the sound of knitting

Thankfully, my stroke didn’t leave me with many cognitive problems, but I do still have some difficulties with sound. You might remember that in the weeks directly following the stroke I discovered I was unable to sing in tune and had lost all sense of rhythm. My sense of pitch returned fairly quickly – the rhythm took rather longer, but is now absolutely fine – and what I seem to be left with are some minor but very annoying problems in filtering out background from foreground noise. This means that I find it difficult to listen to one person speaking when a few of them are doing so (in a pub, for example), or to focus on one kind of sound when there are other auditory distractions (for example, talking on the phone while the radio is also on, or holding a conversation in a place filled with white noise, like a supermarket). I did think that this auditory-processing issue was the only sonic weirdness I had, but I have recently become aware of the sound of knitting.

To explain: I imagine that for most of us, knitting has a rhythm: we memorise a pattern by counting a row out in our heads, allowing the stitches to beat themselves into time. Perhaps we vocalise the stitches: (knit, purl, knit knit, purl) or put them into numbers (one, two, one one, two). I know that before my stroke I used to count stitches out in this way in my head, and that I enjoyed particular patterns because of their particular rhythms. Whether you like knitting cables, lace, or colourwork I am sure you know what I mean: some pattern repeats are pleasing because they possess their own distinctive rhythmic logic. Anyway, this is not something one necessarily thinks about very much or very often, but I imagine that for each of us, in our own way, the rhythm of knitting is there providing a background to every stitch we make. Anyway, recently I was trying out some swatches, and I noticed that I was preventing myself from making a mistake because the knitting sounded wrong. When I focused in on this, I found that the pattern repeat I was working did not just have a rhythm, but possessed a series of tones as well. The swatch I was working on was a knit / purl sort of thing: the knits were a low note and the purls a higher one. Without being overly conscious of this, as time has gone on, I’ve definitely become more and more aware of these tones and the way they attach themselves to different kinds of pattern: for example, in colourwork, the yarn worked in my left hand is pitched higher than that in the right. Then today, while knitting a nice, rhythmic piece of colourwork I noticed that the interval between the two notes was always a fifth, and I found this pretty interesting: fifths are sonically obvious intervals, and sound right to the (Western) ear.

Now, I am pretty sure that before February I didn’t knit colourwork in fifths, and I imagine what has happened is that I’ve developed a rather crude form of aural synesthesia, which is apparently quite common post-stroke. What really interests me is what this says about the brain. There is not much to be said for having a stroke, but one thing I have gained from it is the privilege of insight into how the brain works. Now, the brain is obviously unbelievably complex -indeed, inscrutably so (there are so many neurological unknowns) – but in some ways it is quite simple too. For example, the brain likes propriety: it likes things to look right, sound right, and to be in the right boxes doing the right things. This sense of propriety seems so strong to me, that I imagine similar sorts of rightness are involved in perceiving, say, musical harmony and bodily movement. When something goes awry (when you damage the part of your motor cortex that controls your left hand, for example) you can instruct your brain to find the hand a new box, and once it has located this box, and put the hand in it, it is happy: there is the hand in its box. The propriety of the hand, in the correct place, doing the correct thing seems just the same to me as the propriety of the meantone fifth: it is just right. The other thing the brain really likes is pattern: the fundamental basis of figuring out how to use a neurologically damaged limb again is repetitive action, and I’m pretty sure that similar processes must be involved with all kinds of brain-learning, not just those involving movement. The basis of learning something, anything – whether it is a new language, one’s times tables, or playing the violin – is to just keep on doing it until the patterns of the actions become habitual. This probably sounds obvious, but the truth of it is really very powerful and striking when one is able to actually observe the brain learning-in-action, as it were. The post-stroke me has also become aware of the way that the brain makes connections between patterns and structures: the process of learning to move again, to find pattern in one’s movements, seems, for example just the same as figuring out how to read narrative again (another thing I found difficult directly following the stroke). So in this sense, it is really no surprise to me that knitting might have a sound: that tone and rhythm are intertwined, or that the brain might perceive the pattern and propriety of musical notes and knitted stitches in much the same way.

(Pamela Wynne’s brainy-maniac. Pam, you are a genius).

My aural synesthesia is probably just a side effect of the damage to my right temporal lobe, but I imagine these things must be quite common among those who have experience of different cognitive and neurological conditions. Do true synesthetes (those who are born that way) hear their knitting? Does rhythm have a tone for them? And what about the way that pattern and connection are perceived by those with certain forms of autism? My mind is really boggling. Anyway, do tell me if you have had similar experiences…or if this post makes any sense to you at all. . .