Knit with Peril

“Total coincidence—I had no idea,” fashion designer Liz Collins says of Safe—which happens to be the name of both her knit-wear exhibition, at the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA) through January 29, and the almost simultaneous MoMA design block-buster. In Collins’s show a frock could protect a pedestrian from nighttime traffic, while other works “allow us to think about the emotional responses we have to clothing’s multiple meanings,” curator Dana Self says.

Enthralled by the futuristic designs Collins rendered from a manually operated knitting machine, a more than century-old technology, Self selected the designer’s work as the first fiber offering in the museum’s “Design Lab” series, which be-gan in 2003. “Her use of knitting—often thought of as too grandmotherly—as a vehicle for sensual and body-conscious clothing is smart,” she says. Given carte blanche to assemble the show, Collins launched upon “safe” as the theme for selecting three existing garments and creating 13 new works.

The theme developed around Reflective Dress—a knitted blend of silk, wool, cotton elastic, and the reflective yarn RetroGlo—from her runway launch in 2000. Wool-and-elastic lozenges run down the torso, appearing to be the darkened rib cage of a vivid skeleton when illuminated in the glare of headlights. Collins inserted the ribs by a technique called short-rowing, setting aside stitches on the knitting machine’s needle bed to create space in which to insert the nonreflective material. Once it is in place she reintroduces the held stitches, maneuvering them around it.

Collins deploys the same technique to build volume directly into the knit. For example, a new six-by-two-foot pattern sampler includes Shark Fabric and Short Thorn Fabric, which combine merino wool and plastic-wrapped cotton-rayon cord into skinlike folds and spiky peaks. She has also devised an unusual process that she calls “knit-grafting,” in which nonknit fabric is fused to a knit structure by forcing that material onto the knitting machine’s latch-hook needle, puncturing holes into it concurrently with each stitch.

Besides exploring “what nature provides living things to survive,” Collins mines her past for motifs of comfort. For Flannel Dress she knit-grafted strips of vintage shirts to an elastic-cotton-silk foundation, creating a bustle of flannel fragments. It is topped by Collins’s favorite shirt, which she sacrificed for the project. But you don’t have to lose yours to get Safe: items from the collection go on sale at New York’s Fashion Week in February, starting at $400.

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