Okay, so there’s a Kickstarter campaign to fund Felicity Ford’s book on designing colorwork from images in everyday life. You’ll want to go look at the presentation over on the Kickstarter site, and don’t you love the fact that it got fully funded very, very quickly? With Kickstarter, only fully funded projects get any backing at all. Whew. The book will definitely be produced. That’s good news for all of us, because this project is inventive and charming and intelligent, as is Felicity herself. I met her during Shetland Wool Week last fall. I signed up for the campaign to be sure I got a copy of the book as soon as it was available.
Lots of Felicity’s work involves elements of vernacular life: sounds, colors, textures. I’ve borrowed the word vernacular for use here; it’s normally applied with reference to languages or architecture (living spaces). One of my all-time favorite books is Bernard Rudofsky’s Streets for People, which I read not long after it was published in 1969 (then I went and discovered his earlier Architecture without Architects). From my perspective, the type of awareness that characterized Rudofsky’s work also imbues Felicity Ford’s. In addition, I appreciate the extent to which she is well aware of the way women’s contributions to culture have been overlooked because they are most often part of the everyday texture of history, not its cataclysms.
Thinking of Felicity’s work brings out some of my pleasure in language and big-picture theories at the same time that she is absolutely grounded in the simple delights of life. I treasure that uncommon balance between the academic (for lack of a better word) and the practical.
I’ve asked Felicity to talk a bit here about what she does and why, because I think you will enjoy hearing from her. Check out the Kickstarter campaign—be sure to watch the video!—and then come back here for some background. You’ll see immediately, I think, why the way her mind encounters the world deserves all the support and nurturing the fiber community can offer, and why I’m thrilled that her book already has the green light.
Like me, Felicity is avid to see connections and loves details and thus writes at some length. Make a cup of tea and enjoy a journey through parts of her world.
Felicity Ford on:
Sound describes texture and place, which are central themes in how I approach my knitting. When I choose yarn for a project, I am mainly interested in the yarn's provenance and character, and working with recorded sound allows me to explore those aspects of any given yarn. The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook uses Jamieson & Smith 100% Shetland wool throughout, for reasons I shall get into shortly! But to introduce the idea of a combined sound + wool approach, I want to lead with the Rough Fell breed, whose fleece sounds amazing.
Siiri Kolka took the wonderful picture above in 2012, and in it, I have attached contact microphones to my wool combs and am listening to the amplified sound of combing Rough Fell fibres in preparation for spinning. Even unamplified, if you pull that fleece apart beside your ears, you can hear the hooks, the kemp, the texture, the grit! But amplified, the satisfying scratchy crunch of these fibres speaks directly to my knitter's sense of touch.
Deb wrote recently about wool maybe having a terroir, and to me the sound of the Rough Fell's wool speaks exactly to that idea. It evokes the breed's origins in the distinctive Cumbrian landscape in Northern England. Rough Fell sheep are often kept up on the Fell, and even their name evokes the craggy, moor-covered, mountainous qualities of this environment. Listening to the sounds of the wind whipping over a moor in Cumbria, the distinctive clatter of sheep traversing mud, and the awesome rasping in the sound of the fleece itself, I am inspired to knit substantial, sombre cables that will speak of stones and roots and mountains. I would not make anything which lies directly next to my skin out of Rough Fell wool, but listening to where this breed grows, the shepherds who keep it, and the fleece of the animal itself have given me a deep appreciation of this marvellous textile and the strength and stoicism of the Rough Fell breed.
So sound can be used to highlight the origins of wool in a distinctive landscape. That was the idea behind Hûrd – A KNITSONIK™ PRODUKTION.
Title: Hûrd – A KNITSONIK™ PRODUKTION
Materials: Edited sonic collage feat. field-recordings of shepherds, sheep, and weather in Cumbria, hand-knitted 100% wool yarn, hand-soldered speakers
Concept: In Hûrd, the sounds of the places, landscapes, animals and people from which wool originates are combined with an end product – a knitted soundsystem – so that as you bring the soft speakers up to your ears, you can hear the sources of the wool that covers them. The title comes from the pronunciation spelling for “herd” (as in sheep) and “heard” (as in sound).
2012, WOW: Wonder of Wool and the Art of Knit and Stitch, organised by Rheged
Working with sound is also more generally about noticing the details where you are. Making field recordings (recordings of ambient, environmental sounds) makes you acutely aware of the textures that are present. While listening to those textures, your other senses soak up information. The light. The colour. The surfaces and shapes. Knitting is always near the front of my mind, which means it's just not possible for me to crouch in a field of barley and record the wind rippling over those tiny grain heads without thinking about how to parse those undulations and rhythms into stitches!
Tim Ingold has argued that you can't divide up the world along different sensory planes, and he is right. As a knitting sound artist, the same world that I listen to is the one that I want to knit, and in The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, many of the everyday inspirations have previously informed my sound work. I made a radio show for the BBC about the A4074 road in Oxfordshire along which I commute, and last year—when I conceived of this project—my first instinct was to walk to the messy patch of weeds at the end of my street and sit in it, drawing the weeds, whilst also recording the specific sounds present there. The A4074 and the weeds at the end of my street are both subjects for my book, and I figure every knitter will correspondingly have a commute and a local patch that could be beautifully translated into textiles!
The KNITSONIK Audible Textures Resource (the album I am producing to correspond with The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook) explores these themes. As its name hopefully suggests, it will be full of inspiring textures, and a sense of witness or presence to daily life. The audio will foreground and celebrate the ordinary contexts in which we lead our everyday lives, and also celebrate the Shetland sheep and its origins in the distinctive Shetland landscape. As you knit stranded colourwork in Shetland wool, you will be able to hear the textures and places which inspired me and hopefully recognise echoes of your own life in those sounds. You can also enjoy listening to the landscape where your knitting wool was grown.
The knitting for The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is going to be made entirely from Shetland wool kindly supplied by Jamieson & Smith. I find this yarn perfect for knitting stranded colourwork; it is bouncy and soft, but it also has a lovely stickiness, which grips my needles pleasingly as I knit. The magic happens when I block colourwork knitted in Shetland wool; the softness becomes really evident at this stage, and the bloomy halo is very forgiving, and covers up many tension issues and gauge crimes!
Deb's own Shetland research may disprove this, however I sometimes think the rich character of the Shetland fleece—its curious synthesis of rough and soft—might be down to the theory of two-breeds-into-one which Oliver Henry always relates when describing the history of Shetland wool. Oliver has been hand grading and sorting Shetland wool for over forty-five years in the Shetland Woolbrokers, and his knowledge of the fleece is born of years of handling it. He speaks of two breeds—one "kindly-woolled" and the other rough—which ran together on the isles (which are largely without fences) and interbred, producing in time what we now think of as the Shetland sheep.
I've talked about the links between sound and wool in my work in Cumbria, and in Shetland, for Wool Week 2013—rather than making a gallery piece—I created a pattern so that knitters could produce their own small speaker-pillows, clad in Shetland wool. Using Udo Noll's amazing aporee platform, I created a corresponding online soundmap from which you may download and play my recordings from Shetland. The shades I have chosen for the speaker visually evoke the proximity of the sea to the land in the isles, and my idea was that the little kit—pillow-speaker; wool; pattern—would enable us to listen to Shetland wool through Shetland wool.
I've talked about the terroir of Rough Fell sheep, but what struck me as being particularly descriptive of Shetland wool, sonically, is the combined soundscape of sheep grazing by inlets, mixed with seabirds. You are never more than three miles from the coast in Shetland, and the constant presence of the sea gives grazing land there a totally unique sonic texture. There is a certain way that sheeps' baas ring into the sky and combine with the cries of terns and oystercatchers, and the whisperings of the nearby sea. The simultaneous presence of sheep and the ocean in a single soundscape references the dual incomes from hand knitting and fishing that define Shetland's economic past.
A SENSE OF PLACE
Travelling in Cumbria, Estonia, and Shetland, I've been struck by something to do with textile traditions. I'm not from any place that has a big knitting tradition, but exposure to places which do have that has made me think carefully about the relationship between textiles and place.
In Cumbria I learnt that shepherds used to send off their wool and have it return several weeks later as woven cloth. This would be passed to a tailor, who would turn it into a suit to be proudly worn by the shepherd. I can't tell you how many shepherds showed me photos of themselves, and said "that suit was made from my sheep"! In its various stages of life such a suit would go from being Sunday best to everyday wear, and eventually would be worn only for doing rough farm-work. Jane Knowles—who keeps a fantastic flock of Rough Fell sheep in Shap, along with her husband, Brian Knowles—showed me a Sunday-best suit handed down to her through her family, made in the 1950s out of the wool crop. It was made from Rough Fell wool, and was—as you'd expect—quite sturdy in hand! Yet it was also soft, tailored with great care into clothes which had obviously been worn and loved and carefully maintained.
When I travelled in Estonia I spoke with knitters and weavers enthusiastically reclaiming their textile history. I referred to this a bit on Tom of Holland's blog, but Liis—an amazing spinner, dyer, knitter and weaver—has been recreating an original garment held in the Estonian National Museum textile collection. She has found a striped skirt from the same district where she now lives, and meticulously dyed some of the shades needed to weave herself a contemporary version. In Estonian culture, there are specific colours and textiles for the different regions and parishes—a graphic code, if you will, of regional identity. In recreating a skirt for yourself with reference to this system, you interweave self, history, culture, national identity, and place together. Like the Rough Fell suit—so evocative of place, agricultural history, and a regionally distinct approach to fashion—Liis's skirt seemed to me to be about so much more than simply making a skirt. It is a site of meaning; a place where land, wool, and culture converge.
Similarly, in Shetland, you find incredibly skilled knitters like Hazel Tindall and the other amazing women in the Shetland Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, who have grown up steeped in long and deeply localised knitting traditions like Fair Isle knitting or Unst lace. The amazing sweater I am wearing in the photo above (by the sea, with the all-over Fair Isle patterning) was knitted by Alice Simpson of Whalsay, and it is based on a sweater in a photograph of a fisherman. I love the sweater so much because—as well as being warm, 100% wool, incredibly well made, and gorgeous—it speaks of Shetland's knitting and fishing history, and of the world-class skill of Shetland's knitters. I cannot think of a single item from Shetland which would remind me more greatly of the isles than this sweater, which I treasure for its materiality, references, and associations.
In my case, living in Reading [an hour’s drive west of London—DR], there is no famous local hand knitting tradition like those I have described in Cumbria, Estonia, and Shetland. Reading was once famous for producing broadcloth, but our regional sheep breed—the Berkshire Nott—is long extinct, and evidence of the localised textile traditions is scant when compared to the treasure troves of the Estonian National Museum, or the numerous textile archives in Shetland. However I have been deeply inspired by connections between place and textiles discovered on my travels, and am on a continual quest to develop my own knitting traditions, related to what is here. About a year ago, I wondered if other knitters in our increasingly mobile and global world would relate to this impulse, and so I devised the Quotidian Colourwork workshop (held during Shetland Wool Week 2013) in which people brought amazing stories and beautiful things from their own everyday lives to celebrate in stranded colourwork. I spent several months preparing for that workshop, and developing systems and tools for turning the things that I found super-inspiring into stranded knitting, and the response to the class where I shared what I had discovered was so enthusiastic that I decided "this needs to be a book".
The approach I'm advocating in my book is definitely slow; it involves a long-term investment in an idea, and more yarn for swatching than you might usually use to get shades right, etc. But the idea also goes beyond trends, and it's not about what's in "this season", it's about making clothes that are a long-term investment in your relationship with the world around you . . . out of a material which I really feel I can stand behind: Shetland Wool from Jamieson & Smith. Like making a field recording, making the swatches involves taking time to invest in, and appreciate, the immediate environment.
If you think about the Rough Fell suit or Liis's skirt, what is so exciting is the whole process and story that leads to the production of the garments. That is what adds the value! I do not have a flock of sheep (alas!) or a loom (again, alas!) but if I cannot grow or weave wool myself, then perhaps I can find other processes which will give my clothes their own story, and connections with my locality.
The screen prints I have produced [center image below—DR] are intended to communicate this idea of taking textures from the world around us and deepening our connection with that world by translating it into stitches we can wear. The slow time scales involved are an important component! I love Reading's brickwork, it's part of what makes home "home". These are my streets!
I love the swatches as a thought process, beginning with trying things out; testing different colours and shades; refining throughout . . . and I love the very particular challenge of turning the messy, 3D, multi-textured world into the specific, wool-textured medium of stranded colourwork.
Wilma Malcolmson—AKA Shetland Designer—said when I met her last year that "We are always in colour". This chimes exactly with my feelings, and to me what is amazing about colour is that it is always around us. The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is about celebrating the constant presence of colour in everyday life, and pouring time—and love—into embedding that colour back into the clothes you make, to wear.
Deb again: If you haven’t already gone to see Felicity talk in person on that video, here’s the link again. I just watched it for the nth time, and it made me smile today just as much as it did the first time.
I’d like to end this post with a photo that combines one of Felicity’s inspirations with one of the swatches she developed from it.
If you’d like even more perspectives on what Felicity is up to, there are other blogs chatting about the colorwork project this month.