Published: 08 April 2014
A conversation with Felicity Ford
Felicity wearing her custom made jumper I had the pleasure of meeting Felicity Ford for the first time when she visited Shetland in summer 2013. I was at a 'Meet the Makers' session at Shetland Textile Festival. I clearly remember her big smile and asking her about her fabulous jumper which is decorated with recording symbols and has custom made pockets and holes for holding recording equipment. We met again at Shetland Wool Week in October 2013. One of the week's highlights for me was her highly entertaining lecture on 'Listening to Shetland Wool' which she mentions in answer to one of my questions below. We have kept in touch since.
I am delighted Felicity invited me to be on the blog tour for her new project, a book about stranded knitting. It has been interesting to read the earlier blog posts and I look forward to reading the others. I asked Felicity a lot of questions and she answered in great detail and I look forward to seeing this book in print. Whilst nothing will induce me to knit either a tattie (potato) or a teabag, I am sure I will find inspiration for more functional pieces of knitting!
Do you remember learning to knit? If so, who taught you, and what did you knit?
My granny taught me with some red yarn. We just did some garter stitch and I was scared to drop the last stitch off each row, so it just grew and grew, width-ways! My granny made the loveliest things for us. I especially remember a soft fuzzy pink sweater made for my mum, with pearls knitted into it.
When, and from whom, did you first learn of Shetland, Shetland wool and knitting?
I have my knitting friends to thank for pointing me towards Shetland, Shetland wool and knitting!
Rachael Matthews Rachael Matthews who runs Prick Your Finger - the greatest yarn shop in London - is an amazing artist and knitter, and extremely knowledgeable about textile history. Very connected with her own Cumbrian heritage, she was the first person to really explain different sheep breeds to me, and she knits a lot with Herdwick. I've sat in Rachael's shop many times poring through the books she stocks - which include Sheila Macgregor's "Traditional Fair Isle Knitting" - and that book is where I first glimpsed Shetland knitting. When I first saw Fair Isle, I had no idea how I might ever make anything like it.
Shetland postcard sent to Felicity by Kate Davies But - like many knitters all over the world - I must also credit my discovery of Shetland knitting to Kate Davies. Several years ago, Kate showed me Alice Starmore's book of Fair Isle Knitting and gave me some Hebridean 2-ply yarn as a birthday present, encouraging me to try stranded knitting! I've loved reading Kate's blog since finding it in 2007, and her thoughtful pieces on Shetland made me keen to visit! But what consolidated my wish to come was a postcard Kate sent from Shetland which said “FELIX!! THIS IS TRULY THE SPIRITUAL HOME OF KNITTING, THERE IS WOOL EVERYWHERE!” and ended with “I AM COMING BACK AND YOU MUST COME TOO!” How could any knitter resist an invitation like that? Having visited, I completely agree with her rave review.
The postcard was produced by The Shetland Museum and Archives and I have looked at it often, marvelling at the intricacy of the patterns and garments produced by Shetland knitters of the past. Thank you, Kate!
When did you visit Shetland for the first time?
I first visited Shetland in August 2013. I was working on a project called "Listening to Shetland Wool" and wanted to hear and record the landscape where Shetland wool grows, and to meet and learn from people working with this amazing substance. My idea was to share recordings from that trip at Shetland Wool Week, and through a special online map created on the aporee maps, built by Udo Noll.
Shetland Sound Map Before visiting, I'd consulted oral histories from Shetland held in the Tobar an Dualchais archives. These recordings taught me about carrying peat whilst knitting; crofters supplementing the diet of their sheep with seaweed; Carding nights past, where women would all go to one house to card wool together; and amazing songs like Rosabel Blance's beautiful song, "Roo the Bonnie Oo".
These recordings are brilliant, but there is nothing like meeting people in real life! My visit to Shetland in August 2013 was brilliant. Everyone was supportive of my mission to record woolly sounds and I came away inspired and with memory-cards full! I couldn't wait to return in October for Shetland Wool Week.
Highlights included meeting you, Andrea Williamson, Ella Gordon, Wilma Malcolmson and Elizabeth Johnston in Mareel at "Meet the Makers"; and getting along to The Voe Show!
Colourbox competition, Voe Show winner, Eyvor Irvine knitwear at Voe Show This last was a huge highlight for me; I went to the Voe Show with loads of folk visiting Shetland for the "In The Loop" conference, and we were all astounded at the quality and precision of the knitting displayed in the contests. There was a colourbox challenge set by Jamieson & Smith which I especially enjoyed looking at; knitters are given a set of shades to work with, and they have to produce a design using just those colours. It's great to see how everyone uses them differently.
At Voe I also met a fellow sound recordist - JJ Jamieson - who I believe is doing the sound on your forthcoming DVD. This was brilliant, and I was really happy to meet someone who could empathise with the problems I was having with wind/microphones that day.
What did you learn on that first visit to Shetland?
I learnt loads because people were so generous. Elizabeth Johnston let me record her spinning on an old Shetland wheel, and told me about a fiddle tune (Doon Da Rooth) based on the rhythms of hand-spinning; Laurie Goodlad who has since published a book about Shetland guddicks shared a great one with me about wool-carders; Oliver Henry introduced me to the superb expression "kindly wool"; Brian Smith - the Shetland Museum Archivist - gave me a brilliant interview about the horrendous Truck system of 1840 - 1940... Pete Glanville of Shetland Organics was superbly helpful as well, meticulously planning my visit so that I could record his flock trotting over the hill on their way to their morning's supplementary feed. And Tommy and Mary Isbister showed me all over their croft in Trondra, which was beautiful. They had their wool clip in the barn and explained that it would all go to the Shetland Woolbrokers. That was really special; to see the wool fresh from the sheep, to hear those sheep baa-ing to each other on the croft, and to know that their very wool may eventually end up on my knitting needles.
The sound of knitting with a belt - which you kindly allowed me to record - is also I think very specific to Shetland. I'm not sure anywhere else has a history of knitting that way, and the clacking of long steel needles and the rhythm of the needles being changed in the belt are a sound which many Shetlanders speak of as being important in their memory of growing up on the isles.
Knitting with colours is what I love best of all, and I think you do probably do too. Do you also knit lace, cables etc?
I love knitting cables and have made exactly two lace projects to date!
Felicity's lace stole The first lace project I made was The River Stole from Rowan 38. When I joined a knitting circle in 2005 in Oxford, my good friend Liz was making this stole and it was like magic to me. When I blocked my own version in 2007 I had a huge feeling of achievement: it was a kind of benchmark of personal success!
Kate gave me some Icelandic lopi once, too, and I knitted a Bitterroot shawl out of it. Lopi yarn is very thick for lace, but to be honest I quite like what happens when you knit lace in something heavier than laceweight; I love the hearty fabric that results, and am so hard on my clothes that knitting a robust shawl is for me the most practical approach. The River Stole was knitted in lace-weight and I destroyed it almost immediately by snagging it in barbed wire fences whilst out walking, and catching it in the bellows of my accordion!
Felicity's Hopscotch sock - Liz Ashdowne design My first complicated cables project was a very beautiful sock pattern by Liz, called "Hopscotch ". I knit those in a crazy psychedelic yellow yarn, somewhere between a tennis ball and a highlighter pen in its shade! They were wonderful to knit.
What led you to your current project and can you explain a bit more about it?
The Knitsonik Sourcebook cover The idea for The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook has grown out of my longstanding interest in celebrating the everyday; my growing love for Shetland wool; my massive love of stranded colourwork, and the idea that I want my knitting to have more of a relationship with where I live, here in Reading! The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is a knitting book which shows you how to turn everyday inspirations into gorgeous stranded colourwork and I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money needed to produce it. I've been working on the knitting for it since the start of 2013, but the idea goes back a few years.
a knitted potato knitted teabag I've been celebrating the everyday in sound and knitting for ages - I started out by knitting potatoes and teabags whilst working on commissioned radio shows and podcasts. Hilary Kneale, an artist based in Oxford, did a beautiful piece about peeling potatoes based partly on her Gran's lovely expression, "the daily round, the common task". I recorded Hilary peeling potatoes and talking about her Gran, and afterwards, I just had to knit a potato. Likewise, working with Claudia Figueiredo and Kayla Bell (AKA Mundane Appreciation) on "The Fantastical Reality Radio Show" we were doing a regular feature on tea, and the more I thought about tea and how everyone has a lovely personal system for making The Perfect Cuppa, I just had to knit a teabag.
I love celebrating the everyday in knitting!
Felicity's failed lichen idea sloes and blueberries When I started experimenting with stranded knitting, this impulse progressed to wanting to knit colourwork based on things found in daily life. Early experiments included a not totally successful hat based on blueberries, and an idea for knitting lichen which never made it onto my needles, because the chart looked like a disaster! I started trying to understand why my colourwork was not working, and - for inspiration - began consulting examples of stranded knitting held in the museum collections of Shetland and Estonia. I examined the rhythms, the mixture of peeries and borders in Fair Isle knitting, and the regional motifs in Estonian knitting. I thought about how to apply some of these principles to knitting my personal inspirations - a vintage biscuit tin from Huntley & Palmer; the brickwork in my neighbourhood here; the sloes that grow on the blackthorn we planted... and I realised I had created a kind of system! That system is what I hope to lay out in The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, along with 12 case studies taken from my life here in Reading which show how it works.
You were patron of Shetland Wool Week in 2013, and wrote a song about your Shetland experience. Outside your official duties of teaching and talking, what were the highlights of the week?
Tom demonstrates darning There were a few general things which made the week amazing - it was especially lovely to be there with Tom van Deijnen, AKA Tom of Holland! Tom is a dear friend, a superbly calming presence, and a totally inspiring knitter and mender! Additionally, he often makes me cry with laughter. It was wonderful to spend time together and working on our Aleatoric Fair Isle project. Additionally, Tom was very forgiving about my relentless accordion practice in Nortower Lodges where we stayed! Our accommodation was also a general highlight; the couple who run it made us feel really welcome, and there was even a cabinet of hand-knits for sale in our lodge, knitted by the proprietor and her mother.
The whole story for The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is tucked inside the lyrics of The Shetland Wool Week song because it's really a love letter to Shetland from a knitter based in Reading, and in it I talk about knitting bricks from my street, but doing it with Shetland wool because we don't have anything like it down here.
Some items featured in "A Legacy of Shetland Lace" I was really grateful for the support the Shetland Museum and Archives showed to my sound projects and my knitting workshops, but outside of theses official activities, the big highlights were hearing Thomas Stove's beautiful tune, "The Gansey" on the opening night of Shetland Wool (inspired by the memory of his mother's knitting needles clacking); the beautiful rams at the Shetland Flock Book at the marts; and going for Sunday Teas at Whiteness & Weisdale Hall. The Sundays Teas were organised by The Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, and I was rather star struck because many of the guild members involved in producing the wonderful book "A Legacy of Shetland Lace" were there, switching between manning your stands, and serving up delicious cakes, sandwiches and teas! "A Legacy of Shetland Lace" is one of my favourite knitting books, because it speaks directly from Shetland and is written by Shetlanders. I loved seeing projects from that book in real life that Sunday in Weisdale, and asked these knitters - some of the most talented and accomplished knitters in the UK if not the world - to sign their patterns in my copy of the book. Sue Arthur encouragingly wrote "Keep knitting the lace" beside her Cuckron Scarf pattern and her signature. If anything can encourage me to add to my meagre lace accomplishments so far, then it is this book and that heartening missive! The patterns are breathtaking, and the glossary of Shetland knitting terminology reads like a poem. I love "riggies" to describe the ridges in garter stitch fabric.
Is it as equally inspiring and enjoyable to meet people who are interested in sound recording?
cakes at Shetland Guild teas I do love when I meet other sound recordists, but the community of sound recordists could really learn a lot from the community of knitters. When you go to a knitting event, everyone is technically interested and openly curious about each other's craft and kit - what yarn did you use for that? what is that amazing stitch pattern? etc. And there is always cake + tea + lots of raucous laughter! When at soundart events, everyone is also interested in each other's craft and kit - what microphones did you use? what are you working on now? etc. But there is very often a very sad absence of cake and tea (alas).
I did have a wonderful experience recently with my comrades Patrick McGinley, Valeria Merlini, and Udo Noll, but I feel that wool and textiles have been a key influence in my friendships with all of these comrades! We had a rich time in Oxford at the Audiograft festival, all working on different projects and performing at various concerts, and I was reminded exactly of the feeling of going to a knitting and wool festival with good friends, I think because - like when knitters get together - we were talking all the time and sharing our ideas.
this Shetland signpost appealed to Felicity Udo once turned up at my house in 100% wool Harris tweed suit after listening to my recordings of wool; Patrick has aired several of my radio shows about wool through his framework:afield series and his partner - a wonderful Estonian artist called Tuuli Tubin - has published a book about the mitten patterns of her parish in Estonia; and Valeria Merlini has an Aunt who knits her scarves and sweaters, and is therefore very appreciative of why I knit through concerts whenever we hang out together... so we all get on very well and switch easily between recording our sounds and talking about wool.
I really love working with other creative people in either knitting or sound, and it is always wonderful when you practice a craft to be able to share aspects of that with other people. You learn so much. I am very hopeful that when I return to Shetland this year I might get more time with JJ to make recordings in the Shetland landscape!
When designing, where do you start?
A biscuit tin inspired this design I start by looking at The Thing that is inspiring the design; if it is small, I put it in my bag and carry it about with me, and if it's big, I take a photo with my phone and study it whenever I have a spare moment. Then I find the colours that approximately match the source inspiration, and immediately cast on with one of them. I find that the quicker my ideas get on the needles, the better!
Many thanks to Felicity for all the detailed and interesting answers, and for providing the photographs.
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Shetland is the most northerly group of Scottish islands. Apart from mainland Scotland, the other near neighbours are Norway to the east and the Faroe Islands to the north west.