Who Owns words once they are spoken

Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.

I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included.  Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development.   The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.

In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls.  It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me –  very focused.  Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me.  I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.

My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place.   Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place.  I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.

I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:

  • Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create fine lace and of their ancestors. 
  • Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst, research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have started to do)
  • Make site specific work using photography as a platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
  • to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner) to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.

I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.

This was an ambitious aim in 10 days.  I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst.  36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.

I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff,  but Unst is a different land.

The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone.   I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt.  I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting,  I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.  

The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay.  Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs.  This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.

In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’.   This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further. 

After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts.  This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways  R&D grant in 2018. 

Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s still so much to learn and research and find out and make.  I’m always just at the beginning of something new but there is so much more.

These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.

textile, knitting or art?

Knitting, Art or just textiles?

Under a week after handing over this commissioned piece of knitting, I have had time to reflect.  I have a window of time to reconsider what I have made and why and what happened during the making and designing process and the outcome of what seems to some, to just be a knitted pullover.

The idea for this hand-knitted piece actually came from my thinking son because I was questioning the time involved in knitting and designing one off pieces. He suggested for me to consider intricately knitting something that I loved and to log every hour and minute spent making it.  This type of time is not commercial time but entirely creative, without speed, without a target.  So, to make a knitted piece in this way, with this idea behind it was the initiation that made it a project or a work of art; not just knitting and certainly not textiles.

A constant driving question of any maker is what is the value of time spent. I question time and the value of an hour of my time because, at 55 years old I may be running out of hours and what do I want to do with my one precious hour? is my hour of more value than, say, a 23 year old who, statistically, has more hours left to live than me.  If we knew how many hours left, what would we do with those hours? Knit?  

So, the act of writing, logging and recognising time spent whilst making became an underlying, fundamental principal of this knitted piece. I did not lie about time, did not hide time spent in the making process, did not adjust hours to fit ‘within time’ or an acceptable amount of time judged by others to take to knit this item and I did not exaggerate either.  I was wholly honest.

During the process there was no brief, or contract or even a binding conversation with the person who may or may not buy it, I made a Fair Isle pullover with a woman in mind.  A woman who I know respects hand-made items, understands art and creativity and supports makers.  And, I know that time is precious to her.  Of course, in the end, it is wearable. Win, win.

There was no design brief or discussion or demands or expectations.

Carte blanche. 

There was also no discussion of money due to the fact that this was not my driving force for the knitted project.  Notice, that this knitting has been called many things – a project, a hand-knitted piece, a piece of art but never just knitting or textiles. 

This whole project was a thought process – thinking about design, experimentation, research in practice, 2 years in an MA to research knitted lace, colours, heritage, Shetland-inspired memories, traditional patterns, blending colours, making mistakes and undoing mistakes, patterns I’ve previously knitted and why I wanted to weave those things into each stitch.   How can you sell that?  In a story? To a believer?  It’s an investment of time and detail.

In brief, the underlying principle was to create a work of art which encompassed understanding and mastery of the craft of knitting, which I have done for over 40 years now. To the untrained eye, this knitted piece is ‘textiles’ or ‘just knitting’ but,  to the thinking mind it is not.

So, I started. And unstarted. Designed and redesigned and felt my way through many, many, many hours of knitting.  Each hour was logged and sometimes what I was thinking, what I was feeling and my understanding of developing certain areas of the piece.  The work went everywhere with me and I knitted every day over 4 months. Yes, 4 months – sometimes at night watching things on iplayer. It went to café’s, babysitting, to Sheffield Institute of arts and on train journeys and to different cities but always I stayed true to the principle of logging the hours and to making every loop perfect.  I began to want to hold the work and get back to it.  It became a piece of wellbeing.

I became fascinated by thinking about how one colour sat next to another and where the pattern had come from and what memories the knitting drew on. I undid anything that I was not totally, absolutely happy with and the happiness came in the detail which fed back to the process of thinking.  The whole process took on a journey of its own.

The result is like a tightly woven carpet.

I am partly embarrassed about the hours I spent on this knitted piece and partly in awe of how much time I spent dedicated to something that a knitter would do in under half the time.  But, that knitting, from a pattern would be ‘just knitting’.  This piece came from scratch – from an idea and a bundle of over 50 colours of Shetland yarn.

On bank holiday Monday – the jewel-coloured surprise was ceremoniously and fittingly handed over