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

7 of the World's Quirkiest Statues

The Jolly Green Giant looms over Blue Earth, Minnesota.
The Jolly Green Giant looms over Blue Earth, Minnesota.
Laurie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Public sculpture can inspire, illuminate, and provoke curiosity. Look at the Lincoln Memorial or Auguste Rodin’s famed Thinker. But not all statues reach such lofty heights. Take a look at some monuments that stretch the boundaries of artistic expression.

1. Charles La Trobe // Melbourne, Australia

The Charles La Trobe statue in Melbourne, Australia is pictured
Charles La Trobe displays some inverted thinking.
Phil Lees, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Charles Joseph La Trobe was Victoria, Australia's first lieutenant governor, a post he held through 1854. La Trobe is celebrated for his efforts to bring the Royal Botanic Gardens, the State Library, and the Museum of Victoria to life. In 2004, sculptor Charles Robb debuted a sculpture of La Trobe at La Trobe University. The work is notable for being completely inverted, with La Trobe resting on his head. According to Robb, the point is that educational institutions should strive to turn ideas on their heads.

2. The Jolly Green Giant // Blue Earth, Minnesota

The Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota is pictured
The Green Giant statue offers 55 feet of vegetable advocacy.
Laurie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s rare that food mascots receive a 55-foot tall tribute, but this monument to the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota, proves to be an exception. The Giant, of Green Giant vegetables fame, was unveiled in 1979 after a campaign by radio station owner Paul Hedberg, who wanted to lure travelers into the town. Curiously, Green Giant (the company) didn’t offer to fund this enormous and permanent advertisement, which was constructed using donations from area businesses. Hedberg wanted to install a button that would emit a “Ho, ho, ho!” sound, but ran out of money.

3. Man Hanging Out // Prague, Czech Republic

The 'Man Hanging Out' statue in Prague is pictured
Sigmund Freud is left dangling.
Greger Ravik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Artist David Cerny thought he had the ideal way to depict the warring psychological state of Sigmund Freud, the famed psychoanalyst who was born in Freiburg (now Příbor, Czech Republic). Cerny said the statue, which debuted in 1996 and remains on display in Old Town Prague, is intended to depict Freud as he weighs his options between life and death—whether to hold on or to let go. At various times, police and first responders have mistaken the sculpture for a suicide attempt.

4. Transcendence // Portland, Oregon

Salmon sculpture in Portland Oregon
Transcendence depicts a large salmon breaking through a brick wall.
mike krzeszak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk near Southwest Salmon Street in Portland and you won’t be able to miss Transcendence, a sculpture of a salmon that appears to be breaking directly through the building where Southpark Seafood is located. The 11-foot long bronze fish was created by Keith Jellum and seems to capture the irreverent mood that defines Portland.

5. The Fork // Springfield, Missouri

The giant fork sculpture in Springfield, Missouri is pictured
The attention-grabbing fork of Springfield, Missouri.

At 35 feet tall and weighing 11 tons, Springfield’s immense fork is among the world’s largest utensils. The fork was initially constructed for a restaurant by ad agency Noble and Associates in the 1990s. When the restaurant closed, it was relocated to the agency’s building, which is also home to the Food Channel. A fork in Creede, Colorado, is 5 feet longer but a mere 600 pounds.

6. Viaje Fantástico // Havana, Cuba

Sculpture of a naked lady on a chicken
Viaje Fantastico is one of the world's weirdest sculptures.

Those who gaze upon Viaje Fantástico in Havana—which consists of a naked woman riding a chicken and wielding a fork—will have to find its meaning for themselves. Located in the city’s Plaza Vieja, the sculpture was installed in 2012 by artist Roberto Fabelo, who has yet to provide context for the piece. Because the woman is nude, some have speculated it might be a nod to Cuba’s history of prostitution. The fork and chicken could symbolize that she has sold her body for sustenance. We may never know for sure.

7. Boll Weevil Monument // Enterprise, Alabama

The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama is pictured
The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama.
Martin Lewison, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

This elegant ode to pestilence was erected in 1919 in honor of the boll weevil, an insect that destroyed cotton crops in the area. Why celebrate it? Farmers had to look to other crops like peanuts, which helped diversify the region’s agricultural economy. The statue, which is near the Depot Museum, is a replica of the original that was damaged by vandals in 1998.

Turn Your Favorite Photos Into Works of Art With Google’s Art App

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If your local art museum is closed, a new app from Google Arts & Culture will make the photos in your camera roll worthy of gallery consideration. As Gizmodo reports, the Art Transfer feature uses artificial intelligence to reimagine any image you upload in the style of a famous artist.

If you've already downloaded Arts & Culture for Android or iOS, hit the camera icon at the bottom of the app and select Art Transfer. From here, you can either snap a photo or choose an existing picture saved on your phone. Google then gives you a variety of art styles to choose from. You can transform your cat into Edvard Munch's The Scream, for example, or turn your brunch pic from last month into a piece of Yayoi Kusama pop art.

The feature doesn't just apply filters; it uses machine learning to edit the colors, textures, and even shapes in the image you upload.

Dog image inspired by Man from Naples.
Michele Debczak/Mental Floss, Google Arts & Culture

Pizza picture inspired by The Scream.
Michele Debczak/Mental Floss, Google Arts & Culture

Two years ago, Google Arts & Culture rolled out a similar feature that matched users' selfies to their art lookalikes. The difference with this one is that instead of showing you existing art, it creates an entirely new image by combining your photo with a famous artwork.

You can download Arts & Culture for free today from the App Store or Google Play. After having fun with the new feature, you can use the app to virtually explore landmarks, museums, and other cultural institutions from the comfort of your home.

[h/t Gizmodo]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER