Last week I was thinking of writing a blog post about knitting. What is the connection between knitting and pianism, you may ask? Well, I had been reading about the 19th-century pianist Clara Schumann, who continued to tour and earn money for the family after her composer husband Robert had died.
At that time it was still the fashion to have mixed programmes, where an artist might play several times during a concert, their appearances separated by contributions from other artists. In her later years, while waiting for her next turn on stage, Clara Schumann was said to sit amongst the audience, knitting. How I would have liked to see that!
It’s interesting to me that she didn’t knit quietly backstage. She came out into the hall and sat amongst the audience. Clearly she liked to be in the thick of it, and didn’t mind being seen with her knitting. I daresay it was well known that she had many children to look after. One can imagine the scene: ‘Mum! You promised you’d finish that jumper for me, and now you’re going away on another stupid tour!’ Clara: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come home with your jumper all finished.’
Nor indeed did Madame Schumann sit quietly backstage with the score of the piece she was going to play, studying it one more time before going on stage (as many pianists do). She preferred to do something unconnected to music. Personally, I would not knit during a concert, because knitting makes my hands feel stiff, but no doubt that is just my poor technique. I do however like to go out front and sit in the audience listening to other people play, and all the better if I have a crossword or something like that to look at. People may think I’m not listening, but I am – the fact is that, for me, multi-tasking promotes a relaxed sort of alertness.
Knitting has been in the news because of champion diver Tom Daley, who, while waiting his turn for another Olympic dive, sat amongst the spectators with his knitting and crochet. The sight inspired many young people to take up these craft skills.
As I was pondering this curious link between Clara Schumann and Tom Daley, I happened to turn on For Peat’s Sake, a TV programme about the ancient skill of peat-cutting on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides.
Peat is dug out of the earth, cut into big square slabs, dried out and carried home to use as fuel for the fire. We saw archive photographs of islanders cutting peat in Victorian times. Women with wicker baskets strapped to their backs carried peat slabs piled crazily high. Leaning forward to counterbalance their heavy loads, the women of the island made their way home over the peat bogs. And to my astonishment many of them were knitting as they walked. Considering the terrain, that was quite a skill. Didn’t they need to look at where they were putting their feet? Or were they watching their step while knitting without looking at their hands?
Either way it was a stellar example of multi-tasking. Yet these women seemed unimpressed by their own skill. Their resigned expressions seemed to say, ‘Well, if I have to lug this lot over the fields, I may as well get another sock done’.
So knitting has been a theme of my week.
There is something intriguing about knitting while doing something else. An aunt of mine could knit and watch TV, her needles flashing as she focused on the screen. It was interesting to see because, as a pianist, I was familiar with letting my hands follow an intricate pattern ‘on their own’. And I recognised the sense of active restfulness that can result from it.