I Love My Chickens

Yesterday we went for a big walk along the canal to one of my favourite spots, near Theale, but quite a few folk were out and about enjoying the fresh spring air and I confess it left me feeling rather anxious about leaving the house again today. So, instead of going for a Sunday walk, we spent the day in the garden. In all our tasks, we were accompanied by the chickens who were Very Interested In Everything.

Two chickens in shot - one is a gingery colour with a lovely red comb; in the background there is a black chicken

We are so lucky to have a garden and to be able to keep hens.

A lovely dark hen - Lizzo - peeks through the chickenwire of her enclosure to the lush green grass beyond

I wish I could share these things with everyone who is feeling afraid or sad in the strange days of this pandemic. The clucking, bustling presence of the chickens plus their dear little sounds are a massive comfort. Since everyone doesn’t have chickens, but lots of us are feeling anxious and worried at the moment, I thought I’d try to share them with you here.

Little white chicken standing beside waterer

First, let’s talk about the chickens’ eggs. I swear it doesn’t matter how many times I pick up a warm, smooth egg from under a hen, or from the little depression they make in their bedding before they lay, each time it feels like a miracle. How can these characterful little creatures produce these tasty items from their fluffy arses? I think it is magic. I pay very close attention to my chickens’ eggs. If the shells are a little bit thin or seem fragile, I make them a fortifying porridge of oats and ground up eggshells, with some tasty herbs – fennel or chilli or whatever I have on hand – to replenish them. Because of this, the chickens follow me everywhere, optimistically anticipating Treat Porridge. I love to fuss and pamper them and like to think their eggs are extra tasty because of it.

a gingery coloured hen eats treats from her feeder

Next let’s talk about their feathers. My chickens have got lovely feathers.

Lizzo – who is the darkest of the flock – has an almost bottle-green iridescence. She is the most laid back of the hens and her shiny emerald plumage is super silky to the touch. You can see the greeny tinge here, in this photo where Lizzo is hanging out with the speckledy Princess that is Missy, and they both have their heads down scratching in the ground for tasty morsels.

Lizzo and Missy with their beautiful dark feathers - two pretty hens seen from the back

Silky Lizzo peeks to the side, her bright red comb sparkles and she is all shiny and lovely

Lauren is a gingery-coloured hen; she is extremely food-focused and more adventurous than the others when it comes to “Stuff I Will Do For Food”. She experimentally pecks everything (can I eat it?); wolfs down massive earthworms in three terrifying gulps; jumps or flies up to wherever OMGMEALWORMS are being kept; and will literally *sprint* for food. Lauren also has a horrible habit of jumping in any treatbowl offering and immediately kicking all the contents on the ground, while she ruthlessly sifts through it with her beak in case there are any OMGMEALWORMS in there. I love Lauren’s biscuity feathers and we are allowed to pick her up and give her a cuddle, as long as we don’t come between her and her food.

Lauren - the gingery hen - face down scratching in the ground looking for treats

Missy is shy.

Missy the speckled hen with the red comb, she stands with her back to the camera

She had a chest infection last year and has never trusted me since I put her in TRAVEL CAGE and took her to VET. She is fleet of foot, impossible to catch, and very interested in caring for The Eggs. Lauren and Becky sometimes forget themselves and lay in random places – yesterday, for example, we had a bit of an “oops, it’s on the patio however did it get there?” moment with those two. However, Missy feels there is an order to The Eggs with which all hens should comply. Sometimes she stands outside the coop and yells for hours – a long, complainy sort of noise – because the proper order of laying is not being observed. Once The Eggs are laid, Missy likes to fluff herself up and cover and warm them.

I very often have to scoot my hand gently underneath her toasty little body to retrieve The Eggs, but she is very sweet tempered about this, and tends to slightly chide me before standing up, fluffing out her magnificent speckled wings, and then settling back down again. Missy is the only chicken to have a fetching little top knot on her head; it bobs about like a fascinator when she runs towards us because OMGMEALWORMS.

a speckled black and white hen and a black hen face one another, their bright red combs aligned

The pecking order IS A REAL THING. Becky is at the bottom; she swiftly understood this and, as a matter of survival, has perfected a grab and run manouevre. Little, swift, and the colour of clotted cream, she is relaxed about being picked up and cuddled and will often just hunker down when you’re near and wait to be scooped. The combination of her grab and run moves and her very sweet nature are very winsome and although she is bottom of the flock in the eyes of the others, she might just be our favourite.

Becky the white hen, peeping through the chicken wire

Speaking of Becky brings me to my third favourite thing about chickens: Dust Bath.

Becky has a real knack for finding a good spot for a dust bath. She’ll burrow with her feet and beak until she’s sculpted a perfect, chicken-sized divot, in which she’ll then roll around happily for ages – or until another member of the flock turfs her out to take a turn. The main rule of Dust Bath is that everyone wants to be in Dust Bath and the only one of interest is the one that already has a chicken in it.

I wish I had a photo for you of the chickens taking it in turns to enjoy Dust Bath, or rather of the chickens fighting over whose turn it is, but hopefully you can imagine it.

A black and white chicken scratch in the dirt together

Eggs, Feathers, Dust Baths, OMGMEALWORMS.

In conclusion, Chickens are the best. I love mine so much and wish that I could transmit a tiny chicken cuddle to you, a little cluck, and a perfect poached egg to wherever you are in the world. In the meantime, this post will have to do.

I hope you are finding comfort in whatever you’re doing, wherever you are.

Becky and Lizzo scratching in the dirt


MDK March Mayhem

Greetings, Friends!

How are you doing? This global pandemic is a scary time and I thought that while so many of us are at home – and perhaps unused to being at home – it might be a good thing to dust off the KNITSONIK blog and share news here a bit more regularly.

Today I want to tell you about something my friends at Mason Dixon Knitting have put together – MDK March Mayhem – which uplifts and celebrates knitwear designs and designers through a series of voting events, the first of which starts TODAY! I am thrilled that my Skystone Hat design has been placed in the Head & Hands bracket.

A montage of knitwear design images taken from the MDK website

From Kay and Ann: –

MDK March Mayhem is a light-hearted championship of knitting patterns published in 2019. It’s our way of shining light on great independent design.

Ann and I selected 16 patterns in each of 4 categories. All the patterns have two things in common: Ann and I think they’re beautiful, and we want to knit them!

Over several weeks in March and April, MDK readers will vote for their favorite patterns in 4 categories.

The bracket of 64 designs will be revealed on Friday, March 13 (tomorrow) on masondixonknitting.com. The bracket is fun and interactive, with a photo and notes on each design, plus a direct link to the design’s pattern page on Ravelry.

After a week of category previews on Mason-Dixon Knitting, Round 1 voting will open on Friday, March 20. Voters will vote for 8 patterns in each of 4 categories, and the winners will be announced and advance to Round 2 on Tuesday, March 24.

I was thrilled last week to learn that my design has been picked as part of this joy and today, as the voting opens, I’m really enjoying looking through the other designs Kay and Ann have selected and appreciating this boost to independent knitwear design. Thank you, Mason Dixon Knitting!

If you are looking for a welcome distraction from everything going on in the world today, want to spend some time appreciating and admiring independent knitwear design, and wish to support creativity through voting, your input will be uplift everyone involved.

There’s a downloadable printable, for keeping track of whom you voted for; a wondrous page where you can see and read about all the designs selected; and clear instructions here.

As suggested on the website, I’m going to sit down now with a mug of coffee and my print outs, and enjoy looking through all the categories and voting for my favourites.

Join me?

Posted in KNITSONIK NEWS | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

KNITSONIK MIXTAPE #7: SONIK Balance For Better Blanket

This year in celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to work on a SONIK accompaniment to the Balance for Better Blanket on which I collaborated last year with my amazing friends at KDD & Co.

celebratory stranded colourwork blanket, made up of many different, intricately-designed squares

The result is a rather long and dense audio mix which blends readings of texts written by the women featured in the blanket with field-recordings or audioworks related in some way to their work or its creative context. There are also compositions or songs created by some of the women celebrated in the blanket; clips of reportage or interviews relating to their work; and music which is connected in some other way. You can hear the mix here and today on the blog I’m sharing a detailed tracklist citing all my sources and the timings of when each one enters the mix.
Women’s names in bold.

Happy Listening!

00:00:00 – Source by Nubya Garcia

00:02:05 – With my Hammer by Shannon Smy of Seize the Day

00:02:36 – excerpts from The Hammer Blow – how 10 women disarmed a warplane – by Andrea Needham

00:08:46 – excerpts from How to destroy a warplane with a Hammer – by Undercurrents Media featuring the women of Seeds of Hope: Jo Blackman, Lyn Bliss, Clare Fearnley, Emily Johns, Lotta Kronlid, Andrea Needham, Jen Parker, Ricarda Steinbrecher and Rowan Tilly

00:11:41 – Source (Maxwell Owin remix) by Nubya Garcia

00:11:49 – excerpt from The Birth of Cool by Carol Tulloch, featuring the words of Beryl Gilroy

00:12:26 – excerpt from Black Teacher by Beryl Gilroy

00:14:50 – Land Of The Midnight Sun, Aurorora Borealis by Wendy Carlos

00:16:04 – excerpts from Alma Thomas by Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes featuring the words of Alma Thomas

00:19:59 – Diamond by Little Simz (Simbiatu ‘Simbi’ Abisola Abiola Ajikawo)

00:21:02 – excerpts from Buchi Emecheta interview | Civil Rights | women’s rights | Today | 1975, featuring Buchi Emecheta

00:22:21 – Ready by Vicky Sola

00:25:31 – One Blank Summer by Caroline McKenzie

00:25:55 – Britain’s Unsung First World War Hero by Forces TV, highlighting the work of Dr Elsie Inglis

00:30:34 – Slave Driver by Our Native Daughters who are Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell

00:30:53 – Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper read by Nefeli Vidali for LibriVox

00:35:15 – excerpt from We Are All Bound Up Together by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

00:36:43 – Oceano Pacifico by Chloé Despax

00:37:51 – Lear by Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster and Panaoiotis

00:38:20 – excerpts from An Atlas Of The Difficult World by Adrienne Rich read by the poet herself at the 1995 Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year Awards

00:39:47 – Rattlesnake Mountain by Pauline Oliveros on Maritime Rites by Alvin Curran

00:41:36 – Los Angeles Without Palm Trees by Geneva Skeen

00:43:36 – The Ocean at Portland Bill by Felicity Ford (that’s me)

00:44:05 – reading of Oread by H.D.

00:44:40 – Washing Up Wineglasses by Felicity Ford

00:45:35 – reading of excerpt from Washing Day by Anna Laetitia Barbauld

00:46:40 – Up, Up and Away by Fifth Dimension whose members were Billy Davis Jr., Florence La Rue, Marilyn McCoo, Lamonte McLemore, and Ronald Townson

00:49:08 – How High The Moon (Live in Berlin 1960) by Ella Fitzgerald

00:55:47 – Preserve by Maiya Hershey

00:56:14 – excerpt from 13 Question Interview on Angela Davis Speaks featuring Angela Yvonne Davis

00:57:40 – US (ft. Rocky Rivera, Klassy, and Faith Santilla) by Ruby Ibarra

01:01:40 – Turn You (DJ Nphared Remix) by Rocky Rivera (Krishtine De Leon)

01:04:41 – Erilegh Ifanata by Les Filles de Illighadad who are Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni

01:05:09 – reading of excerpt from Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South by Gladys-Marie Fry

01:07:33 – A Stream near Ben Dorian by Felicity Ford

01:08:00 – reading of excerpt from The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

01:08:00 – Pebble Beach by Felicity Ford

01:08:16 – Petit Jardin by Magali Babin

01:08:29 – The Rustle of Paper by Lau Mun Leng

01:09:04 – reading of Dr Darwin’s description of the paper flowers of Mary Delaney, taken from The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delaney, by Mary Delaney

01:10:00 – Breatheeyesmemory: Still Ill Installation Soundtrack by Raman Mundair

01:23:08 – In My Dreams by Anohni

01:23:12 – Rain on the Car Roof by Felicity Ford

01:23:15 – Let Glasgow Flourish sung by St Mungo Music; this is a religious musical interpretation of the same Glasgow Phrase – Let Glasgow Flourish – with which Ann Macbeth embroidered her Women’s Suffrage banner.

01:26:00 – Karma by Anohni

01:26:13 – Roxana Marcoci discusses the work and legacy of Untitled by Claude Cahun

01:27:40 – Gillian Wearing reads from Disavowels by Claude Cahun

01:29:18 – Even the Outline Fades by Caroline McKenzie

01:30:00 – Slow traffic on the Street by Felicity Ford

01:30:27 – reading of Why Brickwork? by Jane A. Wight from Catching the Sun [an anthology of poetry and prose]

01:31:13 – Turiya & Ramakrishna (Album Version) by Alice Coltrane

01:39:21 – Introduction by Daphne Oram
01:40:43 – Look at Oramics by Daphne Oram

01:41:38 – Studio Experiment No. 2 by Daphne Oram

01:41:52 – Melodic Group Shapes i by Daphne Oram

01:42:19 – Pop Tryouts Part 1 by Daphne Oram

01:42:27 – Oramics Demonstration by Daphne Oram

01:44:23 – Rita by Be Steadwell

01:44:34 – In Conversation with Alison Bechdel featuring Alison Bechdel speaking to members of the Young Vic

01:58:40 – Nothing Really Blue by Penguin Cafe Orchestra, led by English guitarist Simon Jeffes and co-founded with cellist Helen Liebmann

01:49:30 – reading from The Lady’s Assistant for executing useful and fancy designs in knitting, netting, and crochet work by Jane Gaugain

01:50:46 – Hazel Tindall Knitting with a Belt recorded by Felicity Ford and featuring the fast makkin’ wires of Hazel Tindall

01:51:14 – Yodel 3 by Penguin Cafe Orchestra

01:52:52 – reading from Elizabeth Friedlander: one of the first women to design a typeface by Billie Muraben and reflecting on the life, work and legacy of Elizabeth Friedländer

01:54:32 – History of Mary Barbour with The History Girls on Live at Five, in which Karen Mailley-Watt and Rachael Purse explore the life, work and legacy of Mary Barbour

01:56:11 – Snow by Daphne Oram

01:57:51 – excerpts from Kitchen Show by Bobby Baker

02:03:55 – Bodies by Phonodelica (Donia Jarrar)

02:04:00 – What I Will by Suheir Hammad

02:07:05 – reading of an excerpt from Building Britannia: Life Experiences With Britain featuring the words and recollections of Althea McNish

02:08:42 – Castilianne (Juliana) by the Girl Pat Oildrum Orchestra (some of whose members include Hazel Henly, Irma Waldron, Celia Didier, Elle Robertson, Joyce Forde, Norma Braithwaite, Eugene Gowen and Ellie Mannette)

02:11:17 – Uptown Top Ranking by Althea and Donna (Althea Rose Forrest and Donna Marie Reid)

02:14:53 – reading from Fashion For Disabled People by Nellie Thornton

02:15:55 – Sewing Machine by Chicks on Speed (Alex Murray-Leslie and American Melissa Logan)

02:14:00 – Winter by Wendy Carlos

02:19:38 – Winter (out-take) by Wendy Carlos


A square for Wendy Carlos

A few weeks ago, my friend Kate and I shared the Square Share/Balance for Better Blanket project on which we worked earlier this year, together with all at team KDD&Co., to mark International Women’s Day, 2019. The blanket has been officially recognised as an example of best practice and I feel incredibly honoured to have been involved. Thank you, KDD & Co., and thank you, IWD!

Winner International Women's Day - Best Practice

As you may have gathered from the post I wrote about designing the square which celebrates Bobby Baker, or Kate’s amazing account of her square commemorating the poetry of Adrienne Rich – or, as you’ll know if you are currently designing your own square(s) using our template on Ravelry – the process of designing and charting squares can be quite involved. I relished this aspect of the project and found that working on each square provided rich opportunities to deepen my appreciation for, and to pay especially close attention to, the work of the person it celebrated. There are messy notes in my bullet journals accompanying many of the squares I designed which remind me of how I thought about them all and which I am enjoying revisiting for these posts.

bullet journal page with written notes, stuck in chart and glimpses of washi tape

There is a particular kind of focus required to transpose ideas from other people’s work into the language of stranded colourwork and – as a long-term co-ordinator of knit/sound projects – it was especially joyful for me to work on squares that related to the work of other creatives whose main work is with sound.

Today I want to tell you about my square celebrating the work of American musician and composer Wendy Carlos. Wendy first rose to fame with Switched-On Bach (1968) – an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer which won three Grammy Awards and helped to popularise the synthesizer (and the music of J.S. Bach) throughout the 1970s. The commercial success of Switched-On Bach led to several more keyboard albums from Wendy, who also composed the score to two Stanley Kubrick films: A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980); as well as the film score for Walt Disney Productions’ 1982 film, Tron. These are some highlights of a long career and Wendy Carlos’s Discography is rich and varied. But my favourite release from her is Sonic Seasonings.

album cover for Sonic Seasonings by Wendy Carlos

I love this album, first composed in the 1970s. Although I might now try and describe it as “ambient music”, it prefigures that term – coined by Brian Eno later that decade – by several years:

“on the level of pure enjoyment, these records were designed to be a part of the decoration, so to speak – a sonic ambience that enhances the listener’s total environment. On still another level, Sonic Seasonings takes listeners out of their environment and into the countryside of their fantasy: the weary urbanite can eavesdrop on the conversation of chattering bids; the mountain dweller can leave his soul with the sound of the surf, and so on.

We ask, however, tht you, the listener, supply one element that we could not possibly blend into the final mix – your own imagination and his remembrance of Nature’s blessings.”

– Rachel Elkind, 1972

When it came out, the idea of an album like this was a new concept. Wendy describes how “there was no existing category for music of its kind.” The release was not Classical Music, while also not being Popular music, nor Jazz. Wendy writes that Sonic Seasonings was “intended to work on a timbral and experiential level, so the sound could “flow over you,””. Even with the development of later categories – ambient; minimalist; electronic; mood etc. – and the benefit of time and hindsight, it still feels difficult to pigeonhole this album as anything other than itself. I’ve not heard anything else quite like its vast, meandering world of creatures, moods, weathers, melodies and places and the CD booklet is full of thoughtful meditations and quotes on the nature of sound.

Quote from CD liner notes: "There's music in the sighing of a reed; There's music in the gushing of a rill; There's music in all things, if man had ears; The earth is but the music of the spheres." - George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Sonic Seasonings was released on vinyl in 1972 and then reissued on CD in 1998 and it brings together the electronic textures of synthesisers with field recordings from nature. It follows the structure of a year and the four seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter – are loosely suggested in spacious, 20+ minute long tracks. Rachel Elkind worked closely with Wendy on the production and concept for this work and describes it as “an aural tapestry, [containing] natural sounds… subtly mixed with electronic and instrumental sounds in an effort to create four evolving, undulating cycles evocative of the moods of the earth’s seasons….an amalgam of the natural and the synthetic.”

There’s something really strange and beautiful about the hermetically-sealed electronic sounds of the synthesiser mixing and melding with the volume of space present in many of the field recordings with which they are mixed. That, to me, is what the mix of “the natural and the synthetic” means. It’s a gentle, pattering melody of electronic sine waves and tones blurring with the noisy smash of ocean waves in Fall; or the thunderstorm in Spring mixed with the voices of birds. As the days grow increasingly short, cold and dark, I have lately been taking a special pleasure in Winter with its shimmering, tingly sounds (is this what icicles sound like?) layered with drifts of wind; with the song of wolves; and with vocals by Rachel Elkind.

How to suggest such delicious sonic complexity in the finite canvas of a knitted square, 142 sts at its edge and decreasing dramatically towards its centre?

I decided to start by thinking about soundwaves since Wendy’s free, open, playful and curious approach to sound itself is what defines Sonic Seasonings, and since it is a picture of an island surrounded by waves and movement with which she chose to illustrate the cover of this body of work. Poring over the CD-liner notes, I noticed a further reference in a quote shared on the back cover and attributed to anonymous: “I am moving all day and not moving at all. I am like the moon underneath the waves that ever go rolling.”

To speak to these themes of waves and soundwaves, I opened the track Winter in my sound-editing software and printed out a screen-grab of its waveform which I then stuck in my bullet journal.

a photo of a wave-form taken from Winter by Wendy Carlos, as seen in audio-editing software

A waveform is something I’ve tried to represent in stranded colourwork before, but I’ve always been deterred by the problem of how to handle long strands between the peaks of different waves. Also, there is phenomenal detail in a waveform which is immediately lost once it is transcribed into the low-resolution medium of stranded colourwork. Tinkering with the peaks and troughs of my soundwaves and consulting the image taped into my bullet journal, I decided I needed to be less literal. I started to chart an approximation of shapes suggesting soundwaves. I decided there would be two tiers of soundwaves in my final square design to speak to the idea of left and right stereo channels.

sound waveform charted for stranded colourwork knitting

The artwork with which Wendy Carlos illustrated Sonic Seasonings is called Waves at Matsushima. It is a painted screen produced during the Edo period by the artist Ogata Kōrin (Japanese: 尾形光琳; 1658 – June 2, 1716) – a Japanese painter, lacquerer and designer of the Rinpa school. This amazing image shows the movement of the waves around the islands of Matsushima. Wendy and Rachel saw the original in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where, Wendy comments, they “fell in love with it.” I decided to colour my soundwaves chart with the shades that had so captivated Wendy and Rachel in shades from Kate’s Milarrochy Tweed palette. Hirst provided the creamy background; Horseback Brown and Hare described the warm dark to mid-browns; Stockiemuir and Garth provided the bright pops of green to describe the island flora in the painting; and Buckthorn evokes the blush of hot orange used by Ogata Kōrin in the original painting.

Waves at Matsushima by Ogata Kōrin; a rich palette of greens, oranges and browns shows a sequence of waves rolling against large islands which rise out of the water

Wedge swatch featuring my Wendy Carlos motif in the same colours as used in the painting "Islands of Matsumisha" by Ogata Kōrin

Do you remember the wedge-swatch of which I wrote in this post? I used the same technique – a swift way to swatch one quarter of the square – to test my design ideas out. While I worked, I listened to Sonic Seasonings. I then transferred my design into the proper chart template and sent it off to Mel who deftly turned it into this:

Soundwaves represented in a hand-knitted square, as visual wave forms in shades of green, brown and orange

I so enjoyed spending time with Wendy’s music and with the notes that came with her CD. I particularly like that she chose, in this 1998 re-release, to also share an early incarnation of Winter:

About the out-take: Winter went through a few more revisions than the other movements. It was not as obvious what sounds might best suggest this ostensibly cold, quiet time of the year (snowfall is nearly soundelss, and snow on the ground tends to absorb sound.) Originally I pictured a scene in a cozy cabin somewhere up North, with a roaring fireplace, a comfortable old rocking chair, a friendly purring kitty, and a music box playing, what else, music from S-O B (Switched-On Bach, Wachet Auf.) The first definitive mix of this attempt can be heard on this bonus track. It didn’t (and doesn’t) quite work, and so we looked in other directions, before coming up with the wolves plus haunting vocalise that more musically ends Sonic Seasonings.

I really like the quiet, domestic texture of this outtake – with its purring kitty! – and I appreciate Wendy sharing it with us as a record of her creative process and as something that she felt “didn’t (and doesn’t) quite work”. I thought about this a lot during the whole project and the idea – and the comforting soundscape of “out-take” gave me courage when anything I was working on didn’t quite come together right away; the sonic/track equivalent of a swatch.

Winter as described in the CD liner notes

I also thought about how, in several years of studying field recordings and the adjacent discipline of Electroacoustic composition at University, Wendy Carlos and this groundbreaking ambient project undertaken with Rachel Elkind were never mentioned by my tutors; all the more reason to celebrate them in our work.

bullet journal edge with soundwave washi tape and screengrab of editing software printed out and stuck inside


A Q&A with Nichola McGuire of Eclectic Gift

Following on from yesterday’s post, and celebrating the launch of my new greeting cards, we are joined today on the KNITSONIK blog by Nichola McGuire of Eclectic Gift. This post discusses mental health issues openly and is dedicated to anyone else who – like me, like Nichola – needs support in this area. All images © Nichola McGuire of Eclectic Gift and used with kind permission.

Thanks so much for agreeing to join us on the KNITSONIK blog today, Nichola. First of all, could you say a little bit about your work and your business, Eclectic Gift?

Nichola McGuire - a smiling black lady wears bright red tights and co-ordinated hair bow; she smiles confidently ahead

Hi I’m Nichola (of course!) and my work was born out of my need to find a way to express my feelings and have an escape where I could truly just be myself. As a teenager I loved to draw but I suffered badly with low self esteem. I decided at some point that I wasn’t any good, and I just stopped. I didn’t pick up a pencil to really draw again until I was having therapy for severe depression and anxiety as an adult. I realised it was the perfect vessel to transport my innermost feelings out into the world around me… my images also helped conversations with my therapist.

Once I began to draw and started to feel the relief and release of putting my feelings into pieces of art, I realised that I could also draw things that brought me joy or happiness. That started when I wanted a picture of a ballerina for my little girls and couldn’t find one that looked like them. I started to think about myself as a young girl, and how I never had a toy, piece of artwork or book that had a person who looked like me in it and how low my self esteem was. I decided to draw a ballerina just for my daughters and their reaction and the reaction from friends and family was amazing.

A black girl wears a traditional ballet outfit in soft, pretty pinks, and is surrounded by a cascade of glitter. She stands delicately and happily, with her arms out, as if making - or granting - wishes

People started to ask if I was selling my artwork. I thought they were crazy but here I am trying to carve out a little section in the world of art for Eclectic Gift: Etsy shop | Electicgift.co.uk

That lack of representation is something you are directly changing. There’s an atmosphere of joy and uplift running through your work. You’ve sort of answered this already but, when you speak about your daughters, I wonder if part of your creative motivation is a wish for them to grow up with the positive, affirmative images that were missing when you were young? I’m thinking about the rucksacks you had printed with your artwork for your daughters… and your amazing range of superhero greeting cards…

Two black girls on the bus, each wearing a rucksack featuring positive, uplifting representations of black women. One is a ballet dancer, the other is a superhero; these are Nichola's designs, printed onto schoolbags

Definitely. I was drawing when my son, who is now 20, was growing up. However, no matter the feelings I had regarding my lack of worth, I instilled a sense of pride, worth and belief in him and I envy his determination and self belief and that which my daughters have also. I think I overcompensated, not wanting them to experience what I have experienced, and my artwork became part of the systematic, positive reinforcement that is the foundation of their upbringing.

A black superHERo - a girl with a natural black hairstyle stands with cloak billowing, superHERo outfit on, and a background featuring a joyful golden crown and lines of energy radiating outward

One of the things I love about your work is the prominent roles that female friendship and sisterhood play; I wondered if you could say a bit about what friendship means to you when it comes to well-being?

It’s about connection; empathy; compassion and understanding. I’m lucky that my close friends allow me the space to say that I’m not well or that I don’t feel like getting out of bed without judgement or expectation. I used to feel like unless I was catatonic, rocking in a fetal position, bawling or inconsolable that nobody could believe how bad a place I was in. I’d wonder how I could get help or support if I looked and behaved like I was “normal”. It’s the understanding and space that my people give me to “do me” and just be how I need to be. That help me to feel supported and able to speak to them openly. Some days I feel like I cannot get out of bed and I’ll be very matter of fact about it. No hysterics. No crying. No fuss. But that doesn’t mean it’s not really shit and my people are there to encourage and support me and more often than not…I get up. So, to my people, thank you.

Squad goals - a group of black women wearing beautiful, brightly-coloured outfits stand in line, looking forward with an air of friendship, strength and support

What you’re saying resonates so strongly – I think very often mental health conditions like Depression and Anxiety are associated with certain types of outward presentation such as you describe: rocking in the fetal position; crying; hysteria; fuss. Yet, speaking from my own experiences – like you say – the bottom of the world dropping away can be weirdly undramatic, silent and interior. We just can’t know what is going on with anyone from how they appear outwardly. This is why it’s so important to speak openly about mental health and also to represent it, as you do with such honesty in your work. Addressing this is obviously key to your practice – what else is important to you as an artist?

Truth. I only draw what I connect with; feel something from; am inspired by; or which sparks my interest. For me that is most often falls into two brackets which are representing women of colour and representing mental health awareness. Sometimes I am just blending colours and doodling and something just appears on which I build but ultimately I hope to convey kindness, solidarity, sisterhood, empowerment and love.

I’ve had so many people offer ideas for “gimmicks” or “money makers” but I just can’t do it. If I’m not loving it then I’m not drawing it! Every piece I’ve drawn has a story, a journey, a meaning or both. Drawing is my release, my pleasure, my insides turning out. What you see on the paper is me!

As I am - an honest and sincere portrait of a black woman sitting in her underwear and represented honestly and in a mode of total self-acceptance. She looks down towards her body, her hair is worn naturally; the curves and bumps of her body are presented with celebratory and respectful honesty; she looks inward and down, appreciating herself on her own terms

YES YOU CAN! A young black woman holds up, and points to, a glorious card in which a stylishly dressed black woman wearing smart black clothes and a jaunty beret points authoritatively to the words YES YOU CAN

It means a lot to me that you have brought so much authenticity to your beautiful designs for my KNITSONIK cards; thank you so much. Of the amazing illustrationg you have produced, do you have a favourite? And, if so, why?

This is very difficult as there are aspects of each that have a piece of my heart. I think I have to say that the Missy Elliot piece is my favourite. When I look at it I feel as though I can hear the music and feel the rhythmic movement I was trying to create. I spent a long time creating the stitches for the dancer’s jumper and, although from a distance you probably cannot tell, I worked very hard to make the movement in the wool look as real and natural as possible. When I look at that piece I actually spend a lot of time zooming in on the stitches, haha!

A black woman wears a sweater with motifs on it that celebrate Missy Elliott's music, with the words SUPA DUPA FLY in the background, against the pink

I love this design as well – it reminds me of my friend Madeleine who has been encouraging and helping me to write up the pattern, and who bravely danced in it at Woollinn Yarn Festival this year – I say bravely, because that is thick, 100% wool, stranded colourwork fabric and dancing to the energetic beats of an iconic Missy Elliott track in that much wool can easily lead to over-heating! I confess I have zoomed in on the stitches several times too, in order to admire your work. I feel like each stitch you have drawn is the illustrated equivalent of each one I have knitted.

One element of this commission was to try and show the relationship between a knitter and their environment; could you say a bit about how you created the “world” each knitter is in? And what inspired your ideas for each one?

I felt that it was very important to listen to you and read your blog posts and articles and study the reference photos until I felt a sense of connection. The first one I did was Bricktastic and that’s the one I found hardest as I was very concerned about being able to bring your idea to life.

A black woman with an upright posture, a natural afro-hairstyle and a nice knitting bag filled with brick-coloured yarns strides along a street lined with highly-patterned brick walls and a sleeping black and white cat, who is curled up on a window sill

It took me a while to believe in myself and to work instinctively – which is where I thrive – rather than working very literally. So the ideas for each piece came from your words and images but I felt like I was imagining myself within the world of each idea. The expressions on the subjects’ faces represent the feelings I had while creating them and which rise in me when I look at them.

I love that and am particularly thrilled with the joy on the face of the girl listening through the EDIROL R-09 digital sound recording device (she just looks as happy as I feel when I am recording everyday sounds in the world around me) and the contented smile of the polka-dot knitter, who is scooped up in the perfect knitting chair and just enjoying her knitting in the way I hope all crafters can enjoy our work.

Your creative process for the bricks design was so interesting. Could you say a bit about the process of developing that design? Just to add that our cat – Joey Muffkins – is honoured to be part of it!

Ha! Hello Joey! The bricks were created in a way that I’d assume people would find boring but which I found very therapeutic. I started by mixing colours to create a space with naturally different tones. I then used different brushes to create texture and depth. Then I made slight differences in colours in order to have lots of bricks with similar colours but different enough amongst themselves to seem real. Then I built the wall one brick at a time, being careful to follow pattern rules all the way through. I’d show people who’d look at me and say “err…nice wall”, haha! They don’t understand how long the wall took!

This piece came directly from the cowl. The colours, tones and warmth were built from looking at it and drawing it in the same colour pattern and same stitches so that I almost felt as though I’d made one myself.

Drawn, hand-knitted stitches, in the shape of a hand-knitted cowl

Drawn, hand-knitted stitches, in the shape of a hand-knitted cowl, duplicated and filled with carefully-considered shades of brick colours

Drawn, hand-knitted stitches, in the shape of a hand-knitted cowl, duplicated and filled with carefully-considered shades of brick colours; the evolutions of the idea are shown clearly in the drawing

It’s so interesting to hear your process and it’s been my experience too that, although at first it seems boring (brick walls, really?), the process of paying attention to something solid and commonplace can be, in and of itself, incredibly therapeutic. People often look at my knitting based on brick walls and at my extensive photos of, urm, bricks!!! and say – just like they did to you – “err…nice wall!” so that’s something we share, now. I’m not sure people realise how long it take to knit bricks, either.

Thank you so much for sharing your process and the context for your work so generously with us. Finally – and most importantly! – where can my readers find more examples of your amazing work?

I have a website http://www.eclecticgift.co.uk. But honestly my kids keep expecting to be fed and looked after so I don’t get to update it too often. For more regular updates please come and follow me on Instagram @eclecticgift or treat yourself to some goodies from my Etsy shop. You can also follow my hashtag #eclecticgiftarttherapy and if you’re sharing an image online where I have talked about mental health in some way, you can tag your share as well.

It’s been a massive privilege to work with you on this and I am humbled to see some of my KNITSONIK ideas reframed through your creative vision; thank you for being willing to explore my knitting concepts in your beautiful illustration work, and for your generosity in collaboration.

Thank you for believing in me and giving me the space and time to create these pieces for you x

A collection of greeting cards by Eclectic Gift for KNITSONIK, arranged with their colour co-ordinated envelopes

Really hope you have enjoyed this Q&A and getting an insight into the creative world of Nichola McGuire. You can find the Eclectic Gift x KNITSONIK greeting cards in my online shop here; they are priced £8.99 and come in sets of five, containing all the designs.

Until soon –

Yours in the joy of collaboration and creativity,

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KNITSONIK & Eclectic Gift: A Collaboration

Hello, today I want to introduce a collaborative project between myself and Nichola McGuire – the artist behind Eclectic Gift. Nichola has designed a new range of KNITSONIK greeting cards which will launch in my shop tomorrow. We’ll celebrate their arrival there with a Q&A with Nichola but today I thought I’d show you a sneak peek at the artwork and give you a bit of background.

For the last few years I’ve been buying cards from Nichola’s Etsy shop, drawn to her uplifting and inclusive aesthetic.

Four women of different ethnicities, each doing a powerful yoga pose and wearing brightly-coloured outfits

Nichola’s work uses bright colours; takes a playful, bold approach; and unapologetically centres and celebrates black and brown girlhood.

A row of black and brown women, wearing matching outfits of black leotards and berets and standing in formation, in homage to the dancers in Beyoncé's music video of the same name

I think her images are beautiful.

Three full-bodied women linking arms in a beautiful embrace, each with different skin tones and wearing cropped black t-shirts, matching briefs and high heeled shoes. We see them from the back

After placing several orders of cards from Nichola, I searched for her instagram account and learnt that she shares my wish to demystify, de-stigmatise and remove shame around representations and discussions of mental health.

I started wondering whether we might be able to collaborate across the shared ground of our different practices, and wrote to ask if Nichola might be interested in working together. I sent her copies of my books so she could see if anything in them spoke to her. We met to agree a brief for a set of greeting cards, each of which was to frame KNITSONIK practices of knitting and listening as mental self-care; self-expression; and uplift. After some months of correspondence, drawing, writing and planning, Nichola came back to me with a beautiful set of images.

There are five greeting cards in all and they range from a beautiful image of a girl enjoying – as I have enjoyed, for many years – the enhanced auditory qualities of hearing the world through the microphones of an EDIROL R-09 digital sound recording device

A black girl holds an EDIROL R09 and takes enormous pleasure from hearing everyday sounds around her amplified, as if listening through a microscope

…to a woman dancing, like my friend Madeleine, to the glorious textures of Missy Elliott’s music (while wearing her Missy Elliott Sweater)…

A full-figured black woman wears a sweater with motifs on it which celebrates Missy Elliott with lyrics and drawn motifs from her albums. The dancer is in a pink environment surrounded by musical notes and the words SUPA DUPA FLY in the background in colours that match the sweater she wears

…to a knitter who draws comfort from the patterned brickwork of her town and knits them into an uplifting cowl

A black woman with an upright posture, a natural afro-hairstyle and a nice knitting bag filled with brick-coloured yarns strides along a street lined with highly-patterned brick walls and a sleeping black and white cat, who is curled up on a window sill

…to another knitter who, like all the knitters who joined in with the POLKAMANIA! KAL at the start of this year, delights in the pleasures of dotty design…

A black woman sits in a lovely curvy egg-shaped chair, knitting a dotty cowl. The pyjamas she wears are dotty; the walls are dotty; the rug under her feet is dotty; the curtains are dotty... everything is dotty and all the dots are inspiring her happy-making knitting. She smiles as she knits her dots.

…to a disabled knitter who, like a good friend of mine, uses a wheelchair as a mobility aid and is a wonderful knitter.

A disabled knitter sits in a stylish, self-propelled wheelchair, knitting a complex stranded colourwork blanket based on dandelions. As she knits, Dandelions from the ground around her feet are caught in the wind and fly up all around her

These cards feature the kinds of images I want to share and I hope you’ll want to share them, too: women confidently enjoying sound-recording technology; the ecstatic brilliance of Missy Elliott; brickwork, weeds and other commonplace items as everyday sources of inspiration; the endless permutations and possibilities of polka dots; and the normalisation of images of people with disabilities. When I look at them, I feel they reflect the joy that creative practices of drawing and knitting can induce. I wanted them to be applicable year round; to be blank inside for your own messages; and to reflect the direct, emotional language at the heart of Nichola’s illustrative style.

I really love the end result. Thank you so much Nichola for agreeing to collaborate with me; for bringing your gaze, vision, perspective and skill to this work; and for representing KNITSONIK designs with so much warmth and sensitivity. You rock!

The A6 size cards will go on sale in the KNITSONIK online shop tomorrow in sets of five at £8.99 per set. They are printed on high quality 350gsm postcard board and are supplied with colour co-ordinated envelopes made from 100% recycled paper. To celebrate their appearance in the online shop, I’ll share a Q&A with Nichola so you can hear more about her amazing work. We’ve spent a little while writing back and forth and it’s been lovely. I’m so excited to share our conversation with you all.

Until then,
Yours in greeting cards, greetings, and gratitude –

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Classes at Vogue Knitting Live, Austin, Texas

Hello! If you follow me on Instagram you may know that last weekend I was at Vogue Knitting Live Intensive, held in Austin, Texas. I did two classes while there and thought you might like to hear about them.

The first was Dive Into Dipped Stitches with Jeanette Sloan. If you know Jeanette’s work as a designer, you’ll know that she loves bold colours; exciting stitch textures; and projects which enable you to create interesting, structured fabrics. Her class on Dipped Stitches brought all these elements together in a really inspiring way.

selection of hand-knitted swatches by Jeanette Sloan, featuring a variety of colours and variations on the dipped-stitch technique

Like me, Jeanette is a fan of swatching. I love the spontaneity and variety of ideas embodied in her swatches shown above – so much creativity, curiosity and play at work here. The dipped stitch technique explored in this class is so-called because it involves “dipping down” into a stitch several rows below the one you are knitting to create vertical floats which lie up the knitted fabric. The floats and how they are tensioned affect how the fabric behaves structurally and, of course, they are also highly decorative design elements. You can vary the placement of your dipped stitches, thereby changing the direction and height of your floats, and varying the colours and stitches used opens the door to an infinite range of creative possibilities. Each piece of Jeanette’s knitting highlights a different line of inquiry, and she finishes all her swatches with a neat length of i-cord which I think is a very elegant way to complete them. I got a lot out of looking at this little stack of swatches and thinking about the different variables explored in each one. To me, they buzz happily with an infectious mood of creative curiosity: “what about using this colour with that one?” “what about adding in a garter stitch row here?” “how about if I put my dipped stitch four to the right?”…

swatches made by students in Jeanette's class

…inspired by this approach, all of us in the class produced a little sampler documenting our understanding of the technique as Jeanette walked us through it in stages. First a left-leaning dip, then a right-leaning dip; then a V-dip; then whatever we wanted to do to apply and extend our growing knowledge of the method. The four swatches above are what we made in class and mine is the obscenely bright pink and orange swatch because really, what other colours would one bring to a workshop with Jeanette Sloan?

Bright pink and orange swatch

I had such a good time playing with my brightly-coloured yarns in Jeanette’s class and came away brimming with ideas for how to apply the endless possibilities of the dipped stitch technique. I cherished this invitation to play; the time and space to try something new; and the joyful and inspiring atmosphere with which Jeanette infused her class. I was so inspired that I stayed up late on the Friday night continuing with my swatch and trying out new permutations of pink, orange, and dipped stitches… Thank you for helping me Dive Into Dipped Stitches, Jeanette!

Pink and orange notions in Jeanette Sloan's dipped stitches class

The other class I attended was a day-long class with Denise Bayron exploring the construction and techniques in her carefully-planned out Hatdana design. This design can be worn like a hat or a bandana and is intentionally versatile, minimalist and elegant in all its thoughtful details. It’s also a beginner-friendly pattern which appealed to me a lot! I knew I’d be taking two long flights in a short space of time to get to and from the event and really wanted to pace myself and manage my resources in order to not end up frazzled and unwell. When I looked at the schedule I felt instantly relaxed at the thought of a day-long class with an achievable goal and not too many new-to-me techniques. Sometimes I think at knitting retreats there can be a temptation to try and cram in as much new knowledge as possible and although I was extremely tempted by the classes with both Connie Peng (HELLO COLOURWORK!!!) or Olga Buraya-Kefelian (HELLO TEXTURES AND CONSTRUCTION!) I was also mindful of jetlag and the need to manage my own event-anxiety, energy levels, and overwhelm. I had initially planned to cast a Hatdana on during my flight but when I saw I could spend a day knitting it with Denise herself, I thought that would be so much more fun.

Felix (on the left) and Denise Bayron (on the right). We are leaning into each other and beaming big smiles!

I wasn’t wrong.

I really enjoyed having a day-long class. It made me think about presence and process; accessible pattern design; accessible class structures; and the pleasures of revisiting and refreshing long-established skills. I loved the firm way Denise kept us on task “let’s keep knitting while we’re talking” and how she really got us into understanding what our stitches were doing at each stage of our making.

Hatdana on the needles

We spent the first part of the morning brushing up on basics like slipping the stitches at the edges of the Hatdana to make a lovely neat selvedge; managing our markers; and working cables without a cable needle. I really appreciated the careful way that Denise explained each step of the process of knitting the Hatdana to us, and how she managed our time throughout the day so that each of us ended up producing a miniature version of the finished thing. It felt like slowing down to knit; slowing down to appreciate my yarn; slowing down to appreciate the company; slowing down to appreciate it all. We cast on our Hatdanas and then slowly grew our skillset throughout the day, from the cast on at the beginning to the ribbed section that forms the front band and, finally, to the sewn bind off that so perfectly and tidily completes the Hatdana, framing the face and finishing the knitting neatly.

A row of miniature Hatdanas - little cones of knitting with cable detailing, yarn overs and a ribbed band at the top

There’s something so affirming about setting out with a plan to achieve something in a set amount of time, then getting it all done. This aspect of Denise’s approach is reflected in her patterns, which have lovely little check-boxes so that you can cross off every stage as you go. One of my bad habits is unachievable lists which make me feel bad (“boo! I didn’t finish everything, I failed” etc.) and it was really nice to remember the value of the opposite of this – achievable lists which make me feel good. Or, as Denise would say, “we had a plan and we followed it through.”

a brown cone of knitting with yarn-overs on one side and a neat selvedge on the other

I learnt so much in Denise’s class – not just all the technical skills for finishing my Hatdana, but also ways of ensuring a class is accessible at many levels of knitterly experience. I left a little more certain in my techniques for magic-loop; sewn bind-off; slipped stitches at the edge of my work; and stitch-marker management… but I also left with a refreshed appreciation for inclusive teaching practices and thoughts about how I could make what I do with KNITSONIK more accessible to less experienced knitters.

Thank you for a great class, Denise!

A word about the yarn I was using…

In Denise’s class, I was working with a precious skein of Castlemilk Moorit DK from my friend Rachel AKA Daughter of a Shepherd. I’d remembered I had it while listening to this beautiful clip, recorded by Raman Mundair, in which Shetland/Tanzanian teen Elsie shares her favourite Shetland dialect words. She says, of the word Moorit, “another word I love… describing the colour of your classic, brown, Shetland sheep. So… not really dark brown but kind of like a very earthy, natural brown… and that’s moorit. It’s a very popular colour.”

The moorit brown in the fleece of the Castlemilk Moorit sheep is partly derived from the brown Shetland sheep of Elsie’s description. Her enthusiastic description of the word “moorit” (which to me recalls a tasty digestive biscuit) sent me stash-diving for my precious skein of Castlemilk Moorit with which to make a lovely, oaty-brown Hatdana.

I’m so glad I took this yarn to a class where there was enough time and space to really savour working with it.

There is quite a bit of KNITSONIK news coming up so stay tuned for more posts and, if you’re subscribed to my newsletter, keep an eye on your Inbox!
Until soon –

Yours in the joy of learning,

Posted in KNITSONIK NEWS, KNITSONIK OPINIONS, KNITSONIK PROCESSES | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A square for Bobby Baker

I so enjoyed reading Kate’s account of designing a square for Adrienne Rich for our blanket. The poem she describes – An Atlas of The Difficult World – is one of many amazing works to which Kate introduced me through this project. If you are thinking about designing your own blanket with other people, I reckon that researching your squares, sharing stories, and making time to talk about what they represent are at least of equal importance to the actual knitting.

Like Kate, I use Adobe Illustrator to generate my charts, but I always feel the curvy shapes of knitted stitches do unexpected things to a charted design and that the only way to be absolutely sure of how the thing is going to look is to make swatches. I admire the efficiency of Kate’s design process immensely, and one of the treats for me about working on this project was gaining an insight into how she and Mel work together with charts and knitting. I loved seeing the seamless way that Mel’s hands translate Kate’s charts, and also her concise and thoughtful comments coming back “Should this square be blue?” “Have changed this one” etc.

My own process is less efficient and quite a bit slower. Although Adobe Illustrator definitely features, I also find I need some slow time spent with pencils and paper, and knitting on my swatches. This is time to think about the context of what I’m making, and also to get into the details of my designs. To describe how I work, I thought I’d start by introducing the square that I designed to commemorate one of my favourite artists of all time: Bobby Baker.

knitted square depicting four interwoven curls of moulded bread dough on a background of bread dough

This square features four moulded loops of bread dough, and recalls the protective breast pizza from the outfit Bobby creates in one of her iconic performances, Cook Dems. I chose this motif because it is the same one that Bobby herself wears on the cover of her magnificent book, Redeeming Features of Daily Life, and because it is emblazoned on a celebratory cupcake which Bobby Baker gave out at a talk I attended over a decade ago and which I have kept as a cherished memento, (time has turned it rather grey and ghoulish).

black and white book cover in which Bobby Baker is shown wearing white cookery overalls, a protective breast pizza and a pair of hand-baked antlers

Commemorative cupcake featuring Bobby Baker's Breast Pizza motif printed on icing in green and black shades

the cupcake, a decade old, with printed edible icing now faded beyond recognition and light fossilising evident at the edges of the very old icing

About Bobby Baker

I knew that a celebration of Bobby Baker would need to reference bread, cake, cooking implements or other materials found in British, middle-class domestic space, for these form the expressive basis of her work. In the 1970s, Bobby Baker had newly graduated from art school and felt deeply alienated from the art world and the domineering, vast, metal sculptures that were popular at the time. As a young, emerging artist, she supplemented her income by selling decorated cakes by mail order. One day, upon completing a baseball-boot cake, she had the amazing revelation that cake was her sculptural medium:

Suddenly it was like the heavens opened and a new thought shone into my brain – I’d made a Work of Art, a sculpture of equal status to Anthony Caro’s epic and huge metal sculptures. For a long time I just laughed with delight at the sheer irreverence of this decision to name such a pathetic, poorly crafted object ‘A Work of Art of Great Significance’. But I knew at the same moment that it was a pivotal turning point for me as an artist – I had discovered my own language, material, form – something that began to echo my fleeting thinking.

Bobby Baker's now iconic baseball-boot cake

Soft, perishable, undeniably drenched in complex social meanings, using this material as a sculptural medium enabled Bobby Baker to begin making art in a way that fit the complex, social themes she wanted to address. Thirty years later, as an MA and then PhD student exploring the significance of the everyday and domestic soundscape, I was drawn to the potent sonic materials of everyday life by the same forces which had inspired Bobby to start making art out of cake. I felt I had found a creative ancestor in Bobby Baker, and her work remains a vital reference point for my own.

In 2009, I was commissioned by Sound & Music to produce a contextualising series of podcasts for the Cut & Splice Festival which was, that year, themed around domestic spaces and living rooms. With kind permission, I used audio from some of Bobby Baker’s amazing performances to give a socially-engaged, feminist perspective on the tensions and complexities of the domestic soundscape. (You can hear that here.) In projects like this one, and in my doctoral research, I examined the links between our work. I also gained confidence in using humour by seeing how Bobby Baker did the same to broach complicated subjects like post-natal depression; class oppression; and the lack of respect and recognition for the domestic labour that produces and maintains the human race. For a long while, I had Marina Walker’s essay about Bobby Baker – The Rebel at the Heart of the Joker – stuck on my studio wall, where it exercised a kind of magical influence over my ideas.

Bobby Baker is intentionally naughty, deliberately playing with her food and making a mess, all the while carving out a space of agency and creative freedom in the same domestic contexts which have historically been restrictive spaces for women. Shocking, uncomfortable, vulnerable and teetering between tragedy and comedy, Bobby Baker’s work takes the very stuff of the Nice White Lady Home and turns it into a radical, liberatory critique of itself. Flour and juice become spattering paints that speak viscerally to the physical experiences of motherhood; cake becomes a sculptural medium “Of Great Significance” and packed lunches become a vehicle for pointed explorations of social class and identity.

The breast pizza (designed to protect the wearer against criticism) is a fantastic emblem of the spirit of invention and vulnerability that characterises Bobby’s practice. Cook Dems – the performance of which it is a part – also involves the creation of bread antlers (to increase one’s status) and a bread-ball skirt (to add that touch of glamour).

Cook Dems - Bobby Baker wearing breadball skirt, bread antlers, and protective breast pizza

After baking and donning these items, the piece culminates in a triumphal kitchen dance. In her book, Bobby gives a very moving description of taking this show on the road in the 1990s and bringing it to community centres around the country. She describes arriving “at a windswept estate overlooking the Clyde on the edge of Greenock” with her friend Pol (Polona Baloh Brown). They were greeted by a “group of sewing ladies” who were clearly expecting a fairly standard cookery demonstration and were surprised to find themselves in the middle of a subversive, feminist art performance:

In this instance, as with most, there comes a moment when people stop trying to make sense of what’s going on and just get into the swing of things. This was a particularly joyful occasion – my dream success event. They all chipped in and bantered all the way through. Their gritty, bawdy wit and appreciation of the innuendo was far greater than mine, so they took the concept miles further. When I did my final dance they all joined in and we shrieked with laughter together at the need for most women, and a lot of men, to wear a pair of baked antlers and just laugh, laugh, laugh.

To me, this description epitomises the value, impact and potential of community art projects, and the special genius of Bobby Baker’s work which is somehow able to unite people briefly in life-affirming experiences which reframe daily life as magical and transformative. I would love to hear from the women involved in this performance, and to ask whether they found – as I do, thinking about it now – that bread and the act of baking took on a special significance after being explored through this joyful creative lens. Thinking of this story again, the protective breast pizza comes to symbolise the pathos and risk in Bobby Baker’s work. How many of us would drive hundreds of miles to meet with a group of strangers in a community centre, and persuade them to join us in a potentially ridiculous, definitely uncertain, creative adventure? To be so willing to be that vulnerable with strangers takes immense bravery.

A closeup of the protective breast pizza Bobby Baker wears on the cover of her book

I certainly have found myself in various community arts settings over the years drawing strength from the stories of Bobby Baker’s practice, and perhaps emboldened by the thought of her valiant bread shield. In this, and in so many other ways, Bobby Baker’s work has had a profound impact on my own work with domestic sounds. However, she’s also influenced how I view knitting as a deliberate and feminist choice of medium which – like cake – is steeped in social and domestic references which make it a potent mode of expression. Bobby Baker is one of a generation of artists who insisted on the significance of women’s material culture, and who fought for it to have its own space and recognition in art history. Including her amongst my 15 blanket squares was about celebrating a particular branch of feminist arts practice using the fitting medium of knitted stitches.

About Bobby Baker’s Square

To design a square in honour of Bobby Baker, I first of all examined the shapes of the sculpted bread dough featured in her protective breast pizza. The four quarters of my blanket square were to be identical – which the four quarters of Bobby Baker’s protective breast pizza are not – so I knew I was aiming for an approximation, at best. A homage.

How to plan and visualise the quarters of my square? The actual chart used to knit the squares is bisected by the column of decreases that runs up the centre, which makes it hard to imagine how the finished square will look.

template showing the blank outline of the chart for Square Share

To help me visualise things more easily, I made a template for swatching which places one quarter of the finished square into its own space. I then filled the space outwith the quarter with a “lice” pattern (*k1 in background shade, k1 in pattern shade, repeat from * until all the stitches have been filled). This allowed me to get a sense of what each quarter of my square would look like in far less time than it would have taken me to knit an actual square, and enabled me to modify my designs in response to seeing them appearing in knitted form.

A blank chart which shows one quarter of the knitted square that will comprise the eventual design

Hirst – a lovely oatmeal shade – seemed an ideal base to suggest the breadiness of Bobby Baker’s protective breast pizza and then the rest of my design process focused on using Birkin, Bruce, Hare and Horseback Brown – (grey, charcoal, mid and dark browns, respectively) – to try to describe the pleasing, loafen materiality of Bobby Baker’s bread sculpture.

Shades of Milarrochy Tweed: Bruce, Horseback Brown, Hare, Birkin and Hirst

First chart attempt - a slender roll of bread charted as one quarter of ablanket square

Skinny Bread roll knitted from first chart

The first attempt looked, to me, too skinny. Although it is proportionately close to the size of the bread swirls on their background of bread in Bobby Baker’s shield, in this low-resolution rendering, without all the pleasing texture present in the original, I felt the knitted lines had to all be thickened by way of a compromise. It just didn’t look hefty enough for a shield. I tinkered with my chart in Adobe Illustrator until the moulded piece of bread looked thicker. Increasing the width of the loop of the bread dough in my square quarter enabled me to add in some more of the cracks and fissures that would be present on an actual baked bread crust.

Second chart attempt - a thicker roll of bread dough charted as one quarter of a blanket square

Thicker Bread roll knitted from second chart

This is one of the swatches for which the chart was developed in Adobe Illustrator, but once I printed out the charts, I made some marks in order to indicate where each of my double-pointed-needles ended, and to show myself where to change colour. I always knit from printed or drawn charts, which I place on a magnetic board. A magnet, which is also a ruler, helps me keep track of which row of the chart I am on. For this design I refined my chart in Adobe Illustrator but in many other cases, I did all my chart workings in pencil on my printed out paper template. Once it was clear to me that the second idea for the chart was working for me as knitting, it was a case of transferring my design from the wedge template into the chart template proper, for Mel.

Proper Bobby Baker Bread chart blanket square

This whole process – and sharing it with you today – have been an amazing opportunity to revisit the artistry and influence of Bobby Baker; I hope you have enjoyed reading about her work as much as I have enjoyed commemorating it in our blanket.

If you would like to make a swatch to help visualise your finished squares, you are very welcome to download my template for doing so here: blanket workshop worksheet LGF 1; this morning Kate also added the worksheet template I used for making my swatches to the Square Share Pattern, so that if you would like to try my swatching method for yourself, you can.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Bobby Baker and my knitted celebration of her work – until soon,


Square Share

Towards the end of last summer my friend Kate of KDD & Co. visited me here in Reading so we could plan a collaborative project. Our idea was to design something together which would speak to our shared interests in the creative possibilities of stranded colourwork, and the textures of womens’ lives, history, and creativity. We wanted to build on our many conversations over the years, and to work with our mutual friend, collaborator and comrade, Mel.

That meeting of many months ago has culminated in the co-creation of a celebratory, commemorative blanket.

celebratory stranded colourwork blanket, made up of many different, intricately-designed squares

This blanket represents many hours of exploring our own feminism; thinking about the people whose creative practices have informed our own; and the slow process of finding ways to appropriately and respectfully translate their work into stranded colourwork designs. Kate has written a bit about this process on the KDD & Co. blog today and we will both share more in coming days but, in the meantime, if you want to have a go at designing your own squares, you can download the blank chart template for doing so here.

In our friendship Kate and I are always enthusing to one another about artists, writers, designers and makers whose work speaks to us: “have you read…” “have you seen…” “have you heard…”. We wanted to infuse our blanket with that same spirit of joyous sharing. The final piece features 30 squares, each of which is inspired by the work of a maker who has, in turn, inspired us. Kate and I designed 15 squares each which Mel then knitted up, making helpful improvements to our charts and joining in with the conversations prompted by the background story for each square.

celebratory stranded colourwork blanket, made up of many different, intricately-designed squares

The process of celebrating anyone’s life and work is complex and researching and developing our squares for this project challenged us to think carefully about representation and commemoration. Also, a small colourwork square presents very particular limitations. It’s a low-resolution medium; the format of the squares and the shape of their chart means that designs repeat four times around each one; and working with Kate’s Milarrochy Tweed restricted us to a palette of 16 shades. These constraints imposed structure and discipline onto our ideas and forced us to regard the work and legacy of each of the women celebrated in a very particular way. Like the knitted postcards of Yumi and Muriel’s magnificent #KnittedCorrespondence project, each square offers a very small canvas for experimentation, learning, and exchange.

Too, there were questions about what our final choices should be, and what sort of feminist celebration our finished blanket would represent. This led to many challenging and thoughtful conversations as we thought about different intersections of identity and the shifting definitions of what feminism has meant to us at different stages in our friendship of over a decade. The process of poring over poems, letters, paintings, album covers and other manifestations of womens’ creativity was deeply moving and made me appreciate the many messy and multi-layered ways in which other women inspire me and influence my ideas. From the books beside my bed, to the sweaters I knit and wear, to what I watch, to the images stuck up on my kitchen cupboards, to the music I listen to, record, and mix, my life and my work are messily and joyously and intentionally connected with the creative expressions of a very diverse range of women. These connections lift me up and give me hope; they challenge me; they affirm me and my experiences but they also teach me about places within my feminism where I need more understanding, awareness and empathy. All these different layers and levels of inspiration and connection are stitched into our blanket and sketched into the pages where we worked out the details of our squares.

The collaborative nature of the project also meant that while exploring both old and new feminist ideas, I was also introduced to new perspectives, identities and makers by Kate and her designs. What a gift, for example, to find the moving performance poetry of Suheir Hammad…

a knitted square featuring a swirly red heart motif against a background of black, beige and green

…and to be introduced to the inspiring world of Alice Coltrane’s compositions and performances, whose album cover for Ptah the El Daoud, influenced Kate’s swirling commemoration of her work.

knitted square featuring swirling motifs in black and red against a background of blues, greys and greens

There are many more stories and connections embedded in our blanket – each of which deserve their own posts, really – but while we’re working on those, you can read more about the whole project here.

knitted blanket comprised of complex stranded colourwork squares

Working on this together was an immense privilege – a project both personal and political, and one that has made me think about what sort of feminist I want to be and why I even knit in the first place. From our first conversations about the blanket until now, we have hoped our project might inspire other groups to get together to create collaborative, commemorative blankets and to use that process as an opportunity for growth, dialogue and creative exploration. In that spirit, we’re starting to share what we’ve made together with you.

We really hope our work will give you ideas for your own Square Share.
Who will you celebrate, how will you commemorate their work? Who will you recognise and what will you learn from engaging with their work through creative processes of charting, knitting, swatching and design?
Perhaps – most importantly – with whom will you share your squares?

With greatest thanks to Kate and Mel for being such willing, thoughtful, challenging, supportive and constructive comrades through this creative project: it has been amazing to KNITSONIK with KDD & Co..

Until soon –

a multicoloured blanket comprised of stranded colourwork squares, photographed from a dramatic angle

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Skystone Hat

In my last post I shared the Skystone Armwarmers I was knitting in August.

Skystone armwarmers in pinecone colourway

These armwarmers were knit using the pattern I produced for Arnall-Culliford’s well thought out book, Boost Your Knitting: Another Year of Techniques. The motif is meant to suggest any inspiration source that has lots of little, differently-sized bits in it… from puffs of cloud in the sky above, to the little rocks and stones underfoot on any beach, or embedded in tarmac. Hence the name, Skystone.

I changed the palette to one of browns, greys and creams to make pinecone-inspired armwarmers, but kept thinking that the motif would look amazing arranged around the crown of a hat, so I designed the Skystone Hat.

In this form, and in these colours, the geometry of the pattern really begins to suggest a pine cone to me.

On Sunday, my friend Sasha modeled the Skystone hat for me. She patiently hugged trees…

…held pine cones…

…peeped from between branches…

…and helped me find the best puddles of sunlight on a sunny, September day.

Thank you so much, Sasha.

Now that I have written this pattern up, I keep imagining it in other palettes which celebrate organic forms. Artichokes, succulents, roses, cacti, sea anemones… what will you use as inspiration for YOUR Skystone Hat?

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