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

10 Amazing Pieces of Peeps Art

“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council
“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Some people paint, some scrapbook, and others create Game of Thrones-inspired dragon sculptures made of 5000 marshmallow Peeps. Candy art may seem like an unusual form of craftsmanship, but it’s more common than you might expect in the lead-up to Easter, when organizations around the country host Peeps art contests.

The aforementioned dragon, as well as the artworks pictured below, were all submitted to the “PEEPshow” contest—a fundraiser for the Carroll County Arts Council in Westminster, Maryland. According to event organizers, the event became the first exhibition of Peeps art when it debuted 12 years ago.

Keep scrolling to see some of the best Peeps sculptures from recent years (2017-2019), and visit the Art Council’s website to see all of this year's participants. (As of Friday afternoon, a Warhol-inspired artwork of "Marilyn Peeproe" appears to be in the lead.)

A space-themed Peeps display
“First Peeps in Space” by International Delight / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A samurai sculpture
"Sugar Samurai" by Tristar Martial Arts / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

The rabbit from Alice in Wonderland
“I’m Late, I’m Late (for the PEEPshow)” by Vivian Davis / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A caterpillar sculpture
“The Very Hungry Caterpeeper” by Lia Finch and M / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A sculpture inspired by a painting
“Peep with the Pearl Earring” by Sandy Oxx / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council


“Edgar Allan Peep” by Christian Twamley / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A Belle sculpture
“Beauty and the Peep” by Candace Birger, Westminster Cake Studio / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Fish sculpture
“The Rainbow Fish” by Jen, Justin, Connor, and Jacob Myers / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A Gumby sculpture
“Just Gumby” by Sydney Blacksten / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

A sculpture of a monster
“Percy the Purple Peeple Eater” by the Koontz Family / Courtesy of the Carroll County Arts Council

Artist Turns 5000 Marshmallow Peeps Into a Game of Thrones Dragon

PEEPS® and Vivian Davis
PEEPS® and Vivian Davis

Game of Thrones returns to HBO for its eighth and final season on Sunday, April 14. Instead of worrying about which of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons (if any) will survive to see the end of the series, distract yourself with some playful Peeps art inspired by the creatures.

In 2018, artist Vivian Davis (who's on Instagram as @tutoringart) constructed a Game of Thrones-themed dragon sculpture out of 5000 marshmallow Peeps as part of PEEPshow, an annual Peeps-themed event in Westminster, Maryland. The dragon has her wings outstretched, with a nest of colorful eggs in front of her. It's not quite life-sized, but it is massive—the candy model measures 8.5 feet tall, with a 7-foot wingspan. For comparison, Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth, is 6 feet, 3 inches (or 75 Peeps chicks) tall.

A 'Game of Thrones' dragon made of PEEPS chicks with its wings spread
PEEPS® and Vivian Davis

Easter falls on Sunday, April 21 this year (also the premiere date of Game of Thrones season 8, episode 2) which means that Peeps season is in full swing. For more delicious Peeps content, check out these facts about the cute candy.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER