Ismahane Poussin on designing type with an old 70s knitting machine
Obsessed with kitsch aesthetics, pixel art and clothes with slogans on them, the type designer explains why she decided to use an old Passap knitting machine for her diploma project.
- Elfie Thomas
- 14 April 2022
The comparison between an old mechanical knitting machine and the creative mind of a graphic designer is not one that often comes to mind. But after making this leap in her MA type design diploma project, examining this relationship became second nature to Ismahane Poussin. Embarking on the project with absolutely no experience with the complicated and somewhat arcane workings of a 70s Passap knitting machine, Ismahane transformed it into a “rudimentary type design tool”. As she uncovers later, the machine often had quite as much to offer to the design process as she did.
While knitting was new for Ismahane, drawing links between diverse disciplines was not. She began her creative journey by studying photography at school, and started using Adobe Suite for editing photographs. “I figured out that composition, playing with layouts, textures and typefaces was a really great way to complete photography,” she explains. “I found it kind of funny because suddenly photography was not only photography, it could be a thousand other things.” She followed her interest to to study graphic design in Paris, where she became fascinated by the “micro-details” of designing a letter. So, after finishing her BA she went on to the Etienne school for an MA to “unravel the mystery of type design”.
During her MA, Ismahane began collecting pictures of everyday objects. Clothes with messages on them were of particular interest (“you know that ones that says "100 per cent blonde" or "I'm lazy"”) and scarves she found in thrift shops. The collecting process was initially just to keep her inspired and “mostly because I found it funny and I really love kitsch aesthetics”. When her final project came round, it occurred to her to incorporate her collecting habits into the thesis. As such, she decided to research something she knew next to nothing about – type design in textiles.
Through her research, she discovered jacquard knitting, a technique commonly used to make football scarves. Wondering if she could practically combine jacquard knitting with type design, Ismahane set herself the task of realising this creative ambition in the four short months she had left to complete her diploma. She acquired herself a 70s Passap knitting machine and, with “the precious counsel of a friend” who knew how to use it, embarked on a project to make a series of scarfs featuring a knitted type, entitled Wage against the machine.
The knitting machine was a tough cookie to crack at first, and a far cry from the software she was used to – “no computer connection, no facilities for type design, no electricity”. Taking this all in her stride, she began inventing her own design process. She used illustrator to create an adapted grid for each scarf, arranging it so the number of pixels equaled the number of stitches she intended to make. Working in a somewhat backwards way, she adapted each letter to fit the grids rather than the other way round. “It was like making pixel art, I was at a very low-res,” she says. “I was very happy with it because I'm obsessed with Windows 98, old computers aesthetics and lo-fi artworks”.
As she continued her experiments, she began noticing the ways the knitting machine contributed its own abstract aesthetics and quirks to her designs. “The letters are played around as if my machine was also a type designer: the letters are wider if we knit vertically, for example.” The reverse side of the jacquard type also creates its own abstract pattern, which provides an interesting alteration to the legibility of the type. Ismahane began purposefully reversing parts of her knitted experiments to explore this relationship between letters and pattern. When she finished the scarves, she scanned them and vectorised the letters straight from the yarn, “so it created funny and organic alphabets or shapes”, which she used to make posters.
In terms of what these typographic scarves have to say for themselves, Ismahane avoided the kitschy highstreet taglines like “100 per cent Blonde” or “I’m Lazy”. Instead she wanted to use her project to draw attention to the negative impacts of fast fashion: “I knitted short sentences or numbers, facts, information that could arouse curiosity or shock.”
Having finished her studies now, she’s been making experiments with a hacked Brother machine, a knitting machine that has been connected to a computer so you can knit designs directly from digital software. Putting the old 70s Passap behind her and looking to the future, she hopes to be able to go full time as a graphic designer. But she also wants to keep knitting, concluding: “Maybe I’ll find a Brother and hack it?”
Ismahane El Khezraji : Wage against the machine (Copyright © Ismahane El Khezraji, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.