Knitting trip around Japan ties up more projects

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One Japan-related project attracts attention at “Knit 2 Together: Concepts in Knitting,” organized by the U.K.’s Crafts Council and on show in London until May 15, from where it will set out to tour Britain as part of the “Knitting and Stitching Show 2005.”

Celia Pym relates through memorabilia and a 24-meter-long length of blue knitting how in 2001 she knit and purled her way around the Japanese archipelago — a trip that oddly (considering she is English) began in Cambridge, Mass.

“I was in my final year at Harvard, completing an art degree in visual and environmental studies. Engaged in mainly outdoor activities, I was measuring journeys and marking space, thinking about places we inhabit and the traces of ourselves that we leave in these spaces.”

Because her mother is American, Celia applied to U.S. universities to be near her grandparents in Boston. Engaged there in mainly outdoor activities and having trouble working in her studio, she decided to knit as a warmup exercise. “It began as a way to make me sit still, think about what I was doing. Then knitting became just another of my many activities.”

Celia was using red yarn, “because the store I bought from sold nice red wool, and several times I rode the red line, the subway line in Boston, knitting to fill in time.” By the end of the year she had completed a 10-meter length, which she exhibited with a 16-mm film of her fingers at work.

She applied for the Gardner Traveling Fellowship through Harvard University. Available to graduating students in various departments, the fellowship sponsors a year of creative travel. “You have to propose a project that as an extension of work in progress provides an opportunity to reflect on undergraduate life and work in the context of a wider horizon towards new directions and careers.”

Celia proposed she journey to Japan. “Simply put, I wanted to knit in Japan. Reading novels by Haruki Murakami, I was fascinated by the journeys made. Senses and instincts were so well honed in lead characters — listening to messages, following signs — that they’d be led to parts of Japan they’d never been to before.”

Celia imagined a purposeful trip where yarn would lead her on, “where I’d walk and knit, both activities having for me a similar rhythm and pace. Growing up in Kent, walking was always something I did alone or as part of a large family group. It seemed natural for walking and knitting to go hand in hand.”

Awarded the Gardner fellowship — another winner went to study socks in Kyoto — Celia set off from Boston in late September 2001, flew to Tokyo and stayed overnight. Then she moved on to Kyoto, carrying a map and two guide books. “Wanting to walk, ride trains and boats, and knit in public, I chose destinations accordingly.”

She went to places read about in the Murakami novels, often visiting beaches. Zigzagging between mountains, sea, cities and rural areas, Celia carried her knitting and a small backpack of clothes. Buying along the way, she collected 12 sizes of needles to knit each ball of yarn into the next. With each section 50 stitches wide, she changed needle size depending on the weight of yarn.

“I had a small stash of yarn but tried to buy a ball whenever I arrived somewhere new. I would ask at the train station, youth hostel or bus stop, ‘Where is the nearest wool shop?’ or ‘Where can I buy wool?’ Then I’d knit what I’d bought in that place, so the length of time spent there was determined by how long it took me to knit. I knitted every day, for 30 minutes to seven to eight hours.”

She went to the four main islands, also Miyajima and Okinawa — Naha and the islands of Zamami, Ishigaki and Iriomote — usually for three or four days before moving on. Mostly she stayed in youth hostels, “ryokan,” “minshuku” or business hotels. But also she stayed with people met or introduced to along the way, like an indigo dyer and his wife in Shimane. “I had to mulch indigo by treading on the leaf compost in oversized Wellies while he poured freezing cold water over my feet.”

In the main it was a lonely journey, she recalls, “but the knitting was always reassuring and a reason for being there. Often I’d be approached and people asked what I was doing. Time seemed to pass both slowly and fast at the same time.”

Celia completed her trip with an exhibition in February 2002 at the Honyara-do Gallery in Kyoto called “Touch Softly.” “I sat upstairs, dressed in blue, with the blanket rolled out and spread around the room, and knitted quietly for three days. Visitors came and watched me knit. The locations of where I had been knitting were labeled on the wall corresponding to the section of blanket they were near.”

On her return she worked an auxiliary nurse with a studio close to home, and then studied for a teaching qualification. In between she acted as an assistant to the sculptor Oliver Barratt, working on the Everest Memorial Project, which commemorates all those who died on the mountain. “We hiked up to Pheriche, which is just below base camp, with a team of 32 Sherpas carrying the sculpture.”

In April she was back in Honyara-do for a week, helping artist-curator Lesley Millar install “Through the Surface,” an exhibition based on partnering Japanese and U.K. textile artists and seeing what work emerges from these partnerships and collaborations.

Now teaching part time in London, she is working on knitting chairs and tables. “They’re like ghostly dust covers for furniture and hang suspended from the ceiling.” She is also engrossed in making small squares of pale blue knitting. “I bought a large quantity of the yarn very cheaply last Christmas. Not sure yet what the squares are for.”

Basically Celia is back to knitting in studio — what she calls “thinking activity.”


Crafts Council: www.craftscouncil.org.uk

“Knitting and Stitching Show”: www.twistedthread.com

Surrey Institute of Art & Design: www.throughthesurface.com

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Correction

Last week’s story on Shotaro Kobayashi had an incorrect Web site for the Le Mans Classic Japan Organization. It is www.lemansclassic.jp and their e-mail address for information is info@lemansclassic.jp