We went on a jaunt to the National Museum of Costume outside Dumfries, to see the “Hip Knits” exhibition. In the Museum’s permanent collections, there were some fabulous nineteenth-century dresses and shoes on display, but my favourite thing of the day was this:

incredibly fine linen whitework, backed with pink silk, and made by one Jenny Grant in 1724.

I have to say that the so-called knitting exhibition was something of a disappointment. As it was being held in a branch of the National Museum of Scotland, and given the rich variety of knitting traditions Scotland has to boast, I was hoping to see at least something about the history and techniques of Scottish knitting. But no. There was not a Sanquar glove, a Shetland shawl, or a Fair isle Sweater to be seen. The emphasis of the exhibition was firmly on the contemporary commercial appeal of machine knitted and woven woollen products. This would have been fair enough if there had been some sort of curatorial direction as to how to interpret the objects on display. But the viewer wasn’t given any sort of context to aid understanding of the small range of garments arranged about the room. A catalogue, or display cards, might have told us, for example, about the history of machine knitting and weaving; the emergence of distinctively Scottish modes of textile production; the evolution of industrial techniques; the importance of different regional knitting traditions, and so on. But there was very little of this nature for the viewer to get a handle on. There was no exhibition catalogue, and the information on the display cards told us only, in the briefest of terms, about the designers and producers of particular garments.

Donna Wilson’s Cuddly Clouds

While there was an overkill of the sort of brightly coloured, machine knit cashmere that tourists to Scotland seem to find endlessly appealing, objects and artefacts made in distinctive locales by innovative new Scottish designers were relegated to the edges of the exhibit. The most interesting things there (for me at least) were Donna Wilson’s witty machine knitted objects (Wilson also collaborates with the successful Orkney company Tait & Style) and Andrea Williamson’s beautiful muffler, influenced by both Shetland and Scandanavian design traditions. I liked looking at these things, but I wasn’t sure, in the end, what sort of relationship I was meant to conceive between these objects and the Vivien Westwood suit made up of jigsaws of woven tweed, or the pair of turquoise cashmere knickers. And while one could buy, in the musuem gift shop, Sarah Dallas’s Scottish Inspirations , in the exhibition proper one saw very little Scottish hand knitting at all. In the end, all these “hip-knits” said to the viewer was: here are a few woolly things that happen to be made in Scotland. And given how vital and intriguing the contemporary world of Scottish textiles is at the moment, that’s not really saying enough. . .

On a different sort of wool-front, the spring fields were alive with sheep and lambs all the way from Edinburgh to Dumfries. I ate this non-woolly one.

2 responses

  1. I love the Donna Wilson cloud pillows – I have fantasies of making my own cloud from recycled felted jumpers. It sounds like a missed opportunity – it would have been fabulous to have contained more historical content about the origins of knitting. I’ve always been really disappointed with tourist weaving centres I have been to in Ireland and Scotland which aren’t information. They just show a loom and lots of knitted tat…

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