Soft Sculpture: Revisiting the work of textile artist Yu-Mei Huang

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Photographer: Yahui Huang

Yu-Mei Huang is a Taiwanese-born, London-based textile artist, specialising in the creation of knitted structures. Her East Asian heritage and multi-cultural background is reflected within her research practices and made outcomes. Yu-Mei describes the movement created within her knitted textiles is a metaphor for the movement and transitions within her own life.

Photographer: Yahui Huang
Photographer: AUR

Experimentation and innovation with knitted forms are central to Yu-Mei’s artist identity, whether applying these skills to applications on the human form or making objects through structural explorations.

Back in August 2019, KIC sat down with Yu-Mei after the debut of her MA Graduate Collection to hear about her vibrant, sculptural collection of knitwear for the body. At that time, Yu-Mei was about to embark on her London Fashion Week debut as one of the selected participants for Fashion Scout. Showcasing her collection at London Fashion Week is something Yu-Mei describes as a truly rewarding experience, resulting in the making of many contacts and the generation of some exciting commissions and collaborations. However, this fashion context also raised the question to Yu-Mei about what path she wanted to explore within the ‘world’ of knitting and textiles.

Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang
Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang

Since 2019 Yu-Mei has worked on numerous cross-disciplinary commissions and collaborations, with her work showcased at London Craft Week and international exhibitions. Nearly 4 years (and a global pandemic) later, we’ve caught up with Yu-Mei to hear about her transition from knitting garments into creating knitted textiles for gallery contexts, as she prepares to collaborate with TextielMuseum in the Netherlands.

Upon graduating her MA in Fashion Knitwear it became clear to Yu-Mei that her work could not be summarised in any one simplistic way- her route could not be traditional. Though her interest in the interaction of the human form with her knitted textiles was still dominant within her artistic identity, she became aware that a commercial fashion, design and trend-based route was not right for her.

With this realisation reached, Yu-Mei began to “examine the boundaries in different disciplines” which allowed her to work in “an interdisciplinary movement from fibre art to Installation”. Taking on a variety of commissions and consultancy roles simultaneously allowed her to trial new approaches for her refined knitting methods. The same structures and knit knowledge that she honed during her MA were now being applied to different knitted design briefs.

Photographer: AUR

It was at this point of new exploration in 2020 however that the global pandemic hit, causing Yu-Mei to move back to Taiwan and set up a studio there. During the pandemic Yu-Mei continued to collaborate and take on commissions, pushing her understanding of her practice within this new-found artistic context.

Her material pallet remained similar to that of her MA collections, combining polyester and elastic yarns to accommodate colour play with the heat press (synthetic fibres are required for colour adhesion when using a heat press for sublimation printing). The elastic facilitates stretch and recovery in her fabrics. Within her more recent work Yu-Mei has also introduced monofilament to explore transparency and illusion within her knitted structures.

During this time, the publication CACAO Magazine reached out to Yu-Mei, offering the opportunity to contribute to a collaboration with Coca-Cola. Her brief was to capture the ‘Real Magic’ of everyday life in some way- a challenging concept given the restrictions on everyday life at this time. However, Yu-Mei’s unique idea went on to inspire an exciting body of knitted fabrics, captured within the photography for the campaign.

Photographer: Poyen Chen

It was the blinds in the hotel rooms that Yu-Mei had to quarantine within whilst travelling between Taiwan and London that caught her eye, and her imagination. She explained, “Whilst we weren’t allowed to go out, blinds became the boundary between people and other people. Blinds closed to preserve personal space within the boundaries that were set, whilst also opening up access to views of nature and the weather. Opening and closing. This became the inspiration for the Coca-Cola collaboration.”

Photographer: Poyen Chen

Yu-Mei created knitted fabrics that became an installation and performance as a dancer tried to open up the large boxes, revealing the fabrics within. The knitted textiles expanded and contracted in relation to the movements of the dancer, echoing the interactive spirit of her MA graduate work but exploring this new, gallery lead context.

One of the great successes of this collaboration was the way in which the textiles were captured and celebrated within the photography- images Yu-Mei was delighted to add to her ever-expanding portfolio of work. Yu-Mei’s knitted textiles are celebrated and showcased with importance and integrity.

Photographer: Poyen Chen
Photographer: Yahui Huang

It was later in 2022 that Yu-Mei submitted a project proposal to the TextieilMuseum’s Textile Lab in the hopes of earning the opportunity to collaborate for her project ‘Soft Sculpture’.

“Soft Sculpture is an ongoing project which I have been developing for a while. I had exhibited it in the experimental stage in Taiwan prior to submitting the project for consideration to The Textile Lab. This project will now progress from an experimental stage to a practical level by working with TextielMuseum.” Yu-Mei was delighted to find out that her application was successful, meaning the museum will support her in bringing her project to fruition later this year and showcasing it in early 2024.

Photographer: Tinnie
Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang

Describing her collection ‘Soft Sculpture’, Yu-Mei shared, “Textile materiality and visual information plays an important role in both concepts and physical forms, I create a dialogue between visuals and the sense of touch by experimenting with various materials and producing a complex body of large-scale sculptures and installations that indulge in material tactility and the collective experience of space.”

Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang

‘Soft Sculpture’ returns to the exploring the human form, but not in a fashion context. This project explores more complex techniques for Yu-Mei, and the final outcome will display fabric both in flat pieces and in 3D garment form as an installation. The details are still being explored, but this is an exciting opportunity to Yu-Mei to display her work on the international stage.

“Soft Sculpture is an experimental series challenging the traditional image of textile form. By blending knitting craft with experimental material, this series showcases a refined relationship between materials, form and texture. The pieces are knitted by inlay techniques combining up-cycle d bubble wrap during the knitting process. The uniquely chosen material characterised by its light weight and flexibility, creates sculptural and weightless pieces conceiving a new possibility of textile form.”

Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang
Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang

Alongside the upcoming launch of her project with TexteilMuseum, Yu-Mei hopes to soon move into her own studio space in London. A space such as that at Cockpit Arts would be her ideal creative community, where she could make and create alongside like-minded creatives. Yu-Mei has also enjoyed working as a Youth Advisor in consultancy workshops for the Crafts Council and she hopes to continue this work, creating opportunities for other makers in London.

The knitting industry is vast and varied, something Yu-Mei exemplifies. Yu-Mei represents an inspirational early career journey, proving that new creators and designers needn’t ‘pigeonhole’ themselves early on in their careers and feel restricted by accolades or training they may have received. As the possibilities of knitted textiles expand further than ever away from ‘just knitwear’, graduate knit specialists can feel excited and heartened to know that this is just the beginning for their careers.

Creative identity is an ever-evolving, abstract concept that can and should be adapted to new challenges and briefs. Varied experience is key, and potential employers and collaborators should celebrate the varied lenses through which new artists and designers view their briefs and roles. After all, it is this kind of adaptive learning and making with transferable knowledge that fuels innovation and swerves away from tradition towards proactive problem solving.

We wish Yu-Mei the best of luck with her upcoming showcase (and hope we’ll be able to see it in person!).

Photographer: Yu-Mei Huang

-Instagram: @yumeihuang_studio

Linkedin 

-Digital show platforms

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Beth Ranson is a knitwear designer, textile researcher and lecturer in Textiles. As a skilled knitter, she designs and produces fabrics for a variety of design contexts. Motivated by problem solving in sustainable design contexts, Beth occupies the space between knitted textile design and sustainability theory: an interesting space to be. With a strong focus on the preservation of creativity in design, Beth believes that sustainability need not be perceived as a limitation in design. Inspired by her on going research into what ‘sustainable practice’ can mean, Beth takes note of academic theories within the realms of aspirational goals and applies this to the actual making process, working from ‘the bottom up’. She intervenes in current systems for textile product life cycles and seeks to inspire and facilitate educated and responsible change.