Thursday, February 20, 2014

Madame Defarge's Knitting

In A Tale of Two Cites, the "villain" Madame Defarge is continually knitting. Her knitting project, we discover, is a coded list of all the people who need to die when the revolution happens. Our production takes place over the course of several years, so we needed several pieces of knitting to make it appear that she has been making progress (after this photo was taken, the long piece got several inches longer). We tracked the knitting throughout the show and determined that it needed to make four appearances. Three times she would be working on the knitting, and once, after the revolution had begun, the knitting would be off the needles as a "finished" list. 
To save myself a LOT of knitting, I decided to find a way to make the long "working" knitting the same as the knitting off the needles. Unfortunately, with knitting, pulling the project off the needles and then putting it back on is not an option. I proposed that we do something similar to the reusable knitting I created several years ago for Goodnight Moon. I carefully knotted in small red rubberbands as I was casting off to finish the knitting. As you can see, it was possible to continue knitting normally through the red bands. This allowed our actress to knit normally through the final scene when she needed to do so. At intermission the ASM was able to pull the project off the needles and unravel it back to the permanent row of rubberbands. This process can be repeated for each show without ever damaging the knitting. 
For the knitting itself, I did quite a bit of research to find the right pattern. Much of what I saw was either too patterned (I didn't believe there was a code in it that said different things), too random (with so many different colors and patterns I couldn't believe anyone could decode it), or way too obvious (if you are knitting visible letters, it's not a very good code)
Eventually I came across a knitting code that made perfect sense. It broke down each letter of the alphabet as a distinct set of three stitches, and suggested including rows of uniform stitches in between to set off the code. 
You can find a link to the entire document here
Neither of these photos captures it as well as I would like, but they can give you a bit of an idea of how the pattern worked. When looking at the knitting from far away, there are clearly irregular rows and regular rows. Closer audience members might be able to see all the small holes and skipped stitches that make up the pattern. 
This project took me many hours, but was one that allowed me to overlap work and down-time. For about a month I brought it with me wherever I went, kept a printed copy of the code with me, worked while watching tv at night and while waiting at the airport for a family vacation. 
It is also worth noting that I barely knew how to knit when I started this project. In order to learn the stitches in the code I spent quite a bit of time looking up tutorials and youtube videos of each stitch that I needed. By the end of the third piece of knitting I was moving five times faster than when I started. I am confident that the next time knitting comes up in a show I will be able to create something with more detail, and with much more speed. 

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