Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Knitted Taste of Lenox at Colorful Stitches

Happy 4th of July fellow Americans! I've got a real treat for you today. This is long but please bear with me because it is worth it! (All photos by Bonnie J. Burton.)

Saturday while I was selling our lamb at The Farmers Market in Amherst, a woman was watching me crochet from afar. After watching for a few minutes, she approached me and we started chatting about crochet and knitting. She told me she was on vacation and that she crocheted too. Then out of the blue, she told me about a fabulous knitted art exhibit she saw in a Stockbridge. I said to her, "Oh you must mean Lenox where my friends Bonnie and Mary have a yarn store called Colorful Stitches." She said "Oh yes, that's right." She went on to tell me all about some fabulously fun knitted food that was in the store window. I couldn't wait to get home to contact Bonnie and Mary, the owners of Colorful Stitches to see what it was all about.

A quick e-mail generated an answer from both Bonnie and Mary. Yes, there is a knitted food exhibit in their store window and it is causing quite a stir. Today I have a fun interview for all of you with Bonnie Burton, the creator of "A Knitted Taste of Lenox" and co-owner of Colorful Stitches.

Hotdogs with mustard and relish for the 4th

KN: Bonnie, thanks so much for spending some time with us. Tell us how you got involved in the yarn business?
BB:  I've been knitting as my hobby for nearly my entire life. My Aunt reports that I sat in her lap at age 4 and "rode her hands" while she knitted. I was also a home sewer, and between knitting and sewing, made my own clothes for years. Then I spent a 35-year career in international corporate chain and department store retailing. So after that, combining my fiber hobby and the retail background just seemed to be the next step. I was thinking about starting my own LYS when Mary McGurn offered me the opportunity to join her as business partner at Colorful Stitches, where I had been a customer for about 10 years. It has just all worked out since then, where I operate the store and company administration and she handles the online business and social media from home.

Bonnie's Great American Burger and fries
KN: Over the past couple of months, you have been working on a giant personal knitting project. How did you find the time and energy to go home every evening from the shop and knit?
BB: I've been working on the knitted food exhibit for the last 1 1/2 months at home, with a goal of trying to finish one food item a night. I've always been a late-nighter, so staying up till 2:00 or 3:00 in the AM knitting on something is just ME. I did get fatigued, but found that the project itself kept me going. You just can't go to sleep when you have a hamburger without a top bun knitted, or a fried egg white without its yolk done. Also, as I worked on one meal the next one was formulating in my head. It's intriguing to imagine how a 3-D shape is going to be created, and it would keep me wired. I did do a long catch-up nap after installing the exhibit in the store, however.

Friday night pizza and a bottle of Pinot

KN: Your new project is called "A Knitted Taste of Lenox". I was astounded when I saw your knitted pizza on my Facebook feed last week. What ever possessed you to knit up a fiber exhibit of knitted food?
BB: I named the exhibit "A Knitted Taste of Lenox". Our store is in Lenox, Massachusetts, a quaint New England historical town, and benefits from a cultural tourist rush to see its great arts and music performances (including Tanglewood, The Boston Pops, and more) each summer, but doesn't have a real food event called 'Taste Of'. We try to have something different at Colorful Stitches in time for this seasonal rise in traffic.

Last summer, we yarn bombed the store's front porch and neighboring coffee shop across the driveway. It became quite the thing for curiosity's sake and generated smiles and snapshots from walkers and shoppers before they ever entered the store. It was fun to watch the expressions. This year, I wanted to have something else that would cause the same positive reaction, whether viewed by knitters or others. We have a very wide front window with great light and it made sense to do a display there.

The idea of a food exhibit didn't occur to me as a marketing idea right off. The food knitting started independently when I was in a book store and saw the first copy of Knitted Fast Food by British knitwear design Susie Johns. I stood there in the quiet and laughed out loud (maybe I was still punchy from one of my late knitting nights). I just started using up stash scraps and working on small pieces directly from the book's instructions. It wasn't long until I was hooked, had gone well beyond the patterns in the book, inventing my own patterns and began researching interesting food shapes online. I realized I was well on my way to a knitted picnic...just what I needed for the store window.

Breakfast

KN: There are a lot of different kinds of food in your exhibit. What item was the biggest challenge as you worked your way through.
BB: The biggest challenge wasn't a single food, but a math problem. As it turns out, you need to knit a lot of flat circles to make food items, like the bottom of a wine bottle, the whole pizza crust, the top and bottom of the chocolate cake, buns, pickles, pancakes, potato chips, etc. However, knitting naturally wants to form flat rectangles like swatches, scarves, etc.

I started experimenting with knitting circles from the center out on double pointed needles and tried to guess how many stitches you need to increase per round to keep the circle flat and not fluted or ruffled. My first tries were all ruffled, so that's what ended up giving me ruffly potato chips. I found the math answer in June Hemmons Hiatt's "Principles of Knitting". She gives a formula for knitted 'medallions' which includes the yarn's stitch and row gauge and calculates the number of increases per round to create flat disk shapes. That made all the difference.

Pies for the 4th of July
KN: Were there some yarns that were just perfect for food?
BB: Finding food-like yarns became quite a preoccupation, and interestingly still plagues me today well after I've finished this exhibit. I wanted to start working with my extensive stash, but that just wasn't enough so I had to expand into the store's inventory. At first, it was easy, for instance, to create sandwich bread with ivory DK smooth traditionally- twisted yarn, and it looked great as Wonder bread for the cheese sandwich.


However, for the ham and swiss sandwich, I wanted rye or wheat bread. It turns out that oatmeal-colored tweed yarn is perfect. For lettuce, I used slightly varigated green silk, because it made the lettuce look moist. Color ended up being a big concern. Food has a lot of tan/taupe/beige colorization. While we carry a lot of those colors in the store, we usually select the neutrals based on how they flatter complexions, not whether they look like dough or crust. The brown family became quite difficult to find. For the pizza crust, I held two fingering weight beige yarns together throughout, as the marled look made it look like the crust had been baked, rather than just coming off the kneading board. Pepperoni slices were made with marled cotton to resemble the not-so-smooth coloring of meat. And so on, and so on. Now I see yarn and instantly calculate what food family it resembles. Now that's fanatical.


KN: I love that Bonnie. That's what happens to me when I get into a project. I can't turn it off until it is over and I am onto the next. Many of these pieces are stuffed. What did you use for stuffing them?
BB: The pieces of food are stuffed with various things. Most of the small pieces are stuffed with polyester fiberfill, which can conform to nearly any shape (like inside a slice of pie). However, several items required some firmness, like slices of bread or buns. For these I used 3/4" thick craft foam with a thin layer of polyfill to soften its shape. The french fries, which are just four-sided tubes, were stuffed by threading super chunky yarn through the tubes, clipping it off and tacking the ends of the french fries shut.

Gorgeous chocolate cake
The biggest item in the exhibit was the most challenging to stuff...the full chocolate cake with a slice removed. Of course, stuffing was after midnight, and I couldn't rest until seeing the lump of knitted fabric take shape. Since I created it by just freeform knitting, I wasn't sure if I had a cake shape or an abstract art sculpture. I didn't have a big thick piece of foam late at night, so I layered all my 3/4" foam pieces and hand sewed one layer to another until it was the right thickness to hold the cake upright. Then I found a dinner plate the right size to use as a circle template, and cut through the layers of foam to form a circle. Foam that thick takes lots of craft knife cuts to make round. Then I removed the slice and covered it all. The cake materialized beautifully, however was so plump it exceeded the size of the cake stand I'd bought for the exhibit as a prop...hence the cartoonish scale of the serveware.

Good enough to eat
 
KN: Oh my goodness - you need to teach a class on stuffing knitted pieces!
I know you started with some books as the basis of the patterns. Which books did you use?
BB: I was initially inspired by "Knitted Fast Food" by Susie Johns, which I thought was just hysterical. I had no idea how many knitters and artists had already knit down this road before me, but there are many accomplished food knitters and designers and lots of online free patterns as well as books. For example,
Also, there are lots of free patterns at Knitting Central and I was inspired by mushroom and strawberry patterns found there. However, most everything else was my own invention. It is possible to get into the swing of this subject and just knit what's around you at lunch, or what's on the menu for dinner. Once you know your flat circle formula, the pizza crusts just materialize. At the store we stock the "Knitted Fast Food" and "Knitted Cakes" by Susie Johns to help get you started.

KN: By the end of the project, were you making up your own ideas and thinking of next years possibilities?
BB: I don't know about next year yet, but the project was very addictive while doing it. Pretty early on, I started deviating from the book's patterns, as I was trying for more realism and kept thinking of how I would have "cooked" that item. Also, I started looking at Google Images for variations to written patterns to see how food really looked, and that's what started me on the path of adding plate garni and condiments. I kept thinking of new subjects and had to stay focused to finish a slice of pie before leaping into the next idea, a chocolate ice cream cone. I kept each "meal" in a zipper bag and added more condiments and accessories as they occurred to me. While knitting at night, I started shopping for props during the day. You can't knit a lobster without having the appropriate tools on the plate. And french fries need their own container. As I mentioned in my blog about this exhibit (colorfulstitchesblog.com), my husband thinks I should knit the Thanksgiving dinner to avoid all the cooking. And don't you know, someone online has knitted an entire roasted turkey already...a better woman than I.

KN: I love the relish on the hotdog made of greenish beads. It looks so real. It is so much fun to start thinking outside the box of regular knitting, isn't it Bonnie? Tell me - has knitting all these wonderful creations changed the way you look at food? I can't imagine you can eat anything without thinking about increases, decreases, etc?
BB: Oh how true! I still keep thinking about how to make certain convoluted food shapes emerge from a straight line (the yarn strand) . And I see subtle food colors in custom hand-dyed yarns and wonder if dyers think about food when they approach their color choices. Does this mean I've caught the knitted food obsession sickness?

KN:. Well probably but as far as I am concerned, you could have worse problems. Is there any food you are just dying to knit next?
BB: There are a lot of items I had planned to knit that just didn't get done...like a tray of hors d'oeuvres and tea sandwiches and a pretty platter of cupcakes, a favorite knitted food subject because of all the festive frostings you can imagine. The whole subject of knitted pastries seems fascinating and a lot more fantastical than knitting meat. In the real kitchen I lean towards baking, so that seems pretty interesting as further subject matter. In fact, when I trimmed the chocolate cake with yards of knitted I-cord, I researched finished cake images in cookbooks for piping inspiration.

KN: I can only imagine the next exhibit - Knitted Cakes. That could be over the top with all the creativity that is possible! Tell us one of the funniest stories that has happened since you mounted the Taste of Lenox Exhibit in your Colorful Stitches store window.
BB: I'm amazed by the response this exhibit has gotten. I'm slow to adopt social networking and had never even written a blog post before this. However, with Mary's help (Mary is the co-owner and founder of Colorful Stitches), the news of and images from the exhibit have started spreading online without much effort on my part. I think it is interesting to see the conversation threads pro and con. Some people think I've wasted yarn and time knitting food. Others quickly defend this project, saying that if something knitted makes anyone smile, it is worth it. I happen to agree with the latter concept, which is exactly what got me started in the first place. I was already laughing out loud in a bookstore before even picking up my needles. Most people who come to the store are amazed to see food in the window. It often causes the double take reaction, because our idea of food doesn't usually extend to finding a full picnic layed out in a store window of a yarn store. I don't know about a single story funnier than all others, but most people do start smiling when they walk in the door. Some shoppers about-face and leave the store, only to return having gathered up their non-knitting friends who had planned to wait in the car.

Shish kabobs and watermelon!

 Children like the exhibit a lot, and want to take the ice cream cones home and we did have to retreive the cherry pie slice from the driveway as it was heading away with a 2-year-old...hint, hint Grandma! You could be knitting to-die-for play food for a tea party yourself.

KN: Have you gotten any local press and do you think that by doing this fun and humorous exhibit you will gain any new customers?
BB: This has been a very rewarding project so far. We are seeing the exhibit's news spread online and be picked up by the local media's web services already. Also, our yarn manufacturers have started re-blogging and posting the images on their websites. "Vogue Knitting" magazine has invited us to bring the exhibit to their LIVE show in both Chicago and New York as an art exhibit. This is fabulous. I had no idea a subject like knitted food would be this entertaining to people, but it turns out this art form is wholly understood by all. Yes, we have had newcomers visit the store, knitters and non-knitters alike. And people have started driving in from longer distances, just to make a day's outing of seeing the exhibit and having a nice lunch in a historic town. Sometimes, we have people who are just window shopping Lenox and drop in to see what we sell. This exhibit entertains those folks who had no preconception of what a yarn store is, and many have acknowledged long toying with the idea of picking up needles and learning. Wouldn't it be fabulous if an exhibit actually caused someone to become a knitter? Wow! What a life achievement that would be.

Spaghetti and meatballs
KN: I whole-heartedly agree. Whatever it is that turns a person into a knitter doesn't really matter. As long as they find the nerve and the desire to start learning - whether it is knit or crochet. Your exhibit Bonnie is absolutely gorgeous and I must find a way to get over to Colorful Stitches in Lenox this summer. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your day.

Here are the directions to the store if you too would like to visit.

The store hours of Colorful Stitches are the following from now to Labor Day:
Weekdays: 11:00 am - 5:30 pm
Saturday: 11:00 am - 6:00 pm
Sunday: 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
The exhibit will be up through Labor Day.

Let's live vicariously through Bonnie and Mary and celebrate the 4th with a lovely lobster dinner.... a la Bonnie Burton and Colorful Stitches.

Lobster with drawn butter and lemons

16 comments:

Sue Reed said...

This is just amazing! I want to get in my car and drive to Lenox right now! Thanks for sharing. Knitters are really the greatest people!

gale (she shoots sheep shots) said...

Fabulous! Great interview, too, I always want to know what the artist was thinking, and planning ,And how they did it, when a work like this is displayed.
Happy 4 th!

Adaliza said...

Great interview and so much fun - what a talent!
Makes me feel hungry too!!

Adaliza said...

Great interview and so much fun - what a talent!
Makes me feel hungry too!!

AlisonH said...

Wow!!!

Auntie Shan said...

Double WOW!! Love the Desserts! My stomach is growling!! ;-D

Kudos to Bonnie!! WELL DONE! -- And, super interview too btw! THANKS!

mn_bird said...

This was so fun to see and read about! I shared it with a bunch of folks today.

Thanks!

Susan said...

Utterly charming! So much fun to look at and read how she did it.

Kathy said...

This was a great interview! So inspiring!

nancy said...

This is just fascinating. Wish I was closer so I could see in person. What a talented woman! Thanks for sharing. My husband couldn't believe it's knitted!

Anonymous said...

~ oh, how much FUN !! ~
My special favorite is the lobster platter. :) The colors of that are just yummie :) I like the lemon slice, the greens and the lobster is perfect.
About 8 yrs. ago, my AfterSchool children's knitting club designed a knitted breakfast, fried egg, melba toast, bacon slices, strawberries, kiwi slices and even a cup of coffee, as an April Fool's Day breakfast for the elementary school principal. We placed it on a school tray ~ it was great FUN !! We even had a knitted napkin. ~ All the children helped knit a bit of breakfast, it really helped them learn that you can knit anything !!
They had a great time choosing "bacon yarn", "coffee yarn", "berry yarn" from my baskets.
Many children then wanted to make their Moms strawberries for their birthdays :)
I'm certain this will inspire new knitters !!
Best,
Shell ~
YarnSoup@yahoo.com

Reneelynn said...

Incredible!! I could hardly believe the food in the first picture was knitted......it looked so real. Bonnie is very talented indeed. As a grandma I must say this would be a child's dream toy ;) I can see why one of the pieces was leaving through the parking lot! lol
Kristen, great interview and thank you for sharing this with those of us who live far away and maybe would of never seen it. loved the post!!

Chris said...

Wow! Absolutely Amazing. I love all the food, especially the lobster platter. Great interview.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous interview Kristin! What a great idea, I just love this! Thanks so much for sharing :)

Queen of the Tea Cosies said...

Fibre Food!

Kieren Dutcher said...

Very cute! and funny. Reminds me of two things: Claes Oldenburg's pop art, and those cute knitted dogs,I think there's a whole book of different breeds of stuffed pups. Did you post about them, Kristin?