Knitting to Listen

Jessica Watkin

2021. Installation and performance with yarn, fibers, knitting needles, and audio.

This installation addresses knitting to listen, Watkin’s way of holding her focus on audiobooks, which she uses for academic reading since becoming blind in her late teenage years. The installation includes many scarves that Watkin has made while listening to audiobooks for her university and graduate studies; a listening station with an audio book or voice recorded story playing. This work demonstrates the ways in which access hacks and other crip work-arounds become, through repetition, ritualized. For Watkin, reading means knitting; and, the material output of her knitting-reading practice evinces the hours of her labor. Evocative of Aztec narrative knot-tying, the scarves literally have ideas and stories knitted in. The tactile fiberwork pushes back against sophomoric platitudes about sensory “replacement” in case of sensory impairment; Watkin describes the knitting as a way to stay focused while listening to books because listening is hard for her, and she prefers kinesthetic to auditory learning. In this way, the motion of knitting is the act of reading. Some scarves in the installation are labeled with the titles of books that Watkin has listened to while knitting. 

The artist invites gallery and virtual exhibition visitors to knit along; instructions for learning to knit, as well as yarn and needles, are offered as part of the installation.

Image Description: Gallery view of Knitting to Listen. A basket sits on a white plinth in the centre of a wood floor. A knitting project with chunky lavender yarn is in the basket. A multi-colored curtain of knitted textile encircles the basket on three sides like a curtain, suspended from above. Next to the plinth on the floor is a second basket with multiple knitted objects, some of which have labels attached with string. // Photograph by Michelle Peek Photography*.

Image Description: Gallery view detail. Close focus on a blue and purple knitted object with a tag reading “KINDRED – Octavia Butler.” The piece sits on the top of a pile of knitted objects in a basket, and the wood floor is out-of-focus in the edges of the image. // Photograph by Michelle Peek Photography*.

Image Description: Gallery view detail. Dynamic textures and color combinations in a knitted panel of textile from Jessica Watkin’s artwork Knitting to Listen. The image is entirely taken up by the knitted textile, suspended so that it is stretched vertically, but undulates horizontally. A thick vertical stripe of nubby light aqua blue yarn is in focus; thick vertical stripes of other colors including goldenrod yellow, cerulean blue, brown and tan, and multi-colored yarns are out of focus on either side of the aqua blue stripe. // Photograph by Michelle Peek Photography*.

Read with me

Knitting to Listen Audio Clip:

Knitting to Listen Transcript:

Hi. This is Jess Watkin speaking.

I’m the artist of this piece, “Knitting to Listen,” and I thought I would give you a bit of background as to how this piece came to be.

When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare eye condition that had me steadily losing vision until I turned 18, to which I then had a surgery that made me quote unquote legally blind.

I was about to start my undergrad at the University of Guelph and I was doing a double major in English and Theatre.

I don’t know if you’ve ever taken an English or Theatre class before but there’s a lot of reading.

And as I began my studies, reading around fifteen novels or plays per four-month period, I noticed I was falling asleep because I was listening to audiobooks and there wasn’t anything other than the sounds to keep me awake.

How was I going to finish so many books so many pieces to get these degrees.

And so my roommate taught me to knit.

And I remember listening to Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” and not falling asleep.

I remember listening to the “Wrinkle in Time,” I was taking a children’s literature class when I first started this practice and it really brought me not only closer to the piece, but kept me awake.

I was knitting to listen.

And all of those pieces are now gifts. I’ve gifted every knitted piece that I’ve read to, which is kind of exciting, which means that in every exchange of a scarf mostly to my colleagues, or to my family members I’d say,

“I read this with the rez sisters, I read this with Thompson Highway, I read this.”

Which I guess doesn’t make a lot of sense I mean I was knitting, I wasn’t reading the scarves but now, if you touched any of them, maybe not you, but if I did, I could tell you what pieces I was reading.

So this installation piece, this knitting to listen piece, is an homage to that practice, my crip ritual of presence, alertness, awakeness, of engaging with narrative and engaging with a medium that I love.

There’s always talk on Twitter about if audio book listening is actual reading and, as a blind person, I am a bit offended. I don’t get a choice.

So the piece that you’re experiencing now is a piece I knitted over the pandemic.

I read a few books “Station 11,” “Into The Drowning Deep” by Mira Grant.

And I also started to knit with the plastic bags, which sounds so strange now that I say it out loud, but really what was happening was we were ordering in our groceries because of the COVID 19 pandemic and I was feeling really aware of how much plastic we were collecting. And then the Crip Ritual curators at the Critical Design Lab were like your piece is a really tactile piece, I personally as the artist wanted a lot of people to touch the scarves the yarn but with COVID I was a bit concerned about germs, and so I collected every single plastic bag that we used in my household, received got delivered with the groceries the food that nourished us through this pandemic and I knit them into, well I tried to get them but I braided them into the piece, so if you’re exploring you want to reach out and touch, you can if you feel concerned hand sanitize first, but it is there to be touched because for me, reading had to be less about touch I couldn’t hold a physical book anymore I couldn’t turn the page smell that book smell new or old, library or borrowed from a friend. I can’t borrow books anymore.

But I can listen to them and sometimes listening feels really intangible, not tactile.

And so, I invite you to think about that, think about the presence that you have that you hold when maybe you’re listening. And is there some practices that you could be invited into that support that presence more.

Could you find your own Crip Ritual, that keeps your hands busy, and it doesn’t have to be knitting or crafting I just tend to lean towards that way. But are there other practices, other focuses to connect you with this moment.

Thank you for interacting with reading to listen.

Please knit if you know how, and if you don’t, I’ve got another recording available if you would like to learn.

And if you’re just on your new crip ritual journey welcome, thank you for being here there’s so much joy and love and pride, confusion and complexity, it’s a beautiful mess and we love it.

That’s the end of my current thought.

Instruction to Knit Along

HOW TO KNIT Audio Clip:

HOW TO KNIT Transcript:

Alright, so if you’re standing sitting or close to “Knitting to Listen,” you may experience the need to touch it.

Please do.

There is a section of this piece that you can not only pick up and touch, but it is an unfinished art piece of knitting.

If you know how to knit, offer in a few rows.

If you don’t, et me give you a very brief introduction.

So you pick up the needle that has most if not all of the yarn already on it with one hand, preferably your left hand.

Feel the stitches that are already on that needle.

Pick up the empty needle with your right hand.

There should be a loose piece of yarn that is connected to a ball, that’s your active yarn. You should keep that close to your right hand.

So, to begin to add a stitch you isolate the first stitch available close to the pointy end on your left hand needle. What you want to do is slip your right needle the pointy end of the right needle underneath and through that stitch so it kind of looks like a cross with your left needle on top and your right needle underneath.

You want to hold both of your needles now with the left hand and with your right hand grab the free yarn and wrap it underneath the bottom needle counterclockwise so you’re wrapping the yarn away from you around the needle back towards you over so you’ve created a loop.

Feel that loop with your hands, with your fingers, so the goal now, this is the most complicated step of knitting, is for you to make sure that you are keeping that loop you just made on your right needle. But you want to slip your right needle underneath the stitch on the left needle.

And the whole goal is to switch the cross so you want to switch from the right needle on top to the left the needle on the bottom…oh other way around.

You want to switch from the right needle on the bottom and the left needle on top, pull that loop through to now having the right needle on top, and the left needle underneath.

And once you’re there you want to hold all of the stitches in your left hand that you haven’t touched, hold them on to the needle. Because what you’re going to do is now you’ve pulled in all of this stitch together with your right needle and you’re going to pull all of the yarn with that first stitch off of the left needle.

And you’ll notice that it creates a stitch on the right needle, now you will have on your right hand it won’t be an empty needle it will now have a full stitch on it connecting with the left needle.

And that’s all you have to do, so you slip the right needle, the pointy part of the right needle underneath the closest stitch or the closest loop of yarn on the left needle.

Make sure that there’s that cross there should be the Left full needle on top, the emptier the less full needle on the bottom, making sure that you take your free hand with the loose yarn to wrap counterclockwise towards you, hold on to that loop with your right hand and pull the right needle underneath and through so that now you’re making a different cross with the right needle on top and left under, holding on to all of the other loops on your left needle you will push off the right.

On this web page, there is also a YouTube video that you can go to where they will explain a little bit more in depth.

Also, if you have any vision, they can show you exactly what to do.

In the event that you’re confused, you mess up, you drop a stitch, you make a knot, that’s okay.

The whole goal for this piece is to be co-created and co-created by us. Me, Jess Watkin, and you.

So please knit with me.

Additional Video to Support Learning How To Knit