KNITSONIK Shetland Wool Week Classes – FAQ

I can’t believe how near we are to Shetland Wool Week! This is one of the highlights of the year – a fantastic celebration of wool and knitting in Shetland, where we all have the opportunity to meet Shetland’s amazing knitters, to learn about Shetland’s amazing textile traditions, and of course to do lots of knitting with lovely Shetland Wool.

I’m teaching several classes during Wool Week and have received a few emails with questions about skill level and materials needed. I’ve also received some requests from folk hoping to buy my book during Wool Week. If you’re coming to my classes, I’m really looking forward to meeting you, and I’ve written this post to answer your FAQs!

1. WHAT ARE THE KNITSONIK CLASSES GOING TO BE DURING WOOL WEEK?

QUOTIDIAN COLOURWORK
SUNDAY 24TH SEPTEMBER, 1000 – 1300, Isleburgh Community Centre
MONDAY 25TH SEPTEMBER, 1000 – 1300, Isleburgh Community Centre

Learn how to creatively translate things you love into stranded colourwork using the KNITSONIK system. Bring a treasured object or image from which to develop a yarn palette, charts and shading schemes. You’ll also need your favourite double-pointed or circular needles for working small-diameter stranded colourwork in the round with fingering weight yarn: 2.5-3.25mm depending on your tension. Knitters must know how to knit stranded colourwork in the round.

SHETLAND COLOURS
SUNDAY 24TH SEPTEMBER, 1400 – 1700, Isleburgh Community Centre
WEDNESDAY 27TH SEPTEMBER, 1000 – 1300, Isleburgh Community Centre

Discover the KNITSONIK system and use it to create your own colourwork patterns and shading schemes based on the Shetland landscape. We’ll explore how to turn the vast landscape into manageable knitting, using a pre-selected Shetland inspiration and a carefully curated palette of Jamieson and Smith yarn. Bring your favourite double-pointed or circular needles for working small-diameter stranded colourwork in the round with fingering weight yarn: 2.5-3.25mm depending on your tension. Knitters must know how to knit stranded colourwork in the round.

J&S MITTS-A-LONG WITH FELICITY FORD
TUESDAY 26TH SEPTEMBER, 0930 – 1230, or 1330 – 1630, Jamieson & Smith

Join Felicity Ford in this mitts-a-long class exclusive to Jamieson & Smith for Shetland Wool Week. Using the KNITSONIK system, you will design a pair of mitts using J&S yarns, a curated palette and a Shetland inspiration chosen by Felicity. The price of this class includes 8 full balls of yarn to take away for finishing your mitts.

2. WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE CLASSES?

In QUOTIDIAN COLOURWORK, you will work from an inspiration source of your own choosing. My pro-tips for this are, make it small, portable, something you can carry with you. If working from a photo, I suggest you print it out. I’ve found in the past that it’s harder to match yarn shades to an inspiration source when you’re staring at a glowy screen that keeps on going dark, or with a slowly draining battery! Here are some of the sorts of things people have brought to previous classes to give you ideas…

…in SHETLAND COLOURS, I have pre-picked a palette and inspiration source, which some people prefer… it’s also a really nice way to explore a specific sense of place in our knitting, whilst in Shetland…

Some of the beautiful swatches produced during Shetland Wool Week and the “Colours of Shetland” workshop in 2015

…and in J&S MITTS-A-LONG we will be starting a pair of mitts which themselves be a kind of swatch and a record of Shetland.

All three classes place a very heavy emphasis on creative process; learning to source palettes, patterns and shading schemes in the world around us; and celebrating life through the medium of stranded colourwork.

3. WHICH NEEDLES DO I NEED TO BRING?

NEEDLES: QUOTIDIAN COLOURWORK and SHETLAND COLOURS classes are both based on working small-diameter swatches in the round. Knitters each have their own method for this; magic loop; double-pointed-needles; two circulars… and they are all suitable as long as you can manage working two shades of yarn at a time with whichever needles you intend to bring to the class. This is why the class description doesn’t specify dpns, circulars etc. I use 2.5mm double-pointed-needles for all my swatches because I knit very loosely. However, I’ve found that this needle-size is a little tight for knitters whose gauge is less relaxed, so have suggested 2.5mm – 3.25mm needles depending on your own tension.

KNITSONIK mitts made using the same basic pattern as provided for the #knitsonikmittsalong

NEEDLES: as the name suggests, the J&S MITTS-A-LONG class involves the production of an actual pair of mitts. This is another small-diameter project worked in the round and whichever needle combination/method you like to use for socks or mittens will be fine for this! The suggested gauge for the mitts is as follows, so you might wish to make a small swatch ahead of the class to ensure you are bringing needles of the right size, but the pattern is very forgiving and if you don’t have time IT WILL BE FINE!

Gauge
30sts/36rnds to 10cm/4” over colourwork pattern using 2.75mm needles, or needle size to meet gauge
28sts/34rnds to 10cm/4” over colourwork using 3mm needles, or needle size to meet gauge

This is a different swatching-colourwork-in-the-round technique to the one I teach in my classes, but you may find it useful if swatching for the mitts.

And for a rough idea of what the MITTS-A-LONG entails, please check out my KNITSONIK YouTube video, noting that in Shetland we will be using a Shetland-based inspiration rather than the Magnolias detailed here!

4. DO I NEED TO BRING YARN?

Yarn for classes will be supplied; you do not need to bring yarn.

A huge sack of J&S, photo © Jeni Reid and used with kind permission

5. CAN I BUY YOUR BOOK AT SHETLAND WOOL WEEK?

The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook goes into a lot of detail about the ideas and processes explored within my classes and is a valuable companion for continuing classwork under your own steam afterwards! However, I hope you can appreciate that it is not practical for me to be selling copies during Shetland Wool Week and especially during classes where my number one priority is always on teaching and exploring the KNITSONIK System! If you wish to get a copy of the book, the best thing to do is order one here in plenty of time for me to post it to you well ahead of Wool Week. If you really want to get the book during Shetland Wool Week, it is sometimes stocked by my friends at the Shetland Museum and Archives and at Jamieson & Smith. And if you want to save on postage and are coming to Shetland from outwith the UK, please check out my lovely stockists page and see whether your local yarn store stocks the book.

Swapping publications with Hazel Tindall in 2014!

6. CAN I SEE KNITSONIK SWATCHES IN THE CLASSES?

YES! I always bring my KNITSONIK swatches to classes as they are invaluable teaching aids. This year there will be many new swatches not previously seen; I can’t say more than that for now, but let’s just say the more I work with the beautiful palette of J&S, the more possibilities I find…

Swatches from the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook photo © Jeni Reid and used with kind permission

I hope that’s answered all your FAQs about KNITSONIK at Shetland Wool Week 2017; I really am thrilled to be heading to Lerwick in just over a month and can’t wait to see you there!

YOURS IN LOVE OF SHETLAND WOOL WEEK,
FX

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Celebrating 44 years of hip hop

Today, the 11th August, 2017, marks the 44th anniversary of the birth of hip hop. 44 years ago DJ Kool Herc was playing records at a party in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue, when he introduced the musical innovations that ultimately produced and defined this legendary musical genre.

DJ Kool Herc – founding father of hip hop; image found here

From Wikipedia

DJ Kool Herc developed the style that was the blueprint for hip hop music. Herc used the record to focus on a short, heavily percussive part in it: the “break”. Since this part of the record was the one the dancers liked best, Herc isolated the break and prolonged it by changing between two record players. As one record reached the end of the break, he cued a second record back to the beginning of the break, which allowed him to extend a relatively short section of music into “five-minute loop of fury”… For his contributions, Herc is called a “founding father of hip hop,” a “nascent cultural hero,” and an integral part of the beginnings of hip hop.

On 11 August 1973, DJ Kool Herc was a disc jockey and emcee at a party in the recreation room at Sedgwick Avenue [at which he] “extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC’ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing. … [This] helped lay the foundation for a cultural revolution.”

— History Detectives

The front of 1520 Sedgwick Ave., where Kool Herc lived with his family and threw his first parties, image found here

From its inception, hip hop has been the integral sound of a vibrant, grassroots culture of resistance and resilience; a call to, as Tupac said, “Keep Ya Head Up” in the face of ongoing systematic oppressions:

Like its contemporary UK descendant – grime – it has always been inherently political. Forged in the context of the poverty, ghettoisation, and structural racism faced by people of colour in the South Bronx of New York, its legacy continues to shape culture today, as has been explored in my favourite documentary: How Hip Hop Changed The World (highly recommended viewing). Princess Nokia gives a contemporary definition of the sustained relevance of hip hop; of its roots and origins in New York; and of the continuance of the social problems that gave rise to hip hop in the first instance:

I’m hip hop because I’m a black and brown woman from New York: that’s enough as it is. My parents and me are Nuyoricans, from New York. Our lives, our narratives, how we grew up: that’s hip-hop in itself. Hip hop is a joyful and yes, also tragic, form of expression, that takes from the old… you know, origin of storytelling, from African diaspora. It comes from poverty, and creating celebration IN POVERTY… I try to navigate my harshness and my life, and I use joyful expression. I create a compositional album, and I use narratives and ways of expressing myself to uplift myself… and that’s hip hop. For this dark time and period of life, I have the pleasure of making some happy, joyful, resilient for people – that, yes, may need it… you may not realise that, darling, but on the opposite side of town, black and brown people are herded into the ghetto like cattle. And the stigmas and circumstances put against them, are disgusting and gross and saddening.

Like a lot of white, middle class kids, I first enjoyed hip hop as a teenager where the main attraction was the swearing. Growing up in a Christian state school with a staff whose moral integrity struck me as being deeply questionable, and who were more about the joy of punishing children than spreading the loving message of Jesus, Fuck tha Police was a fantastic incitement to defy authority. Our fundamentally racist school neglected to give us any deeper context for understanding hip hop music, and we only learnt the smallest and most basic details about the civil rights movement in America. We definitely didn’t learn anything about the history of racism in Britain; and it wasn’t until far later that I found a deeper and more critical way to engage with, and appreciate, what Fuck tha Police is really about (both in the USA and here in the UK).

Missy Elliott’s discography was what first got me really listening. In my early twenties, the resilience and creativity of her records and videos spoke to me. Swollen on steroids, finding it difficult to walk, sick of being patronised and pitied by people around me, angered by the lack of provision for disabled people in an ableist world, I Can’t Stand The Rain offered a game-changing perspective on ways to resist injustice. White as I am, privileged as I am, the defiant mood of self-definition embodied in that record spoke – and still speaks – to my experiences of being both disabled and a woman. I owe hip hop music, for this.

I saw Missy Elliott play at Bestival in 2015. I cried over-excitedly all the way through the gig and it was the greatest live music performance I have ever seen in my life. It’s hard to put into words what it meant to me to see her performing live… her vocal flow; the fun, innovation and breadth of her discography; the incredible energy of her dancing; but most of all the epic power of her presence. It was legend.

I am gutted I didn’t finish my knitted THIS. IS. A. MISSY. ELLIOTT. EXCLUSIVE. sweater in time to wear to that concert, but it remains a staple of my wardrobe and a lasting testimony to my deep love for all Missy Elliott’s records.

The Missy Elliott Sweater!

Since discovering Missy Elliott’s music, I have found many other amazing artists making hip hop records, and have learnt more about the context and history for hip hop. I think it is incredible; a sustained, beautiful, colourful form of creative protest; the soundtrack for revolutionary dreams and resistance to structural racism.

But whatever hip hop means to me, its origins, its roots and the conditions in which it was born must never be forgotten. To all my fellow white hip hop fans whose lives have been massively culturally enriched by the invention of this life-giving, vibrant music, I say this: enjoy playing with the amazing virtual mixer and record crate set up on the Google homepage; bust out your favourite hip hop records; shout out your favourite artists on Twitter and instagram. But don’t forget that the social problems called out in hip hop music have not gone away, and that the social injustices that gave rise to this resilient music are still very much here and present.

We have a lot of work to do and, in the words of the amazing Speech Debelle (another vital voice in hip hop music today) “the work can’t done”.

DJ Kool Herc does not have medical insurance; when he fell gravely ill in early 2011 his family set up an official website through which you can donate towards his continued well-being. In 2007 Herc successfully campaigned for 1520 Sedgwick Ave to be officially recognised as hip-hop’s birthplace; today he campaigns for universal healthcare. If you don’t feel you owe him anything personally, and if you don’t much like hip hop but are a knitting buddy who believes in social justice, you could also honour this auspicious date by contributing to The Yarn Mission in America who are to knitting what hip hop is to musi: a knitting group that centers people of colour; is pro-rebellion; and which collaborates “with other likeminded organizations for the advancement of justice and the end of oppressive systems.”

Thank You for hip hop music; Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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The Glen of the Downs

In the Autumn of 1997 I went to live on a road protest in Ireland in the Glen of the Downs Nature Reserve. I had just finished doing my A-Levels through which I had become obsessed with the poetry of Alice Walker and with saving the Earth as a full-time, spiritual, eco-feminist vocation. This is an embroidered picture of Daphne, Greek tree goddess, which I completed the summer before I left for the Glen.

I had £20 and a rucksack and I hitch-hiked over on the ferry with a boy I barely knew. I had a mandolin and a flute; a striped woolly hat; some impractically heavy crystals; a tent; a sketchpad; a sleeping bag. My heart was full of dreams and my head was full of stars. I was very, very young. Last weekend I attended a 20-year reunion at which some of us who lived in the Glen gathered to commemorate that time and what it meant.

A flier for a gig at The Old New Orleans on Dame Street had drawn me to Ireland: a crumpled, photocopied piece of paper that travelled across back-packs and pockets spreading its vital message. I remember entering the gig and thinking I’d found the most earnest folk on earth. Drum ‘n Bass boomed upstairs but downstairs there was a studious kind of feeling. People sat quietly and respectfully, watching grainy 1990s camcorder footage from the Glen of the Downs Road Protest which had by then been running for a few short months, spearheaded by folk wishing to halt the progress of a destructive road-widening scheme through a designated nature reserve. People were quietly and urgently discussing EU policies; the environmental implications of the Celtic Tiger Economy; “Special Area of Conservation” and the European Route E01. I honestly can’t remember if we went to the Glen directly from that gig, or whether I camped on a Dublin kitchen floor overnight somewhere before heading Glenwards the next day; it is difficult to remember the exact sequence of events and, when I think back to that time, my mind is like an old tin of photos all in the wrong order and bundled up with ribbon.

I do remember that the main camp in which I very briefly lived was situated just over a stream to the right as you entered the woodland from the car-park. I set up my tent near the main fireplace. I slept in there quite a bit, but was also keen to get up into the actual trees and to learn how to ascend and descend in a harness. I remember a glorious day spent 80ft up in the crown of a beech tree, building a platform for a treehouse on the opposite side of the valley. I remember sleeping in a tree house directly above the stream and being awoken each night by its beautiful, tinkling sound. I remember waking and falling asleep to the sounds of cars, and to the terrifying feeling that they were going to career off the N11 road and run right over us. I remember boys and men from that campaign as well, the romance of being at war with everything together, the way men look in the forest at night, the way I felt living by firelight and rain. I sang songs around the fire, and was reminded during the recent reunion that I also did some unflattering comedy impressions of the insalubrious characters who came to live in the Glen.

I also remember ingloriously having an accident in a beech tree, during which my foot slipped through a loop-shaped branch and I fell backwards. I hung suspended in the tree for an hour or so screaming for help and lacking the upper-body strength to pull myself up and out of this predicament. I was preparing to break my own ankle so that I could wriggle free when some women who were luckily passing nearby heard me and were able to help me down. I was shaken and afraid of tree-climbing after that and had badly bruised and pulled tendons in my leg. The symptoms of what has now developed into my psoriatic arthritis were also beginning to make themselves known when I was 17 or so and I think that the wet, cold discomfort of tree-house dwelling is ill-suited to that. At some point I left the camp and became more involved in the Dublin-based aspects of the campaign.

One day in maybe December 1997? January 1998? We heard through the phone tree that Wicklow County Council had begun illegal tree-felling in the Glen. I went there and was photographed in an emotional embrace with a friend. I still remember the chainsaws buzzing, the traffic and the helpless rage at watching trees we had defended with our bodies coming down. Our crying faces were plastered on the front of the Irish Times and the local employment office cut my benefits immediately, citing the photo as evidence that I had not been available for gainful employment on the day when the trees were cut down. I took a part-time job in a florist, continued sharing a 1-bedroom flat with a good girl friend in a bad part of town, and ranted non-stop to my fellow flower-arrangers about the dark wrongness of the entire Capitalist system and why we should all be anarchists. Later I moved in with a beautiful man who had a large, kind heart, a shining spirit, and a way with a guitar. Together, when I was not making floral displays for The Flower Box, we worked hard fund and awareness raising; flier-designing; magazine-writing; poster and window-display creation; supporting comrades during court appearances and hearings; making art about what was happening; painting (and singing about) the trees, the people, and the feelings associated with the campaign. I designed this flier at some point during the campaign.

The ins and outs of the campaign have been extensively documented elsewhere so I won’t go into all that here, but it lasted approximately three years and was emotional, amazing, depressing, heartening, horrendous and magical by turns. By the early 00s I was no longer involved with many folks from those times. But days spent in the forest, in the rich culture of 1990s Direct Action in Ireland, have had lasting legacies for who I am now and I have a lot of love for what we shared.

When I was doing my art degree at Dun Laoghaire, I returned to the Glen to make field recordings of the sounds I remembered from living there. Because of our proximity to the road and the extraordinary contrast between the tinkling stream and the roaring juggernauts, the Glen lodged itself in my consciousness as a place of sonic significance. Those memories pushed me to listen more in my life. You can hear some of those early recordings in this podcast but you can also hear more recent sounds from the Glen here.

In my mind the SONIK part of the KNITSONIK mission was born in the Glen of the Downs, where I first heard the world through a microphone and began telling stories with sounds.

Apart from the horrors of watching my favourite trees being bulldozed to widen the N11, the Glen held a more personal pain for me that has also had lasting effects on whom I’ve become, and how I see the world. It’s a feminist thing. My encounters with men in road protest culture were not always positive; something about living in the forest and being at war with the state brought out in some cases what I would now call toxic masculinity. The mythologies we created in which the earth was personified as a woman being “raped” by post-industrial human societies were difficult to reconcile with building a positive and empowered self-image as a young woman. If the earth – our best and most beautiful female icon – was not strong enough to withstand the violence of the patriarchy, what chance did I have?

We were against authority and within that context it was complex to understand how to make rules; when and how to tell people NO; when to make and maintain boundaries; and especially when to tell men who were talking too much to shut up. The right-on-ness of us all, how fashionable it was to be casual about sex, the male posturing “I know all about Irish Goddesses / The Irish invented Feminism etc.” coupled with years of patriarchal feminine socialisation made it difficult for younger me to spot the psychological, gender-based abuses of power that went on back then in the guise of being “liberated”. I remember being told by one individual that I ought to stop giving my power to men – advice that followed the classic pattern through which abusers always tell their victims that abuse is their own fault.

In 2017 I look back on those aspects of camp life with a bit of sadness; a good dose of healthy anger; and some fierce love for younger me and the girls and femmes everywhere who are still dealing with this shit. Last weekend I walked along old pathways as if beside my younger self. I touched beloved trees, knitted beside my cherished stream, listened to the traffic, and thought about how different my life is now and how awesome it would have been to have had me around as a big, big sister when I first set foot in the forest. Breathing and listening between the trees, I found myself feeling that in my past there is a lot of feeling to channel into the more contemporary mood of feminist resistance in which I remain engaged. Every time I read the word “gaslighting” online in posts about social justice, it’s good to remember what that is and how it feels.

I’ve spent years reconciling disability with my former hardcore environmentalist self as well. Aged 18, I went to live on a road protest and was uncompromisingly anti-road building. I was also against corporations, governments and Capitalism and it was easy because I was young and I felt invincible.
Aged 25, I learnt to drive on a government sponsored mobility scheme for people with severe mobility difficulties, and my opinion of roads was drastically altered forever. I got a speeding fine almost immediately and embraced roads as new frontiers of freedom. Getting a car when I couldn’t really walk was incredible. It changed my opinion in ways that make conversations with anti-road protestors deeply uncomfortable today. When we get to the part where I say “what about disabled people who can’t walk or use a bicycle?” the conversation either dries up or turns dark. The most hardcore environmentalists I’ve met have told me they believe that serious illnesses like Arthritis, Cancer, and AIDS are either the earth’s solution to overpopulation, or further evidence that evil corporations are making the world unfit for healthy human life. There is a troubling shred of truth in the latter and companies must be brought to justice for pollution or deregulatory actions that result in people getting ill. However, neither of these explanations centre the needs or feelings of disabled people. For this reason, when I was coming to terms with the limitations and beauty of my arthritic body, my disabled identity, my flawed genes and my raging pain, I had to take a break from environmental activist circles. I still can’t deal with the incredulity and hostility that ensues when I reveal the inconvenient truth about my long-term disability. No combination of special leaves, homeopathy, prayer or magic potions has ever helped and I am increasingly offended by invasive questions about what I have/haven’t tried and an obsessive focus on finding me a “natural” cure. What has worked for me are years of therapy to come to terms with being in pain and needing help, plus genetically engineered anti-TNF drugs made by a giant pharmaceutical company.

All of which is to say that last weekend was a precious time for measuring a distance of 20 years and gauging how things have changed, and how they are still the same; to look at the evolution of my own politics; and to be in the forest with the same people who changed my life 20 years ago.

In the summer of 2017, I didn’t hitch-hike to the Glen. I travelled on the ferry and the train with money I made myself, selling the book that 447 of you helped me to produce, and producing art commission for various museums, using sound. There were no crystals in my rucksack; instead I brought a sensible selection of items designed to sustain me for two nights in the woods. These objects were all purchased for different long-distance walks shared with Mark; kettles, sporks, titanium mugs, sleeping mats and a tent that has sheltered us in Scotland and along the South West Coastal Path. Our tent is full of memories of laughter and shared adventures, and though being in the Glen brought back many memories for me, our marriage is a bridge under which many things from my past life in Ireland feel like old water. This time I had no mandolin with me, but carried my recording devices to document the special sonic magic of the forest.

Rather than traveling with a random boy, I met with three of my dearest girlfriends in Dublin en route to the Glen. We laughed, told stories, ate well, bought cheese, stayed up late, and spoke of ALL THE THINGS.

It was beautiful to see so many familiar faces, and so many old friends. Many folk sacrificed a lot to be in the Glen and to defend the trees from the road expansion project; it was good to celebrate what these comrades gave; to say thank you; to light fires; and to remember absent friends. It was lovely to sit by fires again; to hear the crackle of dead wood; to smell the smoke; and to share food cooked in the same old pot that we used years ago.

I don’t have a sketchpad like the one I had 20 years ago, though I do keep a bullet-journal which is at least as colourful as the book I had back then. There are less mystical paintings of trees, less sad paintings of heartbreak, and more to-do lists, knitting charts and washi-tape now… and I’m still celebrating trees, in yarn…

On the ferry on the way home, I found myself ultimately feeling glad for my time in the Glen and for everything I learnt there. In the Glen I learnt to act with conviction and to take action when I think that things are wrong – a feeling I remembered strongly this year in January at the women’s marches, marching against Donald Trump (the ultimate in gaslighting and abuse of power). In the Glen I learnt to listen and to connect to places through their sounds and textures – ideas that have remained central to my art practices ever since. In the Glen I learnt how to play a tiny part within a much larger story. In the Glen I learnt a deep and abiding love for trees that has never gone away. And In the Glen I learnt that my body is not invincible. I’m so grateful for everything I found there. I wonder how everything we experienced 20 years ago has manifested in each of our different lives. We don’t live on the road protest any more, but the road protest lives on in all of us somewhere, I’m sure. And this weekend, looking into familiar and well loved faces, it looked as strong and shiny and radical and flawed and beautiful in 2017 as it was in 1997.

Thank you, old friends.
YOURS IN TREES XXX

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Tabea’s Trainers

Hello!

While I was in Shetland I spotted on instagram that Tabea had completed a swatch begun in my Quotidian Colourwork Class back in March at the fantastic Edinburgh Yarn Festival!

I absolutely love seeing what people bring to my classes as inspiration sources – it’s always so rich to see what makes people tick, what people want to embed into their knitting, and the different ways in which everyday objects can move us to take creative action. There are things that come up time and again – holiday photos; favourite landscapes; cherished textiles. But so far I think Tabea is the only comrade to have simply pulled her shoe off her foot, stuck it on the table, and knit from it. I confess this moment – when the new shiny sneaker appeared neatly on the table in the class – is one of my favourites, because I felt it was both a challenge to, and a test of, the KNITSONIK system… every time I glanced its bright white toe it seemed to be peeping at me and saying “is it really possible to find inspiration anywhere? Even in a pair of sneakers?

Tabea’s new shoes!

As you can see from Tabea’s project page, the answer is a resounding YES! (Please, if you are on Ravelry, show this work some LOVE!)

As well as making a really joyous swatch that mines her shoe for hidden inspiration, Tabea also produced a fantastic report on the process for her YouTube channel. It gives a really solid and thoughtful explanation of her process and was very interesting for me to see, as it gave me a new perspective on how the ideas from the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook are put to use by others. Tabea is *extremely kind* about my book in her video – thank you Tabea! – but quite apart from that, the content about her actual process is fascinating and I feel that if you are working on any kind of KNITSONIK swatching project, you are sure to find something helpful and celebratory in Tabea’s wondrous report.

Thanks for your lovely comments on the photos from Shetland – we really did have a magical time and I can’t wait to be back there in a few short months for Shetland Wool Week!

Speaking of which: if Tabea’s name seems familiar that is because I have shared her knitting here before, as she is one of the folks who joined in with last year’s Shetland-themed #knitsonikmittsalong. A few of you have asked about the knitting sheaths I mentioned in my last post and I’ll be writing about those in more detail in coming days, but for now, here are Tabea’s mitts, based on the knitting sheaths below which are the ones I did, pictured with the sheaths themselves last week in Shetland. I love seeing the similarities and also the differences between how we, and other #knitsonikmittsalong-ers – approached this shared inspiration source, and when I look at the Knitting Sheath inspired projects together on Ravelry, they look to me like little cousins in stranded colourwork design…

Tabea’s beautiful mitts, based on Shetland Knitting Sheaths
My knitting-sheath inspired mitts, with knitting sheaths

…if you knitted for the #knitsonikmittsalong last year, themed around knitting sheaths, but don’t see your project here please let me know so I can find it and tag it!

More soon,
YOURS IN SNEAKERS THAT HAVE BEEN TURNED INTO AMAZING STRANDED COLOURWORK,
FX

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Shetland in pictures

We are back from a short break in Shetland; this was a special trip, as it was Mark’s first time in Shetland and a holiday for my birthday.
I thought you might like to see some photos!

Puffins at Sumburgh Head.

The rocks around St. Ninian’s Isle.

Sheep buddies!

Seal buddy.

Gorgeous ombré sand.

A Fulmar? Or a kind of gull? Defending its nest.

A Bonxie at Hermaness.

Gannet colonies, rocks, stacks, and the most Northerly point in the UK: Muckle Flugga!

Puffin buddy at Hermaness!

Fair Isle at Whalsay – more on that in another post, but for now I just wanted to show you some glimpses of the extraordinary work of the knitters of Whalsay.

Lichens, sea-pinks (Thrift) and Bog-Cotton seen up and around Eshaness.

Da Drongs, spotted from Braewick beach.

Knitting Sheaths at the Shetland Museum and Archives – also to be shared more in a further post!

The impossibly pink sunset on our last night.

Mark enjoying the coastal views and the beautiful buttercups and sea pinks.

Thank you Shetland, we had such a lovely time and will be back very soon!
YOURS IN I HEART SHETLAND,
FXXX

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An Open Letter to the Shetland Islands Council

To The Shetland Islands Council,

I write to express my dismay on learning of your decision to not renew Promote Shetland’s contract, which puts three people out of a job and imperils the inspiring work that they have done. From the outside, the decision appears deeply short-sighted. I am frankly at a loss as to how you imagine anyone can do a better job at “attracting people, particularly young people, to live, work and study and invest in Shetland” than the current Promote Shetland team. I am also confused by the implication in the articles I have read, that “heritage tourism” seems, in the eyes of the Shetland Islands Council, to be at odds with your goals of drawing people to Shetland.

To better explain what I mean, I should speak about how Promote Shetland attracted me to stay, work, study and spend in Shetland. I was first in touch with Promote Shetland when I saw a photograph by Fair Isle photographer – Dave Wheeler – on social media. I contacted Misa Hay at Promote Shetland to see whether it might be possible for us to republish this photo on the Wovember blog. Wovember is both a celebration of the heritage, culture and labour surrounding woollen textiles, and a forward-looking campaign seeking to change how the garment industry uses the term “wool” in current product descriptions. Like Promote Shetland’s thoughtful approach to “heritage tourism”, Wovember is about deepening our understanding and appreciation of history in order to improve the future. Dave Wheeler’s fantastic image really speaks to that mission, capturing the special provenance of Shetland wool which makes it such an inspiring material for contemporary Shetland textile businesses.

Photo © Dave Wheeler; see Dave’s work at Dave Wheeler Photography

Misa Hay at Promote Shetland helpfully contacted Dave Wheeler on our behalf and enabled us to share his fantastic woolly photo. This is the first of many exchanges over the years that have demonstrated to me the sophisticated understanding of social media possessed by the Promote Shetland team – their joined-up, connective, and collaborative approach.

Partly because of my work with Wovember, I was invited by Promote Shetland to act as Patron for Shetland Wool Week in 2013. At the time I was employed by Oxford Brookes University as an Early Career Research Fellow in Sound Art. I used field-recordings and interviews to explore the special history of Shetland wool through listening and sound, producing a special online sound map enabling listeners to hear elements of Shetland’s working woollen landscape. I presented a talk at Shetland Wool Week called Listening to Shetland Oo, celebrating links between Shetland’s music and textiles and the distinctive, sonic textures of the places in which Shetland Wool grows.

Shetland Wool Week Poster, 2013

I also produced a knitting pattern for covering pillow speakers in Shetland Wool. The pattern contains instructions on how to download sounds from my online soundmap. By knitting the speaker and downloading my recordings, knitters can listen to Shetland Wool through Shetland Wool.

My drawing of the knitted speaker, which was printed on one side of the bags for SWW 2013

This project is currently installed in the Open Data Centre in London as part of Data as Culture: Thinking Out Loud. Opening last year, this exhibition has been extended until September 2017, and features work from many different artists “exploring the ways in which humans have captured, encoded and distributed data and made it meaningful through pattern”. Ostensibly beginning as a project about Shetland’s heritage conceived for Shetland Wool Week, Listening to Shetland Wool has become part of a contemporary art discourse on data, knitting, textiles, computer code, and gender and technology, all the while spreading Shetland voices and sounds far beyond the initial audiences who saw and heard that work at Wool Week 2013.

Proffering a baa-ing, 100% Shetland-wool clad speaker to an audience at “Playground on Fire” in Oxford; I am explaining that the pillow is made of Shetland wool, and that there is a special map where one can hear this wool growing in the landscape

Listening to Shetland Wool was made possible not only through the practical support and contacts provided to me by Promote Shetland, but also because the team did not turn their noses up at my unusual proposal to incorporate digital technology into my promotional Wool Week activities. In fact Misa was extremely encouraging about my knitted speakers, my online sound map and my enthusiasm for using field recordings to document the special stories and textures of Shetland Wool. Perhaps this is because Promote Shetland are already so familiar with using digital content to engage potential visitors with what Shetland has to offer: just look at their popular webcams. Because of the warm responses shown to my recording activities in Shetland in 2013, I’ve never stopped making recordings of Shetland or sharing the sounds I have recorded there. On World Wide Knit In Public Day this year, my podcast Sounds from Shetland Wool Week was aired at a gallery in Germany as part of a special exhibition featuring textiles and sounds by German artists Gerald Fiebig and Tine Klink. Too, this year, at the Readipop Festival in my home town of Reading, I will publicly perform my promotional song about Shetland, written as a love song to your Islands when I traveled there in 2013.

You can hear the song now because it was recorded by 60° North TV: the fantastic video platform of Promote Shetland. I am frankly honoured to appear on their YouTube channel which features another video by the same team that I show to all my friends when I am talking about Shetland: The A-Z of Shetland. That’s not all. Drawing from the generous and attractively presented resources collected on the Promote Shetland website, I’ve been able to share many other elements of Shetland life with my friends here, too: baking bannocks using the recipe on the website; playing music from Shetland discovered through Promote Shetland’s vibrant social media channels; and proudly wearing my I <3 Shetland badge wherever I go.

I heart Shetland!

Exposure to the rich culture and deeply embedded sense of place in Shetland – perhaps something you might narrowly mis-name “heritage tourism” – made me yearn for a textile practice of my own: one that would enable me to deepen connections between the landscape in which I live and my knitting. Encouraged by Promote Shetland, I developed a workshop along these themes in my capacity as patron for Wool Week 2013 called Quotidian Colourwork. Celebrating everyday objects and places in stranded colourwork, this workshop is about finding patterns and textures wherever you live, for use in your knitting. My workshop gives knitters who cannot lay claim to any one particular knitting heritage the tools to make stranded colourwork out of anything that is personally significant or special to the knitter. The workshop was well received enough that in 2014, when my University-funded Early Career Research Fellowship ended, I was able to run a successful Kickstarter campaign that enabled me to publish a book expanding on the same subject. Selling that book and teaching further Quotidian Colourwork workshops have been my main source of income ever since: neither could have happened without the enabling support and encouragement of Misa Hay that I received at the start of the idea: Thank you, Misa!

Misa Hay on the Shetland Wool Week stall with Donna Smith’s Baa-ble hat design in 2015

The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is now in its third print run. When working on it, I exclusively use Shetland Jumper Weight 2-ply supplied by Jamieson & Smith. It is my favourite yarn with which to knit colourwork, and I continue to buy all my yarn for teaching workshops from the Woolbrokers, urging all my students to do the same. I’ve returned to Shetland to offer Quotidian Colourwork classes at Wool Week almost every year since 2013.

Swapping publications with Hazel Tindall in 2014

Unable to come in 2016, I staged a series of celebratory activities dubbed Shetland Wool Week in the South and researched through the Shetland.org website. My comrades at Purlescence hosted a Sunday Tea, and local friends created a temporary display of knitting inspired by Shetland or worked in Shetland Wool. We had a reading table piled high with fantastic publications produced by Promote Shetland: The Shetland Pocket Guide; two fantastic editions of the Wool Week annual; and copies of the wonderfully informative 60° North Magazine. I am traveling to work in Shetland once again this autumn, and also for a holiday with my husband, Mark: we are researching our whole trip using the fantastic resources at Shetland.org.

When we were married earlier this year, I knitted a pair of gauntlets from Shetland Wool and wool from Portland – an island off of Weymouth, where Mark is from. I wanted to incorporate a feeling of home into the textiles I wore that day: a feeling I strongly associate with Shetland and all the amazing people I have met there. I am sure I do not speak only for myself when I say that Promote Shetland played a key role in welcoming me to Shetland as an outsider. Promote Shetland also gave me the means and resources to work in your Islands (albeit on a freelance basis). I don’t want to downplay the fantastic warmth of all the Shetlanders I’ve met, the fantastically supportive team at Jamieson & Smith, or the incredible work of people like Carol Christiansen at the Shetland Museum and Archives… but back in 2013, it was Promote Shetland who first introduced me to your Islands and to all the Shetlanders I now joyfully count as friends.

I am not the only person who feels this way, and I know that all the knitters who come to Shetland Wool Week boosting the economy by half a million pounds strongly associate that event with the friendly faces of Promote Shetland. I am heartened to read that Shetland Wool Week is not at risk, but it is hard to envisage how this event will continue without the involvement of the people who have been developing the event since it first began and particularly without the fantastic energies of Misa.

Misa Hay with the giant Baa-ble by Donna Smith, in 2015

Learning from every successive event, this team has built an excellent, world-class brand for Wool Week; one well-recognised by the International Knitting Community. Designs by former Wool Week patrons Donna Smith and Kate Davies have featured in popular television programmes Shetland and Eden, and when Promote Shetland have attended such events as Vogue Knitting in New York City, they’ve been greeted like superstars. Well-researched articles by renowned researchers Kate Davies and Roslyn Chapman have made the 60° North magazine one that is cherished everywhere by knitters who want to read quality content about the history and context of our craft.

Ella Gordon at the Shetland Wool Week stall at Edinburgh Yarn Festival in 2016

Because of the sophistication with which Promote Shetland utilise social media, the reach of Shetland Wool Week far outstrips the capacity in Shetland for actual visitors. To overcome this problem, knitters are engaged worldwide through Promote Shetland’s wonderful online channels and through activities organised on the Internet. The popular knitting website Ravelry lists a total of 8,580 hats knitted to date in celebration of Shetland Wool Week; that is the sum of projects listed for Hazel Tindall’s Shwook (2014); Donna Smith’s Baa-ble Hat (2015); Ella Gordon’s Crofthoose Hat (2016); and Gudrun Johnston’s Bousta Beanie (2017). These projects don’t include all the hats that have been knitted from promotional leaflets handed out by the Shetland Wool Week team, or the many other designs by these talented Shetland knitwear designers and others whose designs have been highlighted through Shetland Wool Week.

with Ella Gordon and Kate Davies at Shetland Wool Week 2015 at an event that was live-streamed to the world

Promote Shetland have made Shetland Wool Week a world class event. Generosity, encouragement, listening to the needs of the knitting community, representing Shetland Wool Week at popular events like Vogue Knitting and the Edinburgh Yarn Festival and creating consistently quality online and printed content have built the prestige of this event, and the relationships on which its success depends. Wool Week is of course only one of many projects juggled by the team, but it is clear from their fantastic website and online presence that the same love, energy and diligence have been lavished on all their other projects.

I have to agree with Tom Morton’s criticisms leveled against the Shetland Islands Council in this article and by what my friend and former Wool Week Patron Kate Davies says here. Your decision to not renew the contract shows incredible ignorance of modern marketing and the value of the work done by Promote Shetland. The motivation, passion, and care that they have brought to the task of promoting Shetland will be impossible to replace. Sadly, I feel your decision will damage your aims for Shetland more than you can imagine.

From outside it looks like few have done more to raise the profile of Shetland globally than Promote Shetland. Initiatives such as the Shetland.org website; their dynamic social media campaigns; video content; live-streaming of major events; 60° North magazine and Shetland Wool Week will be difficult to sustain without the skill base, contacts and friendships that have been fostered and developed by this generous, forward-looking organisation. For all of these reasons, I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision: places that do not reward digital skills, online engagement, and the importance of provenance stories in today’s commercial environment are not welcoming to young people looking for dynamic contexts in which to set up their lives and businesses.

Yours Sincerely, Felicity Ford.

To readers of this blog: please consider signing this petition or writing, as I intend to do, to Malcolm Bell of the Shetland Islands Council:

Malcolm Bell
Shetland Islands Council
Town Hall
Lerwick
Shetland
ZE1 0JL

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Amazing Sounds

I have been hard at work on several projects including my Town & Country soundmap for The MERL. This project is destined to have a nice long life; the map will be played live over wireless headphones at the Digital Takeover event on May 18th (next Thursday) but the sounds will be archived at MERL under this creative commons license. This means they can be accessed and used by other people in future projects exploring the textures of urban/rural experience in Reading.

I’m really excited about the longevity of this project and that it has been structured with future listeners in mind. I have benefited greatly in many of my projects from sound archives created by recordists of the past and even recent recordings of familiar locales give new sonic perspectives and ways of listening in those places.

The process of recording sounds around Reading is giving me a wondrous feeling of connection with its inhabitants and its textures which I would like to share with you today. This week I have particularly enjoyed listening to the sounds of the Shinfield Shambles Morris side; (I think) a nest of baby woodpeckers; a fantastic old telephone bell; and the chirrups of the darling little cygnets that my swan buddy at Whiteknights has been so anxiously awaiting. I thought it might be nice to tell you a bit about my experiences of recording these sounds and to play them here so you can hear them too.

Shinfield Shambles are a local morris side who dance in the Welsh Border style. They are based in the village of Shinfield. Each dancer wears an outfit themed around a single shade, with a rag jacket covered in small pieces of fabric; a hat covered in flowers of the same hue; and a coloured skirt and shoelaces to match. Bells are wound into everyone’s shoelaces and the musicians are dressed in all shades of the rainbow. The Shinfield Shambles were performing last Sunday at an event at the Museum of Reading and I enjoyed the inclusive style of their dancing which featured several numbers in which everyone was invited to participate. Perhaps even slightly more than the sounds of the actual performances, I liked that wherever the morris side walked, they left a trail of bells with their feet. One member of the side commented that after a while you get to know who is who from the distinctive sounds of their bells; I don’t doubt it. It was wonderful to listen to this acoustic performance of sticks, bells, dancing and traditional English folk music and I hope you like it too.

Mark and I have recently discovered a beautiful pocket of woodland at the fringes of the Harris Gardens in the grounds of Reading University and I wanted to go there to listen to the sounds of the birds who are all very busily chirruping away just now with their babies and their nests. I found a nice clearing, resonant with the songs of birds, but then became aware of something – amplified through my microphones – high up and high pitched in the trees. Luckily I was recording using Chris-Watson’s pro-tip to attach two omni-directional microphones to a coathanger. This gives you a lovely stereo impression of ambient sound, but it also means that when you hear a difficult-to-access sound that is high up, you can wedge your coathanger on a stick and poke it up to the source. That is what I did, standing in a clearing still and near to a tree, watched over by two anxious woodpeckers. I think this sound is what I heard – the sound of their babies in a nest inside the tree. Isn’t it amazing? I love it when the process of recording a sound highlights something I had not previously heard – once I’ve heard it through the headphones, it’s there forever in the soundscape.

Sometimes a happy sonic incident can change your perception of a place forever too; on one of my recent brick walks I was startled by the magnificent old-school telephone bell at a local architectural salvage yard. It is a wonderful, thunderous and immediately nostalgic sound that I suspect is well known to everyone who lives in proximity to it; one day it will no longer be part of the soundscape but I feel its vintage character must be preserved for posterity right now while it rings out across its yard. I returned to the site the next day, cheekily positioned my recorder and telephoned the number of the establishment in order to make the bell ring out, but my batteries died before I had successfully documented its full sonority in the context of its busy urban setting. I shall return again with batteries fully charged but for now here’s what I managed to collect with the dying energy of two AAs.

Finally I wanted to supply you with an update on the swans of which I wrote the other day. Having followed the male swan and listened to his aggressive defence of the lake, his nest and his mate, I confess to having become rather attached to the outcome. Clearly I am not alone in this – as you can hear in the recording, many comrades were gathering at the weekend to greet the six perfect cygnets and their parents now swimming relaxedly around the lakes. You can hear families, ducks, some of the other birds who live around the lake, and keen local photographers as eager to capture the fuzzy loveliness of the cygnets in light as I was to document their glorious chirrups in sound.

KNITSONIK is all about listening and looking to everyday inspirations and celebrating them either in stranded colourwork knitting or in community sound projects like my Town & Country soundmap with its associated archives. Photos, sound recordings, drawings and daily walks are all important for my creative practice, but they have an important emotional dimension too; they make Reading feel more like home to me, and they foster affection for this place in which I live. I’m really curious to hear about anything you do to more closely connect with your environment and I hope you enjoy the sounds!

YOURS IN THE SONGS OF SWANS, BELLS AND BABY WOODPECKERS,
FX

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Recording swans

Thanks for your encouraging comments on my last post – I was so happy to see some of your bricks on instagram afterwards and I really value that we have so many tools for sharing inspiration and joy online.

Pattern One for you @knitsonik #Sussex #patternity

A post shared by Louise, South Downs Yarn (@louise_sdy) on

These are my #walls house and yard. Old and even older looking @knitsonik #pattern #bricks

A post shared by Rovingricey (@rovingricey) on

Today I want to share my adventures in recording swans at Whiteknights Lake.

More particularly I want to tell you about one swan… this swan.

From listening to this cob and observing his activities, I think that he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of some cygnets that are not yet hatched. A pen – his mate, I presume – is currently incubating some eggs on a nest tucked out of sight at the uppermost corner of the Whiteknights Lake.

A week or so ago he seemed to take exception to a small family of Egyptian Geese. The pair were doing something that looked a lot like mating while their two goslings grazed in the grass nearby; their mating activities began with soft growls, grunts and huffy noises which built to a loud honkfest, at which point the cob flew dramatically across the lake to see what was going on, grunting and flapping his wings in a display of power and size. He then got out of the water, puffed himself up and menaced the young goose family for a bit. After this, he drove a pair of Canada geese apart, and stalked the male goose round and round on the grass rather quietly but with unmistakable body language and a low level hiss that could be heard at close quarters.

This weekend, the same Canada goose was once again the focus of swan wrath (from the same cob). Mark said “these two clearly have history” and I think he is right. In this photo the goose is at the edge of the water making uncertain honking noises, while the cob circles in the lake nearby, scooting over in a very aggressive pose if the goose looks like it might be thinking about getting into the water.

After watching a long stand off between the swan and the goose, and having done a big lap of the whole lake, we later found the same Canada goose wandering about in a field by itself, unsure of whether or not to try once more to re-enter the lake. The cob was making big, casual circles in the water, lazily grazing and on patrol.

I got some nice recordings a couple of weeks ago of some of this; you can hear the Egyptian geese mating, the Canada goose, and the stampy activities of the swan on aporee on the town and country soundmap on which I’m currently working for the MERL. I also saw the cob chasing off a heron, but have not yet edited and uploaded that sound! For those of you who prefer to hear recordings through soundcloud, they are uploaded there as well. PRO-TIP – you can hit play on this playlist and carry on reading if you would like to hear the sounds while reading on…

I love how listening regularly in the same place reveals the patterns, rhythms and behaviour of the seasons and the inhabitants and while I have been stood still for long stretches of time watching this cob and his mate, I confess that I have formed quite an attachment to the pair, and anxiously await the arrival of their cygnets (though not as anxiously I think as the cob). We know all the families of ducks and swans and geese at Whiteknights Lake, and it’s an absolute pleasure to become more familiar with their sounds and characters each time that we see them on our walks.

All this reminded me of the wondrous chapter in Ludwig Koch’s book, Memoirs of a Birdman, in which he describes his own field recording adventures with swans. By happy coincidence many of Ludwig’s listening and recording adventures took place at Abbotsbury Swannery, a place I know well, and which I visited several years ago with Mark and his family. Today I enjoyed digging out the photos I took there, and I thought you might like to see them, too. It is wondrous to imagine that the same swans I saw a decade ago may be descended from those that Koch recorded in 1946. Though his recording equipment would have been much more cumbersome than mine, and though he was at the very start of field-recording as a practice, there are some lovely correlations between his observances and mine, and it’s lovely to read his notes and to feel us both listening to swans across time.

We saw in the distance a pair of mute swans which I soon discovered were wild and which, as I later learnt, had come from the Danube delta. As we carefully drew near, the pen remained sitting, while the cob – although it did not attack – assumed a very aggressive attitude. With wings raised and stiffened neck, it threw back its head and uttered a loud trumpeting call. To this day I have never again heard this sound, but ever since that incident in Laeken I have been haunted by the idea of studying and recording the call-notes of the bird known here as mute swan…

…I knew of Abbotsbury, the oldest swannery in the world. Its origin goes far back into history, and it is the only one of its kind in the British Isles. It was in existence in the days of King Canute. Now it is part of the estate of the Earl of Ilchester who, with his family, is greatly interested in the preservation of swans. The swannery is stuated within a kind of natural preserve and harbours over a hundred different varieties of bird… [The] wild swans feed mainly on a marine grass called zostera marina. It grows under the water and the swans seem to love it. There may be a shortage of this grass at Abbotsbury in times of drought or during a severe winter, but in general it is plentiful, and there have sometimes been more than 1,500 wild swans settled there…

…On a stormy May morning I was back in Abbotsbury… we transported our gear through the beautiful tropical garden and selected a rather muddy site for the studio about three yards from a swans’ nest. The swans looked at us defiantly, but since we took no notice they did not interfer with us as we built our hide-out… I set out first of all to explore the territory. I went between the bulky nests of breeding swans, and was greeted by an angry hissing note from the cob, which spread its wings to attack , threatening and challenging any intruder, whether man or one of its own species…

…I had also to get closely acquainted with the habits of the swans… The wild swan is too shy and cautious to give you a chance to approach it. Though they have not many enemies, apart from man, wild swans choose resorts where they can command a view of the neighbourhood, and at the least sign of danger they fly away… Swans are vegetarians, and protect lakes and ponds against an overgrowth of aquatic plants. They are also dictators. They need Lebensraum, [lots of personal space?] and, although so graceful, they are aggressive birds, especially during the breeding season, when the male bird will furiously attack not only intruder of his own species but also man. One once stood between me and my recording gear. I did not want to use force, nor did I wait for one of the terrific blows from one of the cob’s wings. I preferred a tactical retreat through swampy ground, a detour of half a mile…

…I have often noticed that rain and storm will suddenly stop for a short period before dawn. I also noticed that this was a favourite bathing hour for the swans of Abbotsbury, who assembled for a family meeting regularly on a certain spot in the Fleet… This was perhaps a chance to listen to the conversation of the so-called mute swan. My recording gear was about two hundred yards away and the swans could neither see nor hear us…

…When I played back the results of the series of such night recordings, I came to the conclusion that the vocal performances and movements of the swans during the breeding season, before the arrival of the cygnets, are not so limited as a casual observer might believe. There are sounds easy to identify: the clumsy but very rhythmical stepping in and out of the water: wing-flapping: landing in water: taking off: and the unique flight with its strong and powerful vibratory rhythm…

…A good many of the various greeting notes, ranging from low and threatening grunts to soft groaning, could be recorded, but they may have a different meaning according to their differing pitches. Most strange was a loud alarm note, which I was lucky enough to capture. There was danger in the vicinity, and the swanherd believed that it might have been an otter…

…I frequently heard a variant of the trumpeting sound, not to be compared with that clear ringing sound but fairly loud and more snorting. Very occasionally I heard the complete call, ending with a tremulous vibration and at a low frequency…

…There was nothing that could irritate the bird at night. In the daytime, however, when I saw visitors coming close to the nest, the cob took up its attacking position and, sometimes after the people had gone away, he would make this trumpeting, with wings raised and neck stiffened, ready to strike. It could be a victory call, similar to the ‘V’ call of a stag in the rutting season.

– Ludwig Koch, Memoirs of a Birdman, pp.81-5, 1955

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Walking as Workspace

I’ve been working on a personal challenge to try and walk at least 10,000 steps a day and it is a quest that I am relishing. The best part is the local brickwork.

I’m clearly not alone in being appreciative of this aspect of Reading; one of my most commented on blog-posts is this one from 2011 on my domestic soundscape blog, celebrating some aspects of brickwork of Reading. Six years on, the decorative bricks of this town only seem more beguiling, beautiful and inspiring.

I’m enthralled by what is possible within a fairly restricted palette; by endless variations on common themes; by how tales of repair and restoration are writ in the bricks; and by the skillful hands of past pattern workers whose work has created so much to see and enjoy.

My rich daily walks are increasingly becoming a sort of research context – a workspace, if you will. I’m working on two art projects for this summer about bricks that I’ll be able to unveil soon, as well as some knitting that I can’t share now, but which is happening in the cracks between looking and listening and walking.

I’ve done a lot of wandering around in Reading over the years in which I’ve lived here, but the recent 10,000 steps challenge has reinvigorated and refocused this activity. I’m really enjoying how constant exposure to my town renews my love for it, and how familiar places can always reveal something more when you make a regular habit of exploring them.

My psoriatic arthritis has been mentioned here in the past, but something I’ve not really talked about in depth is the cycle of pain, depression and poor sleep that goes with flare ups; the worst symptoms I have are intense pain and a savage fatigue, which can make me feel like shite, and damage the deeply needed powers of restorative sleep. Underslept, in pain and introspective is the worst place to be when managing a long-term pain condition but luckily this can be avoided by building a positive cycle of joy, distraction, gentle exercise and deep rest. I’m finding something like that in 10,000 steps a day, with the comforting company of clay, and my number one comrade for all daily walks, Mark.

So in a way at the moment my daily walking space is a kind of workspace not only for developing exciting creative projects, but also for a very personal and no less important sort of work. I’m grateful for such sturdy foundations for making, creating and being.

YOURS IN BRICKS,
FX

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Town & Country soundmap: knitSONIK at MERL

On May 18th 2017 from 7-10pm, as part of the Digital Takeover late night event at The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), I’m sharing a soundmap of Reading, featuring sounds broadly themed around “Town & Country”. The map is being created using the superb aporee platform created by my friend Udo Noll, and you’ll be able to explore it at the event with your friends using wireless headphones. You can also check it out at any time from your own home. In the weeks leading up to the event, I’ll be expanding on what’s currently featured so what you can see today is a work in progress. I’m mainly using recordings from my archives and new recordings made especially for this. However, if you are a fellow aporee contributor living in Reading and would like your sounds to feature, please get in touch or leave a note in the comments – I would love to hear other perspectives on this place!

Town & Country

Working on this project is making me think about the ways in which we categorise places as “Town” or “Country”. Reading Museum and The MERL respectively represent the histories of urban Reading and English Rural Life, but many objects in their collections speak across a shared history. Reading (Town) like most urban centres grew through utilising the natural resources found in the encircling working landscape (Country) – a relationship immediately evident in old maps.

Map of Redding by John Speed, 1611

When I was writing the chapter in my book about my special Huntley & Palmer’s biscuit tin, I learnt that barges used to travel up the Thames to the mills at Sonning and Mapledurham to collect flour for use in Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits. This is just one example but it’s a good one for illustrating how Town & Country were once aligned to common enterprises; similar examples illustrating interdependent relationships between working landscapes and nearby urban centres of trade can be found everywhere.

Huntley & Palmers biscuits postcard

However, each context seems to have become more discrete as the commercial activities of the Town have lost their direct connections to the nearby natural resources of the surrounding Countryside. This has happened gradually and is a shift enabled by transportation technology. Now goods can be grown in one place and transported almost anywhere else for sale, so towns like Reading are no longer commercial hubs for the surrounding landscape, but conurbations in which goods from all over the world might be bought or sold… and the countryside is no longer bound by the commercial demands of its nearest towns, but rather by the needs and opportunities of the global market. To go back to my example, the mill at Mapledurham still produces flour, but it also now produces and sells electricity with a state of the art hydro-turbine; the mill at Sonning is now an arts venue; and Prudential Plc. – a multinational life insurance and financial services company – now stands where Huntley & Palmers once had its headquarters. The sonic story of Town & Country in this case may once have involved the sounds of wind through wheat in the fields; the sounds of millstones grinding it to flour; the sounds of the working waterways bringing the flour to the factory; the sounds of biscuit production in a Victorian factory and then its art deco successor… now the same journey would feature the sounds of lorries and tarmac rather than boats; and there is no biscuit factory here to record, but instead, the new sounds of the water turbine; theatre and dance; and the sonic textures of a globally connected office and all its telecommunications. The major change between an 1800s recording and a 2017 recording would be the sounds of the roads that encircle it all in 2017.

Sounds in the street: Ladybird Leaders series – Sounds
Sounds in the country: Ladybird Leaders series – Sounds

Today, the sounds of transportation and the tones of the combustion engine really have come to define the sonic textures of both Town & Country… yet there are still differences, and for all the presence of cars, lorries, planes and trains in the soundscape of Reading, distinctions of “Town” & “Country” persist.

Urban/Country Meditations (1988)

Urban
Listen to a roadway – eyes closed – distinguish size shape and make of car by the sound – also speed and health of engine.
Country
Sit by the trees – what kind of tree makes what kind of sound?

– Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening, A Composer’s Sound Practice

Even in a globalised world, Reading still draws on the heritage and identity formed from its agricultural past – from its specific geographic position, natural resources and subsequent trades. I have been thinking a bit about how to speak across those ideas – those concepts of Town & Country – in sound. I’ll keep you posted, but in the meantime, I’d love your feedback on the map if you have time to explore it, and please do get in touch if you are an aporist of Reading and would like me to add your recordings to my map!

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