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Featured Artist: Ilisha Helfman of Jazzknitter

by EBlack on June 29, 2014

Publisher’s Notes: Our featured artist this week is a talented fiber artist who has created her own method of knitting called “Jazzknitting” and has published a fabulous book on the subject!   Ilisha Helfma has been knitting for years and is a very innovative lady!

Spin Artiste (SA):  First of all, thank you Ilisha for interviewing with us. We’re looking forward to hearing all about your work. From reading your website, I see you have a degree in Design and have been knitting for 40 years! At what point did you develop your “Jazzknitting” approach to knitting, and how did that come about? 

Ilisha Helfman (IH): There are different starting points I talk about in my book. A lot of my knitting out of the box started when I was very young, knitting under the loom of my mother, Muriel Nezhnie, a tapestry weaver who was not a knitter. I was influenced by the way she was weaving, both consciously and unconsciously. I also work in a very structured way, like my father who is a brilliant realist watercolor painter. They both had/have a keen color and design sensibility and I absorbed a tremendous amount watching them work. 

SA: How does “Jazzknitting” differ from what is called “free form knitting”?

IH: There are a lot of interesting things to think about with Jazzknitting. It’s not a random process. I like to work within a structure, within some self-imposed set of rules to help shape forms and impart a sense of order. I think of myself as a collage artist as I work with all kinds of media (like designing things using Photoshop, fabric piecing, miniature rug making http:/www.hestiahouse.com , even my paper doll blog http://sundaymagazinepaperdoll.wordpress.com where I spent a year using whatever was printed on the upcoming “New York Times Magazine” cover as my weekly challenge “fabric” while pretending to be on “Project Runway” with art paper dolls…). I love working with found objects and collaging them together. In Jazzknitting, the found objects that inspire me are skeins of yarn hand-painted by dyers. If I were to paint the skeins myself there wouldn’t be that surprise element of where the dyers’ choices will lead me. Often I think I know what I’m going to knit, but carefully following color changes while implementing my own knitting choices, often leads me to new and unexpected places I didn’t anticipate. I think of it as using a line of color that’s already been painted by someone else (the dyer) to make my shapes and images. It’s very different from making my own line of color as if I were a painter creating an image. I call it Jazzknitting because the dyer has sung a beautiful song by painting her skein and I am riffing off her melody as I make music of my own with her creation.

SA: A lot of Spin Artiste readers do it all — dye, spin, knit, crochet, weave. In order to produce yarn that lends itself to “Jazzknitting,” what considerations have to be taken into account when dyeing and spinning?

IH: Jazzknitting requires repeating sequences of colors and the knitting of many of the projects are aided by transitions between colors to give you time as a knitter to move from one area of the knitting to another as you collect colors in areas of your choosing. As for dyeing, there are definitely skeins that work better than others (those that have color sequences that are not too long or short) and as a spinner I’m finding ways to spin repeats that yield delightful results.

SA: You clearly know your stuff when it comes to all things knitting, but I hear you are expanding your expertise. I know you have started spinning: in gaining that skill, how is that changing your knitting?

IH: As a brand new spinner several months ago, my strands were uneven and I find there’s room for that in Jazzknitting, even while knitting symmetrical shapes. It’s fascinating, really, how the two work hand in hand and can compensate for each other. I’ve also learned that a problem I was having with a pattern I’ve been endlessly rewriting (even though Jazzknitting is all about technique it is possible for selective parts of it to be written down, which is a comfort to some knitters) had nothing at all to do with the pattern and everything to do with the lack of ply. Judith MacKenzie showed me how different plies respond differently in a simple loop and it was an eureka moment for me! Everything I thought had been going wrong with that pattern (which I’d reworked literally dozens of times in different ways) was completely fine. It was simply that the yarns I was using weren’t balanced and I instantly realized that that combined with my choice of stitch and needle size was causing instability. I’m going to write all about this particular event in my next book because it’s an amazing example of the power of thread.

SA: How do you combine using expressive hand spun yarns (aka art/novelty/textured yarns) with the “Jazzknitting” techniques?

IH: I’m starting to play with texture in Jazzknitting and I’m sure there are worlds more to explore in this area. I’ve got some angora mixed in now, some boucle….

SA: What else is on your wish list of things to learn next?

IH: I am so fortunate to know so many brilliant spinners and to live in one of the many parts of the country (the NW Coast in my case) where there is an explosive interest in fiber arts. We moved here several  years ago from the NW corner of Connecticut. I used to love going to the NY State Sheep and Wool Festival which I found deeply nourishing and inspiring. I have to laugh now at my disappointing web search for Sheep and Wool Festivals on the West Coast (I also searched for CSA farms around Portland and found 17! as opposed to the one I had near me at the time…), but no Sheep and Wool and I was bereft about it.  As I was cruising around various Western fiber blogs I came across a new name, Flock & Fiber, and then Madrona and then Black Sheep Gathering, and now the NW Regional Spinner’s Association Conference, so now all the things I want to learn about spinning (and I have so much to learn!) are at my fingertips.

SA: If you had a day to spend to do anything you wanted with you time, what would it be?

IH:  I self-structure days to write and learn and explore and also make miniatures which I sell at miniature shows and pop-up toys and cards with my husband, which we sell mostly through shops in Europe.

SA: It has been fantastic getting to know you better and the book is wonderful!  Thank you so much!!  I have a copy of Illisha’s book to giveaway to one lucky reader, simply leave a comment below before next Sunday, July 6th, 5 PM EST.

And…in other news…I have a couple of giveaway winners to announce…for the surprise skein from Candy Hargett of Calluna Farm Studios, Renee Rodgers is our winner!  And, for the terrific book by Tom Knisely on Weaving Rag Rugs, the winner is De-De.  I will be in touch with both winners to get you your prizes.  Thanks to all!

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