A Black model with locs - Faith Makawa - wears orange dungarees and a white t-shirt, which pick up on the orange in her purple and orange hat, and matching pair of mitts. In her hands she holds a record in an orange DECCA sleeve, she is facing towards shelves of music, as if looking to position or place the record somewhere on the shelf.

This post is part of a celebratory series written for the Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 PAL (play-along) that marks the rolling-out of the Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 eBook in Ravelry. The patterns in the eBook explore ways to literally knit music, and the PAL celebrates how musical and knitterly concepts are connected.

What is syncopation and how is it of relevance to knitters?

In music, syncopation is a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat.

Wikipedia definition

In knitterly terms the idea of “a variety of rhythms played together” is of special interest when we are organising motifs for stranded colourwork or Fair Isle knitting.

The thing that gives my beautiful Fair Isle jumper (knit by Alice Simpson of Whalsay) its special visual coherence is (in part) to do with how the big patterns line up with one another. They are each twenty stitches wide, and though each of the large motifs is different, they share the same stitch-count and align beautifully down the centre. As with music, in which the beat holds all the instruments together in time, acting as a kind of mathematical structure for sound, these lovely big motifs hold the patterns together in my sweater, so that is looks harmonious and balanced. Here I am wearing it ten years ago at St. Ninian’s, recording the sounds of the waves.

Felix wearing Fair Isle jumper and standing ankle deep in the North Atlantic, recording the sea off the coast of St. Ninian's photo © Lisa Anne Auerbach and used with kind permission

A closer look at the sweater!

Look closer, though, and you’ll see that Alice has also used a variety of peerie (little) patterns to separate the big OXO patterns. Motifs with repeat-widths of four, five and six stitches happily wend their way in yellow and red, slipping in and out of alignment with the big OXO patterns. Yet each free-spirited peerie pattern is bordered, above and below, with bands of a four-stitch wide blue and white repeat. If we can think for a minute in terms of a drum-kit, those big OXO patterns are like the bass drum. They anchor the rhythm. The little blue and white pattern keeps time like a hi-hat delicately keeping a constant beat; while the red and yellow patterns weave in and out of time, adding interest and a feeling of aliveness to the whole garment.

This, to me, is how the concept of syncopation is relevant to knitting.

A closeup of the Fair Isle jumper knitted by Alice Simpson, where we can see the different rhythmic elements in action

If every single pattern in the jumper aligned exactly – by which I mean if everything was an exact factor of twenty stitches – I feel this sweater wouldn’t pulse with energy and life in the way that it does. As Patty Knox writes in her joyful book, New Directions in Fair Isle Knitting, “a certain irregularity often adds interest to a garment”. I could not agree more!

Completely different from the traditional Fair Isle style of my cherished sweater, Patty Knox’s designs in this book are based on using lots of quite small motifs, whose stitch-widths vary slightly. As the patterns are repeated in each garment, the repeats create a sense of rhythm and visual coherence – (verse, chorus, verse, chorus) – but the fact that the motifs are not all *exactly* aligned brings a feeling of vivacity and joy. It’s the difference between listening to a march in which everyone is keeping perfect time, and listening to a beautiful Jazz musician embroidering outside and around the lines of a beat to bring the music to life.

Whether knitting trees and bees…

trees and bees jumper by Patty Knox

…aeroplanes and jolly yellow and orange dots…

aeroplanes jumper by Patty Knox; little glowy orange and yellow circles separate a red aeroplane motif in which the position/orientation of the plane is constantly changing

…motifs inspired by the fruit, foliage and colours of strawberries…

strawberry-inspired motifs on a sweater in pinks, yellows, blues and reds by Patty Knox

…or a melange of moons and waves and dots…

moons, waves and dots by Patty Knox

Patty Knox has a joyous, fun approach to developing vivacious allover sweaters from simple repeated shapes. The fun lies in the slight variations of stitch-widths and heights between the motifs she uses; where they line up, we feel the structure and coherence of the design and where they fall out of alignment, we feel the joyous thrill of syncopation.

When I was designing my favourite SONIK KNIT, my Missy Elliott jumper, I drew on these references for thinking through the overall design.

This. Is. A. Missy. Elliott. Exclusive. - my Missy Elliott Jumper

I knew I wanted bands of writing – THIS, IS, A, MISSY, ELLIOTT, EXCLUSIVE – and that each of the repeats for each of the words would be a totally different stitch-width. To give a sense of underlying rhythm, I created a few small motifs based on the artwork from Missy Elliott’s fourth studio album – Under Construction. These were inspired by hazard tape, a crown, and a star. My hope was that these repeated motifs would anchor the design, acting like a steady beat to keep everything in time, giving the sweater visual coherence. Around this beat – in homage to Missy Elliott’s peerless ability to create syncopated rhythms with her voice – I placed the words with which she opens several songs and albums. The fact that the words are repeated gives them a rhythmic appearance, but I hope that they way they fall in and out of alignment speaks to the complex, syncopated patterns that Missy creates with her voice when she organises words in her music.

closeup of the Missy Elliott sweater

I adore all of Missy’s music – (Listening to Miss) (My epic Missy Obsession). But today I’m especially appreciating the glorious syncopated rhythms she produced for her guest-rap on the artist Gina Thompson’s single, The Things You Do, produced by Puff Daddy. Missy’s genius intervention appears at around 2.24 and it is glorious: the hee-hee-hee / haw-haw-haw sounds she produces create beats within and around the standard pop-song time-signature; this is a shining example of syncopation. Extra beats pull the emphasis of the sound out of time with its established pattern, creating sparkle and panache – bringing the whole thing to life.

For a more recent example of Missy Elliott’s magnificent use of syncopation, see COOL OFF, and the way the rhythm switches from aligned and in time – Missy in this bitch doing shit you ain’t never seen – to the syncopated, off-kilter joy of COOL OFF, COOL OFF.

Finally in this discussion of syncopation and its relevance to knitters, I’d like to talk about one of my favourite examples of non-aligned patterns, and the glorious and unexpected joy that comes from a mix of alignment (the anchoring beat) and non-alignment (the syncopated joy): Muhu Stockings, as detailed in the peerless tome, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island.

Muhu stocking: a brightly-coloured stocking in oranges and pinks, in which none of the motifs align exactly, and memorably featuring a fabulous FLY design around the top

If you’ve not heard of Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island, I recommend this beautiful, descriptive review on the KDD & Co. blog. The whole book is amazing, but today I want to especially make mention of the section on the highly ornamental woollen stockings produced by the talented knitters of Muhu island in Estonia. The stocking shown above features motifs of the following stitch-widths: four, seventeen, twelve, fifty six, forty six, eighty two, twenty four, sixty six, and thirty two. Though care has been taken to ensure that the motifs are centred on the outside of the leg, with such a wide range of stitch counts, the alignment of the motifs inevitably falls apart beyond that point, so that the patterns wend gloriously around the wearers’ calves, phasing in and out of alignment with one another.

The effect is especially noticeable with the bold and intriguing SUPA DUPA FLY motif that appears near the top of the stocking!

Joins at the beginning/end of the round in the Muhu stocking

The patterns simply stop when the knitter runs out of stitches, and then start again at the beginning of each new round.

Usually the pattern repeats of Muhu stockings did not repeat perfectly, but knitters were not at all bothered by this – most of the stockings have incomplete patterns on their inner sides. It is important to calculate the central part of larger pattern repeats so that they would be placed exactly in the centre of the leg.

Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island: A Needlework Tradition from Estonia.

Estonian stocking with complex patterns running in and out of alignment

Estonian stocking with complex patterns running in and out of alignment

It strikes me, then, that in all instances of syncopation – whether KNIT or SONIK – a balance must be struck between an established rhythm that anchors the piece and gives it an underlying structure, and the improvisational creative freedom that allows stitches or notes to fall outside the lines. Peerie patterns of differing stitch-widths are kept in check by neatly aligning OXO patterns. Vertically repeating bold motifs means you can get away with using several small motifs that are each of different proportions. Repeating small, recognisable shapes can create structure between repeats of differing stitch-widths. Centring patterns along a central axis can provide a visual anchor to patterns that are otherwise completely misaligned with one another. In music, it is the structure of a beat that allows pioneering artists – from Dorothy Ashby to Missy Elliott – to improvise and syncopate, to embroider and embellish. This balance of structure and freedom is what makes stranded colourwork sing; it’s the thing that stretches music into something that makes us really want to dance.

Please share your favourite syncopated knits and sounds in the comments below; I may have to make us a new playlist so we can enjoy syncopated beats while we are knitting syncopated patterns… In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:


7 thoughts on “Syncopation

  1. Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican music have great examples of syncopation. El clave is (literally) the key. It’s the beat always at the foundation that keeps the fundamental beat even when the song goes all over the place. A favorite song is Candela by the Buena Vista Social Club, a great album of Cuban music. In the 90’s I was in a supermarket parking lot playing it on my tape player in my car at full blast. An African guy asked me “what is that?” And I said that it was Cuban music. He said, of course, the African roots were so apparent. You can find it here.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this for the playlist, Barbara! Yes: the influence of the African diaspora and the magnificent complex polyrhythms of West African drumming (plus other regional, polyrhythmic musical styles and practices) can be felt everywhere. I had not heard of El clave – the key – I will read more about this! Thanks again for taking the time to share this.

    2. I love playing El clave too! There are fantastic 3 for 4 beats rhythms in West African music that change our perception and give a very specific sense of the whole rhythmic organisation!

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