CASE STUDY: Shirley Mclauchlan – Knitwise Art installation 2021

This case study, which explores a participatory textile making project, is written by Shirley Mclauchlan. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.

Knitwise Art installation, 1 of 3 panels. Image: SK Mclauchlan.

Title of case study project or workshop

Knitwise Art installation 2021

Name(s) of practitioner(s) and institution/organisation, if any

Shirley McLauchlan, Edinburgh University.

Ashleigh Douglas, Future Textiles manager, The Princes Foundation.

Context for project

A community project teaching people to knit and engaging knitters to connect, share and learn new knitting skills.

Project output: Art installation/blankets for local homeless charities.

When did the project take place?

October 2019 – September 2021. 

Background(s) of the practitioner(s)

Shirley Mclauchlan is a designer, lecturer and researcher at Edinburgh University. She studied Textiles at The Glasgow School of Art and St Martins School of Art in London. She was a partner in the successful textile print studio, Kim Clark Design, in London designing collections and selling prints internationally for over twelve years.

On return to Scotland in 1997 she set up her own practice designing ‘Modern Family Heirlooms’ working with a range of clients. Her design philosophy is embedded in sustainability. She strives to work as a commercial, sustainable designer making pieces that are valued and ‘tell a story’.

She was an ambassador for ZWS (Zero Waste Scotland) working to engage education and design within the circular economy from craft to designer. She has been a part time lecturer at Edinburgh University since 1999 working in the School of Design (textile department). Her research has resulted in presenting several academic papers and facilitating workshops/exhibitions about questioning the role of design and the environment.

Aims of project

The aim of the project by The Princes Foundation is to encourage awareness of knitting as a pursuit beneficial to mental health as well as a traditional craft form that uses sustainable materials and produces long-lasting garments and blankets. The newest programme, launched in October 2019, supported by the Joseph Ettegui Trust, aims to train and develop a small team of locally based hand-knitters to a high standard of skills for hand knitting and finishing simple to complex garments. British brand Connolly will mentor the project and help future-proof and preserve these heritage skills. 

Description of project

Initially the group were tasked with knitting squares 20 x 20cm in any technique they wanted. More techniques were introduced later: colour work/cable work/ Intarsia & Fair Isle knitting.

Examples of the variety of knitted squares. Image: SK Mclauchlan.

Due to Covid restrictions, actual meetings stopped, and the group moved to online Zoom meetings. The community spirit continued online. Techniques continued but more importantly, fortnightly meetings enabled the group to connect with each other and show what they had done. 

During lockdowns the project carried on receiving weekly deliveries of knitted squares from all around the world including from Canada, Italy and Tasmania.

Knitted squares sewn together to create blankets. Image SK Mclauchlan.

The Knitwise group included new knitters who learnt to knit and other more experienced knitters. The installation was unveiled to the public on 9th September 2021. The Installation was hung from the Robert Adam Bridge, Dumfries House. During the day knitting groups were invited from local schools. There was also an exhibition documenting the project to show the development of the project.

The learning and valuing of knitting techniques is continuing with the next stage of this project underway.

Why did you choose to work in this way?

Initially the project was to encourage a group to meet together in person to share skills related to hand knitting. Research has shown that many people used to have excellent knitting skills but had stopped knitting when the need for their craft was no longer relevant i.e. their families had grown up and didn’t want hand knitted items. Over the years knitting skills have been lost and not passed on through generations (see Arianna Nicoletti, speaking at the Berlin 2020/30 summit: ) therefore it was important to have a group that encouraged new knitters and shared the knowledge of more experienced knitters. 

We wanted to make sure that everyone was able to contribute to this project no matter where they lived and no matter what level of skill they had. It was important that we were able to include everyone. By selecting a simple knitted square, we felt that this enabled everyone to ‘have a go’ and be able to contribute to the project. 

Hand knitting does not require much kit, so it was very inclusive. We also felt that while many online tutorials were available the human interaction was important. We wanted the classes to be supportive with help at hand. We based this idea on how traditionally knitting was taught from a mother, grandmother or auntie. It was important to have someone available to show and encourage others in an informal and welcoming setting. We found that as well as encouraging knitting skills the community spirit that the group demonstrated throughout this project was incredible.

What did you learn from the project?

When we started this project, we didn’t expect to receive so many knitted squares from so many other groups and individuals. The amount of work received was astounding! (9000 hand knitted squares resulting in 150 blankets (1.20m x 1.50m) was the overall number). 

We also realised that interpretation of a 20cm x 20cm square was varied. So, when it came to sewing the squares into blankets the range of square sizes made it difficult. But on a positive note, this variety in size made the blankets even more unique.

We were completely overwhelmed with how generous people were with their time when we did a call out to sew the squares together (10 hours minimum to sew one 1.20m x 1.50m blanket). There was a wide variety of volunteers from the public, Dumfries House staff and a group of the ladies from HMP Cortonvale. 

The community spirit and working together on a project was very much valued by a range of people, some directly connected to the project and others less so. The pride in achieving such an amazing body of work was felt by all.

Comments from some of the project participants

“Enormous pride when I saw my knitted square included in the installation.” Knitwise group member. 

“I had no idea that knitting a few squares would be part of such an amazing project.’’ Knitwise group member. 

“So proud to be part of the group.” Knitwise group member. 

“I didn’t know how to read a chart but now I can!” Knitwise group member.

“The pride shown when someone delivered a sewn-up blanket was wonderful.” Shirley Mclauchlan.


Further information

Past projects include hand stitching workshops encouraging an individual approach to stitching and repair. 

Fashion Revolution Scotland (April 2021): an online Sashiko/Naikan inspired workshop: This workshop took place online during the Covid restrictions. The idea of the workshop was to combine the skills of Shirley McLauchlan and Karen Finn. Shirley has been researching hand skills in relation to repair for over 20 years and Karen is studying for an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology & Coaching Psychology. Their collaboration resulted in the above workshop. The idea was to give the audience a space to learn and reflect. The notion was to concentrate on hand stitching while also considering a more mindful approach. Phase 2 of this investigation will take place in April 2022.

Fashion Revolution Scotland (April 2022)

Stitching Stories (April 2019). A film of the project was screened at the V&A, Dundee, as part of Fashion Revolution week: 

Further information

Shirley Mclauchlan:

McLaren, A. & McLauchlan, S., 2015. Crafting sustainable repairs: Practised based approaches to extending the life of clothesProduct Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE): Conference Proceedings. Nottingham Trent University.

McLauchlan, S., 2017. Practicing cherish-ability as a designerProduct Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE): Conference Proceedings. IOS Press, Vol. 9, p. 480-481.

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