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Illusion Knitting Turns Angles and Stitches Into Hidden Art

Seen close-up and head-on, an illusion knit wall hanging might look like a mundane collection of stripes gently snagged by cat claws. But step a few paces to one side, and an image emerges. It can be simple: a checkerboard or a snail spiral. Or it can be complicated: a landscape view of the Great Pyramid of Giza, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, or Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Whatever the image, the subtle trick on your eye that allows you to finally see this “illusion” isn’t much of a trick at all. It’s just knitting.

Knitting works like this: You build up a swatch of it by forming a row of yarn loops on a knitting needle, then pulling more loops through them, one by one, with a second needle. Each loop shows its rounded top on one side of your swatch, and its beginning-and-end-strand bottom on the other. A whole row of those rounded tops makes a puffy ridge; that's called a garter-stitch row. A whole line of those bottoms lies flat; that's called a stocking-stitch row. So, even though that seemingly cat-scratched wall hanging looks as planar as paper, because of those garter- and stocking-stitch rows, its surface is actually 3D. That's how you create illusion knitting.

As far as anyone knows, illusion knitting originated with a Japanese knitting teacher named Mieko Yano. In the early 1980s, she moved to Sweden to get married; packed along with all her earthly possessions was a slim booklet that explained how to make what she called “magic patterns.” At some point, the booklet was translated into Danish, which is how it came to the attention of another knitting teacher named Vivian Høxbro, who went on to publish her own book about the technique, which she called Shadow Knitting. Her designs were simple, but a slew of people have been experimenting with the parameters of illusion (or shadow) knitting ever since.

The simplest kind of illusion knitting uses one color of yarn. From the front, you see a swath of, say, green. From the side, you see an alternating checkerboard of green squares. Or take the knit below, which appears to be a multicolored grid straight-on but from an angle reveals circles within the grid. 

How does illusion knitting show you two different images? From the side, unlike from the front, your eye catches on the raised garter-stitch ridges that delineate the pattern, and it glosses over the stocking-stitch valleys. Helping this along, a rough surface—the raised garter-stitch ridge, in this case—“tends to look darker than a smooth surface,” according to Derin Sherman, a physics professor at Cornell College in Iowa who studies optical illusions, among other topics. Sherman tells mental_floss, “That’s because, while light often gets caught in the nooks and crannies of a rough surface, it just bounces off a smooth surface”—our flat, stocking-stitch valley.

The kind of illusion knitting that gets you to Marilyn uses two colors of yarn: one light, one dark, in alternating stripes. The most basic explanation of how this works is that the light-colored yarn accentuates stocking-stitch valleys, pushing them into the background; the dark-colored yarn accentuates garter-stitch ridges, pulling them into the foreground. 

Sherman says a good way to visualize how to create this effect is to imagine strips of clay, both dark and light, laid out on a table. “Where you want the picture to look dark, raise the dark clay stripe to create a small dark hill, and lower the white stripe to create a small light valley,” he advises. “Looking straight down shows dark and white stripes, but from the sides the hills stand out, so the patterns appear.” This bit of technique alone isn’t quite enough to make Marilyn pop out of some yarn, but it more than gets you started.

British math teacher Steve Plummer—who uses knitting and crochet to explain math concepts—creates complex images, including Charlie Chaplin in the style of Warhol, a tiger head, Rossetti's Sybilla Palmifera, and a 3D fractal Menger sponge, seen below. (All of the animations in this story come from Woolly Thoughts, the website of Plummer and fellow math teacher/knitter Pat Ashforth.)

The knitting itself isn’t complicated; even beginner knitters can do it. But any pattern first has to be made into a chart. That’s where the challenge lies. Plummer explains to mental_floss, “The smallest detail I want to show must be at least one stitch across. This determines the scale of the completed piece.” Once he’s figured that out, Plummer places a grid over his entire drawn image. “Each square on the grid represents one stitch, and each row of squares represents one row of knitting,” he says. He then decides which areas on the image will be dark or light, and colors the grid in accordingly. On average, it takes him 100 hours to chart one piece of illusion knitting.

To date, the most impressive use of illusion knitting might be by Austrian artist Tanja Boukal, who’s exhibited strikingly realistic portraits based on gritty newspaper photos of armed women prepared for combat. Is this as far as illusion knitting can go?

Sherman, who is not a knitter himself, sees the potential for more. He suggests the underlying formula could be enhanced by using different colors to shade ridges on either of their sides, so you’d see different images depending on whether you viewed the work from the left or right. But, he admits, “It would be hard for a human to knit.”

Knitted gauntlet thrown?

All animations courtesy of Steve Plummer and Pat Ashforth

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The Getty Center, Surrounded By Wildfires, Will Leave Its Art Where It Is
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The wildfires sweeping through California have left countless homeowners and businesses scrambling as the blazes continue to grow out of control in various locations throughout the state. While art lovers worried when they heard that Los Angeles's Getty Center would be closing its doors this week, as the fires closed part of the 405 Freeway, there was a bit of good news. According to museum officials, the priceless works housed inside the famed Getty Center are said to be perfectly secure and won't need to be evacuated from the facility.

“The safest place for the art is right here at the Getty,” Ron Hartwig, the Getty’s vice president of communications, told the Los Angeles Times. According to its website, the museum was closed on December 5 and December 6 “to protect the collections from smoke from fires in the region,” but as of now, the art inside is staying put.

Though every museum has its own way of protecting the priceless works inside it, the Los Angeles Times notes that the Getty Center was constructed in such a way as to protect its contents from the very kind of emergency it's currently facing. The air throughout the gallery is filtered by a system that forces it out, rather than a filtration method which would bring air in. This system will keep the smoke and air pollutants from getting into the facility, and by closing the museum this week, the Getty is preventing the harmful air from entering the building through any open doors.

There is also a water tank at the facility that holds 1 million gallons in reserve for just such an occasion, and any brush on the property is routinely cleared away to prevent the likelihood of a fire spreading. The Getty Villa, a separate campus located in the Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway, was also closed out of concern for air quality this week.

The museum is currently working with the police and fire departments in the area to determine the need for future closures and the evacuation of any personnel. So far, the fires have claimed more than 83,000 acres of land, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and the temporary closure of I-405, which runs right alongside the Getty near Los Angeles’s Bel-Air neighborhood.

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This 77-Year-Old Artist Saves Money on Art Supplies by 'Painting' in Microsoft Excel
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It takes a lot of creativity to turn a blank canvas into an inspired work of art. Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi makes his pictures out of something that’s even more dull than a white page: an empty spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel.

When he retired, the 77-year-old Horiuchi, whose work was recently spotlighted by Great Big Story, decided he wanted to get into art. At the time, he was hesitant to spend money on painting supplies or even computer software, though, so he began experimenting with one of the programs that was already at his disposal.

Horiuchi's unique “painting” method shows that in the right hands, Excel’s graph-building features can be used to bring colorful landscapes to life. The tranquil ponds, dense forests, and blossoming flowers in his art are made by drawing shapes with the software's line tool, then adding shading with the bucket tool.

Since picking up the hobby in the 2000s, Horiuchi has been awarded multiple prizes for his creative work with Excel. Let that be inspiration for Microsoft loyalists who are still broken up about the death of Paint.

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist's process in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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