As a knitwear designer, Marist professor and exhibiting fiber artist, Melissa Halvorson wears many hats (and I can’t resist the temptation to add that she can design and knit hats as well as wear them). The Kingston-based Halvorson says that, although she moved to the Hudson Valley from Seattle in 1998, she still identifies as a Northwesterner, with her much-missed family living in that part of the country.
We asked Halvorson about what led her to work with textiles.
Who taught you how to knit?
I learned to knit as a child, from my mother, a Swede for whom learning to knit was compulsory.
What inspired you to turn it into a career?
It never occurred to me to pursue a creative life or a career of making things until I realized I was miserable not doing it. In 2004, I opened a very commercially unsuccessful yarn shop in New Paltz, but it closed, because I’m actually terrible at selling things and loathed the whole process. I spent the next few years making finished goods based on original knitting designs, but that too started to feel a lot like manufacturing.
In 2010, I was privileged to exhibit a collection of pieces in Hudson at the David Dew Bruner gallery. From that point on, I knew I would be happiest making small collections and playing around with conceptual work.
I know you’re a professor at Marist; is that something full-time, or time divided equally with designing knitwear and exhibiting your work?
Since 2006 I’ve been a lecturer at Marist College in the Fashion Department. Beginning with Knitwear Design and eventually adding Textiles (Fabric Science) and Writing for Fashion, a couple of years ago I was able to develop a course on Sustainability and Fashion. My position has recently become more full-time, and continues to be a source of inspiration rather than a toilsome job.
What kind of projects do your students in the Sustainability and Fashion course undertake?
Two years ago, my knitting students used exclusively recycled yarns from secondhand sweaters to make their accessory collections, and that has become a built-in feature of my course. Last year during campus Sustainability Day, the Textiles students participated in what I called a “Slow Cloth Action,” constructing a human loom in the student center that yielded a 25-foot-long textile made of recycled materials. Each warp yarn was connected to a body that moved up and down, creating a “shed” for the shuttle yarn to pass through. It was thrilling. This year, I hope to facilitate student participation in an assembly-line demonstration to determine if observers will feel differently about the “value” of the finished good, having seen the workers (their peers) create it.
How would you describe your knitwear designs?
All of my designs are made of either my own handspun yarn, recycled yarn (usually cashmere, because why not?) or locally produced yarn. Usually the materials are enough to make things interesting, but I’ve recently started working on integrating information into the knits.
During the last O+ Festival in October 2012, I exhibited an Emotional (S)toll, which was a scarf that depicted a mood chart kept over 11 days, using colors along the grayscale to indicate shifts in well-being. I’m currently working on a garment that tells you how to make a garment. These designs are not necessarily anything that anyone would want to possess, besides me, but I sometimes adapt them to be more appealing to other knitters.
I have a pattern published in the current issue of Vogue Knitting (Winter 2013, page 71) that is an example of this. About once or twice a year, I’m lucky to have an original design published somewhere and enjoyed by others.
Would you tell me a little more about one of the exhibits your work has been in? I read that you designed a magnetic scarf. Is it really magnetic?
The “Knitwear/Knitware” show featured garments made of recycled, handspun and non-traditional materials. The designs were inspired by plant and animal adaptations, so most of the pieces could be worn in multiple ways or adapted to the wearer in some fashion. This is one of the pillars of sustainable fashion: designs that evolve or change with the wearer.
There was a series of scarves made of recycled cashmere, wool and stainless steel filament. I embedded magnets in felt that were stitched along the length of the scarf to function as closures, and to allow the wearer to adapt the style. The magnets also enable you to take the scarf off and throw it at the refrigerator when you get home, so it has built-in storage.
Is exhibiting your work something you plan to continue doing?
It seems that knitted goods – not even necessarily “high-concept” examples – are becoming more acceptable to show in a gallery setting. I am happy to identify as a craftsperson, rather than an artist, but have discovered an openness in the local art environment to welcome works in fiber.