Though her wares hark back to junior high biology class, the banner on Emily Stoneking's Etsy shop makes it clear: "I'm not a scientist, but I play one on the internet." The 38-year-old Burlington artist has been knitting for more than a decade, and has achieved a measure of success with aKNITomy, her line of hand-knit animals with bellies sliced and splayed to reveal hand-felted, brightly colored innards.
A recent University of Vermont grad, Stoneking knit and sold her creatures to support herself in school, and lately they have garnered a burst of internet attention — more for their novelty than for being anatomically correct.
In early October, Stoneking's creatures were featured on the popular site "I fucking love science," which boasts a Facebook audience of more than 22 million. This was immediately followed by a piece on "This Is Colossal," a site dedicated to art and visual culture. That post was shared on comedian "Amy Poehler's Smart Girls" Facebook page, where it's received more than 19,000 likes, and then on the Huffington Post.
The combination of cuddly material and cringe-inducing subject matter has people intrigued. Stoneking's frog, lab rat, fetal pig, earthworm, alien and bat specimens — some pinned to actual dissection trays — run between $25 and $115 and come with a two- to three-month wait. For the crafty, Stoneking sells DIY kits in addition to original knitting patterns, the latter of which cost just a few dollars.
When Seven Days sat down with Stoneking to talk about her work, true to form, she wielded her knitting needles with alarming dexterity.
How did aKNITomy get started?
I started knitting about 10 years ago, and pretty quickly everyone in my family was saturated with hats and mittens. They said, "Thank you, they're great, please don't knit us any more hats." I was broke at the time, and thought that if I sold my knitting I could afford to knit more.
It's a bit of a gray area as to whether it's truly legal to sell stuff that you've made based on other people's patterns. I decided I wanted to make my own patterns, just to be in the clear and do my own thing. I knew I wanted to knit something pretty small, because a sweater would cost $3,000 if I paid myself a living wage. I actually started my [Etsy] shop first with little stuffed-animal toys that were kind of cute and totally normal.
My husband said, "What if you made a frog that has a third leg, like those freaky mutant frogs they've been finding?" I thought that was funny, and brainstorming happened from there. One of us came up with a dissected frog idea. He claims it was him, and I'm certain it was me. But whoever came up with it, I thought, That's brilliant.
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Courtesy of Emily Stoneking
I spent about a month designing it, which involves a lot of trial and error: ripping out, knitting, ripping out, knitting, taking lots of notes. And then I popped it into my shop and saw what happened. It's weird enough that it took off.
A lab rat was the obvious next choice. I did the earthworm because that was the first thing I actually dissected myself in junior high. The fetal pig is another high school staple. The bat I did because I love bats. They just kind of trickled out slowly.
Which one is the most popular?
The frog, for sure. The rat is a close second.
The poor old fetal pig. I think the word "fetal" makes people uncomfortable. He's super cute. I love the fetal pig because we discovered how the blood-transfer symbioses through a fetus and the mother works.
Are they anatomically correct?
No. They're basically art pieces. The Huffington Post said, "We wished that these could be used in schools," and I like that idea, but they're really not meant for teaching — those organs are not accurate. It's really funny: The first comment on every article is almost always some biologist saying, "Those are terribly inaccurate, they look awful."
It's artistic license. I did a lot of research on Google image search trying to see how they really look, and you know what? They're hideous. They're just all muddy and brown and red inside, because that's what we look like on the inside. Nobody likes to look at that.
I wanted them to be more colorful, like in illustrations, and they're a little bit human-y looking — frogs don't really have that lung structure; those are more similar to human lungs. But I found that people tend to gravitate more toward human organs because they're recognizable to people who aren't biologists.
Can you talk about the recent attention you've received?
[My work has] made the rounds a few times, but this time definitely had the biggest domino effect. I lost track of it all on Facebook. I've done a few interviews with some Spanish-language newspaper and magazines, an Australian fiber-arts magazine and a Netherlands magazine. It was crazy there for a week. I spent seven or eight hours a day just dealing with emails.
I got approximately nine months' worth of orders in about a week and a half. A sane person would have stopped taking orders, but when you don't know when your next dearth will be and you're freelance, you always just say yes. You think, Maybe I don't need to sleep. If I don't have anything else to do, I could do three orders in a day. But I have a full-time job and a part-time job; aKNITomy is my full-time job that pays for my rent and bills and life, and it was my full-time job through school. Now that my student loans are due, it's not quite enough.
I'm going to be applying to grad schools for medieval history this winter, which is also a full-time job. I'd like to go into either teaching or museum work, because I really love objects and the history of physical things that people use.
Do you see aKNITomy as connected to your interest in medieval history?
Yes, I do, actually. Maybe not the alien. I love medieval art, and I'm also interested in early modern history. I love medical history. Love it. And I love anatomical illustrations, especially from the 1700s and 1800s. I wanted to do something along those lines, but I can't draw or paint, so this is what I could do.
What's the best part of running your own creative business?
It's great to have an outlet for creating things, rather than just making things that pile up in your house. It's nice to have a way to constantly be pushed to make new things and get them out into the world because I would be making things anyway — I can't stop moving my hands. It was also really nice, before student loans, to be able to support myself through art. That's a really great feeling.
Are you always knitting?
Yes. If I'm sitting down, I am basically going to be knitting.
Rachel is an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.