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Line and curve. Spiral and square. We knitters take string, form it into loops along sticks, and stack these loops into shapes to reflect our vision. Like letter, word, sentence, and verse. Like root, stem, leaf, and flower. And whether we are knitting a humble dishcloth or a Fair Isle sweater, we are the poets of string. How wonderful to explore the work of two artists who performed this same kind of magic with paint. There is everything to inspire us knitters at Tate Modern’s newest exhibition Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life

Both artists were fascinated by the expressive possibilities of the horizontal and vertical planes of two dimensional canvases. This exhibit shows they were also inspired by ethereal dimensions. Both af Klint and Mondrian used line and color to explore spiritualism through paint and symbols.

Af Klint and Mondrian never met in life, but the curators at Tate saw something deeply parallel in their work. They were born ten years apart—she in Sweden, he in the Netherlands. Both trained as landscape painters, and each made detailed studies of flowers and plants—hers were of plants she observed on the little island of Munsö, his were of big blousy greenhouse glories. Her studies were Alice Starmore’s seaweed to his bold Kaffe Fassett coral peonies.

Pioneers of the abstract

Then like the zeitgeists they were, they both created some of the first abstract paintings ever made. Today, we may look at a huge Jackson Pollock canvas wildly spattered with house paint or a Helen Frankenthaler print layered with undulating shapes and say “Hey, check out those abstracts.” But in the early 20th century, this was radical stuff because it was the first time western artists were shedding themselves of the obligation to represent something from the visible world.

Many early abstract artists like af Klint and Mondrian, but also Wassily Kandinsky and Marsden Hartley, were looking within through meditation and contact with spiritual guides for messages about a world invisible to the eye. For these painters, spiritual messages took the form of pure line and pure color to form works that were completely revolutionary.

Not everyone liked the work. Most didn’t, for a while. Reviews were scathing as abstract work popped up in exhibitions all over Europe. In fact, af Klint realized her work was too strange and futuristic to be accepted by her contemporaries, so she instructed her nephew and heir to keep it under wraps until twenty years after her death. Now slowly, but surely she is becoming a rock star of the abstract art world—a status that Mondrian has long enjoyed.

Though there were plenty of people agog in the final bright room of classic Mondrians with their black and white grids punctuated by blocks of primary colors, the beating heart of the Tate exhibition was the huge room of af Klint’s Ten Largest—her abstract story of life from birth to death. These massive works became gathering points for visitors and no one seemed to want to part from them. I certainly felt they were like giant guardians in orange, pink, ochre, and dusty indigo blue who simply asked us to sit with them and contemplate.

In the mood boards!

Here are a few brain-teasing mood boards and photos for knitting inspiration from my post-exhibition knitting journal.

Olga Buraya-Kefelian’s Tendril Necklace—from Field Guide No. 24 appropriately titled “Spark”—paired with a detail from one of af Klint’s Ten Largest. Color, shape, and line in paint and yarn communicating over a space of 115 years:

Geometric wonder in black and white. I’d love to know who knitted Jean Cocteau’s gloves in the early 1900’s.

Did this knitter invent the pattern and what inspired them—was it a Mondrian painting? Had they been to the tiny Scottish town of Sanquhar? 

Both af Klint and Mondrian were commissioned by scientists to make bacteriological drawings like the one I’ve paired (on the top left) with Philip Jacobs’ Brassica fabric for Kaffe Fassett Studios. On the bottom left is a detail from Mondrian’s landscape Dune III, 1909, (on the bottom left) paired with Kaffe Fassett’s legendary Roman Glass pattern.

One of af Klint’s 150 notebooks. Shall we make these blocks in intarsia or patchwork first?

This painting had me rifling through my yarn stash to put these color combinations together. Socks first? And then a striped sweater?

This spring our own Franklin Habit said intarsia was all the rage at h+h in Cologne, so I nominate this Mondrian painting for a sweater. 

Be forewarned. This exhibition will even have you looking at public utility hatches and devising them into knitting patterns.

In the final af Klint gallery, I met a woman from Florida and her daughter who were on a tour of Europe to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation. They were both floored by the show which was a last-minute addition to their itinerary. Mom, who was visibly in awe, said next to the Bayeux tapestry, af Klint’s paintings were her favorite artworks she’d seen. The daughter was admiring one of af Klint’s Ten Largest paintings of a giant yellow flower form, and said, “They’re like messages from a place we don’t understand yet, but we want to.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. And this brought me back to my love of knitting and all of the patterns and techniques and their codes which are messages I don’t understand, yet, but I want to. Oh, yes, I want to and, with the help of this knitting community, I will.


The Hilma af Klint Foundation

Knit to This: Beyond the Visible

“The First Abstract Artist?”

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About The Author

Jeni Hankins is an American performing artist, writer, and maker living in London and Lancashire. Since 2008, she’s toured extensively throughout the USA, Canada, and the UK. Find her recordings on Bandcamp and catch up with her musings on Substack.


  • the Moderne Log Cabin blanket featured in a book by a couple of designers called Kay and Ann has always reminded me of Mondrian’s works.

    i love Klimpt too.

    although i do confess that sometimes i go through galleries of modern art and try to spot the paintings that look like they would inspire the designers of duvet (comforter or quilt) covers!

    • The powerful codes and and messages of knitting, the deep satisfaction of their interpretation and the joy of others who observe the process and admire the artwork that comes from it. Seek and you shall find

    • Just for clarification, this is about Hilma at Klint, not Gustav Klimt, an easy mistake. I also ADORE them both, though af Klimt is only now beginning to get the acclaim she deserves.

  • Fascinating!
    Thank you!

  • Thank you for this “lesson”. I will forever more view abstract art from a more enlightened perspective.

  • I hadn’t discovered Klint, before so thank you for the introduction!
    Pattern shapes and form do seem to keep recurring in multiple formats. The Sanquhar gloves remind me of The patterns formed in the needle lace Puncetto The Lucy Razzall has used Victorian coal hole covers as a design source for a tam. The story is in KDDs blog under Opercolum the name of the design.

    • Oops Operculum!

  • What a fascinating and enlightening post! Thank you for the information and your insights.

    • The comment about the utility cover hatches reminds me of the Rick Rubin comment — notice what is around you. And the pattern reminds me of the rug Ann & Kay designed the Kiki Moriko rug. Thank you Jeni! I especially enjoyed this post.

  • Love the daughter’s comment. Love all the colors and the geometry. Love the Tate. I agree about the Moderne Blanket.

  • Dang! and I thought I was just signing up for a helpful knitting newsletter. Jenni, that was a wonderful article about two wonderful artists.
    So far (I’ve been subscribed a little over a month) MDK has touched on music, art, life philosophy, slipstitch knitting, color, fashion, creativity, the qualities of yarn–every day a new revelation, pleasure or gem of information!

    • Agree. This newsletter is inspiring way beyond knitting.

  • I love everything about this post! Thank you for sharing a wonderful show and for your thoughtful responses. **swoon**

  • Ahh…food for the soul and inspiration for my knitting! Lovely, thank you.

  • I somehow confused af Klint with Klimt – this certainly set me straight and off to look for more of her work. I have saved photos of art deco heating grids in buildings here, thinking someday I’ll use then in a pattern, too. I also want to know who made Man Ray’s gloves! Thanks for a thoughtful tour.

  • Oh wow! Knew of Mondrian – but didn’t know all the variety of colors he worked with (feel like the primary colors, black lines bit is all I knew). And Klint! Never heard of her – but excited to learn more.

  • Thank you for this insightful and inspiring article. I saw the af Klint show in New York several years ago and have wanted to see more ever since. For more knitterly inspiration see the Gego show at the Guggenheim

  • Loved this article and inspirational photos! This one’s a keeper for future knitting colour combinations – thank you Jeni!

  • What an insightful and provocative article by the truest poet of string I know!

  • Public utility hatches/manhole covers can be utilitarian works of art. For more knitting inspiration, check out the ones installed in 1904 in Alesund, Norway, which combine a central celtic-style knot that could convert to a cable with art nouveau flowers that would make a great pattern for a Fair Isle band. Less obviously knittable ones include those of the New Orleans water company, the Budapest electric service, an assortment in Trondheim, and the incredible variety of beautifully colored ones in Japan. Even Manhattan has a large assortment of designs, from bland utilitarian to art nouveau to recently commissioned ones. Look down!

  • Public Utility Hatches? Please see Daexel by Marianne Isager for a fuller treatment in the medium of the sweater for the male of the species.

  • Lisa Doherty’s Freeform crochet & knit works would work so well riffing with af Klint!

  • I saw af Klint’s ouevre when it was first displayed—taking up the ENTIRE Guggenheim, 5-6 years ago. That was an unforgettable experience of immersion that satisfied my eyes and appealed to my soul. The idea of taking off from her unique expression of forms into intarsia is fantastic. Thank you for the re-visit and for that knitterly idea.

  • Oh my gosh, Jeni! This is a terrific article and the accompanying photos are perfect.
    I have looked to favorite colorists for the answer to many pairing and pop questions.
    Thank you!

  • I Love this article! Got me thinking…

  • I’ll right awaay take hold of your rrss feed ass I can not in fimding yourr emaol suubscription hypelink
    oor newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Please pewrmit
    me know sso thaat I could subscribe. Thanks.

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