Editor’s Note: This is the first of a periodic series, “The Art of Handcraft,” in which traditional metalworking techniques will be explored and explained. In this first installment, Michael David Sturlin-educator, industry consultant, and award-winning goldsmith-reviews the textile applications of knitting, crocheting, and weaving as applied to precious metals.
Textile Techniques in Jewelry Making
Fabrics and precious metals would seem to be total opposites, like hot and cold or yin and yang. However, despite their obvious differences in hardness, they do possess similar properties-specifically, both are pliable and elastic, and can be stretched and manipulated. And just as fabrics and fibers can be suitable for knitting, crocheting, weaving, or other textile applications, so too can metal sheet and wire be suitable for-well, knitting, crocheting, and weaving.
This crossover adaptability is especially evident with metals in the creation of jewelry and adornments. In their jewelry with metals, goldsmiths and silversmiths often apply techniques from weaving, sewing, and basketry, using sheet and wire in place of fabric and fiber to create intricate pieces that are lightweight and flexible. These methods provide an aesthetically rich yet simple way for a jewelry maker to engage with the material.
This last attribute is very important. For me, working without the distraction of a large array of tools-fingers and a few basic tools are all that’s needed-leads to a sustained enjoyment of the process. These textile techniques also allow me to experience the metal more tactilely, with greater appreciation for the flexible qualities of the material. Such interaction promotes a better understanding of the material’s nature. And that understanding enhances fluency, leading to an artistic vocabulary that enables articulation and expression through dynamic design.
What follows is an elaboration on metal fabrication involving textile processes. In addition to presenting my own methods, I have included examples from two of my colleagues: Belmont, Massachusetts-based designer Munya Avigail Upin, and Barbara Berk of Barbara Berk Designs in Foster City, California. Although the three of us apply different techniques, we all share an affinity for using metal in textile applications, and we view these applications as important additions to our goldsmithing repertoire.
I use free-hand fabricated chain extensively in my body of work. Each chain is basically a spiraling cylinder of loops formed from 0.35 mm gold or 0.4 mm fine silver wire. Often in my designs, I’ll braid or twist several strands together for volume and effect. And while the chain is typically round during the fabrication process, when finishing it I can easily transition to other shapes with oval, square, and triangle draw plates.
Even though this technique is usually called “crochet” by goldsmiths, the loop is actually a knit stitch. (The loops are crossed, which is the principle distinction between knitting and crochet: A crochet loop is open, like a U or stirrup; a knit loop is closed by the wire crossing over itself.) But I don’t use a pair of knitting needles. Rather, the method is most reminiscent of sewing: The wire itself passes in and out of a previous loop to form each new loop.
I’ll begin by taking a crochet needle or spindle and use it as the support to create the first of the foundation loops. These loops are just that-they form the base of the knitting process-and the number of loops determines the diameter of the chain. I typically use six loops (see Figure 1); with 0.4 mm wire, that will translate to a 4.5 mm diameter chain.
After forming the foundation loops, I’ll wrap the wire around the bundle, pull it taut, then spread the loops open (think of a flower blooming-see Figure 2).
I now feed the wire by hand through any one of the foundation loops, then pull it back through that same loop and insert it into the next foundation loop (Figure 3).
I tighten the new knit loop I’ve formed around my needle (Figure 4), regulating its size and defining its shape, then repeat the process with the next foundation loop. Once I have done this with all of the foundation loops, I repeat the process with the new row of knitted loops, building layer upon layer.
Typically, I use a wire that’s about 20 inches long-any longer and it becomes hard to pull through the loops. (It also will work-harden quickly, making the end brittle and not very usable.) Because of that, I create a chain in sections (Figure 5). When I run out of wire, the extra length remains in the middle of the chain; to it I splice another 20-inch length of wire, and continue the process. I’ll trim those splices and push them perpendicular to the chain, so they aren’t evident in the final piece.
Typically, it takes me about 25 to 30 minutes to crochet a section, and it’s time well spent. Aesthetically, this minimalist approach to jewelry making provides a tranquil and uninterrupted view of the work and contributes to sustained enjoyment of the process. For me, the process of interacting with the material is just as rewarding as completing the finished object.
Crocheting and Weaving
By contrast to the dense, cylindrical structure of my chains, Munya Avigail Upin’s necklaces are soft and lacey. They actually are crocheted: Her fabrication technique is accomplished with very small diameter wire and a crochet hook. She also incorporates gemstones and pearls in her designs-showcased as centerpieces or as terminations, strung on an armature, or interspersed within the crochet. Munya’s application of this process results in very light, airy structures (Figure 6); one can feel by just looking at these necklaces how well they lay and drape on the body.
In addition to crocheting, Munya applies a variety of textile applications in her work, including weaving (in which opposing elements-warp and weft-cross or intersect to make a fabric-like structuRe: Warp is the lengthwise element, weft the crossing or interlacing element.) She also does soumak, an ancient rug-weaving technique in which the weft wraps around the warp, encircling it rather than merely passing over and under.
“Some techniques, like weaving, soumak, and crocheting, lend themselves beautifully to metal, while others, like knot tying, do not,” she says. “I find the different textile techniques in metal to be very meditative and Zen-like. In the evening, when I’m too tired to do delicate soldering, I find I can still be productive by weaving, crocheting, etc. I can work for hours without the knowledge of time passing by. I do, however, try to remember to work in exercises for my hands, wrists, neck, and eyes, so I don’t overwork those parts of my body.
“Over the years, I’ve worked a little with fiber, but find metal to be much more seductive,” she continues. “Because I’m a metalsmith, it seems like the perfect fit. I love the surfaces of woven metal pieces because they are unlike surfaces one could get from any other technique. A woven surface is reflective, intricate, complicated, complex, and intriguing. There is nothing else that looks like it.”
Barbara Berk shares Munya’s enthusiasm for woven metal. “Weaving with sheet and wire produces unique textures and surface patterns, and I can create complex shapes,” she says. “My favorite objects to make are pendants [Figure 7][They] are small sculptures through which I can explore pattern, form, positive and negative space, and scale.”
Barbara’s woven work is accomplished largely with her fingers, assisted by a small assortment of tools: polished tapered stool burnisher, agate burnisher, orange stick, wood dowels, Delrin rods, and cushioned pliers. “When the eyes and the hands and the brain work together, everything flows and the process of weaving becomes rhythmic, contemplative,” she says. “I enjoy each of the weaving techniques I use-they produce two very different textured surfaces. With both ‘fabrics’ I can create open, sculptural shapes and form voluminous pieces without the expected weight.”
I find resonance with both Barbara and Munya in their appreciation for the simple, mindful, meditative experience that textile techniques bring in to the discipline of metals. The incorporation of these techniques also promotes the development of highly accomplished fabrication skills with our primary jewelry making tools-our hands and fingers. When it comes to the aesthetic enjoyment of interacting with tool and material, less is often more, and more is often better.