Exploring the Soundscapes of Knitting with Knitsonik
Having lived with the cacophony that is London for many years, I have recently made the move to a more rural setting in the Stroud Valleys in the southwest of England. Some changes were expected: more space to work in, friendly people, and a view that goes over rolling hills rather than hitting another brick wall. But it’s the sounds I notice most.
I didn’t expect the changes to my aural landscape. I thought it would be quiet, but the countryside is noisy. Not traffic or sirens, but the birds act like they own the place, chirping at all hours. And when it’s windy, the trees sound like an orchestra tuning up. Instead of blocking it all out, I find myself paying more attention to the “backup band” that accompanies the rhythms of my writing and knitting.
I recently took part in a musical performance in Cardiff as part of a chorus of knitters, and that was what got me thinking about knitting and sound. Called Killing Time, the musical piece was composed by Jobina Tinnemans for the 2013 MATA Festival, which showcases emerging composers. The piece was inspired by field-recordings taken on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales. Five knitters played in the ensemble, needles wired to play prerecorded snippets of sound as the needles touched. On one side of me was a flock of Arctic terns, and on the other, waves—as I literally knitted up a storm. The variable rhythms of the knitting randomly triggered the sounds, at the same time that the knitted fabric we made recorded the passage of time.
At my new studio in the hills, bad radio reception means that I’ve been listening more to podcasts, especially Knitsonik by Felicity Ford. Felicity is a knitting “sound detective” from the small industrial and commuting town of Reading, England. With a PhD in digital domestic soundscapes, she makes recordings of everyday sounds, some of which, like smells, are remarkably evocative of time and place.
Her work involves recording textile activities in places where fiber is being spun or knitted—even the noise of the sheep in the fields. You might think that all sheep in their fields sound the same, but Lakeland breeds in Cumbria—a field of Herdwick sheep, for example—in addition to their own sounds, have a backdrop that includes the rugged, windy, watery landscape. In Estonia, where Felicity was invited for a residency, that backdrop includes Nightingale thrushes, insects, and even wolves. Other sounds differ as well: Estonian spinners don’t card their fleece, and their double-drive spinning wheels have a different intonation.
Having listened to the sounds the knitting customs create, Felicity also set out to find out what her own local knitting tradition would look and sound like, too. In her new book, Knitsonik: Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook (powered by Kickstarter), Felicity connects intimately with her immediate environment and finds much inspiration in its details. Rooted in Shetland’s Fair Isle tradition as well as in Estonian colorwork, her designs are influenced by the colors, textures, and patterns that surround her. Sources include polychromatic brickwork, biscuit tins, fruitcake, and even the main road between Reading and Oxford. That road gave birth to #TarmacTuesday, to collectively document the many shades and colors of roads.
For projects throughout the book, Felicity uses Jamieson & Smith 2-ply Jumper Weight Shetland wool. The swatches are made in the round with steeks, as an introduction to steeking for those of us who have never dared. This book is an empowering, celebratory resource soon to be accompanied by the Knitsonik recordings.
Felicity suggests keeping a knitting diary to include the things that you like to listen to while you knit, perhaps things that accompany the rhythm of the knitting itself. My own environs have more resonance for me now, in a good way, though some sounds will be harmonious wherever I am: the sound of wine being poured, the crackling of a fire, and the gentle click of needles.
Katy Bevan is a freelance writer and editor living in Chalford and London. Look for her website at www.thecrafter.me and follow her on Twitter, @thecrafteruk.
Find Felicity Ford and her book at www.knitsonik.com.
Header Image Photo Credit: Philip Clarke
This piece was originally published in Interweave Knits Fall 2015.