Illusion Knitting Turns Angles and Stitches Into Hidden Art

Seen close-up and head-on, an illusion knit wall hanging might look like a mundane collection of stripes gently snagged by cat claws. But step a few paces to one side, and an image emerges. It can be simple: a checkerboard or a snail spiral. Or it can be complicated: a landscape view of the Great Pyramid of Giza, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, or Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Whatever the image, the subtle trick on your eye that allows you to finally see this “illusion” isn’t much of a trick at all. It’s just knitting.


Knitting works like this: You build up a swatch of it by forming a row of yarn loops on a knitting needle, then pulling more loops through them, one by one, with a second needle. Each loop shows its rounded top on one side of your swatch, and its beginning-and-end-strand bottom on the other. A whole row of those rounded tops makes a puffy ridge; that's called a garter-stitch row. A whole line of those bottoms lies flat; that's called a stocking-stitch row. So, even though that seemingly cat-scratched wall hanging looks as planar as paper, because of those garter- and stocking-stitch rows, its surface is actually 3D. That's how you create illusion knitting.

As far as anyone knows, illusion knitting originated with a Japanese knitting teacher named Mieko Yano. In the early 1980s, she moved to Sweden to get married; packed along with all her earthly possessions was a slim booklet that explained how to make what she called “magic patterns.” At some point, the booklet was translated into Danish, which is how it came to the attention of another knitting teacher named Vivian Høxbro, who went on to publish her own book about the technique, which she called Shadow Knitting. Her designs were simple, but a slew of people have been experimenting with the parameters of illusion (or shadow) knitting ever since.

The simplest kind of illusion knitting uses one color of yarn. From the front, you see a swath of, say, green. From the side, you see an alternating checkerboard of green squares. Or take the knit below, which appears to be a multicolored grid straight-on but from an angle reveals circles within the grid. 


How does illusion knitting show you two different images? From the side, unlike from the front, your eye catches on the raised garter-stitch ridges that delineate the pattern, and it glosses over the stocking-stitch valleys. Helping this along, a rough surface—the raised garter-stitch ridge, in this case—“tends to look darker than a smooth surface,” according to Derin Sherman, a physics professor at Cornell College in Iowa who studies optical illusions, among other topics. Sherman tells mental_floss, “That’s because, while light often gets caught in the nooks and crannies of a rough surface, it just bounces off a smooth surface”—our flat, stocking-stitch valley.

The kind of illusion knitting that gets you to Marilyn uses two colors of yarn: one light, one dark, in alternating stripes. The most basic explanation of how this works is that the light-colored yarn accentuates stocking-stitch valleys, pushing them into the background; the dark-colored yarn accentuates garter-stitch ridges, pulling them into the foreground. 


Sherman says a good way to visualize how to create this effect is to imagine strips of clay, both dark and light, laid out on a table. “Where you want the picture to look dark, raise the dark clay stripe to create a small dark hill, and lower the white stripe to create a small light valley,” he advises. “Looking straight down shows dark and white stripes, but from the sides the hills stand out, so the patterns appear.” This bit of technique alone isn’t quite enough to make Marilyn pop out of some yarn, but it more than gets you started.

British math teacher Steve Plummer—who uses knitting and crochet to explain math concepts—creates complex images, including Charlie Chaplin in the style of Warhol, a tiger head, Rossetti's Sybilla Palmifera, and a 3D fractal Menger sponge, seen below. (All of the animations in this story come from Woolly Thoughts, the website of Plummer and fellow math teacher/knitter Pat Ashforth.)


The knitting itself isn’t complicated; even beginner knitters can do it. But any pattern first has to be made into a chart. That’s where the challenge lies. Plummer explains to mental_floss, “The smallest detail I want to show must be at least one stitch across. This determines the scale of the completed piece.” Once he’s figured that out, Plummer places a grid over his entire drawn image. “Each square on the grid represents one stitch, and each row of squares represents one row of knitting,” he says. He then decides which areas on the image will be dark or light, and colors the grid in accordingly. On average, it takes him 100 hours to chart one piece of illusion knitting.

To date, the most impressive use of illusion knitting might be by Austrian artist Tanja Boukal, who’s exhibited strikingly realistic portraits based on gritty newspaper photos of armed women prepared for combat. Is this as far as illusion knitting can go?

Sherman, who is not a knitter himself, sees the potential for more. He suggests the underlying formula could be enhanced by using different colors to shade ridges on either of their sides, so you’d see different images depending on whether you viewed the work from the left or right. But, he admits, “It would be hard for a human to knit.”

Knitted gauntlet thrown?

All animations courtesy of Steve Plummer and Pat Ashforth

Bob Ross's Son Is Holding Painting Classes at a Tennessee Library

Bob Ross.
Bob Ross.
Bob Ross Inc.

For anyone who has ever logged on to the internet, Bob Ross needs no introduction. The painter, who passed away in 1995, spent the years 1983 through 1994 hosting the PBS series The Joy of Painting, where his soothing manner and bubbling-spring landscapes comforted viewers.

On several episodes, Bob’s son, Steve Ross, could be seen painting his own nature scenes as guest host or assisting his father in answering reader questions.

According to WVLT, Steve Ross is now set to offer painting classes at the Blount County Public Library in Maryville, Tennessee. He will be joined by Dana Jester, an artist who also appeared on The Joy of Painting. The workshops will be held March 4 through March 8 and will cost $125 per attendee, who will also be expected to bring their own supplies. The classes will last the entire day.

If locals are curious and don’t want to commit to the fee, Steve and Dana will be hosting a free demonstration on March 5 at 6:30 p.m.

After his guest spots on his father’s program, Steve appeared to retreat from public life, though clips of his appearances were apparently popular on Tumblr for their inadvertently risqué banter. (“It can be dirty, it doesn’t have to be clean,” and so forth.)

Bob Ross also taught classes even while The Joy of Painting was airing. He purportedly received no income from that show, earning a living via merchandising and appearances.

[h/t WVLT]

New Website Shows You What Synesthesia Looks Like

This is how Bernadette Sheridan, who has grapheme-color synesthesia, sees the name Aiden.
This is how Bernadette Sheridan, who has grapheme-color synesthesia, sees the name Aiden.
Bernadette Sheridan, Etsy

If you happen to find yourself seeing music, smelling color, or unusually combining two other senses, you may have synesthesia, a possibly genetic condition that affects about 4 percent of the population.

Since synesthetes perceive the world in such a unique way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of them pursue work in a creative field. Billy Joel, Vincent van Gogh, and Pharrell Williams are just a few examples of well-known artistic synesthetes.

For the rest of us, the whole concept can be a little hard to wrap our minds around. To help us out—and to help herself make sense of her own senses—artist Bernadette Sheridan created a website called Synesthesia.Me that illustrates grapheme-color synesthesia, which causes her to see letters as colors. If you type in a word or phrase, the site will produce a row of color blocks that correspond to those letters.

synesthesia.me color-blocks for 'mental floss'
We think our color blocks match our personality perfectly.
Bernadette Sheridan, Synesthesia.Me

As Sheridan explains in a post on Medium’s health and wellness vertical, Elemental, each person’s grapheme-color synesthesia manifests itself differently, so the letter-color combinations on Synesthesia.Me are specific to how Sheridan sees words. That said, there are some common combinations across many synesthetes—the letter A, for instance, is often seen as red.

Not only is the site a fascinating foray into the mind of a grapheme-color synesthete, it could also help you bring a bright, personalized pop of color into your home: Sheridan runs an Etsy shop where she sells prints of the color blocks. She’ll email you a high-resolution, printable portrait of any name or word for just $12, or you can order an already-framed version for $96. Looking for a special engagement or anniversary gift? Sheridan also makes them with two names.

bernadette sheridan etsy synesthesia portrait
Dawn and Pete make a colorful couple.
Bernadette Sheridan, Etsy

[h/t Medium]

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