Studio Visit: Gilbert 'Gil' Witte

Studio Visit: Gilbert 'Gil' Witte

Studio Visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, Melissa Merli chats with Gilbert "Gil" Witte, 48, of Savoy, a University of Illinois Library operations associate who took up crocheting 25 years ago. He curated the exhibition "Knot Forgotten: The Tennyson Library of Crochet at Illinois," on view through Aug. 31 in the Main Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, U.

So you took up crocheting in 1989?

Yes. That's when I stopped taking architecture classes and was working full time and had friends who were expecting babies, so I made a lot of baby blankets.

Did you teach yourself how to crochet?

Yep. Basically through one of Susan Bates's first "Learn to Crochet" books.

Was it hard?

Apparently not. I've been trying to teach people in classes, and I must have picked it up pretty well. The hardest part is starting because you don't have anything to hold onto.

Do you sell the stuff you make?

I've sold a lot to friends. I just sold a shawl (Tuesday) to a friend of my sister's. I'm going with a friend to more craft shows, so I'm hoping to sell at them. I go up to the flea market at Gordyville but don't sell much there. A lot of people will stop and look. Some women will say, "Oh, a guy crocheting" and then turn to their husband and say, "Look, honey, if he can do it, you can do it."

What kind of things do you make?

I make pot holders, dish cloths, scarves and shawls. I don't like making things that you have to join together. I was making motifs for an afghan that I had to later stitch together, and I didn't like that.

What do you like doing best?

A lot of times, I like to get vintage yarn because I enjoy seeing how it will turn out, especially if it's variegated yarn. I also found what I call the perfect pot holder pattern, so I started making more and more of those.

Didn't you collect crocheting books, patterns and other things that you donated to the UI Library's Rare Book and Manuscript Library?

Yes. I think the total collection size is around 7,000 pieces. There are 350 books, 1,500 issues of magazines and 4,000 to 5,000 booklets that include free patterns, leaflets and yarn wrappers.

Originally, I had hoped to eventually open my own library with a museum. But all the pieces I had became too overwhelming. That's when I decided to donate them to the library.

You're also cataloging the collection.

Yes. I work on other projects as well. When I first started cataloging the collection, I thought it would be moved to the library's Oak Street facility, but once I talked to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library about some of the pieces, they said they would take the entire collection.

You also curated the exhibition in the main library.

Yes. One of my co-workers, Michelle Yestrepsky, helped with setting up the wall panel, with getting the pictures of images of crochet publication through the ages. It's a crochet timeline. The oldest dates to 1844.

Some of the pictures are hilarious.

They're supposed to be show-stoppers. Some might be really cool or they might make you think, "What were they thinking?" Those go right into the "yikes" folder.

What are some of the more unusual pieces in your collection?

In addition to magazines, books and booklets, I collect crochet hooks and vintage and old yarn and thread. Some of my cooler pieces are a scrimshaw crochet hook and a hook made from a nail that still has its head. I also have a book on an attempt to create a machine to crochet. I don't know if it ever worked.

The oldest piece in the collection (named after Witte's great-grandmother, Flora Emily Tennyson, who crocheted) is an 1844 booklet that I bought on eBay that tells you how to crochet, but it has no pictures or diagrams. It assumes a lot of knowledge.

Topics (2):Art, People