knitterly things

(Tom takes a wee break from knitterly things in the Unst Bus Shelter.)

As you may have guessed, I was occupied with a few knitterly things while visiting Shetland. I can’t really talk about these yet, unfortunately, but hopefully it will be worth the wait. I can say, though, that I met some truly lovely people, all of whom were involved with knitting in some way. As a knitter, in fact, I found Shetland a rather humbling place: Fairisle colourwork and Shetland Lace are Britain’s most unique and innovative hand-knitted textiles, with a long and important history. Women have been spinning, designing, and creating the most beautiful things on these islands for generations, and these knitterly traditions are still very much alive. I met some incredible knitters of whose skills I was completely in awe, yet who were totally unassuming about their talents. But while these women seemed to regard their own knitting as quite unremarkable, they also held a profound respect for their craft and its local traditions, which also made a deep impression on me. While I have to hold fire on the detail, then, I can mention the knitterly highlights of my trip. If you are ever visiting the Shetland Islands, here are three places not to miss.

1. The Shetland Museum and Archives

(left to right: yarn sample card; Robert Williamson’s pattern book (reproductions of which are available from the Museum shop); Tom tries his hand at cairding; marvelous 1860s tam)

Now, I got to go behind the scenes at the Shetland Museum and Archives, where I enjoyed a feast of breathtaking lace (of which more later), but what is front-of-house is just as inspiring. What’s on display here is certainly the best, most thoughtfully-curated exhibition of hand-knitted textiles I’ve ever seen. Knitting can sometimes be difficult for the visitor to get a sense of in a museum context, but here good use is made of nifty drawers and pull-out cases which enable you to get a look at some marvelous things close-to. A well-chosen selection showcases a wide range of examples of the many different kinds of knitted garments that were produced on Shetland over the past couple of centuries: from luxury or prize-winning one-offs; to commercial responses to changing fashions; to functional shawls, socks and sweaters that were worn by islanders themselves. In the latter category is this century-old fisherman’s undershirt, with which I was very taken:

Knitted in the round, grafted at the shoulders, and featuring underarm-vents, this garment’s construction is intuitive simplicity itself: a sort of light and airy prototype of EZ’s seamless hybrid. Better than any modern merino baselayer, I reckon. (Memo to self: it is time to complete the J&S Shetland baselayer that you began knitting before life interrupted by stroke)

2. Unst Heritage Centre

I think that the Unst Heritage Centre may well be the spiritual and material home of knitted lace. I saw some incredible things here that completely blew me away (again, I must keep schtum. . . frustratin!). It is a small selection, but it really is worth seeing, so if you are a lace knitter or handspinner, with any interest at all the history of fine lace I strongly urge you to visit the Unst Heritage Centre. You will not be disappointed. During the Spring and Summer months, there are displays of traditional skills from some of the most talented knitters and spinners you will ever meet, and the wonderful Rhoda Hughson (formerly Britain’s most northerly head-teacher) runs a series of great heritage walks from the centre, one of which is herring-themed. How cool is that?

Unst is a beautiful place. I have to go back.

3. The Woolbrokers
It is no secret that Jamieson and Smith produce some of my all-time favourite yarn, and simply being at Woolbrokers HQ on North Road was enough to fill me with foolish excitement. I dashed about snapping pictures and squooshing yarn and fibre like a loon.

When I had calmed down, Sarah and Oliver kindly showed me around. It was a privilege to learn about Shetland sheep and wool from someone of Oliver’s knowledge and expertise. And did you know that Jamieson and Smith grew up and developed around the herring industry? Neither did I. The woolbrokers buy more than 80% of Shetland’s clip . . .

. . . and here is a mere fraction of that annual haul of fleeces, with Sarah looking rather pensive in the foreground. For those of you who know how pasture can affect the quality of fibre, these true Shetland fleeces — soft and fine and springy — are are the real deal. While the finest wool is transformed into J&S’s amazing new worsted-spun laceweight (of which more another time), the heavier grades are put to use in the Shetland wool carpeting, with which I now want to cover my home. And then, of course, there is the Fairisle yarn. . .

. . . tasty jumper weight, in over 100 different glorious shades. Here are the skeins I needed to complete my project ( Shades FC61, 72, and – probably my current favourite – the elusive and complex 366).

Thanks for a great day Oliver, Sarah and Sandra!

51 thoughts on “knitterly things

  1. Right that does it….you’ve convinced me…I’m ordering some…I’ve been dithering…and it’s ridiculously cheap in comparison to Aussie wool….you must have been in absolute heaven….your posts are always like a fantastic drink…balm to the soul….thank you!!

  2. Wow, that sounds like an absolutely amazing trip. I would love to go to Shetland, but every Scottish holiday we take seems to be more based around whisky than yarn…

  3. Ah! must get to Shetland (managed Orkney, not much further), must do more fair isle. Fabulous, fabulous items and jewel-like photography. I am glad you had such a good trip, thank you for sharing. Is a new article the reason for the schtum-ness?

  4. Oh Kate, that is fantastic. I really want to go to Shetland but haven’t had the time lately. I’m trying to get away post-thesis for a wee while (teaching etc permitting) and I may just have to go north for a long weekend…

  5. Oh dear, more things to add to my work basket! Your posts are so inspiring, Kate. Thank you. After visiting the J&S website, I now want to make the fairisle teacosy. I don’t have time for much else.

  6. Ah! Your post comes at the perfect time — I’m about to finish a cardigan and now must decide on my next Big Project. I think some Fair Isle will be involved…

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your trip to Shetland with those of us so far away! Since you started me on my path of loving all things stranded with your Neepheid, I am almost ready to start my first Alice Starmore steeked fair isle with J&S – her Child’s Panel Gansey. Tom seems very patient with your knitterly things – much like my long-suffering engineer husband ;)

  8. Thanks for writing on subjects of great interest to me. I’m taking a lace class on Saturday with Anne Hanson and am re-reading Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting as I design my own yoked pullover. Timely indeed.

  9. I have only skimmed through your Shetland trip and will return to it later. Beautiful pictures of stunning work and lovely goodies to whet the appetite.

  10. Hi Kate

    I only found your blog this week – via YarnHarlot, SpillyJane and hence to you. I’ve read a few of your archive posts as well as the current ones, and just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed them and how glad I am that you are having a good time away after your very difficult year.

    best wishes for a continued recovery.

  11. Very much enjoyed this post and am bookmarking you to read your other posts when I have more time to relax and savor. Thanks for the beautiful photos.

  12. Thank you so much for the lovely photos and trip suggestions. I will make it to Shetland someday, soon , I hope. You photos are so inspiring. My daughter returns from Paraguay in Dec. 2012 and I have promised her a mother/daughter trip. I think this would be just the perfect place. Thank you so much. I love your blog and was thrilled to see you striding across the beach. No evidence of a stroke to the casual observer. I have shared your story with a very good friend who is a Physical Therapist here in the US. We have both been amazed by your recovery. Truly inspiring!

  13. Amazing…love that Shetland Wool. Hope to visit there someday…
    Can’t wait to hear more! Sounds like some sort of research project is in the works…

  14. I am currently tangling with a colourway (Briggs & Little Regal 2 ply in Brown Heather) that appears to be similiar to your 366. I can’t quite figure out exactly what colour it is (but it is exceedingly pretty.)

  15. Dear Kate, I’m so enjoying your Shetland posts, and it’s great to see the restorative effect your trip there appears to be having!

    This morning I started reading a book called ‘Memory and Material Culture’ (CUP, 2007) by Andrew Jones, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Southampton. I havn’t got very far yet, but it has some interesting stuff on archaeology, objects, landscape, and collective memory. In his introduction he reveals that he suffered a stroke while writing the book, which left him unable to walk for three months. I wonder if you might be interested? I think he is of a similar age to you, too.

  16. Great pics, and sounds like a wonderful trip. Just got Alice Starmore’s updated Aran Knitting. Followed the Jamison link to a free Fair Isle sweater pattern from The Knitter that looks luscious!

  17. The lace from the Unst Heritage Centre is so beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing these lovely pieces that I will most likely never be able to see in person.

  18. Yes, Shetland Isles is a place I want to see some day! Lovely pics and description of the museum. I just remembered that I paid a subscription for the The Knitter a week or so ago! I am planning to meet you there too!

  19. Foolish excitement indeed! I myself was basically hyperventilating reading this post. I recently acquired about 20+ skeins of Shetland Spindrift with no other intent than to make sure I have it on hand at all times:)

  20. Wow, Jamieson & smith looks like yarny heaven. I’ve just Googled up directions and it’s 738 or 16hr 40 mins away from my house so I won’t be getting there any time soon. In the meantime, I’ve just received four balls of their finest to knit myself a beetheid with!

  21. Wonderful post and great photos. I’ve been planning my next trip to Scotland and Shetland is where I want to go, I will add Unst to the list of places to visit too now.

  22. My favourite display in the museum is the knitted items. Every time I go, I go up there for a look. My grandmother knitted both Fair Isle and lace, but unfortunately, I don’t think I have inherited her talent.

  23. I can’t believe that I live ‘just down the road’ in Perthshire, and have not yet been to Shetland. Now, my resolution is to go there This Year. Ooh, heaven!

  24. Kate, I don’t know how you do it, but I’m sitting here in New Zealand, in the middle of a beautiful summer – beaches, blue skies, ice-cream and barbeques – and you’ve made me want to go to a place that has 3 hours of daylight !

  25. Thanks so much for putting up these beautiful and inspiring photos to share. The lace! and that gorgeous tam!! I very much look forward to hearing more about the knitterly things when you are allowed, as well as more about the wool base layer. I’d love to make something along those lines. I recently purchased the bottom half of a merino base layer, some “longies”, which have vastly improved my January quality of life, as I live in the top floor flat of a drafty old house with abysmal heating. Much superior to anything (synthetic or silk) that I’ve had before, mmmm…wool

  26. When I saw Jared Flood’s holiday snaps, I was drooling. Now I’m in some woolen fog dream. Shetland is moving to the top of my vacation spots… will have to bring 1-2 empty bags for the return. Hopefully, I can finagle a trip when the dollar is a bit stronger.

  27. You obviously had a wonderful time seeing these gorgeous knitted items. The lace and the hat and the colours are really divine, and the quality superb.
    Strange how the “herring” runs through everything.

  28. Oh wow. I need to win the lottery (or find a wealthy benefactor) so I can book the trip that just ran through my head while reading these posts. I’m sure my boyfriend would be eyerolling at the thought of a trip centered around wool but he could find other things to occupy himself.

    In the meantime I think I need to just finally take the plunge and order some J&S.

    Thank you for the virtual tour-guide!

  29. I’ve been meaning to make a (woolly!) pilgrimage north to Shetland for quite a long time, thanks for this wonderful list of places to include on my visit.

    I only recently discovered your blog and just wanted to say that I’m very much enjoying reading your posts, particularly as I am a keen knitter too.

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About Kate Davies

writer, designer and creator of Buachaille (100% Scottish wool)