Cork's Knitting Map brought to book

The knitting map for Cork 2005 is the subject of a new book, says COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork's Knitting Map brought to book
Jools Gilson at the opening of The Fabric of Contemporary Life and The Knitting Map Art, community and controversy 2005 - 2015 in the Glucksman Gallery, UCC Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

‘A CARDIGAN for Cork’ was just one of the humorous and disparaging descriptions of the famous knitting map project, which is nearly always referred to as ‘controversial’.

This vast piece of craft work, the size of a tennis court, was commissioned as a flagship project for Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture 2005.

But as a rotating team of over 2,500 women, mainly working class, knitted feverishly in the crypt of St Luke’s Church every day for a year, the tension between official Cork 2005 and the city, mediated (and sometimes directed) by the media, resulted in hostility. And there was the false rumour that the knitting map got lost...

Now, the editors (who are also contributors) of a new book of essays, want to set the record straight, as well as deal with the negativity the knitting map attracted.

Jools Gilson and Nicola Moffat’s book, Textiles Community and Controversy —The Knitting Map, is published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

Gilson, professor of creative practice at UCC, directed the textile art project which she and her creative partner, Richard Povall, dreamt up. It wasn’t a literal map, of course. But 14 years ago, there were misconceptions about it.

Jools opens her essay with the words: “This writing is a navigation of failures.”

She and Richard, who had spent ten years making dance theatre and installation work, proposed the knitting map “which we hoped could be a gift to the city”. 

However, Jools says it was unwanted. It was written off by “a contingent of its Irish audience (the majority of whom never visited the work).”

Here, she says, “is the affect of failure: It hurts. It is an injury”.

In case anyone is vague about what constituted the knitting map, it used digital codes, written to translate information about how busy Cork city was, into knitting stitches, and what the weather was like, into wool colour. This information was uploaded to digital screens as a simple knitting pattern. The knitting was done, every day for a year, creating a limited type of record of aspects of the city.

Didn’t it cost a lot of money, I hear you say? Jools and Richard’s company, half/angel, received €258,000 over three years. The funding, writes Jools, “primarily paid for a staff of five, office rental and the renovation, fitting out and running of an arts centre for a year.”

The money, which half/angel was forbidden to reveal during the years of the map’s development, “fuelled speculation and controversy”. And Jools goes further, stating that Cork and Ireland in 2005 was a place that had “a troubled relationship to wealth” and questions about “public permission to be valued and to be an artist.” She goes on to say that it didn’t help that the two directors of the project were English. Alluding to colonialism, which Jools does, seems like a bit of a stretch.

In a comprehensive essay on the media’s response to the knitting map, journalist and writer Rachel Andrews says over the course of 2005, “the project became a symbol of all that was perceived to have gone wrong with the cultural year in Cork.” 

It received a fair bit of media coverage, both locally and nationally.

Rachel, in trying to explain the mainly negative media coverage, suggests “news journalism thrives on exaggeration and drama...” Nuance is not something that is given much of an airing.

Why weren’t the knitters paid? This was a question posed by journalist Katie Mythen. Art historian, Vera Ryan, made the same point in a letter in the Irish Examiner. She wondered if future feminists and/or historians will “see these generous knitters as exploited or honoured by concepts of partaking in history?”

What was all that palaver about the knitting map being lost — and where is it now?

This was down to various local radio and national TV news reports. American academic, Deborah Barkun writes that, periodically, over six years, “the Irish media insisted that the massive work had disappeared£.

Here is its trajectory: In 2006, it premiered at Cork’s Millennium Hall. After that, in specially fabricated wooden crates, it spent 18 months in the old city morgue on White Street. From there, it went to Millersville University of Pennsylvania for a year where it was exhibited at the Ganser Gallery “to great acclaim”.

When it returned to Ireland in 2008, it was first housed in a storage site at UCC before being relocated to another storage place in Kinsale where it remains today. (In 2015, the knitting map was unfurled and exhibited at the Glucksman.)

Jools Gilson, who values “feminine labour”, says even though the knitting map isn’t hers, “I guard it, because there will come a time when I will unroll it again.”

She is truly irrepressible, even in the face of self-confessed failure.

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