A Closer Look: Wunderkammer

Craft & Design Yarncraft

I’ve loved Jessica Polka’s wonderful patterns since I first saw her Voluptuous Octopus (the name itself is delicious, and the squiggly legs and nubby texture are just perfect). When I saw her Red Coral enclosed in a specimen box, complete with tag, I couldn’t have been more delighted. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a Wunderkammer, literally translated as “wonder chamber,” since first reading Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler’s fantastic book about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, a modern-day attempt to capture the magic of a Wunderkammer. I’ve also been a fan of The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities since Taschen re-released the 18th century text, so I was immediately drawn to Jessica’s amazing amigurumi. Seeing creatures from the book’s pages recreated in crochet astounded me, and somehow the translation of objects from drawing to worsted-weight yarn rekindles the awe and sense of surprise that early readers of the book must have had. She exactly captures the astounding twists and turns that nature takes in her work.
Be sure to check out Wunderkammer, Jessica’s Etsy shop, to see her other patterns and her mini specimens. I asked her a few questions about her creative process:

Arwen: How did you first get involved with crafting?
My awesome Quaker school kindergarten had a “junk porch” that took donations of recycled household materials. We’d have structured time during the day for making things — most saliently, I remember building doll houses out of shoe boxes.
On the home front, my mom had been trained as a very talented seamstress, and taught me the basics of sewing, knitting, and crocheting. Through my elementary school days, I cycled through a panoply of typical “girl” crafts: bracelet-making, embroidery, beading, etc, with detours into polymer clay and electronics.
Arwen: Why crochet?
Crochet is utterly amazing. It offers you, in the form of single, slip, and double stitches, a set of “pixels” of discreet size that you can use, together with increasing and decreasing, to build any shape imaginable.
It’s a soft and huggable form of low-tech fabbing. I remember when I made my first amigurumi piece by following a pattern: I was shocked to see this little animal built up in layers from what was essentially a linear set of instructions. From there on out, I loved experimenting with different combinations of stitches to get the geometric shapes I wanted.
Plus, I love having an excuse to own yarn.
Arwen: What got you interested in making sea creatures?
I have, for several years, been totally fascinated by the idea of a “wunderkammer,” or cabinet of curiosity, which was the name given to the earliest of natural history collections. A wunderkammer was quite literally the most amazing, shocking, and befuddling specimens of the natural world — real and imagined — jammed together in a room or ornate display case. The viewer, I imagine, was supposed to get the sense that they were beholding all corners of the earth at once, in one glance — sea shells (once a rarity) displayed next to preserved two-headed lambs, saintly relics, and “unicorn horns.”
I got my mitts on a copy of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and it was only a matter of time before I made the connection between the beautiful red coral branches pictured in it and a few forlorn balls of red yarn I had earmarked for armwarmers.
Arwen: How do you come up with the designs?
I might make a preparatory sketch or two, but most of the design work is done while working with yarn — I just freeform, backtracking liberally when the results are not as planned. From the initial prototype I then count stitches to make a pattern, perhaps rearranging some of the stitches to make it more sensible to write and read as I test the pattern.
Arwen: Any other projects in the works? What are you working on now?
I’ve just started a line of jewelry and wearable “micro-specimens” that are made in tiny size 10 crochet thread instead of worsted-weight yarn: little red coral fronds dangling upside-down from a ribbon, etc. They’re very delicate, and the thread has a beautiful sheen that gives a nice texture to the finished pieces.
To expand my color palette, I’m going to experiment with hand-dying my yarn, which should allow me to more realistically model the “specimens.”
I am also working on some new patterns: more species of coral, lizards, salamanders, and a crustaceans 4-pack (krill, crab, lobster, and shrimp).
Arwen: What inspires you?
I just took a 2-month pledge at Wardrobe Refashion, which is a great challenge to break off a reliance on manufactured clothing by not buying anything new. Thrifted and handmade stuff is fair game, though. In general, I get really excited about having some parameters and restrictions to work within (especially when I pick them myself!)
Arwen: What’s one tip you’d give to other crafters?
Perhaps it’s because crochet is so forgiving (you can just pull on the yarn if you don’t like what you’ve done) but I’ve found it very useful to think of craft as something extremely edit-able. Not being afraid to erase and redo something was a major breakthrough for me.
Arwen: What are your favorite crafting books/magazines/websites?
I love CRAFT and craftzine.com, of course! Whipup is also among my favorites, and Design Sponge is amazing.
Arwen: What are some of your most important influences?
Albertus Seba and Ernst Haeckel, an amazing engraver, are endless sources of entertainment. Joseph Cornell (especially his earlier work) is also a great influence. I am in awe of the incredible crochet work of Gooseflesh, whose unsurpassable plastic bag sea creatures blew my mind, and I also admire the blisteringly 3-dimensional crochet dolls of Bobilina.

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