Tuesday 15 April 2014


Felicity Ford aka KNITSONIK is a long time Old Fire Station favourite stockist. You may remember Felicity from such goodies as the Sonic Tuck Shop, iHear Audio Walks and a whole lot of badges, amongst many other things. 

The ever industrious Felicity is in the shop as we speak, running her workshop 'Turning 3-D into 2-D: The Fabric of the City' (scroll down the page for full details...) and we're taking full advantage of having her here to pick her brain and bend her ears...

When did you first begin your love affair with knitting? Who taught you how to knit? 

My granny taught me to knit when I was a little girl. However It wasn't until 2005 when I came to Oxford to do my MA at Oxford Brookes and joined the Oxford Bluestockings that I got REALLY excited about knitting!

The Oxford Bluestockings still meet every Wednesday evening in The Royal Oak pub on Woodstock Road, and that group of knitters is amazing! The collective level of skill is really inspiring, and of the knitters who attended in the early 00s, quite a few have gone on to design patterns or produce yarn. Katie is now the proprietor of Oxford Kitchen Yarns and now dyes yarns naturally and sells them through Darn it and Stitch, while Liz has several beautiful garment patterns on Ravelry, which - if you haven't heard of it - is an amazing resource for anyone who knits or crochets! 

When I first joined and saw the elaborate things everyone was making. I was instantly inspired to get better at knitting! Liz's knitting in particular massively inspired me. She was making a lace stole when I first joined the Bluestockings, and it looked impossibly complex! Liz still blows my mind. She churns out the most amazing projects at great speed, and I have always been inspired by her knitting.

What was the first thing you remember knitting? 

I think the first actual thing I made was actually a knitted firework for my partner, Mark. I made it years ago! Mark loves fireworks and I loved the design challenge of trying to make one out of yarn! I used eyelash yarn (the really glittery, fluffy stuff) to make the insides of the firework, and you push them out through the top with a wooden stick, so that golden stars "pop" everywhere! There is a big orange pompom for a fuse. Before that, what I mostly made was what every knitter makes; lots and lots of basic knitted squares, riddled with mistakes.

Tell us about your relationship to Shetland and Shetland wool. Does Shetland wool have a particular feel? 
I became interested in Shetland and Shetland wool through my growing fascination with different UK sheep breeds and the history of woollen textiles. Shetland is very important in the history of UK textiles, and the two most famous Shetland textile exports are arguably Shetland lace, and Fair Isle knitting. The Shetland lace shown here is from an amazing book by the Shetland GUild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, called "A Legacy of Shetland lace" and the Fair Isle knitting was photographed at The Shetland Textile Museum.

Because of its position in the North sea, Shetland has always enjoyed a steady flow of maritime visitors. Lerwick - the capital and main port of Shetland - has been used as a trading centre for centuries, and one of the most important Shetland exports sold here has historically been hand-knitting. This knitting, made by the incredibly skilled women of the isles, was produced using wool from the island's native Shetland sheep.

In terms of the wool itself, Shetland wool is soft, but also a little tiny bit 'sticky' which makes it perfect for producing stranded colourwork - like Fair Isle knitting - because when you block the knitting (that is, when you wet it and stretch it into shape after it's been knitted) it smooths down into a lovely soft surface with a lovely bloom of fuzzy wool fibres over the top. A very shiny or silky yarn would not produce the same effect! 

Talk about your connection to Estonia.

I went to Estonia in 2012 for a residency to explore the Estonian wool industry! It was amazing, and I learnt alot  but one of the things I found especially inspiring was discovering that in Estonian National Folk Costume, all of the parishes and regions of Estonia traditionally had their own special knitting patterns, stripe sequences for skirts, and distinctive adornments. In the image, you can see some amazing stockings from the island of Muhu, showing the distinctive use of pink that was popular in this region! This photo was taken in the Estonian National Museum, and it's through glass, but you can still hopefully see the extraordinarily tiny stitches and the intricacy of the patterns, as well as the exuberant palette!

Talk about the relationship between the traditional knitting patterns of Estonia and Shetland and what connects them. 

What connects Estonia and Shetland is the sea. Looking on a map, you can see that the Baltic and Scandinavian countries all border the ocean, and that Shetland sits along direct trading routes between these countries and the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Alice Starmore has proposed in her excellent book about Fair Isle knitting that while there were examples of stranded knitting in the Baltic countries as early as 1800, no such examples appear in Shetland until the 1850s. According to Starmore, it must have been through Baltic hand-knits reaching Shetland that the Fair Isle knitting tradition was  founded. Nevertheless, in the hands of knitters in Fair Isle (a small island off mainland Shetland) the tradition of stranded knitting (knitting geometric patterns by using 2 colours at a time) took on a distinctive life of its own, and when you look at Estonian handknits vs. Shetland hand-knits, you can clearly see two very distinctive styles!

One of the things that is most interesting I think is looking at older examples of knitting from before synthetic dyes became widely available. At this earlier point, local resources were limited to dye plants and the different colours of wool that you can obtain from sheep. It is striking to see that the same palette of natural sheepy shades, (browns, creams, dark browns, white etc.) limited quantities of expensive indigo-dyed yarn, and yarn dyed red, (with bedstraw in Estonia and madder in Shetland) were utilised in completely different ways by the knitters of these different nations! This stocking from Kihnu in Estonia uses a bright yellow obtained from dyeing with Birch leaves in early spring, combined with bedstraw-root-dyed red, and the natural woolly shades to be found in the fleeces of sheep living on the island of Kihnu. 

The beautiful creamy, white, gold, and brown knitting from Shetland - while displaying a very similar palette - has a totally different feeling to it; the colours transition much more softly, and the patterns resemble Os and Xs - hence, why when you talk about Fair Isle knitting, you often mention "OXO patterns".

The patterns and colours in the KNITSONIK book are largely inspired by everyday objects, when did you begin to recognise patterns in everyday life?  Are the Estonian and Scottish patterns you draw inspiration from also inspired by everyday objects?

The truth is that it is very easy to ascribe a meaning to a pattern you find on a sweater in a museum, but without being able to ask the knitter whether the patterns in their sweater were representative of something, it's really difficult to conclusively say. Many myths have been created about knitting, and so I am very cautious and do not wish to add more nonsense to the claptrap that has been written before! But with my own knitting patterns and The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, a key focus is definitely on every pattern having a specific basis in everyday life! For instance one of the swatches is inspired by my favourite beer - Summer Lightning, which is brewed by the Hop Back Brewery. This is served in our local pub and has a distinctive brand and label. I would say that I searched in the pump clip for pattern ideas, rather than that I just noticed patterns there in that case, but in the case of the bricks of Reading, for me these are so suggestive of knitting charts, that the translation of bricks into knitting was an obvious choice!

What are some of the characteristics that need to be present for something to become a successful knitted pattern?

The right levels of contrast and shading; a way of thinking about shapes as continuous, rhythmic ideas rather than discrete objects; exciting colour relationships; the concept of details that you can zoom in on and also an overall impression produced from multiple parts... I could go on and on!

The everyday objects in our homes such as the little assemblages of mementos on our mantels and bedside tables tell a story about who we are.  Do the objects and spaces you transform through knitting tell us a story about you Felicity Ford?

Oh yes, I'm sure they do! The everyday case studies which I have chosen to illustrate the concept for the book are very "me". I really want to speak directly to the knitters who read the book and felt right from the outset that the writing would need to have an authenticity about it. I am a terrible liar and can't fake anything, so all of the examples in the book are genuinely things I love! Reading's brickwork; weeds at the end of our street; the A4074 road; a vintage Huntley & Palmer biscuit tin;  beer; sloes grown in my garden (which we use to make sloe gin); my favourite old pair of socks; a 1930s book on electricity; fruitcake; my EDIROL R-09 digital sound recorder; an old factory near where I live, and lichen on a tree... I guess this selection outs me as being a bit of a tomboy and a bit of a romantic, and points to the familiar textures of suburban Britain which defined my life growing up in this country (A roads, crumbly industrial estates). The list also reveals my passion for field recording and tinkering, and my love of cakes, thick socks, and alcohol. Everyone's list will be different, but there are enough things - environmental textures, personal mementoes, nerdy treasures - in this list for it to speak to the instincts of anyone who has things that are special or precious to them. 

Could you talk about the overlap between your interests as an audio artist and your interest in traditional craft? 

I spoke about this quite a bit yesterday in my blog with Deb Robson but the main overlaps concern texture, a sense of place, and that special quality of listening and paying attention to the everyday world around you. I have a nice slide from a presentation I gave which I think shows the connections quite nicely! 

The book KNITSONIK combines knitting and sound with an iTunes album due for release after the book is published.  When you first conceived of this project did you know that you wanted to combine the two experiences for your audience?

Yes - I think that the idea of producing the book and the iTunes album in tandem is a natural extension of projects I have been working on in previous years which combine knitting in sound in different ways. My first combinations of knitting and sounds were made for BBC Oxford, and were short, narrative pieces connecting knitting with the local landscape. For instance I once dyed wool using black walnut hulls that grows in the ground of St. Mary's Butts, and then used this to knit a stranded colourwork motif resembling the brickwork of that same Church, and I told the whole story of this piece in a short radio feature for BBC Oxford, which included the sounds of the bells of the church in the audio! 

In 2012 I recorded the sounds of Cumbrian sheep farms in the Lake District. My recordings were of interviews with shepherds keeping Herdwick, Swaledale, Rough Fell and Hebridean sheep, and I also recorded the sheep and the weather in Cumbria. These sounds were carefully mixed into a long soundscape which I played in a gallery through a knitted speaker system, comprised of 32 miniature speakers, each covered in wool (often originating from the same farms as the sounds). In Shetland last year for Wool Week, I wanted to move away from the idea of doing a gallery piece, and so instead I concentrated on developing - with enormous support and encouragement from the fantastic Shetland Museum & Archives, along with Promote Shetland - little kits which would enable knitters to make a small pillow out of Shetland wool, with a speaker inside it. The pattern booklet included in this kit explains how to go to the special project map I produced on Udo Noll'saporee website where you can download sounds which relate to Shetland wool, including sounds of spinning, carding and knitting wool, and also of course the sound of the sheep on whose backs wool grows, out in the amazing Shetland landscape!

In this latest version of combining knitting and sounds, it is really to the everyday environments in which we knit, and our shared use of Shetland wool, to which I want the audio to refer. I love the word "transmission" and am always thinking about the listener who receives my transmission. In this instance, the listener is - like me, a knitter interested in imaginatively exploring the everyday world around them as a resource for knitterly inspiration! I want to offer the sounds which I find inspiring in my daily life as a creative extension to that mission... I love the idea of a knitter listening to sonic textures from my spot here in Reading and then - perhaps hearing the traffic and the bees in one recording or other - suddenly being reminded of a certain combination of traffic and bees, a moment of grass, fences, the blue slanting sky... and getting an idea to knit something. I get ideas for my knitting from sounds all the time, and in this album I want to share that with other knitting comrades. Just like I want to share my ideas about how we can turn everyday inspirations into stranded knitting!
The album is called The KNITSONIK Audible Textures Resource, and as its name implies, the idea here is to create a series of recordings which are rich in their suggestions of place, and tactility. Several tracks will have quite direct relationships with the book - the A4074 road which is the focus for one of the case studies explored for colourwork was also the focus for a radio documentary I produced for BBC Oxford! - whereas other ideas will be explored more indirectly. I want to make biscuits according to a vintage Huntley & Palmers recipe and record sounds from this process, for instance, as a sonic accompaniment to the stranded colourwork I have created based on a vintage Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin! Listening to the biscuits being made, owning the tin, and knitting colourwork based on its design, are all imaginative ways of trying to engage with the long history the biscuit factory had here in Reading and the lasting influence which it had on the town, in its heydey.

Finally, how can followers of our blog contribute to your Kickstarter campaign?

Happily, the book has already been funded through Kickstarter! I cannot tell you how amazing this is, and it is a reflection of the enthusiasm and supportiveness of KNITSONIK comrades everywhere that my vision for the book has been so quickly funded. People obviously really want this book, and I am very excited by that, because I really want to write it! The campaign will however continue to run until the 28th April, so if people are excited by any of the ideas in this interview, they could check it out! Backing the project is still the best way to ensure that you are near the front of the queue for a copy of The KNITSONIK StrandedColourwork Sourcebook when it gets printed this November! 

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