*Featured Photo: Dis-com-fort, 2021, hand knitted wool. Approx. 1000 x 20 mm. It is installed as part of a group work entitled Tree, which is the work of the collective the Blackwater Polytechnic (Ben Coode-Adams, Simon Emery, Sara Impey, Justin Knopp and Freddie Robins) Ph.cr. Dewi Tannatt Lloyd, copyright Freddie Robins
Freddie Robins is a fibre artist and a teacher; she’s a senior tutor and Reader in Textiles at the Royal College of Art. She studied Constructed Textiles at Middlesex Polytechnic in London, specializing in Knitted Textiles. She then received her MFA in Textiles at the RCA.
Her practice explores the concepts of craft and art through knitting. The artist employs this medium to challenge the clichés attached to women’s work, craft, art and design categories.
In Robins’ works, knitting takes on a new meaning and role. Motivated by the desire to explore the communicative potential of the medium, she appropriates it by decontextualizing it, subverting its cultural role, which has always seen it bound to women’s domestic activities, relegated to the position of harmless, benevolent domestic practice.
Through her work, Robins presents us with a very different reality where the knitted artwork speaks of politics, gender inequality and feminism.
Your works consist mainly of knitted sculptures and installations. How did you arrive at this choice and why?
I have knitted since I was a teenager, and studied Knitted Textiles at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. My studies where directed at a design context but after graduating and working as a designer I became less and less interested in function and the marketing of my work and more motivated by concepts and the actual process of knitting. I wanted my work to have meaning for me.
What kind of research characterizes your artistic production? How has your research evolved or changed from your earliest works to your most recent ones?
My initial research was about the human body. Working with knitting this enabled me to subvert the garment forms that knitting is most closely associated with to discuss ideas around normality and conformity. I have always been motivated by subversion and am constantly looking for ways to successfully employ subversion in my work. Over time my research has become more politically driven, undertaken from a feminist perspective. Currently I am exploring ideas around hierarchies of material and process. I am researching into softness and gender. How softness is often mistakenly associated with weakness, viewed as inferior, less important and less useful than hardness.
You are an artist but also a Senior Tutor for Knitted Textiles and Reader in Textiles at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. How does teaching reflect on your work as an artist? How does it enrich or inspire it?
I love teaching, the sharing and passing on of knowledge and experience. I am passionate about enabling others to explore their creativity, making it central to the way that they lead their lives. Teaching is exhausting but also incredibly enriching, both intellectually and emotionally. Being in an educational environment forces you embrace the unknown as students constantly expose you to different research interests and other ways of thinking. It enables you to understand the concerns of younger generations and forces you to address the future relevance of your own practice.
After graduation you founded Tait & Style, a company specializing in the production of embroidered and knitted fabrics. For eight years you designed and produced fabrics for leading fashion designers. Then in 1997 you changed your focus by beginning to devote yourself to conceptual art through the textile medium. What led you to this choice?
Tait & Style was a fantastic company that was founded by a friend from the RCA, Ingrid Tait, who I worked very closely alongside. Ingrid established our manufacturing base in Orkney, Scotland, where she is from. I enjoyed the building of a company and the necessary theory behind running a successful and profitable business but I just didn’t like applying that theory to my own creativity. I am not a very flexible individual and definitely not a flexible designer. I became more interested in the meaning of the work rather then the saleability. I didn’t like being dictated to by the market. I was also teaching quite a lot by then so was left with little time to dedicate to my own, individual studio practice. I wanted to make work with only my own boundaries and time frame.
Is your work feminist? In what ways?
I consider the use of knitting as a feminist art practice in itself. Taking an under valued, overlooked activity, associated with women and the domestic, and using it to make an art work. The creation of art is considered beyond the everyday and given high precedence in our society. Knitting sits pretty low in the hierarchies of creative activities and I refuse to accept this position. I will my use skill and interests to do exactly what I like with them and not feel that I should be painting, working in metal, or working on a monumental scale, for example, to be considered a serious artist. I have made work about the female experience. There is a series of works that I made after the birth of my daughter that address motherhood and the difficulty of this transition. This work is in stark contrast to the romantic notion of motherhood that women are still constantly presented with.
If I asked you to look back in time and identify, among your older works, the one that you feel is furthest from you today, which one would you choose and why? What role has this work played in your artistic growth?
I don’t feel far from any of my past works. I tend to develop and produce works quite slowly with many of my concepts being continuous. Sometimes I will return to an idea to reinvestigate it. The form and investigation of the human body, in particular the hand, which was the starting point for my artistic career is always there. As I, and my body age, it offers different possibilities for creative expression.
Are there any contemporary artists that you feel are close to its research and your language?
I feel close to two contemporary artists, Liz Collins (USA) and Kate Just (Australia). Both of these artists have used knitting to explore political issues from a feminist perspective. Between 2005-2016 Liz Collins undertook fifteen different iterations of her Knitting Nation performance. In these performances Liz worked with groups of knitters who worked ‘live’ on their knitting machines. The performances were a commentary on how humans interact with machines, global manufacturing, trade and labour. Kate Just’s on going artwork, Anonymous was a woman, involves the repetitive production of hand knitted panels (40 x 40 cms) bearing the text ‘Anonymous was a woman.’ Stretched around a frame each piece resembles a plaque. These ‘plaques’ are assembled on the wall in a grid, resembling a columbarium to past lives and lost artworks.
What are you working on at this time?
I have several different self initiated projects going on in my studio at this time.
I am continuing my exploration into “soft stuff”. Working with exceptionally soft yarns, synthetic as well as natural, to make works that present soft as an important quality, challenging material propertie and process hierarchies where knitting and softness are given low status. A hierarchy of creative disciplines and materials exists. The ‘hard’ continues to dominate the ‘soft’. This was clearly evidenced in the ‘Power List’ in the UK publication Crafts (May/June 2018). This list named the top twenty power-brokers of the craft world, ‘the ones other people really listen to, that have the capacity to influence and change the shape of the field’. Of the ten makers listed, none had a practice committed to the discipline of textiles, or identified themselves through the field, whereas six identified themselves as ceramicists. The top four on the list were writers, or had published alongside their craft practice, highlighting the importance of the written word. It appears that to really exercise power it is not enough to make, you also need to effectively communicate your message through publication. This fact is fuelling a second studio project. I have been exploring the dominance of the written word and how this affects the way that artists are perceived, especially artists that are working in academia. The making of material works is never enough. Your work needs verbal or written justification. I have been hand-knitting words, making them material. These words are dependent upon a making process to exist. This is in opposition to using words to validate work, or to make it intelligible to the viewer.
I have also been taking a basketry course to learn new skills to enable me to work with harder materials that can give soft work structure. I have undertaken this workshop without any preconceptions of what I might end up with. I have been combining natural and man made materials using traditional basketry techniques. It has been a liberating experience to dedicate time to the exploration of materials in this way.
Alongside these studio projects I have been writing two articles for academic publications. One article addresses the medias stereotypical representations of knitters and looks at the way that this stereotype has been subverted for the academic journal, Textile – Cloth & Culture. The other is a feminist discussion and subversion of softness for the forthcoming Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of World Textiles.