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.”