Dominique Kähler – alias Madame Tricot – has an usual passion: she loves to knit food in 3D. Her creations, from sausages and whole pheasants to dainty English tea cakes, have been causing quite a stir – much to the delight of the retired psychiatrist.
It is with her medical hat that Kähler, 65, meets me in her offices in Wil, near St Gallen. After practising psychiatry as well as naturotherapy for 40 years, she now devotes two days a week to another medical occupation: therapy with leeches. She and her husband own Switzerland’s only leech breeding company for medical applications.
We have a slot before her next appointment and she ushers me into the kitchen area for a cup of coffee. Grey-haired, with a warm and lively manner – which must go down well with her patients - the only clue to Kähler’s alter ego is her seagreen knitted necklace – homemade of course. Closer inspection, however, reveals something more unusual about it: two plastic frogs, nestling among the yarn cables.
In fact, there is often something a little unusual about Kähler’s creations. In amongst the huge and skilfully knitted 3D pig’s head – complete with fruit in the mouth – and the fridge full of meats, cheese and lemons, you might find a mouldy sausage or two.
“It’s the philosophy of why I knit food,” the knit artist says. “I don’t want to knit animals or people. For me, it’s disrespectful to try and capture life. So I knit food.”
Why meat in particular? “First I have a good anatomic knowledge as I am a doctor. The second thing is when the animal is dead you have the meat, which is dead but it’s not really gone. It is something alive, we can eat it, and it looks nice and that is possible to knit.”
Mould holds a particular fascination for the medical professional, showing the boundary between life and death, and the process of decay. Kähler finds all the stages interesting, from the first spores to mouldy meat covered in flies.
On a recent Swiss television appearance, she sported a necklace of mouldy knitted sausages, much to the amusement of the presenter.
“When you look at the mould it’s very beautiful. It’s like a flower, you can have red or green and a crown of white. When people realise what it is they say ‘ah disgusting’, but I like this ambiguity. It’s always the art of how you see things.”
It has only been two years since Kähler started knitting 3D food pieces, but she has already garnered a lot of attention. Knitting seems to be on trend in Switzerland, she says.
Apart from the aforementioned TV appearance on a popular entertainment show, she has also been the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper articles.
Madame Tricot is also in demand with museums. Currently some of her knitted sausages are on show at the Museum Mühlerama in Zurich.
And her fridge of food is on display at the Novalana wool shop in Winterthur, although when interviewed Kähler was mourning the loss of her knitted fish bones, recently stolen from the shop window.
They were later returned to the display, just as mysteriously as they had disappeared, after an appeal on social media.
The fish bones and a fish were the first two 3D pieces that she ever knitted. Encouraged by her family, she continued, expanding her range.
It is hard to say how long a piece takes, she says, because she is always knitting: on the train, while looking after her two beloved grandchildren – she has two daughters – or while waiting for her food in a restaurant.
She has just started a black pudding, inspired by a recent visit to England to learn about knitting with machines, and proudly shows me the lovely brown-black wool she is using to craft the sausage.
Born to French family in Paris, Kähler studied medicine on the urging of her father, but attended the Ecole du Louvre to study art history. She moved to Switzerland after meeting her Swiss husband, and was naturalised 40 years ago.
Kähler has always loved knitting and textiles – and food.
“I was brought up in a gourmet family and we had a very good knowledge of food. There’s not the same knowledge in Switzerland, the cooking is less spectacular. As there was no King there was no ‘grande cuisine’. I think I miss that a little,” Kähler says.
This is why her work may look fit for a regal feast, with the added benefit that she can knit something like a British Victorian pie – she likes the British tradition of big cakes – and enjoy it without piling on the pounds, she smiles.
When she has the time, Kähler likes gardening. But she finds knitting the best antidote to stress.
She points to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of needing to hold a picture in your brain for several minutes while meditating. She does this while knitting: holding, for example, a picture of a pig’s head and focusing on it while her hands knit.
There is no knitting plan for her objects; she simply creates them and each one is unique. “The journey is the destination,” she quotes. Each piece is made with emotion, which is why Kähler thinks people like them so much. “That’s the secret of art,” she says.
And would the psychiatrist recommend knitting as a therapy?
“Yes, of course. This meditation philosophy also applies to patients. It’s very often the simple things which are the best.”
Madame Tricot’s success comes at a time when knitting seems to be making a comeback. Claudia Cirmaz, from the Novalana wool shop in Winterthur, is a big fan.
She first met Kähler when she came in to buy wool to knit some salami. The shop is now showing Kähler’s works.
Lots of people have been to see the fridge full of knitted food, and the exhibition has been a success, despite the mysterious theft of the fish bones.
Cirmaz observes that there are two types of knitters: the young people who have never done it before and the older people who have started again after around 20 years’ break.
People start with crocheting or something simple, like hats, and progress from there.
Dominique Kähler still works two days a week offering medical leech therapy.
This ancient practice is making a modern medical comeback. Leeches have a unique saliva that causes blood flow to increase and prevent clotting. So they can be used in microsurgery to, for example, reattach small veins.
There are also other therapies such as for osteoarthritis of the knee, tennis elbow, hematomas and abscesses.
In addition, Kähler manages, along with her husband, Switzerland’s only leech breeding company in Wil, near St Gallen.
She has written two books subject: Hidurotherapy, a handbook for leech therapy (in German, 2013) and Leech Therapy (in French, 2009).
By Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Wil, swissinfo.ch