There is a neat connection between picking up rubbish off beaches and knitting: both are simple, repetitive actions, requiring very little set-up or equipment and involving the same hand movements over and over. Both have the potential to be pleasurable and incredibly tedious at the same time. Both can be done alone or in company. Both result in a visible result – even though on the beach the next tide will bring more ocean debris, and I may have to rip out all of yesterday’s knitting to correct a mistake I find today. Both run the risk of becoming an obsession.
I’ve been knitting way longer than I have been cleaning beaches. I like the fact that with the simplest of materials – two sticks and some string, in effect – I can create just about anything I want to.
I also like the slightly nerdy aspects of knitting. If you want to design your own sweater or tea cosy, there is math involved. Stitches or rows per inch times the desired width or length; variables caused by differences in tension; necklines expressed as a percentage of total body size, that sort of thing. There is a lot of working-out-as-you-go-along on scraps of paper.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that last summer I began to introduce a bit of math into my beach cleaning by sorting and categorising and totalling the contents of my beach cleans: another tedious, obsessive and yet weirdly satisfying activity.
What I’ve ended up with is a whole lot of numbers scattered throughout three notebooks. (I like math but I’m not very organised.) By themselves, on paper, they are just lists of items, data. They don’t necessarily hold any inherent value other than as a record of what we have done and what we have found. If I was organised, or patient, I could work my way through the numbers, analyse them, and come up with a clearer picture than the one in my head of what gets left behind or washed up at what beach, or what happens when the tide changes or the seasons turn.
But I’m not that kind of person.
So instead I decided to take that data and attempt to represent it using knitting. I started with a beach clean with Jan from last July at Porthbeor beach. We had each focused on a different part of the beach: my haul was characterised by over 900 pieces of polystyrene, along with a few of the usual suspects; plastic bottles, crisp packets, unidentifiable plastic fragments and foam, and nylon rope. I gave each category of rubbish a colour and then knitted three strips in which each stitch represents an item I had picked up.
Each of these strips has the same number of stitches and describes the same data. The only difference is the pattern I have chosen to illustrate that data. Coming up with these apparently simple designs involved a lot of scribbling on pieces of paper and a surprising amount of ripping out! The “frame” in beige is just that. It’s what keeps the strips from curling along the sides. The rust colour is the colour I chose for the polystyrene. The middle strip does the best job of showing just how much polystyrene I found compared to everything else, but is the one that most people find least interesting visually.
These strips were shown in our interim show last December, along with the original notebook containing my “sort” notes, and a pattern key:
They are now part of another group show, this time in the college library:
These little strips have quite a bit of potential as far as my MA is concerned. Knitting a strip for each of my beach cleans would be an interesting way of recording the work of cleaning beaches. Art college tutors are very keen on the idea of transforming one thing into another, so they fit the bill in terms of any academic expectations. This would be a satisfying and also time consuming and potentially tedious project, in the same way that cleaning beaches is, and so would do a good job of expressing that connection between the two obsessions in my life.