It’s May and some of us (in Maine!) are still awaiting trees to leaf out and our favorite flowers to blossom. I can’t help but think of other events and traditions that we look forward to each year. One of our most favorite and anticipated perennials at Fiber College is Katharine Cobey, our own Maine Master Craftsman. As a fiber artist and master knitter, Katharine welcomes novice and expert knitters alike. This year, Katharine is teaching three classes at Fiber College. Adventures in Knitting is an intensive two-day class that will run 9-4 on Wednesday and Thursday; Easy Does It: Starting to Knit will be offered on Friday morning from 9-1; and Knit a Random Lace Shawl will be held on Sunday from 9 to 1. If you’ve ever wanted to try knitting, to improve your knitting, or to sit alongside other knitters and learn from the best, here’s your chance! Let’s meet Katharine and then you can sign up for any or all of her classes here.
Fiber College’s theme for 2017 is Re-Use, Re-Design, Re-Create. How do you incorporate any part of this theme into an important part of your life?
Knitting has been working around this theme, probably from its beginnings. When someone made a knitted garment it was worn, until it was worn out. Then it was darned or mended, until things got beyond mending. Then the sweater or stockings could be literally taken apart and the yarn used to make a smaller sized sweater or a part of something else. In fact one of the problems that historians have had is that early examples of knitting disappeared before they could exhibit their existence.
Nowadays we have more yarns and are less careful with them, but still a knowledgeable mother or grandmother knows how to add inches to a favorite sweater as her grandchild grows. And passing on the skills as well, is part of our heritage. The respect we give to things that are made by family members is an encouragement to our learning to be makers, ourselves.
When something is handknit, it is also not part of our throw away culture. The care, skill, and affection that provoke the work, means that my family keeps the knitting my Grandmother did.
What is your favorite thing about FC? What do you think new attendees just shouldn’t miss?
I love the enthusiasm of the students. People are in classes at Fiber College, not because the class is required, but because they want to be. People who come for the first time should talk to fellow students about the classes the returnees come back for.
I also love the gardens and always save some time each day just to sit in different places enjoying where I am.
How or what have you re-used as an artist?
Often after a bit project there are leftover yarns. I have loved making rugs with them. Using natural colors as a background, I can experiment with colors and stitches.
When I was paying my rent at the Torpedo Factory Art center in Alexandria, Virginia, I made Christmas stockings—one a week and no two ever alike. As I so often am most intrigued with shape, the stockings were my education in color. And the leftover small balls of yarn were not getting wasted, but instead became an inspiration.
What is the best piece of advice a mentor has given you?
Years ago, the poet Howard Nemerov was my teacher for Language and Literature. He said, “Write what you know about personally.” I found that really helpful when I was writing poetry, and then again when I started sculpting with my knitting, it was just as valid. I have things I might knit. Sometimes I am really interested in what is happening politically, but I cannot just knit about these things. I just don’t have the metaphors for them.
Work like my Portrait of Alzheimer’s comes from my actual experience. My Mother died of Alzheimer’s. It was not an abstract idea, or a public issue, but a presence in my life. I made the installation Ritual of Homelessness after years of working at the House of Ruth. And my forage bags were inspired by people I met there. When people gave us material and sewing machines, people made bags they could carry their important things in.
Tell us about a time that you developed an exciting idea for your fiber art; where did the idea come from? What inspired you?
My studio at the Torpedo art factory had a view of the Potomac River. I could look up from spinning or knitting and see boats, all sorts—big ones and then smaller ones with people fishing. As the sun set, I could not see details, just silhouettes.
When my husband and I left Washington and my studio in the art center, I was losing the boats I had loved seeing, but setting out on my own voyage. Before I finished packing I had planned my installation Boat with Four Figures. Seven years later in Maine it opened in the lobby of the Portland Museum of Art.
What or who has had the greatest impact on your work as an artist?
I have no one mentor, instead I owe all the people who have encouraged me to follow my own ideas. When I am teaching, I find that the thing that most seems to holds people back from being creative, is fear. They don’t want to take the risk of being mocked, being different, or experimenting. My Father was a great tinkerer and I loved watching the things he constructed. He was always on the lookout for things he could use in the houses he built. No two windows were alike, but things worked together anyway. He was a great model, a great risk taker.
How does art recreate you?
It is simply fun to make, to experiment, to learn.
If you could go back in time, what might you change about your fiber journey?
I would learn to weld.