Saturday, February 15, 2014

"How does she do that?" Carol Milne knits with glass

Carol Milne, speaker at February 8 CQA meeting
At the group's February 8 meeting, speaker Carol Milne showed a fascinated Contemporary QuiltArt Assn. audience exactly how she "knits" with glass.

Milne can produce colorful knit gloves  in yarn...

...and even more complex knits in yarn...
...these may be simpler...but they are glass!

The Canadian-born, Seattle-based artist came to the knitting part naturally--she's been a knitter since age ten, and has no trouble turning out knitted gloves exhibiting complex color combinations. But she went through education and training in landscape architecture, the sciences, and cast-metal sculpture work before moving to glass work in 2000; even then it was "hot-casting" glass. The process for her knitted glass, and the one that she's been using since 2002, is kiln casting. She still thinks of herself as a sculptor; it's just that the final objects are created in an unusual way.

Milne's studio
...and her tool wall

The wax strands for Milne's "knitting." To start, each is wrapped around a large needle.
Once off the needle, the coils are opened up.

Milne's basic "knitting materials" are wax strands that look like a close cousin of Red Vines candy! The strands are completely flexible, but non-stretch. She will wrap the strands around a really hefty knitting needle, then pull the resulting coil off and open it up, with the result looking like old-fashioned ribbon candy (to extend the simile). And here's where the knitting begins.

Each "stitch" is pushed up into a loop. It looks like a knitter's Garter Stitch.

Yarn markers show the turned heel and the top of the sock.
A different kind of wax finishes off the top.
Each "stitch" is pushed up and through an adjoining loop, creating a Garter Stitch appearance. Working in the round, Milne will build up one of her typical "glass socks" row by row--even using yarn row markers--and turning the heel as in standard knitting. The top of the piece, again assuming it's a sock, is usually finished off with a rim of another type of wax. As one can imagine, the process is quite time-consuming, often taking a day or more to complete. However, says Milne, the knitting is only 10-15% of the work each piece requires.

"Soldering" with extra wax stabilizes the loops
Cup "funnels" and wax "stems" are attached

To be sure the junctions of the different strands are solid enough to withstand the eventual insertion of liquid glass, Milne will often use a soldering iron and a firmer strand of wax to bind them together. She also attaches "stems" of wax to the piece as sort of an armature to prepare it for the kiln. It's also at this stage that she attaches cups to the bottom of the piece that will act as funnels to channel in the poured glass.

Plaster-like refractory material is added to make the mold
Wax is removed from the mold with a wallpaper steamer

Then the piece is covered with refractory mold material much like plaster, leaving the "funnel" cups uncovered. She then uses a wallpaper steamer to melt the wax out of the plastered molds, saving the wax for other projects. The molding and wax-melting process usually takes about a day.

Multiple pieces are put in the kiln, this time with terra-cotta pots as funnels for the poured glass.
Milne "suits up" for the kiln work

When one or more pieces are ready and placed in her kiln, Milne pours the liquid glass--frit melted at 1500 degrees--into the molds to fill in the spaces that were created by the knitted wax. After two hours, she can open the kiln and pour in more glass if she wants to add different colors. Milne keeps detailed records and photographs of each piece she makes, both before and after. Even then, apparently the blending and/or final appearance of colors within the piece are often a surprise to the artist! "I did learn," she says, "that the longer pink glass is in the kiln, the paler the color." The kiln process takes several days, and then another couple of days for the glass to cool slowly so that it anneals properly.

A partially cleaned "sock" with inset showing original wax knitting
Piece at left shows how it was filled, from the top down, in the mold; at right, how such a piece might be displayed.
Once out of the kiln, the glass-filled plaster mold--which can be quite heavy--is ready for the cleanup process that itself can take two to three days. First the large, outer chunks of mold material can simply be broken off. Removing the next  and especially the subsequent layers requires a great deal more care. Here Milne will use dental tools and even a pressure-washer to remove all the mold material. Even as careful as she is, breakage occurs all the time. Depending on the piece, Milne may add wax and recast it...or leave it as an example and play with its title!

Little finger-like pieces, among Milne's smallest.
Much larger finger-like pieces at Bellevue Arts Museum. These are 6-8 feet tall.

Some of her earliest pieces were 18-22" tall and could weigh up to 40 pounds. In the mold, these would often top 100 pounds and were a lot of work to handle and clean up. No wonder then that Milne moved most of her work to smaller units--but not all of it, and not everything involves glass. In 2012, she had an exhibit outdoors at the Bellevue Arts Museum, titled "Grow Lights," that consisted of a number of finger-like pieces that were 6-8 feet tall, decorated with ropes and LED lights; no glass. Even though the pieces comprised hollow concrete cores they still weighed from 75 to 100 pounds each.

Closeup of a glass knitted piece
Knitted glass bowls were among Milne's earlier pieces

Milne reserves part of her creative time in the studio (she works there full time and often weekends) for learning the best ways to photograph her work, achieving the best angles of each piece, etc. In this way, she says, she has time to think about each piece and how it fits into her philosophy of her work: "I think of these works of glass strands as a metaphor for social structure--weak on their own, strong when bound together; strong yet fragile..."
"Imperfect for You," above, selected as part of the permanent collection of Notojima Glass Art Museum in Ishikawa, Japan

"Lena" and "Tilta," each 16 inches tall
Milne was invited to be part of a teapot show...
...and yes, this is a teapot! The taxidermy eyes on the teapots were added after the firing and cleanup processes.
Milne's sense of whimsy comes through in this piece where hands are knitting hands...
...but some of her pieces are more serious, as this "Scream" with a raku figure inside a glass "cyclone fence."

The artist has often shown her work in galleries but at present, "since the economy crashed," she's found her sales to be more successful at fiber shows and similar exhibitions. Many of her pieces are in museums in the US and abroad as well as in private collections. For more information on Milne, photos of her work, and her extensive resume, see her website: