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

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.