Reprinted courtesy of Ornament Magazine, Vol. 23, No.2, Winter 1999
Artist Ana Lisa Hedstrom once called Rebekah Younger “the queen of shading.” Younger’s trademark colors—which overlap and run together in happy unpredictability the way light washes over the sky’s palette in an ever-changing display—are expressed through the soft tunics, jackets and scarves of her Younger Knits line. “Sunset hues always inform my work,” she says, taking a break in the studio that occupies part of the bottom floor of her home in Vallejo, California. “I’m a missionary of color. Color represents life to me. I think it has the same effect on other people whether they realize it or not. I’ve had people come into my booth at craft shows and comment that it’s such a spiritual place. They’re feeling the effect of color.” They also may may be feeling the motivation that drives Younger as an artist: the belief that the act of creation is itself spiritual. It is no accident that she calls herself a missionary of her art—in July 1999, she was ordained as a minister in the nonsectarian church Unity of the Spirit—so in a personal and professional sense, Younger is weaving all the loose ends of her interests into a whole cloth.
Proprietor of Younger Knits since 1988 (although the bulk of her production began in 1994), she has honed her business skills over the course of a checkered career. Her approach to clothing draws directly upon her training in the fine arts program at Beloit College in Wisconsin. For Younger, a length of knitting is a canvas of looped stitches on which she applies dye as one would apply paint, then manipulates the “painted” surface, not unlike the way she approached the large oil renderings she produced as a young artist.
Lately, Younger’s work has gone in an opposite direction: instead of applying saturated color to the knit surfaces, she paints a bleach solution on knitted silk [rayon] to discharge areas of color, leaving sweeping calligraphic designs on tunics and scarfs. No two are quite alike; each is as distinct as a monotype. These, too, are evidence of the creative/spiritual juncture; Younger compares the spontaneous designs to meditation— “They’re like a Zen circle,” she says. “Instead of trying to control the pattern, you abandon yourself to what comes. The imperfection is its perfection.”
Younger’s professional history has followed a serendipitous path. “It’s been an organic growth, a matter of following the clues,” is how she phrases her journey. She realized upon graduating from Beloit that she was not cut out for a conventional career track. “I’m at the tail end of the baby boom. Early on I figured out that the best jobs were taken. If I wanted work that was fulfilling to me, I had to make it happen; also, as a person who is a creator, I was basically unemployable. It’s difficult for me to come into a situation where someone else is defining the parameters and have that be enough; so I’ve been self-employed since I was twenty-three.”
She did spend a couple of years after graduation trying to fit into the job market by working as a salesperson in a bookstore and directing an arts and crafts program at North Park Study Center in Chicago. She was between jobs one summer, waiting for word about a position in the graphics department of the city’s government, when a friend urged her to rethink that safe but relatively unfulfilling direction. “Looking back, my life would have been so different if I’d taken that city job—I’d probably be miserable,” Younger says. “My friend sat me down and said, ’I know the perfect business for you.’ He convinced me that if I bought this framing franchise I could work in something artistic, train people and eventually the business would run itself and I’d be free to do art. I wasn’t so sure. I had a thousand dollars in the bank to buy a franchise that cost sixty-five thousand dollars. No one in my family had ever owned a business. But it turned out to be one of my earliest creative experiences.”
She bought The Great Frame Up with an unsecured Small Business Administration loan and poured her life into the enterprise for the next nine years. “My friend was right. It kept me in touch with color and proportions; my eye got refined during that time. I learned how elements play against each other, how to find the right color to harmonize and enhance a piece of art, to draw the viewer to the piece. It’s a skill, like putting a jewel in the right setting.” The frame shop took up most of her time. She threw herself so thoroughly into entrepreneurship that she eventually became president of the Chamber of Commerce; people knew her as “The Great Frame Up Lady.” Still, she convinced herself that the business was simply a way to fund her own art, and she continued to paint—energetic street scenes filled with swathes of strong color. At night, she relaxed by knitting sweaters. “I was kind of insecure about what I was doing with the paint, not sure that any of it was good. Then another friend pointed out: ’You’ll stay up all night working to see what happens with the next stitch.’ I had to think about that; the art to wear movement was just hitting, and I thought maybe I could go somewhere with the sweaters.”
True to her background, the first sweaters were very graphic—consider them posters in wool—they also contained Younger’s natural irreverence. “I took classes in clothing design and one of the first things I learned is that you don’t put two design elements here in front, on the boobs,” she says mischievously. “Of course, the first thing I did was handknit a sweater with two eyes right on the chest.” Someone appreciated that funny, wide-eyed “Pierrot” sweater so much they stole it right out of the frame shop where it was on display. Another whimsical design from the same period was her “Hug with two knitted-in arms reaching around the body, ending in a pair of mittens on the back.
In 1985, the year she turned thirty, fate thrust her in another direction. “I discovered I had Hodgkin’s disease,” she says.“By that time the business had become allconsuming. The Hodgkin’s was a wake-up call. I was in the eye of the hurricane, at a point in which everything is distilled inside you and you realize: I’ve been on a path that is not my path. I did a lot of interesting stuff and I liked the business, but my business was my identity. I wanted to focus on my own artistic experience, not be an employer. Suddenly, The Great Frame Up Lady was no longer who I wanted to be.”
A visit to a cousin in California convinced Younger that her next move should be due west. “One of the things I liked, is that there’s color here year-round,” she notes. Chicago is gray seven months of the year; California and the San Francisco area seemed more healing.” Slowly, she fought Hodgkin’s disease to remission, came to California, and wondered which of five or six possible lives she should pursue. “Basically, I’d been living serial lives—I was president of the Chamber, but I also had orange and pink hair!” she recalls. “It was impossible to filter out all the creative urges coming through me. At the same time, I was scared of criticism; I wasn’t sure what I could do best. When I first came to California, I participated in Open Studios, and I decided to put everything I had out. People thought five artists were showing in my space. I thought that for a person who thought she wasn’t good or prolific, I’ve got a lot of stuff! If this is the artist captive, what will the artist unleashed be like?”
“That was a transition, the realization that I don’t need to do everything right now. I can become a little more detached at each phase of my life, to think: What do I want to play with; instead of, what do I have to accomplish? I almost wished I had been blessed as a one-skill wonder, I felt this tyranny of talents coming at me. Now I’m not feeling so tormented.”
In 1992, following the gallery response to slides of her work, she decided to pursue her love of knitted wear. “I started as a painter and printmaker in college,” she points out. “Both knitting and printing involve working in editions, which is how I think of the knits. I’m comfortable with production aspects of the work, if I can change the basic piece as I go, the way I did with prints; I knew I would do something with knits.”
I was reading about all the craft shows but hesitant about the level of production and clueless about what I might need to operate as a business. I was thinking three sweaters per week. I wanted to keep it enjoyable. In the meantime, I kept looking for production jobs.”
She joined the San Francisco Machine Knitters Guild, and the Surface Design Association. “In 1988 there was still an active fiber community. I knew there was a lot of talent around and if I wanted to move into the art to wear world, the links would be there.” By meeting people and making connections, she found work as a production knitter and sample maker. “In most of those jobs, the focus was more on the fashion industry. It’s a high-stress business, no halfway about it; production is at a high level and you’re faced with the limitations of the marketplace. But it gave me the chance to hone my own pattern writing. I worked with Margaret O’Leary and she would bring in ideas and I’d have to make something similar to those pieces; at times I was designing two or three pieces a day.”
Not plunging into her own business turned out to be a valuable move in a profession for which there are no degrees and no career tracks, Younger recalls. “I started seeing how others set up their businesses. What I learned is taught nowhere. You pick it up by going into the field. Even art schools that have a fiber department tend to teach wovens. Machine knitting is a stepchild and the hand knitting crowd is diminished. Since knitting isn’t taught, there’s no uniformity of system, which is too bad, because the property of knits is totally different than that of woven material.”
As she learned to design, write patterns and meet production deadlines, she gradually developed a personal aesthetic. “Through that process I was trying to find my own voice. Most wearable-art-knit, for years, was double knit and heavy. I knew I would be bringing something new to the field with lighter weight knits. I wanted to offer something unique, which wouldn’t get mass produced. I wanted it to be wearable, to feel comfortable on the body—things you might want to wear everyday. I wanted to reach a particular client base with affordable clothing and eventually get to a place where there would be no limitation to buying my line based on income.”
Her ascension to the title of Gradient Queen began in 1990 with a sunset and a challenge. The sunset occurred on the edge of the Pacific Ocean at Pt. Reyes, California. Younger shot rolls of film to capture that glorious scene in a photograph that stands, framed, in her home today. The peacock sky is banded in orange, peach, tourmaline, deep violet and every shade in between, unfurled above an infinite stretch of glossy wet sand. “That’s always fascinated me, that luminous subtlety of shift found in the sunset, in light,” says Younger, gazing at the photograph. The challenge came from Kitty Begani, her first instructor in machine knitting, who suggested Younger knit a kimono for a show at the Textile Art Centre in Chicago. “When I decided to do a kimono I knew I had to have silk, but how to get the colors I wanted?” Younger recalls. “It really was a challenge.” Working with dye expert Karen Livingston, Younger asked for silk yarn dyed in seventeen shades selected from the sunset photograph. The kimono design allowed her to work in blocks of gradient tones, in imitation of that polychrome sky, but the piece still demanded painstaking calculations and clever transitions between blocks to preserve the subtle shadings. “I was changing colors every few rows and you always have a line [marking the change in yarn],” she says. “The vertical stripes in the sleeves had to be knit as separate sections because of the gradation change. You have to do all the calculations ahead of time for a knitting machine. I thought there had to be a faster way.”
The kimono project was almost prophetic. Younger remembers that even as a child she had been captivated by the art and culture of Japan. In 1991 she finally made a visit to that country, a journey that revealed Japan’s disappointing modern reality but reinforced her devotion to its visual sensibilities. “Some things I didn’t like, such as seeing the concrete blocks of the housing projects and pachinko [pinball] parlors everywhere and so much commerciality. You’d go to a temple and there would be a vending machine next to the Buddha,” she says, smiling wryly. “But the trip also allowed me to be in a place I always wanted to be and I feel my most recent work is indicative of the Japanese aesthetic. A part of the art to wear movement is motivated by a need to decorate, a kind of ’Let’s throw everything onto the garment’ approach. The longer I’m in the field the more minimal I seem to be—honing the work to the bare essence of an idea as opposed to elaboration.
The experiments with form, color and embellishment coalesced in 1991, when Sandra Sakata of Obiko in San Francisco suggested Younger make some pieces to go with Carol Lee Shanks’ clothing. Younger responded with a loose, bat-wing “origami” jacket, but wanted an even simpler shape that would be set off by panels of color. That’s when Younger hit upon her signature technique. She knit swatches of silk or rayon, painted the swatches with Jacquard Silk dyes in bands of gradient color (her favorite combinations are opposites on the color wheel, such as shades of purple and peach), then unraveling the swatches and knitting them together in Fair Isle patterns. The result was a smooth wash of changing color embedded in flowing geometric bands of knitting.
“I never knew which color would lie next to which, but I realized in a blend that there are no clashes, just as in nature different colors blend harmoniously,” she says. Her first pieces, in the middle 1990s, featured vests and sweaters with bands of black knit pointing up the jewel colors, often with a gestural swirl in red down the front or back, as in her “Shortest Distance” coat. In 1994, for a Threads magazine article, she devised a simple panel-front tunic as an easy beginner’s-level project for experimenting with her gradient-paint technique.
The easy-to-produce, affordable panel line took off and Younger began selling full time at wholesale and retail craft shows in 1995. She hired a helper, revved up production to increase inventory and acquired a “roadie” when she began dating a woodworking artist and electronics wizard named Guy Marsden. By their second date, he proceeded to design a display rack for her booth. “It was all new to me,” Younger says. “He plunged into it, helped me transport my materials, and was right there for me.” Now married and living in rural Maine, the couple exhibit their separate wares at craft shows together.
She now has gotten the hang of marketing. Younger Knits retail at a number of shops and galleries throughout the country. Show schedules are listed in her newsletter, Younger Knits News, which keeps a client list of one thousand informed about new developments and additions to the lines. Younger’s work also has won an impressive share of attention, including a Niche Award for her discharge Meditation Scarf in 1999; and inclusion in FiberArts Design Book No. 6 and The Complete Book of Scarves.
In addition to the gradient-panel jackets and vests, Younger’s current line features supple, ombré-dyed rayon tunics, skirts, vests and scarves in gradations of a single color. The discharge line includes some sweaters with a band of color offset by black highlighted with calligraphic markings in white, but often takes advantage of simple, stark black as a background for the discharge pattern. With her assistant Yolanda Kelly and a production knitter, Enrique Valery, Younger produces as many as six hundred pieces a year, including the popular scarves.
As Younger demonstrates her discharge technique, the twin impulses of creativity and spirituality come together. “As part of my journey, my most recent direction has been returning to painting,” she says, “moving away from being stitch-focused to treating the sweater as canvas.” Her dye room is a converted half-bathroom outfitted with a salvaged darkroom sink. She takes a black bouclé scarf from her inventory, wets it, and lays it on a mesh sweater dryer. Dipping a small brush in a bleach solution, she ponders a moment and makes a diagonal stroke on the material’s lower edge. A brown streak emerges. With repeated strokes, Younger defines a line that grows gradually lighter until it is a uniform pale gesture against the black.
“People often ask me what it says,” Younger notes, her arm continuing its meditative motion. “At first I did try to imitate Chinese characters. I did one for a client with the character for water—or at least that’s what I thought. Then a friend of hers who reads Chinese said, ’Oh no, that character means oven!” She laughs. What’s more important is not the line’s literal meaning, after all, but the spirit it conveys.
“Now I let people make up their own meaning. It’s really about the freedom of the line. I may lay a line down, then think about what would balance it out. I don’t plan the design beforehand. One of the first pieces I made with this technique used the circle, which I found very centering. You’re painting with bleach, so there’s no going back, but it feels wonderful to move to the stage where you’re trusting what the line needs to be. Sometimes I can’t quite see where I’ve laid down the first stroke, but I trust body memory— I find once you start a stroke you can repeat it over and over without really looking at where you’re going. If I get lost, I usually can wait for the image to develop, but often I’ll just keep going because I want to stay in the spontaneity of the moment. It’s so freeing.”
Younger’s next step will likely be just as intuitive. Public art seems a logical way to combine her love of fiber and her need to disseminate a gospel of visual beauty; she thinks perhaps knitting sculptural shapes in fiber optical material would be a way to play with her love of light and color on a large scale. When it is time to proceed, she will know.
“A spiritual path is part of the process of creativity,” she says. “People think they have to have artistic talent to be creators, but the skills of creating can be applied to every aspect of life. I’d like to help people develop that knowledge within themselves. I know from my own experience, if you have a vision and you’re open to opportunity, a wonderful connective thing happens. The energy moves and you get to the vision. There’s no other way.”
Chiori Santiago, a freelance writer from Berkeley, California, writes frequently on the arts.