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

9 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh came to art relatively late, only deciding on it as a career at the age of 27. Now his post-Impressionist paintings of sunflowers, night skies, and the landscapes and people of Provence in southern France are among the most recognizable artworks in the world. But mental health issues, a lack of fame during his lifetime, and the infamous moment his ear was cut with a razor have made his story a compelling, complex narrative. Here are nine facts about the celebrated Dutch artist.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was an art dealer before he was an artist.

Before becoming an artist, Vincent van Gogh joined the art firm Goupil & Cie in The Hague in 1869 at the age of 16. In 1873, he was sent to London to work for the firm. His brother, Theo, worked for the same company in Brussels. While Theo thrived, Vincent struggled as an art dealer, and cared little for the commercial side of art. In 1876, he was fired. He then did some teaching and tried for a career as a preacher, like his father, but his first attempt at missionary work in a Belgian mining village was a failure. After six months, he'd made so little headway the evangelical committee that had sponsored him decided that he was unfit for the work.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was largely self-taught.

Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
J.M.W. de Louw, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Although van Gogh had short stints at art academies in Brussels and Antwerp, it wasn't a good fit—the teachers didn't like his style, and he didn't appreciate their traditional teaching methods. Over three months in Paris in 1886, artist Fernand Cormon mentored van Gogh in sketching studies of models. These brief experiences were the bulk of his art education. Instead, he focused on training himself: Early in his career, he created hundreds of drawings to play with ideas and develop his skills. He also spent hours studying drawing manuals and copying prints, including those of work by Delacroix and Rembrandt, to master his sketching technique.

  1. Most of van Gogh’s work was made in a single decade.

Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned from 1880 to 1890. In that one decade, he created more than 2000 drawings, paintings, watercolors, and sketches. In the last two months of his life, while he was settled in Auvers-sur-Oise, he was prolific, making about a painting a day.

  1. Van Gogh only signed his first name.

Despite his late start as an artist, van Gogh was confident in his brand, and signed his paintings just “Vincent.” He may have chosen this shortened name because he knew his surname was difficult to pronounce (most people still don't give it the full "vun KHOKH" Dutch pronunciation). Or, he may have been inspired by his Dutch hero Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who similarly only signed his first name.

  1. Japan inspired van Gogh as much as Provence did.

While living in Paris from 1886 to 1888, van Gogh acquired a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which influenced the aesthetics of his paintings. (A Japanese woodblock print of geishas appears in his 1889 Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.) When he arrived in Provence and witnessed the weathered trees and soft light of Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: "My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan." The colors in the paintings he created in Provence, particularly the blues, purples, and yellows, reflected the dominant palette of Japanese prints of the time. He also adopted the skewed perspectives—such as in the 1888 The Bedroom—and the diagonal, streaking rain that he observed in Japanese prints. Although he never made it to Japan, his idealized vision of the country infused his early depictions of the south of France.

  1. Van Gogh's paintings today don't always look the way he intended.

Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Mary Turner/Getty Images

Synthetic paint tubes (a new invention dating to 1841) were increasingly available to artists in the 19th century, and van Gogh mixed their vivid hues with natural pigments. The lead-based chrome yellow gave his sunflowers their lively glow, while red made from cochineal insects were used as a warm texture in several paintings. However, his experimentation with novel colors means we sometimes don't see his paintings as he intended. The bright red geranium lake has faded from his wheat fields; a violet on the walls of the 1888 The Bedroom turned to blue as the red in the pigment dissipated.

  1. There’s much debate around the mutilation of van Gogh's ear.

One of the most well-known incidents in van Gogh's life was when he cut off his own ear on December 23, 1888, in Arles. How much he sliced off, and the circumstances of the mutilation, are still under debate. Some historians have posited that it was after a quarrel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, as their friendship had rapidly deteriorated despite van Gogh’s hopes that they could form something of an artist community in Arles. Others have theorized that the act was in reaction to news that his beloved brother Theo was going to marry. By some reports it was just the earlobe, yet a sketch by Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated him, shows the whole ear being severed. Popular lore is that he presented the mangled flesh to a prostitute, but new research suggests it was a local farmer's daughter working as a maid in a brothel who was the unlucky recipient.

  1. Van Gogh's most famous artwork was painted in an asylum.

"This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June 1889. Although he didn’t include it in The Starry Night which he painted that year, the window he described was iron-barred and looked out from the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in southern France. He voluntarily admitted himself into the asylum on May 8, 1889. Created during this productive yet troubled time in van Gogh's life, the nocturnal tableau of curling pigment over a small village (which van Gogh largely imagined, with a church spire akin to those in his home country) is arguably his most famous work. It draws daily crowds in its current home, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

  1. Van Gogh's success was posthumous.

Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
PIERRE-FRANCK COLOMBIER/AFP/Getty Images

Two days after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890. Thanks to his constant correspondence with his brother Theo, later historians were able to reconstruct his biography, and recognize the essential support that his brother offered to Vincent. He had little commercial or critical success in his lifetime; the lore that he sold one painting while alive isn't completely true, but isn't that far off. (He sold at least two.)

But after his death, his star rose, helped significantly by his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger. After Theo died in 1891, she inherited heaps of Vincent's art, and spent years organizing exhibitions, promoting his work across Western Europe, and getting his pieces in public art collections. In 1905, thanks to her efforts, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam hosted a retrospective. Now Vincent van Gogh exhibitions are blockbusters around the world. In 1990, his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million at Christie's, setting a new record for a single painting.

A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

Kentucky for Kentucky
Kentucky for Kentucky

Many devoted KFC fans love the chain's crispy fried chicken for its signature taste and mouthwatering aroma. If you just love the way the chicken looks, now you can keep it on your shelf to admire forever. As Food & Wine reports, Kentucky for Kentucky is selling whole KFC drumsticks encapsulated in resin for $100.

Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

KFC drumstick in a jar.
Kentucky for Kentucky

The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

Only 50 of the finger-licking artworks were created, and at $100 a piece, they're worth the price of several KFC family buckets. You can grab one while they're still available from the Kentucky for Kentucky online store.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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