As we climbed to the highest peak of Wickenden Street in Providence, complete with an adventure through a bamboo forest at Zoe van Buren's back door, we knew she was on to something! We climbed a mile's worth of stairs to meet up with Zoe in her cozy, little apartment. We talked about life, folklore and of course knitting! She showed us her yarn collection and spun us some yarn on her spinning wheel, while we chatted.
LORE COLLECTION: How did you get started with knitting?
ZOE VAN BUREN: I think I started when I was about 11. I was originally taught by my mother. She taught me the first few things, but never got that far into it herself, so I quickly reached the point where I had maxed her knowledge. So, I turned to the internet and taught myself everything else from there. After a while, I started to realize that I was starting to care about knitting so much that it was becoming more than just a hobby. I was going to the Sheep and Wool Festival in Rheinbeck every year and would start seeing new things that I wanted to learn. So, I bought a spinning wheel and a drop spindle. I bought some dyes and some blank yarns and I’ve been learning how to dye since then. Every year I’m starting to push the chain of production back one more step. I feel like the next logical step is to own sheep! It’s become something I do every single day and I love it.
LC: Where are you from and how did you get here?
ZvB: I’m from NYC and I got here on a whim. I was in Ithaca last year after graduation, and everything I was doing in my life sort of neatly ended in at the same time. So I thought, "I have one year before I conceivably am in grad school," (I’m in the process of applying now) and I thought, "well, where do I want to live?" I had a friend who was very excited about Providence. He encouraged me to come here. I knew I wanted access to art classes, and I thought, "between RISD, and friends, and just generally loving New England this is kind of perfect."
LC: What are you inspired by?
ZvB: Recently, I am inspired by my simultaneous efforts to become a folklorist (um it fits in really nicely with the name of your studio haha), and looking more and more at traditional forms and skills; both for myself and my own artistic process, as well as academically. I'm thinking more and more about why people use these outmoded techniques which have been made irrelevant by industrialization. Why am I willing to spend 50 hours to get a sweater that costs me 3 times as much as buying it at Old Navy? I'm finding the answer in myself and other people who do it too. I find it really inspiring. The connection to traditional knitting techniques matters to me. I can combine the past, the present, and the future at the same time. Knitting is in a very exciting vogue moment right now and its fantastic! These styles, techniques and patterns were developed hundreds of years ago and can still be used to make new work that resonates with people now in a way that can't be beat.
LC: So you are exploring what this answer is? Can you tell us a little more about that?
ZvB: It's been about making the things that you have in your life really, truly have meaning. There are so many things that I buy from stores that I feel lukewarm about, and I end up throwing them out or giving them away in a year. When you make something yourself and put that much time, effort, and sometimes money into it, you value it. Even if you don’t love it; you’re still going to wear it all the time and treasure it. It becomes a part of you; like you’ve made yourself another finger. It doesn’t need to be perfect. There is a little flaw in everything that I make. I like to think about how every stitch takes me a little bit under one second. So, if I look at all of the stitches in this room, each of those represents approximately one second of my life. If you look at a sweater like that one, that’s a lot of seconds in my life you’re looking at! It’s a little memorial to the time that I had; it makes the finished piece so much more valuable because it’s a piece of you. It's also really good to slow down, not expect instant gratification all the time, not expect things to be perfect, and enjoy the process of making.
LC: What’s your creative process?
ZvB: I guess we already delved into that, but I can talk about design a little bit.
LC: You design all of your own things?
ZvB: Now more than most, that’s still a relatively a new part of the craft. I’ve only recently turned it from something totally craft based to something more artistic. I used to always follow patterns, but then I realized I couldn’t always find the pattern for what I wanted, so I had to make it myself. I’ve been trying to design almost every new thing that I make, or at least alter it in some way so that it works better for me. For example, this is a pattern that I decided on by flipping through old glossaries of established knitting stitches. I use that nugget of inspiration to wonder, "what would it look like as a top to a sweater or the cuff of a glove." It's a lot of making it up as you go along, sort of faking it until it feels right. I ripped the stitching out on the initial mitten 8 times before I was happy. That was an important creative process moment for me, because it was the first time where I was like, "It's worth it being exactly what I want. If I just let it be it's going to drive me insane." I’m also selling patterns now, designing so that other people can replicate it. Knitting is an interesting art form in that way. A lot of established designers are designing patterns so that other people can do it too. That's really not the case for other forms of designed pieces, where the artist’s hand is more important. Here it’s more about designing around how other people can recreate it. The technical writer becomes just as important as the designer. The creative process isn't limited but informed by what the audience brings to it and is willing to do themselves. If i’m making something that's frustrating and tiny; I might be ok with it but not everyone is. That’s been the early creative process.
LC: Do you ever find yourself with too much other stuff going on? How do you find motivation to pursue this creative part of you?
ZvB: The really great thing about knitting is that it started out as a comfort-thing for me. It’s already the thing I do to chill out when other things are causing me frustration. In that sense, it never really feels like a true roadblock, because at the very least I’m working on something for myself. Also, because each thing takes so long, it gives you a lot of time to rethink it. My cousin gave me the best gift ever; two skeins of yarn from her friends’ alpaca Tito, which are now the white mittens. I saw a picture of him on her Instagram and I commented on how cute he was and she told me I was getting a piece of him in the mail. The kindest thing! I was staring at these two skeins and I said to myself, "something special needs to come of these because its such special yarn. I can’t make someone else’s pattern, its got to really compliment this specific yarn, it has to be in line with the story and I have to love it!" (Jayna, "its very in line with the folklore.") It has a background, its just a little thing but in knowing where it comes from makes it special. I started making a different pattern out of it and it wasn’t working; the yarn wasn’t right for it, and nothing about it was making me happy. I was about to settle, but I couldn't. So I tore everything out and I let it sit for a while. I was sorting through my bag of yarn and pieces of scrap yarn from other projects and I held up one next to the white and I was like, “oh my god” I need to add color!" It just instantly came to life. Rip it out and try again! Walk away. I needed the space to be able to see those colors together and it worked!
Keep your eyes pealed for van Buren's knits in the Lore Collection
Cheers! Lore Collection
Margaret Hinge, & Jayna Aronovitch