TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Freddie Robins Knits: Fear, Skin and Definition of Self

2002 Machine knitted wool
2100 x 1900 mm

What happens when you take function out of a traditional skill like knitting? Or, for that matter, what does function itself really mean? Knitting represents warmth, covering, an embrace against the elements to me: hats, mittens, leggings, socks, booties, blankets, and all that good stuff. But, how about knitting something that cannot be worn? What then is the function? Hmmm... perhaps a bit of shock value to stimulate the senses? A little awakening? A protest pointing to the dysfunction of the "normal"?

Freddie Robins turns knitting upside down, inside out with her work. Once I was sitting in a train and a woman a few seats down from me dropped her ball of yarn right as the door closed on it. She held on to the piece she was working with determination as she watched the rows disappear under her fingers, hours of work unraveled. Freddie Robins unravels as she knits, deconstructing our social order with each stitch.

Language is as important in each piece as the work itself. Her description of "Craft Kills" classifies knitting as a dangerous art:

2002 Machine knitted wool, knitting needles
2000 x 680 x 380 mm

"Craft Kills" is a self-portrait based on the well recognised image of Saint Sebastian being martyred. Instead of arrows piercing my skin I have knitting needles. The title immediately brings to mind the old adage of "dying for your art" but what I am much more concerned with is the stereotypical image that craft, and in particular knitting, has, of being a passive, benign activity. How would it be if craft was considered as dangerous or subversive? Since conceiving of this piece the world suffered the events of September 11th and its aftermath. You can no longer fly with knitting needles in your hand luggage. Knitting is now classed as a dangerous activity.
(Statement written for "Flexible 4: Identities" catalogue.)

The empty body stuck with knitting needles evokes a primal figure to me that calls back to ancient African belief where the wisdom of the dead is recalled to provide healing and call for justice in the community.

Freddie's path takes us into the dark realms of our collective consciousness. Her work demands the viewer to stop, take account and respond to society with honesty. "Look around, examine your soul. What do you see?"

2001 Machine knitted wool
600 x 600 mm

Her statement on "Billy Wool":
"This piece is a natural progression for me. For the past couple of years I have been working on a series of distorted body pieces. These knitted "jumpers" have a sleeve instead of a neck, a spare torso projecting from the stomach, four shoulders with four sleeves and sealed cuffs for missing hands. The series culminates in two full bodies joined at the head. A piece which two people can enter but which otherwise lies or hangs like an empty skin. My research has been around the human body, medicine, disability and disfigurement, the freak show, taxidermy, mummies, religious iconography and other "curiosities". I find the medium of knitted textiles a powerful tool for expression and communication because of the cultural preconceptions surrounding the area. It is a "friendly" medium which can be used to engage your audience with a subject which might otherwise cause them to turn away."

2002 Machine knitted wool
1650 x 3000 x 3000 mm
In the collection of the Castle Museum, Nottingham.
Purchased by the Contemporary Art Society.

Here we are, in "Anyway", connected by disconnection, upside down and inside out. Freddie Robins worked in traditional garment production for a time, but it didn't hold her attention. Any guesses out there as to why not? The mundane and the ordinary might be more readily celebrated if the dark corners of our society were not so prevalent. Freddie Robins enters those corners and sweeps them out. Not with a broom, but with needles.

She did a series of cute little houses, houses that any of us might want or pass by without much notice. Each house concealed a secret life of murders and intrigue, resulting in death by hanging in early 1900's England. These are the "Knitted Homes of Crime".

Charlotte 14 1/2 hours Coombe Farm Cottages, Sherborne, Dorset - 1935

"Charlotte Bryant, a 33-year-old illiterate mother of five, lived here with her husband Frederick. She enjoyed a drink and had a reputation as an amateur prostitute in the local pubs. Apparently her toothlessness and lice did not put the men off. Sometimes she even brought them home. One of these men was Leonard Parsons, a gypsy horse trader. Leonard became an occasional lodger in the Bryant household and Frederick did not seem to mind sharing Charlotte with him. Charlotte decided otherwise and started poisoning Frederick so that she would be free to marry Leonard. Frederick eventually died on 22 December 1935 after drinking a cup of Oxo containing arsenic. Charlotte was caught after the post-mortem on Frederick's body. A friend also told the police that she had seen Charlotte trying to destroy a tin of weed-killer. She was hanged at Exeter Prison on 15 July 1936."

- 20 hours 16 Gloucester Place , Brighton, East Sussex - 1871 Mrs. Beard
- 21 1/2 hours64 Grand Parade, Brighton, East Sussex - 1871

"Christiana Edmunds was a 43 year old spinster who lived with her widowed mother. She had become infatuated with a married man, Dr. Beard. In September 1870 she brought a box of chocolates to the Beard's house and insisted that Mrs. Beard eat some over a pot of tea. Christiana had filled these chocolate creams with strychnine. Immediately after eating one Mrs. Beard became severely ill. As a result Dr. Beard accused her of trying to poison his wife. Christiana denied the charge and set about trying to prove that there was a poisoner at large in Brighton. She would pay children to buy chocolate creams from the same sweet shop that she purchased the box of chocolates for Mrs. Beard from. She would inject these with strychnine, then re-wrap them and pay another child to return them. The innocent shop-keeper sold on these poisoned sweets. On 12 June 1871 this activity resulted in the death of 4-year-old Sidney Barker. Christiana even sent poisoned cakes and fruit through the mail, addressing some to herself, to try to emphasise her innocence. She was eventually caught and sentenced to death but when it transpired that she was mentally ill her sentence was commuted and she was sent to Broadmoor. She died there in 1907 aged 79. It later transpired that no less than four members of her immediate family had died as a result of mental illness."

Death, disease, mutilation and social trauma are all themes Freddie Robins explores through the seemingly harmless craft of knitting. Feel a little chill going up your spine? Never fear. Freddie assures us that there is humor in this, too. But, the next time you see a beautiful woman sitting in a corner, using her needles with a little furrow in her brow.... prepare yourself. It might be a sweater, or, it might be something very, very subversive....



  1. I like the subversion of a very domestic craft

  2. Very interesting! And I love the murder houses! Wonderful! Freddie Robins is not your grandmother's knitting buddy! And, Rachel, I gasp at the image of that subway knitter! And, I admit, I chuckle too! Sorry - I know that's mean of me and not empathetic and not all those other good qualities I should have. :-)

  3. Great stuff on Freddie, who I know and have worked with. For more on knitting visit www.knittingindustry.com


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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