns too. I love stitch dictionaries, and if a pattern really grabs my attention, I’ll swatch it. Then I’ll study it for possible ways of modification. There is a lot of swatching that happens in my design process! In my art practice, I refer to this as prototyping. Modify, create, evaluate. Repeat. And then repeat again.
Sometimes, there is a particular shape, image, or aesthetic that I want to achieve. In these cases, it’s more like reverse engineering. I have a visual in my head, and I want the piece to have certain qualities. The questions then become: How do I do that? What kind of construction is necessary? What combination of stitches will deliver that effect?
I think what most people think of as “inspiration,” I consider “data collection.” The play of shadows on the ground, the landscape, architectural elements, even a beautifully phrased thought or an intriguing concept or discipline (literary neuroscience, anyone?) – these are all filed away in the conscious and subconscious, and some of them will become the basis for curiosity and exploration. And sometimes, that exploration becomes the basis for creative work.
To quote Elizabeth Gilbert: “For me, a lifetime devoted to creativity is nothing but a scavenger hunt – where each successive clue is another tiny little hit of curiosity. Pick each one up, unfold it, see where it leads you next.”
I design because I enjoy the process, and I design things that bring me joy. I love making things by hand, and it is deeply satisfying to create things that are both functional and beautiful. Knitting definitely hits all the sweet spots. And I hope that my designs bring others joy too, both in the knitting and the wearing.
Visit Kieu’s website at http://www.thienkieulam.com, where she muses about art, books, and of course, knitting.