Folk (Knit) or (Sound)

Daxophone tongues - a variety of wooden shapes, designed to be bowed on a tripod connecting them to a contact microphone and table

Today I’m sharing a free-wheeling essay with photos, speaking to the following prompts from our Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1 Play-along!


The first prompt was inspired by Muriel noticing the cosy yoke sweater worn by a member of Penguin Cafe Orchestra (PCO) in this 1984 TV recording for the BBC. As you know, the PCO’s
Music For A Found Harmonium
was the inspiration for Beadism, but it was also the inspiration for Muriel’s design, Looking For A Stranded Harmonium, that will be released shortly as the next design in the eBook.

We watched a lot of PCO recordings in our quest to understand the rich context of their music, but this is the best example of KNITTING that we could find.

screenshot of Penguin Cafe Orchestra playing together on 1984 BBC whistle test

screenshot of Penguin Cafe Orchestra playing together on 1984 BBC whistle test

The resolution of this old TV footage is not great, but the distinctive circles of a beautiful yoke sweater in what looks like an Aran-weight yarn can be seen, glowing away in a soft palette of grey, cream and chartreuse. I looked on Ravelry and, though there isn’t an exact match, these are the closest I could find – with a little tinkering with the palette, the look of this PCO sweater could be easily recreated!

Two women wear yoke sweaters; each one is worked in just two colours - on left, peach on rust; on right, mustard on charcoal; Marketta Sweater
by The Weststrand Sisters

Marketta Sweater by The Weststrand Sisters

Stickad herrtröja by Arja Viitala – and especially this wonderful version by Irene, that she has ingeniously adapted into a cardigan. The colours are beautiful – the same cream and chartreuse action in the yoke pattern as in the sweater worn by a member of the PCO.

Irene's beautiful version of the sweater is modelled by a man who stands at what looks like a balcony, looking out over the forest; the cardigan version of the design speaks in creams, browns, and chartreuse and there is a matching hat

Amongst their varied creative impulses, the PCO were interested in creating a new kind of English folk music. This music drew on a variety of global musical influences, parsed through the inventive imagination of Simon Jeffes and a rich variety of instrumentalists and instruments. Any (and every) thing could be used as a musical source, as can be seen in this wonderful explanation of the PCO classic, Telephone & Rubber Band.

Knitwear was not a staples of the PCO wardrobe, but did make occasional appearances (such as the one above) and I think of these as being light, sartorial references to the folk ambitions of their project.

Behold one of my all time favourite album covers: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, by The Incredible String Band. As I study this cover, I realise that the outfits are not so much knitted as self-consciously and proudly home-made. Like the PCO, The Incredible String Band were innovators, keen on creating new forms for English Folk Music (also, like the PCO, drawing heavily on influences from all over the world, and particularly from the Global South).

What better way to visually underscore this mission than with clothes that convey the same feeling for something sincere, created by hand, and not really seen before? I love this album cover (and this album) for its utopian and communal feeling – for how it speaks to making ancient sounds from relatively new musical material. But I love the outfits, too; stitched, patched and woven, knitted and crocheted, in many colours, textures and shapes – they feel brave and expressive; these are outfits that say “these people are doing something weird and experimental and creative and fun” (which their music definitely is).

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter by the Incredible String Band - a raggle-taggle collection of folks stand about in the woods, each wearing their own very handmade outfits

Homemade clothes; homemade instruments; a top made out of yarn; a sound made out of a rubber band or a telephone tone; sloshing buckets around in the studio to recreate the sound of water; improvising – so much wonderful improvising.

A few years ago – reading a book about Björk, who is an incredible music geek in addition to being a fantastic artist and creator herself – I came across a reference to Hans Reichel. One of the chapters in Hans’ creative career involved his inventing the Daxophone – a single wooden blade that is fixed into a block containing a contact microphone, and then played mostly with a bow. You can hear the first album created using this strange, sonorous instrument here, and you can see a beautiful variety of carved wooden “tongues” used as the main part of this instrument in this gorgeous photo that I found on Wikipedia, titled A Variety of Daxophone Tongues.

Daxophone tongues - a variety of wooden shapes, designed to be bowed on a tripod connecting them to a contact microphone and table

I am blown away by the variety of delicate and experimental sonic textures that can be coaxed from these wooden shapes, when they are bowed, and even more by the imagination and expansive sense of music that brought such an exciting instrument into the fold. They seem at once ancient and elemental, and yet the sounds they make are totally new. Visually, they also remind me very much of the shapes one might find around the yoke of a cardigan – and I’m thinking specifically of two designs I found today:

A jagged-edged yoke covered in assymetric key like shapes worked in black, white and brown against a ground of grey

90297 by Alda Sigurðardóttir (and especially this amazing Icicle version by Gummi

Borealis by Eveliina Eteläkoski - a yoke sweater in which interesting, assymetric key-like shapes are arranged in circles around the yoke

…and Borealis by Eveliina Eteläkoski.

Is it just me, or do you see it too?

Here I am making the connections between KNIT & SONIK, combining the hand-made instrument with the hand-made knitted garment, but if you need further proof that the KNIT & SONIK are deeply intertwined, may I point you to this beautiful tribute jumper? It speaks to a striped woolly blanket/throw worn by guitarist and singer songwriter – Nick Drake – in an iconic photgraph by Julian Lloyd, taken in 1967.

Nick Drake pictured in his ionic striped woollen blanket, hand outstretched, in the forest

Beautiful knitted sweater by James Houston, carefully speaking to the colours and stripes in Nick Drake's blanket/throw, worn in a photoshoot in 1967

The tribute sweater is made by James Houston. There’s a lovely blog post about it here and the project is on Ravelry here.

Nick Drake’s influence has been vast; there’s just nothing quite like his guitar tunings, delicate vocals and finger-picking style. As an introspective artist who did not enjoy doing live performances or interviews, but also as an artist who had so many beautiful things to say, perhaps a remarkable blanket was the perfect thing to wear for a photoshoot; both a fort, and a poster. Certainly, it feels enough of a part of his memory that in this tribute to his work and guitar playing, guitarist Daniel Cash went to the trouble of recreating this powerfully symbolic and famous textile.

Daniel Cash stands outside Nick Drake's family home, holding up his recreation of the amazing blanket worn by Nick Drake

PCO, Incredible String Band, Hans Ulrich and Nick Drake are all musicians who strove to make new kinds of sounds, and to build new avenues into established traditions. In a very similar mould, the 1970s Danish knitting style known as Hønsestrikk, AKA Chicken Knitting, sought to disrupt the traditional narratives of knitting. Intentionally anti-authoritarian, playful and feminist, Hønsestrikk is characterised by bright colours and patterns, and recognisable, pictorial motifs. Ten years ago, in a fantastic creative project called CHICKEN STRIKKEN, artist Lisa Anne Auerbach worked closely with 8 Danish knitters and also with staff at Malmö, Sweden, to produce a series of special sweaters worked in the Hønsestrikk style, and presented in a brilliant way:

Lisa Anne Auerbach’s solo exhibition at Malmö Konsthall will not appear as an ordinary exhibition. The exhibition consists of 25 handknitted sweaters worn by all of Malmö Konsthall staff. The designs are all made by Auerbach, but this time she has included and mixed her own words and statements with chosen statements from staff and knitters. As the staff is wearing the sweaters the audience will have to be patient to get to see them all and possibly get closer to the staff than usual – simply to look at and read the works. In this way the level of intimacy between audience and staff will change.

The sweaters coming out of this collaborative process represent wonderful contemporary folk forms…

Angela wears a sweater with a complex red, white, aqua, black and blue design with motifs that look like protest banners, and the words OCCUPY YOURSELF

…Like the best folk songs, they speak urgently to the political moment of the exhibition, ten years ago…

Anna wears a special sweater that says YES WE CAN and is decorated with motifs that look like people, in bright happy colours

…and they continue to resonate today.

Magdalena wears a special sweater that celebrates riding a bike - and is pictured with said bike

Rather than hanging on the walls with DON’T TOUCH signs, these sweaters were allowed to speak in their own language: on the bodies of their wearers, as worn garments. I feel like this is so key – it’s like an anti-preservation approach: let the art live!!! Let it be useful and intimate, part of our lives; embodied. Like the sound of the PCO with which we began this post, these vivid sweaters celebrate – and draw on – specific folk traditions, yet they are saying something new.

Perhaps the deepest joys of folk music – and folk knitting – is that these forms are always being stretched to meet new generations in our creative need.

Read more about the exhibition here, and see more of Lisa Anne Auerbach’s amazing work here.

For musical insights into the different folk traditions that inspired the music of the PCO, see two special Mixclouds I created for Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1: Beadism: Strings, Drones & Tones, and Looking For A Stranded Harmonium: Keys, Pianos & Percussion.


5 thoughts on “Folk (Knit) or (Sound)

  1. I have loved the album “Still Life at the Penguin Cafe” for ages. (It has gotten me through some hard and sad times.) I had no IDEA there was more PCO. Oh, absolute bliss!!! Thank you so so much!

  2. My mind is blown! I had never heard of the Penguin Club group but have loved the Incredible String Band forever. And the sweaters! So much amazing stuff crammed into this article. It’s brilliant ❤️

    1. Aw thanks so much for reading along, Barbara! And for your warm and encouraging reply. So happy to find a fellow Incredible String Band lover and yes – aren’t those sweaters just the best?! After writing the post, I found an amazing sweater by Lisa Anne Auerbach that says we are all pussy riot; I feel this is an amazing combination of KNIT + SONIK too x always so lovely to hear from you <3

  3. I just love how those exhibition sweaters blur the invisible lines that define human bodies & human behaviour in relation to the formal spaces of a gallery or museum. What if all exhibits could move about and be touched?

    1. Isn’t it fantastic? I feel textiles in particular suffer from being rarefied in gallery spaces; when they are pinned behind glass on white walls, it can be hard to understand the powerful way they speak in their own context – as worn and useful objects that are no less meaningful or intentional for being presented in the course of daily life rather than on a plinth. I think this exhibition sounds like a wonderful departure from this approach. I agree also that it does something very fun to the traditional behaviour of gallery staff and gallery goers, because the art is ON PEOPLE’S BODIES, and intimacy, discretion, contact and empathy must be essential to seeing the sweaters – you can’t walk around in your own head staring at the work without transgressing rules of interaction! I’d love to find someone who went and ask them about their experience of encountering this amazing work in this way.

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