When I saw Stephanie Pan passing by my stand at last year's Breidagen (2022) I knew she was just my type of girl! She was wearing her Solitons Sweater, a dolman sleeve sweater adorned with irregular patterning and digital aesthetics like she just jumped out of Blade Runner.
In the next few minutes, Stephanie told me all about her new project, Algorithmic Knitting Design, where she applies computing techniques to creating knitting patterns that use very simple and standard hand knitting techniques to achieve a high fashion effect!
This is how I see hand knitting as well: not as a lovely piece of a pot holder with a heart shape in the middle (although these items can be very cute and full of love 😍) but as a communication between the past and the future, an interplay between the handicraft and technology. Knitting, the way we practice it today, exists somewhere in between the digital and the real world, and Stephanie transcends this existence by establishing a channel of communication.
Using my hand dyed BKD yarn she created an epic knitting pattern, Algorithmic Diva Bolero, a bolero made of three yarn qualities BKD DK Superior, BKD Bouclé and BKD Kid Silk Lace, that will be promoted on this year's Breidagen (2023) with the kits available at the festival and in my shop, just follow the link HERE or click on the photo.
Find out more about Stephanie, her knitting journey so far, the history of knitting and the future of our knitting craft in regard to innovative technology in the interview below.
Explain algorithmic knitting and how the project came to life
Algorithmic Knitting Design is a project creating handknitting patterns that integrate algorithmic computing and digital aesthetics. What I’m trying to do with the project is give a more contemporary take on the aesthetics of handknitting and offer new challenges to knitters, while tapping into our amazing inherent skills to see where we can take our much loved, timeless craft in the 21st century! The project grows first and foremost out of a personal interest. As a totally fanatic knitter (and mathematician), I was looking for knitting designs that better suit my personal fashion aesthetic, while still feeding my love for challenging knits. But the project really started to come to life after I was reading my knitting patterns to my partner, who’s a computer programmer, and laughing together about how similar knitting patterns are to computer programming language, which is absolutely real. Modern computer programming evolved directly from the punchcard technology developed in 1803 for the Jacquard Loom by Joseph Marie Jacquard, adopted by Charles Babbage in 1837 as a mechanism for storing data and math operations for his Analytical Engine, and used subsequently by Ada Lovelace in 1843 to create the first computer program. So, the relationship between computing and handicrafts is really inherent, and the project really grew out of trying to highlight and reconnect this relationship. I want to see what happens when we knitters and handicrafters start to think of ourselves as applied scientists and mathematicians, and I’m really excited and curious about what that can do with our crafting in the future with this lens. <3 I don’t code myself, it’s in a way too abstract for me; I’m very hands on, I prefer to code with yarn and needles, so I’ve been working with three computer programmers / artists / architect - Stelios Manousakis (my partner), Jan Truetzschler von Falkenstein @tea_tracks and Weihaw Wang to lay the groundwork for developing patterns in the future, using everything from basic knit and purl to crazy chaotic lace and dramatic cablework.
Tell us something about your personal knitting history: beginnings, people who inspired you, biggest "failures" and successes, and the transition from a knitter into a knitwear designer and knitting prodigy
I started crochet as a kid, learning from my mom, and after a couple false starts many years later, I finally started knitting about 10 years ago, and have been fully addicted since! I’ve also been designing my own clothes and done some costume design as a sewist/designer for almost 30 years, so I bring that approach to my knitwear design. I’m hugely inspired by Belgian and Japanese minimalist fashion, the Antwerp Six, Jan Jan van Essche, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto. This kind of approach to clothing focuses much more on form and drape, rather than clothing that focuses on shaping around the body itself. I also love things like digital glitch and chaos, asymmetry, unpredictability, noise - which all relates to my professional music practice, aka my ‘day job’. So I’m really trying to bring all these sensibilities into my designs, while balancing project size and how much chaos and unpredictability we can handle as hand knitters.
I’m glad you put “failures” in quotes! Because I don’t think of things as failures but usually very valuable lessons in the long run 😅 plus I’ve made all the mistakes so many times at this point I’m pretty expert at fixing them, so that’s good! but I did once spend probably close to 2 years on and off knitting a dress/tunic from a pattern I thought was so cool, on 3mm needles, finally finished it, blocked it, wore it for a while and decided the torso too short, CUT IT IN HALF at the bust and added 10cm length to the torso, kitchenered the whole thing back together and then decided after all that it still didn’t suit me. I’m not sure what the lesson is there but it was in any case a very good exercise in patience and process.
In terms of design, I’ve currently been struggling with a design for more than a year that I was soooo excited about at first, and then got caught up halfway through because I realized it just wasn’t practical on so many levels (which is pretty important criteria for me) so I didn’t know what to do. Thanks to the wonderful ladies at Cross and Woods finally found a good solution to finish the design, but it’s taken me so long to develop the pattern that the main colorway in my sample has been discontinued, which sort of breaks one of the cardinal rules of pattern development! There’s basically zero chance I’ll knit the whole thing again (turns out I don’t looove fairisle color work) so I’m not entirely sure what to do with that yet.
In terms of successes, I’m definitely super excited about our Algorithmic Diva boleros! I love collaboration because it forces you to think in different ways than you’re used to, and having you come in with the idea of mixing these 3 yarn types helped me look at designing in a new way I totally hadn’t tried yet. And I’m soooooo happy with the result on all levels. To date, I think it’s my most fun patterns to knit, your color and yarn combos are epic, and I’m so proud of the final results!
I’m definitely NOT a knitting prodigy, I’m a pretty good intermediate knitter at best. 😂 I absolutely love and am in awe of my test knitters some of whom knit absolute MILES around me!! :D but I guess I do have an artist’s approach to design and development which is perhaps a bit unusual. The transition from knitter to designer was in some ways very natural, I’ve been designing clothing for much longer than I’ve been knitting, and I was mainly an improviser with crochet - I didn’t even really understand that there were patterns you could follow to make things! But I think as many designers will tell you, the real tricky part is actually writing down your pattern for others to follow, being totally thorough and accurate and finding the right language that’s clear to as many people as possible, but still remaining compact enough to actually be readable. The ongoing explosion in knitwear designers is really cool, and I love how anarchic, non-hierarchical and supportive the knitting community is, so you feel like you’re not alone trying to figure all these things out.
Handicrafts and intelligent machines: currently a huge topic involving, among other things, the recent milestone in AI development. How do you envision the communication between a knitter, a knitwear designer, and the technology of the future?
Well, I think there are many possible approaches, and the one I’m most interested in, and I feel is most often neglected in this conversation is the user-end approach. I think a lot of technological development has a very top down approach, about seeing how ‘intelligent’ and close to ‘human’ a machine can get. I’m really not interested in technological innovation as such. I want to keep doing the things I love such as knit and design and I’m interested in technology helping me do that in unexpected and exciting ways. So I’m not very interested in or worried about how well machines can imitate us, I’m more interested in how they can help make my handknitting more fun or useful or relevant to my own needs, how it can be a tool for evolving the knitting craft. I think it’s important for us to insist on our personal needs in this respect, because it helps shape the technology itself.