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I’ll be the first to admit this exhibit isn’t strictly about knitting. But it’s not not about knitting either.

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017) made a world of hand-dyed sisal, wool, feathers, fur, horsehair, and string and I walked through it this past week. Her retrospective Every Tangle of Thread and Rope at Tate Modern has already garnered glowing reviews from every newspaper in Britain.

It’s mainly weaving, so why would a knitter go?

That’s what I asked the man standing beside me who seemed equally stunned by a giant woven and knotted presence suspended from the ceiling.

“Do you think that’s knitting?” I asked him out of nowhere—my grandmother says I’ve never met a stranger. We were both photographing a kind of bubble of knitted sleeves and a false pocket on this edifice.

“I’d call it knitting,” he said.

“Me, too,” I said, and then I asked him, “Do you knit?”

He said, “I’m a knitwear designer, actually.” Then I learned that he designs for a major haute couture label which I promised not to mention.

“What do you like about this?” I asked him. 

“Everything,” he said and we continued to take pictures and wonder about the tools used to make the knitted appendages belonging to these massive textile beings. 

Abakanowicz’s textile creatures were so revolutionary that they bear her name; they’re called Abakans—like Lord Raglan and his famous sleeve.

But let me go back a bit.

Abakanowicz was born in Poland to an aristocratic family whose fortunes declined and whose lives became increasingly precarious during the Second World War. Her mother was attacked by a German soldier and lost an arm. This seems tragically poignant, as if Abakanowicz was determined to use both of her own arms relentlessly to the point of exhaustion to cosmically balance what happened to her mother.

Sometimes Abakanowicz struggled to lift and manipulate the things she made. She tied, twisted, dyed, and bound string until she outstripped her own strength. She also outstripped the tolerance of post-Second World War Poland where repressive regimes came and went and her artwork was deemed, depending on the political weather, anti-social.

In her early Work the artist worked without a cartoon and used radical materials to produce flat tapestries on traditional looms.

She wove and constructed without the “cartoon” which normally sits behind or beneath a loom to guide the artist making the finished work. She let the materials dictate the “picture” much like the way an experienced knitter will take bobbins of yarn left from previous projects and knit them into an enviable sweater. Her hands knew what her spirit wanted.

Abakan Forest “dark” room

And spirit is the key word because after taking in two rooms of wall-hung freestyle tapestries, I turned a corner into a deep forest of Abakans and felt the kind of reverence that one usually associates with visiting a cathedral.

Abakan Forest “bright” room

I spoke at length with one of the Tate docents who said that each docent is rotated to a different room every half an hour. She—a clinical psychologist by day—loved being assigned to the Abakan installation because she saw how time after time visitors changed when they entered the space. They became quiet, meditative, they walked more softly, spoke in whispers, and their shoulders seemed to fall and relax.

There is something profoundly comforting and simultaneously striking about these textiles. It seems to me it’s what we ask of textiles every day. We want them to move and stretch with us. We want them to be a second skin. We want to feel cozy in them and enveloped by them. But we also want them to make a statement.

In Abakanowicz’s lifetime, visitors could slip inside the Abakans, but alas no more. So, imagine how moving it was to watch a film of Abakanowicz sliding inside these sculptures like a human shuttle, folding, pushing, coaxing these creatures into the shape she wanted her audience to see. She was blocking her sweaters and hats on a gargantuan scale. And she wanted us to feel they should be just right, fit the space just right, fit her vision just right.

The colors of the Abakans span from absorbing black to vibrant yellows. They took me back to my own natural dye tests during lockdown. They beam colors that nature would recognize as part of its DNA. The hues resonated with each other from one sculpture to the next like a Mark Rothko painting, but one through which you could travel. Sunflower, dahlia, and onion skin against madder and Tyrian purple, marls and heathers. And these colors were fashioned into intimations of tree roots, veins, and the alveoli of lungs.

You feel these sculptures could awaken and inhale with the deepest of breaths. And nearly every floor to ceiling three dimensional tapestry held a secret cache of knitting which seemed to act as sleeves, hearts, lungs, ruffles, or pockets for holding mysteries.

Abakanowicz wrote, “Strange powers dwelled in the woods and the lakes that belonged to my parents. Apparitions and inexplicable forces had their laws and their spaces.” We are deeply fortunate that she had the vision to recreate this childhood experience of wonder and curiosity for us using the humblest of materials—string.

Look for Abakanowicz-inspired haute couture on the Paris runways when the next winter collection is unveiled. I know of at least one designer who is knitting up some wearable Abakans as I write.

The author’s husband Graham Frear sketched her talking in front of the Abakans with her interlocutor, the knitwear designer

Magdalena Abakanowicz: Every Tangle of Thread and Rope runs at Tate Modern in London until May 21.

P.S. While you’re there, see the small display of unusual knitted works by the late radical Italian artist Marisa Merz in the permanent collection.

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.


  • A chance to glimpse into different enveloping world. Thanks aren’t enough

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the journey! Thank you for reading.

  • Thank you for the introduction to this amazing artist. Her creations are mesmerizing and it must be awe inspiring to be in their presence. The attached video was beautifully done.

  • Thank you for sharing this story about such a creative woman. The Tate Modern is the perfect space to show off these works of art.

  • Wow. This is surreal and spectacular. Thank you SO much.

  • This is so cool; it sent me completely into thoughts of wow – what could I be inspired to do like that? And also, is that exhibit traveling at all? If Raleigh NCMA can put on those tremendous woven hung sculptures of El Anatsui, could we do this? Exciting thought. Many exciting thoughts, thank you so much.

    • I would be SO thrilled if this came to Raleigh NCMA. I have family and friends who live nearby and who would love to see this! Thank you for reading and for imagining this exhibition in an American space. I think M. Abakanowicz’s work is managed by a foundation who are very motivated to share her work with more people. So, your vision is worth pursuing for sure!!

  • Thanks, MDK! You take me to amazing places and introduce me to so many interesting people. This will stay with me for a long time…

  • Is it possible that Nick Cave was inspired by the same muse, only on a slightly different thought plane?
    Love your viewpoint and insights!

    • I love the Nick Cave thought! YES! Thank you for reading and sharing that insight!

  • Thank you for introducing us to this fantastic art. My brain simply does not work like this, so this look into the creative mind of someone who sees the world so differently.

  • Thank you for the story, pictures and film. Inspiring! Makes me want to travel more and will keep my membership at my ‘local’ art museum current.

  • Holy, moly! How exciting is this! Thank you MDK for the introduction and especially to Jeni Henkins. You made my heart sing today.

    • You are so very welcome! I am really happy that you’ve enjoyed this. Going to the exhibition was truly like traveling to another planet. Many smiles to you!

  • Wonderful article and film, thank you! I would love to experience this work in person

  • Thank you just isn’t enough!

  • How exciting to learn something new. I had never heard of her. The video and written review were excellent. Thank you for giving me a fresh start to the day! And now on to my less imaginative knitting!!

  • Stunning work…thank you for this post! The artist is new to me and I loved learning about her this morning.

  • Thank you for this tour. Feeling the Sheila Hicks vibe as well. Fiber creations on a large scale always inspire us!

  • Thank you for the tour. It was a perfect start to my morning. It also sent me down a rabbit hole to an article about the curator. She has brought textiles to Tate, and was initially inspired by her grandmother’s knitting.

    • Thank you SO MUCH for this link. Such a cool connection back to knitting once again!

  • Thank you so much for sharing this. I want to jump on a plane to London to experience this exhibit in person, to see and smell these amazing works of art!

  • Thank you for this. Great description of a fiber artist, a description that fits all of us. I’m
    going to be in London next week and will definitely head to the Tate Modern.

    • I’m so happy that my article came out in time for your trip! Enjoy! And if the museum cafes are too crowded, there’s a Gail’s Bakery behind Tate Modern where I like to rest and have a think about everything I’ve just seen.

  • I went to this exhibition a couple of weeks ago with a friend – absolutely amazing. And the smell of rope!

  • When I was in college in the late 1970’s, I tackled the fiber arts with a vengeance! I learned to spin, weave, knit and make baskets, and loved both traditional and modern applications of these ancient arts. One summer I did an internship with a fiber artist, Valerie Bechtol, who exposed me to some of the great fiber artists of the time, including my favorite—Magdalena Abakanowicz. She inspired my own work for some years. How I wish I could get to London to see this exhibit!

  • I am sorry to see that while the world is waking up dropping vaccines, you still cling to the requirements without any other options. I will comply and stay away, sadly.

  • Jeni, what a great article. It is a splendid exhibit. Lucky enough to be in London to see it in February. She also did these amazing public sculptures late in her career from other materials like wood and metals and was an environmentalist and activist who took her childhood experiences and love of the forest and wove them into her work from the Abakans to these amazing public sculpture installations around the world. I think I was in awe of so many things- the wonderful film of her in the beach with with the textile pieces, the transformation of her work over time. The colors and materials. The INnOVAtion!!! The scale of her work is hard to capture in words. It’s immense and formidable and Hard to imagine the skill and craft and energy required to make these works of art. And somehow these big gorgeous Abakans are inviting. Cozy. Mesmerizing. She also used form in such a unique way. Many of the pieces are based on studies of the female human form. Tissue and bone. I could go on and on. Lovely to see this tour here and revisit this wonderful artist. Thanks MDK! And Jeni.

  • Amazing!! Thanks Again for expanding my world!!!!

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