A Coffee Break with Felicity Ford

Posted on September 25, 2015 by Rachel Owen | O Comments

Tomorrow sees the start of Shetland Wool Week; which is a week of celebration of Britain’s most northerly native sheep, the Shetland textile industry and the rural farming community on these far northerly British islands. 

If you are lucky enough to be visiting Shetland for this their six year of celebration then you are in for a real treat as there are lots of events and classes planned. If however you are not then you can still get a feel for all that is Shetland as we will be celebrating along with them and we are kicking off with a coffee break and chat with Felicity Ford. Felicity is the author of the Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, a wonderful resource for anyone who wishes to take their stranded colourwork to the next level.


How did you come up with the concept for the Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook? 

It was a slow process spanning several years – in my work as an artist I have been looking at ways of celebrating the everyday for many years. I have made radio shows about washing up and tea and my commute and other lovely aspects of daily life. And this interest in framing and highlighting ordinary things in a joyous way slowly began to coincide more and more with my interest in knitting. I kept seeing things and feeling that I wanted to translate them into gorgeous wearable handknits. I thought other knitters might feel the same way. I learnt how to do stranded colourwork, and then I got obsessed with bringing all that together: celebrating the everyday; doing it with knitting; putting all the glorious colours of the world into garments incorporating stranded colourwork.



Do you think anyone can use the Knitsonik system and turn it into a piece of stranded colourwork? 

YES! When writing out The KNITSONIK System in my book, I focused on being as clear as possible. Training as an artist has given me a lot of very practical skills, and I wanted to lay those out and demystify the creative journey from ideas to results, and to make that adventure appealing. I do think that to get maximum benefit from the system it does help to have done some stranded colourwork beforehand, but once you’ve mastered the basics the book offers a framework for pushing those skills. But even if you’ve never knitted any stranded colourwork I honestly don’t think that mastering the ability to carry two strands of yarn at a time is that difficult...  The fabric looks complex because of the strands but I find it much easier and more straightforward to knit than other kinds of fabric - for example LACE (which is my nemesis).  


Finding inspiration in places; one of Felicity's favourite Reading landmarks a neglected Art Deco building.


I've got to ask but what is yarn dominance? 

Ysolda has done a really great post about that which you can find here, but yarn dominance is about how one of the colours you hold when you are working stranded colourwork will “pop” more than the other one. This is because one strand of your yarn will hang a little lower than the other on the back of your work. The way that lower strand lies means the stitches made with it contain more yarn or give than those knitted using the other strand, and this extra length can be subtly seen in the stitches on the front of the work which appear more prominent. I knit stranded colourwork using the two-handed method and find the yarn held in my left hand is always the dominant yarn in the knitting. That’s useful because it means that if I want my patterns to really show up, I know to hold the pattern yarn in that hand! Many knitters like to hold the yarns in one hand, and then it’s a case of understanding whether the top or bottom strand is the dominant yarn. The concept is much easier to explain in knitting than in words and the best way to understand yarn dominance is to experiment with how you hold your yarns when working stranded colourwork! 


How did you get into knitting? 

I moved to Oxford when I was 25 to begin an MA in Sonic Art & Composition at Oxford Brookes University. I was lonely and joined a local knitting group in search of amazing female comrades. I am so happy I found them, and the friends I made back then are still my friends now.


You’re a sound artist, how did you come up with the idea of combining that with knitting? 

I think once you find an obsession, you just have to keep going with it. And for me KNITSONIK really grew out of that fruitful period when I was working on my MA and knitting with the Oxford Bluestockings knitters. I started thinking about how I could combine ideas from these two contexts. 

There has always been a feminist bent to my work as an artist. As an undergraduate I'd really enjoyed learning about feminist artists of the 1970s for example Mierle Ladermann Ukeles did a project called Maintenance Art which was all about putting housework into the gallery. And I thought “this doesn't seem to have happened with sound in the same way that it has in other art mediums...” so I was doing a lot of work with very domestic sounds, sounds relating to the everyday, and the home... and I was knitting a lot. And I think because that's what I was surrounded by - knitting and sounds - with this kind of 1970s feminist art influence nagging in the back of my mind, things started to kind of come together in a certain way. I made a knitted sound system with 32 miniature speakers, each covered in a hand-knitted cosy and soldered 16 in the right channel, 16 in the left. It was a bit naive - lots of domestic field recordings and then this kind of domestic hand knitted covering. I wasn't very happy with that piece but I think sometimes you have to spot when you're scratching at something that could be good and just keep going. I really liked that people had to touch the speakers to listen to them and I liked that unlike headphones, a group of people could collectively play in the cloud of little knitted speakers. And it was empowering to have created my own fairly inexpensive playback system. One thing which is off putting about working with sound is the impenetrable and expensive technology... and a lot of the sound art I had been exposed to back then was all about massive surround sound systems, black chrome aesthetic, obsessions with high fidelity etc. etc. and I didn't care about that stuff, I wanted to find fun ways of presenting and sharing sounds with other people. And of using sound to speak about those things that are important to me. So I liked the handmade aspect of the speakers, the social and playful element. I felt I'd stumbled on something that could be explored more. So I started a PhD looking at the domestic soundscape and presenting everyday sounds to audiences. 

While working on my PhD, my engagement with knitting deepened. I met a shepherd and had this idea to use radio to tell the story of a knitted garment. So I recorded her sheep, I recorded the mill where her fleeces are spun into yarn, I recorded myself knitting with that yarn... and the show I put together aired on Resonance FM through the framework afield series curated by my friend Patrick McGinley. I was really struck by how hearing the sounds of where and how the wool was produced added depth to the experience of knitting with it. 


Felicity's digital sound recorder, which she's has nicknamed Eddie was the inspiration for the stranded colourwork shown. 


In 2012, I revisited that earlier knitted speaker system and took off the whole cover and replaced it with British Wool and especially wool from the Lake District. I recorded shepherds and sheep in Cumbria and played their sounds through the sound system and that gave people an opportunity to hear the origins of the actual textile in their hands. Bridget Kelly from the Wool Marketing Board said that the piece was like listening to wool which was lovely feedback to receive as that is what I was aiming for. What was really great about working with knit and with sound in that piece was that the sound recordings really speak to the textures of the landscape where the wool is grown. The wind and the rain and the creaky gates and the sound of wet hooves in the mud... they all tell you something about the breeds that are specific to Cumbria. The Herdwick and the Rough Fell and the Swaledale and the North England Mule... and I think that somehow when you hear the harsh wind on Hilary Wilson's farm, for example, the thick, characterful fleece of the Rough Fell sheep starts to make sense...

Sound allows you to tell stories - yarns, if you will - and sound is enormously descriptive of textures. And I love knitting as an everyday medium, as a way of embedding amazing stories and creative projects into daily life. A sock can have a whole story in it, but it's still a sock! I think a lot about that... about how sound recordings can be just these very everyday things, that can be exchanged and shared... I might starting my still unfinished podcasts on Ravelry as wips! You know, I'm always pushing for that... for a more social and everyday approach to art so it's not this magic thing that lives in the gallery in the special space, but this fun thing that can be used and enjoyed and appreciated in everyday life. My favourite example of that maybe is the ringtone I made for Wovember - it's made of sheep baas, and the idea is you put it on your phone and your phone rings and it's a reminder of the origins of wool in the landscape - so quite a serious idea, but very easy for people to share and join in with. 


The A4074 road from Reading to Oxford was the subject of a radio show Felicity made in 2011 and is featured as one of inspirations in her book.


In terms of my book, I think one of things I try to get across is the value and the richness of recording things which I have definitely found through my work with sound. The A4074 road that is one of the inspiration sources of my book was also the subject of a radio show which I made for the BBC. It was broadcast in 2011. And I think of that road as a kind of tattoo on my imagination; the ceaseless mission to document it in knitting and in sound! And I'm working on an album that goes with the book, and for me there is something very special in exploring an everyday context through making field recordings and through knitting - it goes back to textures and yarns again! Listening and knitting are both slow processes and ways of recording time. And the process of recording things changes your relationship to them... once you have recorded the blackbird that sings on your roof or made knitting based on the brickwork in your street, you have this special connection to those things. And it's another way of finding art moments in everyday life.


You are a big fan of Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight; tell us what you love about it? 

The provenance of Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight yarn is totally traceable, and it has a soft and bouncy hand that is full of life. I love how forgiving that yarn is of any tension irregularities, and the beautiful bloom that appears across the surface of your stranded colourwork when you block it. You can never run out of ideas because there are so many colours, and I really like that the colours are named by numbers rather than by titles. It makes it easier to pick the right shades. If a colour is called sky then you are tempted to buy it if you are working on a design that is based on a view with sky in it – even if in reality the shade is not quite right. The more neutral numbers offer space I think for picking out the exact right shade and I love the numbers and know quite a few of them by heart now. 


So many shades to chose from; Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight


I also love my comrades at Jamieson & Smith. Ella, Sandra, Oliver and June have all been amazingly supportive of the KNITSONIK mission, and I really appreciate their collective knowledge. I love that in Shetland you can go into the wool store and see Oliver and his assistants sorting and grading and bundling up the Shetland wool clip. You can smell the raw fleece and go to farms on Shetland and meet the people and animals from which the hand-knitting yarns ultimately come... every time I knit with Jamieson & Smith yarn I remember and celebrate those connections.


How will you be celebrating Shetland Wool Week? 

I am teaching classes almost every day of Shetland Wool Week, and was honoured to be invited to produce an illustration for this year’s TOTE bag. I have knitted a Baa-ble Hat (pattern by this year’s patron, Donna Smith) which I shall be proudly wearing to the opening ceremony, and I am hoping to complete a song that I have been working on which is a homage to the J&S 2-ply Jumper Weight shade numbers. I will also create more recordings for my online sound-map of Shetland sounds! I created this map in 2013 to accompany a knitted speaker pattern that I produced at the same time, and you can go there on your computer and download all kinds of sheepy sounds to accompany you while you knit if you wish.


Baa-ble Hat by Donna Smith


What’s in store for you this coming year?  

After Shetland Wool Week, the next big things in the KNITSONIK diary are WOVEMBER – a month-long celebration of sheep and wool. I've also got a teaching weekend with the amazing Brenda Dayne at Purlescence

Finally, a nine-long month commission on which I have been working for the Museum of Oxford comes to fruition in December, so I will be spending the next few months editing audio collected this year in Oxford and building a Sonic Wardrobe installation which will incorporate local textiles, speakers, a wardrobe and many interviews with different people about clothes and textiles in the city of Oxford. That’s going on show in January 2016 with a public lecture performance in December 2015. I’m also continuing work on the album that accompanies the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook and distributing the book itself.


You can find Felicity on Twitter as @knitsonik or in her blog, The Domestic Soundscape. If you'd like to hear more from Felicity she's has done a cracking interview with PomPom Quarterly which is well worth a listen.

Felicity has now completed her Shetland Wool Week Song which is sure to bring a smile to your face! 

And of course for those of you who fancy your hand at expanding your stranded colourwork repertoire there is always the Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook.




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