Words of Wool: An Interview with Rüdiger Schlömer

Filed Under: Article , Voice

Back in 2003, when I happened to be DJing at an event called Berlin M'Excite—basically a bunch of Parisians with a huge heap of secondhand clothes in a Kreuzberg warehouse, hacking them apart and stitching them back together in a different order—a tall, handsome and polite young man called Rüdiger Schlömer approached me with a needle and some pink thread. He wanted, he explained, to stitch some “parasitical” thread onto the brown woolen eyepatch I was wearing. I told him to go right ahead.

Five years later, I ran into Schlömer again. My girlfriend invited me to a conceptual knitting circle event she'd been to a couple of times. It wasn't until I arrived at the tidy Berlin apartment that I realized the organizer was the same man who'd stitched my patch five years ago.

Schlömer had moved on to scarves; five women sat in his apartment knitting copies of bits of German football scarves, remixed via a Flash interface on his website. The letters of the team names had been mashed up to make new words, in the style of a blackmailer's letter or Jamie Reid's Sex Pistols graphics. “Generative typography,” Schlömer calls it. Here's what else he had to say.

(from left) Rüdiger Schlömer; participants in the conceptual knitting circle.

Currie: Is this fashion hacking? 

Schlömer: It's more about identity and language than about fashion. Words as scarves; names, locations. The interface is an open tool on which you can do different things. There are a number of scarves you can choose from, you cut the virtual letters and recombine them, make a remix. You can also upload a picture of your own scarf, which can then be remixed by others. It's cutting and pasting. You can go in there and make a special word, or just play around, see what words evolve. Écriture automatique. You can put a word together and take it apart, like Scrabble.

(from left) Remix instructions; collected scarves.

Currie: How much is this shaped by digital thinking? 

Schlömer: You don't need a computer to do this. But it comes very much from digital thinking; tool versus content, program versus hack. The remix interface works like an audio program. Cutting a scarf is like cutting an audio file. There's this interesting structural similarity between language and music. Like in Kurt Schwitters's “Ursonate” [listen to MP3].

Currie: You call this “generative typography,” right? 

Schlömer: We have all these original materials—scarves—with different typographies, we have the remix process, and then each person's way of remixing the letters. After a while they get quite deformed, like Chinese Whispers. It's still connected to the original material, but the outcome is defined by your personal technique. There's lots of factors that go into how the final outcome looks.

Currie: I like how the curves in the letters have to be rendered as small, sharp angles. The jaggy edges on the knitted letters remind me of pixelated forms on early computers. 

(from left) A knitter remixes a scarf; a pixelated knitting pattern and remixed scarf.

Schlömer: The parallel to pixel graphics is probably one of the first things you notice when you look at knitting patterns, yes. And using patterns you're really counting the whole time. Knitting is a really repetitive movement—it's a loop out of a loop out of a loop; over, under, out of, into. It's very algorithmic, like analog programming. When you do it, and you start anticipating the movement of the needles and wool, it gets you into some kind of hypnotic state of mind. From outside it looks very square, but when you do it, it's moving in a snaky way, small movements. I was amazed how your feeling of time changes when you do it. Fifteen minutes feels like four hours.

Currie: Can you name the typefaces? Does that matter to you? 

Schlömer: No. It's not the beauty of the lettering that matters. Most of these fan scarves are pretty ugly, they don't have typography specialists doing them. I'm more interested in the way these letters change through the process of being transferred into something physical. And the different aspects that intertwine in this process; from the local connection of where the letters (the scarves) came from, to who remixed it, to where they were knitted, using which technique. It's not about perfectionism in a typographic or handcraft sense. Actually, mistakes can generate the most interesting outcomes. Garth Johnson came up with the term “Frankenscarves.” I like that: “The Invasion of the Creepy Letters!”

(from left) A remixed “K” in progress; putting the letters together.

Currie: So what's your next project going to be? 

Schlömer: I want to ask a lot of people to knit just one letter each, and start an archive of moveable letters. You know, when Gutenberg invented the letterpress, the revolutionary thing was using loose letters. Before that, each page was made as a whole. And the new thing about it was the flexibility and recombination of individual elements. Or think of when cinemas make their film titles out of physical letters. They must have a room with all the letters in it. Well, I'd like to have a physical space like that, a repository of letters which can be used for sampling, cutting and pasting, texting, texturing... We'd also collect all the metadata attached to each letter. For example, this “A” is from a “Brazil” scarf, and was made by this person in this situation. It'll be interesting to see which ones connect.