Listening to Wool – HÛRD – A May Sound Diaries project

At the start of 2012, Felicity Ford produced a work entitled Hûrd – A KNITSONIK™ PRODUKTION. The title comes from the pronunciation spelling for both “herd” as in a herd of sheep and “heard” as in “I heard a sound”. The piece was commissioned by the British Wool Marketing Board and Rheged for the Wonder of Wool exhibition, and was described by Bridget Kelly from the Wool Marketing Board as being “like listening to wool”.

In HÛRD, the voices of the producers of wool, the atmospheres and weather of the places where wool is grown, and the specific sonic texture of British sheep, are physically embedded within woollen, knitted fabric. This is achieved by covering 32 miniature speakers with 100% wool, British, hand-knitted yarn, and then playing field-recordings related to that wool through those speakers. Through sounds and materials, the work unites sheep farms and shepherds with a finished woollen product. Listeners are invited to touch the wool-clad speakers and to experience its materiality, while listening to sound recordings created at the source.

Hand-knitted speaker, including wool from Swaledale sheep and the Hebridean sheep which can be seen and heard below.

In order to produce the work, Felicity travelled around Cumbria in her KNITSONIK mobile, armed with suitable outdoor clothing and recording equipment. She visited many farms and shepherds and collected sounds and wool – some of which she handspun and knitted up into speaker cosies. The rest of the wool used to produce the speakers came from traceable sources, such as spinning mills in the UK where Felicity has previously created recordings.

Wherever possible, the wool from an individual farm was used to cover some speakers, with interviews from that same farm being included in the montage of recordings comprising the sonic component of the work.

Felicity is in Estonia for the month of May, extending her interest in the connections between knitting wool and its origins in specific landscapes to the context of the Estonian Wool Trade. She will be presenting her field-recordings from Cumbria in an informal presentation called Counting Sheep at Ptarmigan during an all-night event, and documenting aspects of the Estonian Wool Trade during her time in the rural parish of Mooste, at MoKS.

Her trip is supported by MoKS and the British Council, Estonia, and throughout the month she will present small snippets of this sonic exploration into the world of wool here. In keeping with the wool-exchange theme of her residency, some of the sounds will originate in the British Wool Trade, while others will be collected from the Estonian Wool Trade.

Today’s recording is of the small black Hebridean sheep that graze beside lake Windermere at Rayrigg. The Hebridean sheep are a primitive breed, which means that they have had less intentional breeding and human contact than other breeds which are more intensively farmed and therefore more used to people. Consequently, they are very shy and suspicious of human beings. The black sheep of Windermere originate from the Island of St Kilda, where they were kept for meat and wool by the islanders while it was still inhabited. Coming from such a place, they are adept at navigating windswept, rocky landscapes and fending for themselves on poor soil and in terrible weather. This sheep breed was first imported from St Kilda to The Lake District so that people with exquisitely landscaped gardens would have something exotic to look at.

Hebridean sheep are rough, hardy creatures, difficult to tame or enclose, swift of foot, and stubbornly independent (according to their shepherds). The best way to record them was to simply leave a small recording device in their feeding trough, and then leave well alone.

This recording features a small band of tups – better known as rams – and the clanging sound you can hear in this recording was produced by their ornate horns banging against the metal sides of the trough as they ate their hay. You can hear the road nearby, and something of the quality of the animals’ physicality, both in the timbre of their horns, and in the texture of their munching.