Shetland knitting in Edinburgh

I have been doing some research about various knitterly connections between Shetland and Edinburgh, and came across this amazing photograph which I just had to show you. This float was the prize winning “trade tableau” contribution of the Edinburgh and District Shetland Association to the the Royal Infirmary and Leith Hospital annual pageant in 1931. The range of sweaters worn by these women is just amazing, and indeed their whole early ’30s get-up is a style I really love (and aspire to emulate). The float must have been a truly spectacular sight as these twelve women carded, spun and knitted their way through the streets of Leith and Edinburgh. If you look carefully at the photograph, you’ll see that some lace shawls are hanging behind the knitters / spinners on the float as well, though lace was certainly a less popular “Shetland Industry” by 1931, when Fair Isle was all the rage. But fine lace knitting must have featured on earlier Shetland floats, as in 1927 a contribution to the pageant was celebrated by Leith historian, John Russell in these terms:

“From utmost Shetland’s flow and voe,
When angry north wind raves,
There comes fair maidens’ skilful work,
Like tribute from the waves. . .”

“Tribute from the waves” suggests fine lace rather than Fair Isle knitting to me, though I could be wrong. . .

If any Shetland, or Shetland association readers can tell me any more about the ways that knitting featured in these pageants I’d be really grateful! And if you’d like to read more about the Edinburgh & District Shetland Association, pick up a copy of Vaila J Irvine’s book, Old Rock to Castle Rock (2002), which is where I found this photograph.

26 responses

  1. I also love the outfits. When I was very young, I used to study old photos of my grandmother when she was young (late ’20s – early ’30s) and try to make my own outfits to match hers, using the fabric stash in my mom’s workroom. I was sent home early from school in 2nd grade when the stitches on my skirt started to unravel at recess and I refused to get out of the swing seat. But by the time I hit middle school, I was making all of my own clothing. Though never fashionable, I was always sure I had style….

  2. I am new to your blog and LOVE it. Knitting is my passion and I love learning new traditions and reading the history, so this is the perfect blog for me. I’m a native Texan and coincidentally one of my closest friends is from Paisley, Scotland. She’s been here for 25 years, but had not lost an ounce of her very Scottish brogue. So happy I found you.

  3. I can’t quite tell what is painted on the canopy and what might be pinned to it, but there seems to be a child’s jumper and some socks on the front part of the canopy. There are some non-traditional jumpers, too – look at one with the plain fronts but the bell sleeves in stripes of peeire patterns – at 9 o’clock. Fascinating!

  4. Too true first prize!!! I remember seeing Shetland knitters at the Royal Edinburgh Fair in the early 60’s and being amazed at how they carried several strands of colours on one hand and they were chatting and knitting like the wind. Nice memories. Thank you.

  5. Great story. Thanks for bringing it to us. I also wish the picture were in color. How glorious it must have been to see it in person.

  6. I love this image! The idea of women carding and spinning and knitting their way through the streets of Edinburgh on a float, garbed so stylishly in the fruits of their labours, is truly a joyous prospect. What a wonderful find!

    • This photo brought tears to my eyes, as a Leither, and remembering the amazing floats, though not till many years later. Beautiful. And it was a great hospital, and sadly missed. Lots of Shetlanders in Leith when I was growing up. Thank you, Kate. X

  7. Well Samantha, they say there is nothing new under the sun, and that what’s old will come around again. I never thought I would see long pointed toes and impossibly high stiletto heels again, but … look around, there they are, and sooo uncomfortable.

    The knits the women are wearing are great, and would have been spectacular in colour, but it is the shoes I love the most. They are just so cute, and very practical. Can you tell I looove shoes?

  8. Wonderful photo, & thank you for book recommendation – I love the jumpers, the shoes and the float but also the excited onlooker peering out of the window in the top-left!

    The sneaky peak of what is presumably a new design is also lovely :)

  9. Lovely glimpse of a new pattern at the top of this post – hope it is revealed soon!! The Float is wonderful, celebrating women’s art and the Shetland inheritance. Thank you!

  10. The photo is terrific and I am enjoying reading something from you every day now. It is something I look forward to….beautiful photography, uplifting and educational stories, sharing your creative soul and just being human when the going gets rough. Thanks for being you and thanks for your passion and desire to share the Shetland people and their history.

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