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Geek Chic

by Brenda Dayne on January 7, 2009

Down through the centuries, knitters everywhere have sought to capture their natural landscape, and reflect the world around them in the fabric they create. Chunky moss stitch has captured the rough and ready texture of a stone cottage. Intarsia wildflowers have blossomed in brightly colored wool. Intricate fair-isle strands have suggested the colors of a desert sunrise. For some designers, however, it is not the world outside their window that informs their work, but a hidden landscape within the mind, where knitting is used to describe the esoteric, rather than the earthly. From the molecular building blocks of life on earth, to mathematical concepts of great beauty and intellectual challenge, designers are capturing this often hidden, sometimes arcane landscape within the stitches of their work.

When molecular biology student, and knitwear designer, June Oshiro, allowed her mind to wander during a biochemistry lecture at Rutgers University, she wasn’t worried about keeping pace with the rest of the class. Inspiration had struck, and she let the tape recorder in her purse pick up the lecture notes, while she took out a piece of graph paper, and carefully charted a complicated stitch pattern. By the end of the lecture she had created a scientific model that would make her famous, if not among biochemists, at least among countless numbers of knitters working in the field of science.

June’s elegant cable pattern, based upon the double helix of a DNA strand, is both stylish, and accurate. The cable correctly displays the major and minor grooves of the DNA molecule, and includes the hydrogen bonds between nucleotides, as well as the correct degree and rate of twist. “As a molecular biologist, I thought it would be foolish to have an “interpretation” of DNA, “ says June, “I wanted it to be as precise as I could get it.”

The quirky cable became the basis for a chic scarf design, which caught the eye of Rutgers microbiologist, Professor Thomas Montville. He commissioned a scarf from June, and in return agreed to sit on her PhD thesis committee. The scarf features a central DNA cable, flanked by two smaller cables spiraling toward the edges of the fabric. The ribbed center of the scarf hugs the back of the neck, reducing bulk, and is reminiscent of traditional patterns for seaman’s scarves. Unlike seaman’s scarves, however, which require that both ends be knit from the “top” – or back of the neck – downward, in order for both ends to match, June’s symmetrical double helix pattern allows the scarf to be knit from one end to the other. June herself calls the design, “Both stylish, and geeky – a true fashion paradox!”

Once the scarf was completed, June posted pictures of the finished design, as well as detailed instructions and charts on the web, and went back to work on her PhD. Over the next year or so she pretty much put it out of her head, although a steady trickle of emails reminded her that the DNA cable was still “out there”. In January of 2002 she got word that her cable pattern had made the cover of Nature Genetics, and had also been mentioned in the “Lighter Elements” section of Today’s Chemist.

Being on the cover of Nature Genetics was thrilling, to be sure. For June, however, the most exciting outcome of her DNA cable’s renown was when a particular woman emailed to ask for clarification of the scarf pattern. Over the course of their communication June discovered that the woman was planning on knitting the scarf for her boyfriend’s father – none other than Nobel laureate, Dr. James Watson, one of the men whose discovery of the double helix as a model for DNA ranks among the most important scientific findings of the last century. June, as you might imagine, is thrilled at the prospect of her scarf draping the neck of such an illustrious scientist. “Oh, I think it’s fantastic! I’ve seen a lot of artist’s depictions of DNA, especially in the advertising sections of science journals, which are simply some kind of spiraling ladder. My pattern is actually highly accurate. I hope Dr. Watson is pleased with the notion that it is dead on correct.”

June, who has earned her PhD and is now working as a medical editor at Mayo Clinic, is delighted that her creation has made her something of a name in academic circles, although she does find it rather ironic. “It’s a bit odd to be famous for this, and not molecular biology,” she admits, with a laugh. Nevertheless, she continues to allow her scientific research to inform her design work. “It just never stops, “ she says. “I recently noticed that the chain nucleotide sequence of a budding yeast cell that I’ve been studying, would make a really cool fair-isle pattern.”

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1 Sharon Rose January 8, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Supercool! The geek in me can’t decide which to knit first, the DNA scarf or the Klein hat! 🙂

2 Erin R. January 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I read this, and knew I had seen it before, so I looked at my small stash of treasured Interweave Knits magazines that have survived numerous attempts to purge my books and magazines. They all have one thing in common, an article by Brenda Dayne. Amazing! (I’ve never made the connection before now).

Thank you!! Thank you for your fine work!

3 Marion Roach Smith January 31, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Ah: The art/science model at work. And warm, too. Perfect.

4 Dad February 15, 2009 at 1:14 am

What a fascinating article! Keep up the good work! All your writing skills that you learned at Saint Mary’s Academy High School in Portland, Oregon certainly show in this piece. Now aren’t you sorry you didn’t study even harder? But I must admit your writing skills are so good I honestly don’t know how you do it. Since you and your three sisters are so darn talented, and so is your mother, I shouldn’t be surprised.

For those of you from around the world, Oregon USA is the state just above California on the west Coast.
(pronounced Ory-gun, if you say Or-e-gone, we kick you out of the state and send you to California).

5 Linda Beekveld March 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

What about knitting fractals? A nice piece of Mandelbrot perhaps?

6 Emily March 17, 2009 at 4:01 am

Knitting + Science = Joy! Thank you for taking the time to share these creative and innovative ideas with us.

P.S. Love the new website design. As they say in Japan (where I’m currently living), “O tsukare sama deshita” (thank you for your work).

7 corrie April 11, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Wow – and funny as I found a cable called “Watson and Crick” in the Vogue Cable book and was planning on making a bib with it for my soon to be baby. However, now that I’ve seen this totally wonderful cable I think I’m going to have to modify it and use this. Or maybe both.

Ah, science and art. Isn’t it fun?

8 Esther October 27, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Is Cast On still being produced?
It’s been a wonderful, absolutely wonderful podcast.

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