by Coco Swaan
Critical Reflection of A Roadside Knit: Sweater Pattern as Material Art of Roadside Picnic
A Roadside Knit is a knitting pattern for a sweater drafted as an artistic representation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. This transformative object takes the form of a sweater because sweaters are the item of clothing that is most often circulated within personal spheres, and it is knitted because, in both the novel and in knitting, nothing is without consequence – pulling a single thread will undo the whole work. The pattern consists of three distinct fields of colour that represent the interaction of society, nature and the alien in Strugatsky’s novel. This art project transforms the way in which the novel deals with concepts of trade, material, and entropy into a physical object.
Musings on Material
The idea to make this art-work based on Roadside Picnic into of a knitted sweater came from the pelt of The Monkey, the mutant daughter of the novel’s protagonist, Redrick (Red) Schuhart. In so far that Picnic can be said to have a catalyst that pushes the narrative, it must certainly be the Monkey. It is her conception that forces Red to return to his life as a Stalker in order to support his new family. Similarly, later in the novel, it is her further deterioration into an animal that prompts Red to finally take the veteran stalker Burbridge, “The Vulture”, up on his proposal to go retrieve the mythical Golden Sphere because it can supposedly grant wishes.
“ I have a choice: him or her. And for the first time he became consciously aware of this choice: either this kid or my Monkey. There’s nothing to decide here, it’s a no-brainer” (Strugatsky 172). This quote illustrates the previous argument. Red is willing to do anything, even let another person die in front of him, in order to save the Monkey. This makes it clear she is important enough for him to compromise himself for her, and by extension, that he puts his personal caregiving responsibilities above responsibilities concerning the larger society. This push and pull between the outside world and the private family sphere is a recurring conflict throughout the novel. Forces from both the larger economic society and from the alien Zone are continuously corrupting and disrupting the little family of Red, Guta and their daughter. Correspondingly, a sweater is soft, warm and comforting, making it the perfect caregiving object, and with that, a representation of that family sphere.
In conjunction with it being connected to Red’s family through the Monkey, sweaters have long since functioned as a symbol for family. A knitted sweater has become a stereotypical gift within a family, often from mothers or grandmothers. These kinds of gifts are a prevalent phenomenon in film and literature, an example being Molly Weasley giving all of her children, plus Harry, hand knitted jumpers for practically every Christmas, in the popular children’s book series Harry Potter (Rowling 215). Consequently, the archetypical sweater is crafted and given, instead of bought. It is the last vestige of craftsmanship on a private scale in a world of mass production. Although, to be fair, knitting as a craft is far from costless, owing to the current high prices of wool. This has the effect of commodifying the already struggling practices of craftsmanship, thus turning them into hobbies for the upper middle-class and removing it as a viable substitute to buying clothes for lower classes.
Even still, the sweater has been found to be the most frequently circulated item of clothing within a private sphere. Peter Corrigan researched the exchange patterns and the interpretation of clothing within family networks. Family networks in Corrigan’s definition of the term are also given to include found-family such as romantic partners and close friends, rather than just blood relatives. Concerning sweaters, in particular, he says the following. “The sweater, in sum, seems to be the basic unit of circulation in the family clothing economy” (“Interpreted, circulating, interpreting” 441). In this research, he looked at both voluntary and “involuntary” borrowing, as well as gift giving. Interestingly, he found that women were the ones responsible for a large part of the circulation, especially when it pertained to the introduction of new articles of clothing – the giving of “market gifts” and “self-purchased” items (The Dressed Society 111). This private network of circulation means that it mostly functions separately from the mass-market economy, aside from the occasional influx of new items.
This makes the sweater as an object function as a boundary between different systems of value. These are the clothes that enter the family sphere as bought items. Which, as a part of the economic system, carry monetary value. However, the circulation itself transforms them into objects that carry social, or intrinsic, value. Because of this bordering aspect, the sweater serves as a comment on what Herbert Marcuse’s calls “false needs” These are “those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse Cha. 1). Instead, sweaters fill a “true need” of physical heat retention and animal comfort. Symbolically, and with Corrigan’s research in mind, they also fill a crucial need for close personal support and connection. This is supported by the large amount of time, effort, and labour that is necessary to make any knitted garment. Because of that mandatory barrier to entrance provided by the high labour-intensity, knitting is very much only undertaken for people who are dear to the knitter. A common problem in the knitting community has even been observed to be related to this. Namely, this is when the receiver of the knitted garment is not aware of the effort it took the knitter, and thus not as appreciative as the knitter expected. When this happens between romantic partners, it can cause an actual rift in the relationship. This phenomenon is called “The Sweater’s Curse” by the community. Keeping this in mind, knitted objects, and sweaters in particular, sit at the center of a web of personal connections and shared history within a family sphere.
The fact that a sweater is so rooted as both a physical and a symbolic object, calls to mind Jane Bennett’s concept of Thing-power materialism. In her article about the subject she provides the following definition: “Thing Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennett 351). Here, she is talking specifically about the interconnected web of relations that exist between non-living things, which gives things an “actant” force that is exercised upon humans. She elaborates further about this interconnected web by saying: “For a thing-power materialist,humans are always in composition with nonhumanity, never outside of a sticky web of connections or an ecology” (365). Thing-power materialism corresponds closely with Picnic’s Swag, which acts upon the entire population of Harmond, the town at the border of the Zone. Of course, in the case of the novel, the power of the objects from the Zone is magnified to a supernatural degree, but in heightening the force of things this way, the novel is able to visualise how webs of connections like these act on people. This web of connections is made up of everything that created the object, and which brought it the the specific place it finds itself. By being there, it will exert influence on the people seeing it or interacting with it. In the novel, the only way Red can visualise the interactions he has had that are currently influencing his actions, are through material. “All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating.” (Strugatsky 162). Material is the actant in this novel, more than people. Because of this, Red needs a material analogy to understand himself. His father has become a non-living Thing. His daughter is slowly turning into a Thing. Thus, the sweater as a whole is a Thing. However, the sweater is not just an object on its own, it is also made out of a single thread that builds and builds, stitch after stitch, and row upon row. This sweater is an ecology of sediment that has been laboriously accumulated.
All of these connotations come together to shape the thematic make-up of the object ‘sweater’, and synchronously overlap with themes present in Picnic. Specifically, both play with themes of systems of trade and their influence of people, as well as themes of the clash between the familial and outside world, which takes the guise of both society and aliens in the novel. It is on account of this that this transformative object had to take the form of a sweater, to get at the heart of this particular SciFi novel.
Imagery and Symbolism
The sweater will be knitted in three different colours of thread, a steel grey, a dark muddy forest green and a bright grassy green. These colours are kept quite distinct in their own separate spheres, a setup that allows for a thematic meaning to be attached to the colours themselves. These meanings arrived quite naturally. In short, the grey thread came to represent society, the dark green became the natural world, and the bright green became the strange or the alien. Through these colours, connections and interactions between those themes are always present in a visual way.
The imagery on the pattern shows various motifs. It also aims to convey recurring themes like pollution, the extraction of resources, as well as the circular nature of both of these in a system built around monetary value.The sleeves, in particular, depict the creeping corruption of the alien Zone as growing roots or tendrils reaching down into the natural. The pattern for the sleeves also took inspiration from lightning, as an allusion to the divine aspects that some characters ascribed to the visitors.
Of course, the most significant and elaborate imagery is situated on the front-side panel of the sweater. Because of the large available space and prominent placement of the panel , it naturally became the focus piece of the work. The very first idea for the piece existed as a spiderweb clinging to the skyline of Harmond, which is where the novel is set. This idea was further developed and expanded upon to encompass broader ideas and themes present in Picnic, while still showing a few key moments in it.
The web stayed, but after the addition of the colour coded spheres, now the web is connected to society. Thus, it does not just depict the Silver Web that ultimately caused the death of Kirill, but it also refers to the hold which the zone’s perceived value has over the town and over the people caught in its web. The web, then, is also a representation of and visualisation of Marcuse’s false needs for Swag, which the society impresses upon the people living around the Zone. This is also why the web leads up into the grey collar. Along with the grey bands at the wrist, the collar was intended to allude to shackles created by a person’s needs, true or false as they might be, as well as by their society’s needs.
Underneath the web is still the skyline of Harmond, which in turn transitions into a motif of hands reaching down into the environment grasping for a sphere. These are the Stalkers, as well as all the others looking for treasures in the Zone. The sphere is the mythical Golden Sphere that the Stalkers are searching for. However, as a more generalised symbol, it also stands in for all other valuable resources that are being extracted from the Zone. In the following quote Red illustrates the essence of the sphere:
You’re absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. It always has been and still is. But now it is a hole into the future. We’re going to dump so much through this hole into your lousy world that everything will change in it. Life will be different. It’ll be fair. Everyone will have everything that he needs. Some hole, huh? Knowledge comes through this hole. And when we have the knowledge, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and go anywhere we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here. (Strugatsky 42)
The knitted version of the sphere is grey, rather than bright green or the original gold colour, because it is not an object of the zone, rather, it is an object from the collective imagination of the stalkers. It is literally a wish for everything to be made right, a wish that Red voices out loud at the end of the novel.
Making this pattern opened me up to the deep connections this novel has with the inanimate, both with the material in and around the Zone, and with the different kinds of environments that influence Red and the other Stalkers. This critical reflection is too short to discuss the sheer volume of characters who are reduced to inanimate objects themselves, pushed around by their circumstances. Climactically, even the collective fantasy of the Stalkers is of an object with the power to save them, which is why the Sphere is at the absolute center of A Roadside Knit.
Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347-372.
Corrigan, Peter. “Interpreted, circulating, interpreting: The three dimensions of the clothing object.” The Socialness of Things : Essays on the Socio-Semiotics of Objects, edited by Stephen H Riggins, Mouton de Gruyter, 1994, pp. 435-449.
Corrigan, Peter. The Dressed Society: Clothing, the Body and Some Meanings of the World. SAGE, 2008.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse Official Homepage, www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odm1.html. Accessed 6 June 2021.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 20th Anniversary ed., 1997. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic. Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 68. E-book, Orion Publishing Group, 2014.
Coco Swaan is a student at the University of Leiden, where she is currently writing her thesis for the English track of the Literary Studies Master. Before coming to Leiden, she took her Bachelor at the University of Amsterdam. Her academic interests lean towards speculative fiction genres like fantasy and horror, as well as to other forms of media, like TRPGs, computer games and—currently—narrative podcasts. She often analyse these works through the lens of Materialist or Marxist theory. Last summer participated in Dr E. J. van Leeuwen’s art installation during the exhibition If Things Grow Wrong at the Lakenhal Museum. In the future, she hopes to be involved in similar projects combining artistic expressions and academic critique.