Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What makes something functional? or The Tale of the Two Hats

Last night at the December meeting of the KWKG, Sally Melville spoke about "Why we knit".  It was a great talk for a number of reasons, but what kept ruminating in my mind is her saying "Honour the craft".  That got tied into some other knitting thoughts that have been tumbling around in my head.

There was a thread on Ravelry that discussed knitting being functional.  There was one poster who felt that most of today's knitting is not functional but merely for personal adornment since it doesn't keep us warm [enough if we were on a fishing boat].  Of course discussion followed.   Since I have read that thread, everytime that I have put on a piece of knitted wool, I say to myself "This ____ is not functional, it is only art" in a very sarcastic tone.

This of course brings us to the question of what is function?  More specifically what makes knitware functional?

Before I answer that let me start with the "Tale of the Two Hats".

Four years ago, I knit myself a colourwork hat, it was my first colourwork project, I used 5 skeins of Misti Alpaca sport.  It is an awarding winning hat, and it keeps my head toasty warm.

However, 2 years ago, I  needed another hat.  This time I made it in a lace pattern with a wool/acrylic blend yarn.  This hat suits the requirements that I set for it.  I actually wear it more than the first hat, as the hat is out in public more, it gets more compliments and I get to talk about the craft of knitting more. 

Why don't I wear the first hat more often? For the simple reason is that it keeps my head toasty warm.  Which is great when it is below zero, and the wind is blowing and I am walking my dog.  However, if the sun is shining, with the temperature around freezing the hat is just too warm.  If I am going to the store even in the middle of February, I am taking the second hat.

Is the functional hat the one that keeps my head warmer or the one that gets the most wear?

I don't think one hat being functional makes the other one less functional.  Both hats are functional, they just serve different functions.  The first hat is designed to block out the wind, and keep all of the warmth from my head next to my head.  If I am stranded on Hwy 402 for an evening I want this hat with me.  If I want to feel some of that nice cool air on my head this hat does not work, it doesn't mean the hat is not functional it is just not suited for the job.

I could knit myself a windproof super warm sweater that will keep me toasty in the below -10C temperatures.  It would be functional. However, how often would I wear this sweater?  Is it functional if it is sitting in a drawer 360 days of the year?  What about a less warm sweater that is worn 100 days of the year.  What about a sweater that I don't wear at all since it doesn't fit right or fits but makes me look 50 lbs heavier?

If I own a sweater/ socks/ shawl and it doesn't get used I would argue that it is not functional.  I don't care how great it may perform under certain conditions, if it doesn't get used it is not functional.

This brings us back to Sally Melville and "honouring the craft", another of her sayings is "knit what you wear and wear what you knit".  Creating sweaters that look great on a wall, but are never worn due to item being ill fitting is not honouring the craft (This is different than creating something for art).  Honouring knitting, is creating items that are used for their intended purpose, that gets people saying  "Wow, I want that/be able to do that."  I love the feeling when people admire my knitting, when it looks great and they want to learn more.  Talking about knitting honours it.  Expanding your techniques and knowledge honours it, using your items honours them and the craft.  Creating functional items is honouring knitting.

It is important to remember that something being functional and being beautiful are not mutually exclusive.  These two items go very well together.

There is nothing wrong with knitting as art. There are lots of great examples (including Knit CamBridge,) and in my mind they can do more for the discussion of knitting amongst non fibre enthusiasts than a sweater stuck in the back of the closet.  The Knit CamBridge project had a function and it served its purpose "I want this work to make you smile, shake your head and laugh. Whatever you do, do it because you love to knit! ".  It created discussion, made people think about knitting, and in my opinion it honoured the craft.

In my mind honouring the craft of knitting is more important than debating about how functional something is or how warm you can make something.

What do you think?


Jenni said...

Function is relative. Function is dynamic. All knitting has a function - whether it was the process of knitting that soothed the soul or that the final garment would keep a child warm in a blustery winter or even that the knitted graffiti brought a smile to a passerby. The commenter who slandered modern knitting as functionless has a very narrow definition of function for a knitted object: warmth. Undoubtedly, warmth can be a major function, but think about where knitting was invented. The Middle East. Although the climate can be cool, I very much doubt they need a fisherman's wool sweater. Indeed, the first knitted pieces on record are socks and stockings. If the sock-knitting community of today is any measure, I'd say knitted socks remain quite functional for keeping feet warm or protected, for wicking away sweat and even for being pretty.

heavenlyevil said...

I think you'll find most knitters are of a practical sort and have much broader definitions of the function of knitting than any one overarching purpose. People knit for fun, to create beauty, to learn something, to keep busy, to make things, etc.

Sometimes a particular project can accomplish more than one of these goals at a time.