I often receive requests for copies of features and articles I’ve published. Hard copies of individual magazines can be hard to find, and many publishers don’t make back issues readily available in digital formats. So, in the spirit of open access, I’ve decided to “reprint” some of these pieces here, where everyone can find them. This piece, originally published in Selvedge in March 2008, is one I’m asked about quite frequently. The work of Tabitha Kyoko Moses is always thoughtful, and thought provoking and she probably remains my favourite artist working with textiles in any medium. I think it is her very particular combination of precision, beauty, and discomfort that I like so much. I was very happy that Tabitha also enjoyed my piece when it was published, and I urge you to explore more of her work on her website.
(Annies Room, the shrine under the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town)
“We have naught for death but toys” W.B. Yeats
Several hundred feet beneath the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a doll sits in a cold, dark room. The tattered plaid she wears is showing signs of age. Her limbs are dirty and her hair is white with dust. Gathered around her are hundreds of companions. There are Barbies and Beanie-Babies and several Raggedy-Anns. Stuffed animals jostle alongside plastic infants; painted wooden soldiers smile up at porcelain princesses. What are they, this dusty jumble of toys piled five feet high? What brought them here together? In 1992, Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, visited Edinburgh’s re-discovered city-beneath-the-city and reportedly felt the tugging hands of a girl abandoned there to die in a plague year. Gibo comforted the restless ghost with the tartan doll, leaving her a curiously nationalist playmate. Since then, numerous visitors to what is now known as Annie’s room in Mary King’s Close have done the same. What are we to make of this shrine, this spontaneous doll-memorial to the ghost of a girl no-one remembers? Are we moved or repelled by Annie’s room?
All cultures mark the boundary between life and death with imitative rituals. Dolls are familiar figures in funerals across time. The tombs of the ancient dead are filled with effigies whose assumed purpose ranges from the talismanic to the admonitory. Children use dolls to play at death, mimicking grief and burial. Dolls, indeed, look like death. It is not just that in them we find an appropriate figure for our mourning, but, in their cold imperturbability, they seem like corpses themselves. This doll-corpse association is explored in Andrew Kötting’s playful and serious project, The Wake of a DeaDad (2006). Intrigued by his reaction to his father’s corpse and memory, Kötting reinvented several imitative rituals, which included inviting responses to photographs of his dad in stages of life and death; laying himself out as mock-corpse and paternal offrendas in the Mexican Day-of-the-Dead; and creating an enormous inflatable DeaDad doll with which he lived and travelled for several months.
(Andrew Kötting The Wake of a DeaDad (2006)
With a different sort of wit and tenderness, Tabitha Kyoko Moses also explores the humanity and deathliness of dolls. Over the past few years, Moses has amassed an eclectic assortment of doll-objects from charity shops and jumble sales “I wasn’t interested in a particular genre of doll,” she says, “or in creating a collection or a history. But suddenly I discovered I had a lot of them. It was almost as if they found me.” The dolls that “found” Moses are those that are most “lost”: blemished or dismembered, loved or tortured to the point of collapse. Inspired by a mummified girl she encountered during a residence at Bolton Museum, Moses initially began to re-fashion the dolls as consolatory gifts for this long-dead and lonely child. But, perhaps like the toys in Annie’s room—gathering dust and becoming, together, something more than themselves—her dolls began to take on a material life of their own. In a process of wrapping and nurturing she compares to “laying out a dead body” Moses swaddles her dolls in lagging, plastic, printed cotton lawn, stiff leather, string, and human hair. A doll whose jolly bonnet and rosy cheeks form a startling contrast to her eye’s bald sockets is fondly adorned with a manx-cat brooch, suggesting both completion and absence. Some of the dolls have the cosy air of children sleeping. Others appear to be slightly disgruntled, uselessly struggling against the fabric bundles in which they find themselves enclosed.
The fabric wrappings are crucial to the new life that Moses lends her dolls. These textiles are both ornament and container: the dolls’ soft coffin and their decorative memorial. Moses binds a startled bride wearing full wedding regalia in dark linen.
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, “The Dolls” (2004) dolls, fabric, plastic, thread, human hair, bits and bobs. Photography by Ben Blackall)
In her black shroud she becomes a figure of arrested potential, conveying the ritual proximity of marriage and death. Moses further excavates the deathliness of her dolls with the use of x-ray photography.
. . . A light-box image of the bride reveals her to be pierced with several pins. She now resonates with murderous curiosity, internal anguish, guilt, and fascination. For who, in moments of dark childhood fantasy, has not killed their dolls?
In their lovely, yet deeply disturbing ordinariness, Moses’ dolls and textiles recall the partially-covered corpse in Wallace Stevens’ poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream:
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
(Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”. Harmonium (1922) )
Stevens’ corpse is an object of the everyday. In her cold immobility she reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet, like Moses’ cared-for dolls, she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the careless weight of her hands on the well-worn dresser; her fingers’ quick movement through the stitches of the modest cloth that now decorates her countenance. The dead woman cannot speak, and yet the meanings of her selfhood are silently carried to us in that fantail-embroidered sheet.
(Tabitha Kyoko Moses, Untitled (2006). cotton fabric, sawdust, human humerus bone, various threads, hand embroidery. Photography Ben Blackall.)
In Untitled (2006) Moses uses stitch as a communicative medium between life and death. These dismembered limbs, with their immaculate embroidery, are textiles of breathtaking beauty. Yet out of the gorgeous doll-things protrude human bones. Doll and corpse become one in objects that are both compelling and repellent. Moses’ embroidered calico, fashioned with such skill and care, lends respect and tenderness to the bone, and the bone in turn enhances the meanings of the fabric with its own brand of the grotesque. In complete contrast to Cindy Sherman’s doll-art which, in the public glare of her camera, strives unsuccessfully to be poignant as well as disgusting, Moses’s dolls achieve this by expressing themselves intimately, stitching their audience up with whispers.
So, to return to where we began, perhaps Tabitha Moses’ dolls tell us something abut how to feel in Annie’s room. What’s interesting when one begins to look closely at the piled-up array of gifts in that dark tenement is their different associations. Some have been left with evident care (a pricey bébé) others with apparent thoughtlessness (a screen wipe). So many of Annie’s toys seem just misplaced or random: plastic binoculars, a Westlife CD, an enormous grinning bear. Together, though, these things have transformed a space that is supposed to be terribly spooky and lent it a spectacular ordinariness. Annie’s room has a stark materiality in which there is a pathos that exceeds, or defies, the uncanny. Like Tabitha Moses’ dolls, Annie’s too are part of the kindly world of things.
Grateful thanks to Tabitha Kyoko Moses, and to Lisa Helsby of Mary Kings Close.
Originally published in Selvedge March 2008. Revised February 2014.
Over the past couple of days, quite a few of you have contacted me to ask about the black and white mitts that appeared in the header image at the top of this page. Well, this is my new design — the Ecclefechan Mitts! I was so happy with the photograph that I just couldn’t stop myself from popping it up there. I have to say that I’m extremely happy with the pattern, too.
This design has been several months in the making. I decided back in September that I wanted to work on a black and white mitt design, and since then there has been quite a bit of charting and swatching and knitting. The inspiration behind these mitts is, of course, the graphic, striking, and to my mind rather elegant two-colour gloves that were traditionally knitted in Dentdale and the Scottish Borders.
Like traditional Sanquhar gloves, my mitts are knitted at a relatively tight gauge to create a close, hard-wearing fabric. Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage – smooth, fine, worsted spun, and with a traditional feel – is the ideal yarn for this project, and knits up beautifully at a dense gauge. Like their forbears too, the Ecclefechan Mitts also feature a diced pattern that is knit up in high-contrast black and white.
There’s also some neat shaping to allow the mitts to fit closely around the hand and thumb.
Working a mitt rather than a five-fingered-glove not only makes this design a bit more contemporary and wearable, but means that the pattern is really simple to knit. In fact, the Ecclefechan Mitts could be knit by any colourwork beginner: frequent shade changes and no long stretches between stitches mean that it is easy to maintain a consistent tension.
I must point out that the fitted elegance of these mitts is thanks to Mel, who with her usual thorough test-knitting and feedback, prompted me to make several changes to my charts . . .
And why Ecclefechan? Well, Ecclefechan is the name of a small town in the Scottish Borders, well-known as the birthplace of one of my favourite nineteenth-century authors, Thomas Carlyle. It is also the birthplace of the Ecclefechan Tart, a delicious confection, which is one of my favourite things to bake (and eat).
When I was putting together the pattern for the Ecclefechan Mitts, I decided to pop in my Ecclefechan tart recipe, so that you can enjoy them too. There really are few treats nicer than an Ecclefechan tart and a cup of tea.
The Ecclefechan Mitts are now available both as a PDF download and a knitting kit. If you purchase the kit, you receive yarn, printed pattern, project bag, recipe, and, (because Eimear insisted), a sachet of tea to enjoy with your tarts.
Here is a tutorial to make the covered buttons, used in designs such as my Richard the Roundhead Tam, and Scatness Tunic. (These instructions can also be found in my book Colours of Shetland.)
You will need: a plain button with a 1 in / 2.5cm diameter; thin cardboard (eg cereal box), sharp scissors, sharp needle, tapestry needle and a small amount of your choice of yarn.
Select a button with a 2.5cm/1in diameter.
On cardboard, draw a circle 5cm/2in in diameter (I drew round the lid of a spice jar).
Cut out your cardboard disc; measure and mark the centre point with a ruler, and, with a sharp needle, poke a hole through this point.
Mark numbers 1-12, around the edges of your disc, as if drawing a clock face.
With a pair of sharp scissors, cut shallow notches at each of the points 1-12 (notches should be no deeper than 5mm/0.2in)
Take your yarn, cut off a 3ft length, thread your needle, and draw up through the centre of the disc, leaving a short tail no longer than 1cm/0.3in
Draw the yarn across the front of the disc up to notch 1.
Draw the yarn across the back circumference of the disc to notch 12, secure it in the notch, then draw the yarn across the front diameter of the circle to notch 6.
Continue securing the yarn into the notches by drawing it alternately across the back circumference, and the front diameter, in the following sequence:
6 ➝ 7
7 ➝ 1
1 ➝ 2
2 ➝ 8
8 ➝ 9
9 ➝ 3
3 ➝ 4
4 ➝ 10
10 ➝ 11
11 ➝ 5
5 ➝ 6
6 ➝ 12
12 ➝ 11
11 ➝ 5
5 ➝ 4
4 ➝ 10
10 ➝ 9
9 ➝ 3
3 ➝ 2
2 ➝ 8
8 ➝ 7
You have now created 12 front spokes, and 12 back loops.
Draw the yarn from notch 7 to the centre, securing it around the centre of the spokes.
Bring your needle up between spokes 12 and 1 as close to the centre as possible.
Then take your needle backwards over spoke 1, turn forwards and travel under spokes 1 and 12.
Now take your needle backwards over spoke 12, turn forwards and travel under spokes 12 and 11.
Continue weaving in this manner, working anti-clockwise, and drawing the yarn backward over 1 and forward under 2 spokes around the disc. This process wraps and defines the spokes, creating the ridged surface of the button covering. (If you run out of yarn, simply secure the old thread under the spokes, cut a new length, draw it up through the hole at the centre of the circle, and begin weaving where you left off)
When you reach the edge of the disc, turn it to the back, pass the needle under the loop between each notch, and lift it off the disc. Continue around the disc, lifting each loop off in turn, taking care not to let your yarn draw up too tightly.
Remove the button cover from the cardboard disc.
Place the button face down on the back of the button cover.
Carefully pull the yarn, drawing in the button-covering to conceal the back of the button. Make a few stitches across the back, securing, tightening, and neatening the button covering so that the button is completely concealed.
Ensure you retain a length of yarn long enough to secure your button.
Buttons can be made in any size, using your choice of yarn or thread. Just make sure to cut your cardboard disc about 2.5cm/ 1in larger than your buttons. And watch out: once you start turning them out you may find yourself unable to stop . . .
We designers had been commissioned to produce designs inspired by items in the collection . . . we worked on them over the Winter . . . and today, our patterns were released!
The piece I chose as the basis of my design was an incredible coverlet embroidered by the collection’s founder, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Miss Rachel designed the coverlet in honour of the memory of her seventeenth-century ancestor, Richard “the Roundhead” Shuttleworth, and embroidered it during the the last years of her life at Gawthorpe.
(If you are interested to read more about the history of the coverlet, and my inspiration, I have written about it here)
So this is what I came up with: meet the Richard the Roundhead Tam!
Rachel’s coverlet combined her own Arts and Crafts aesthetic with her ancestor’s Tudor heritage, and I have tried to speak to this in my design with structured motifs that echo those of her embroidery. The colour scheme is the same teal-on-white that Rachel chose, with a pop of Lancastrian rose-red for the brim lining and button. The brim combines a turned hem with picots and corrugated ribbing, and those of you who have made my Scatness Tunic will recognise the technique used to create the button:
They are very easy to make, and I will post a tutorial here over the next few days so that everyone can have a go.
From start to finish, this has been such a lovely design to produce. It was wonderful to visit Gawthorpe, to have access to its world-class collection of historic textiles, and to meet and work with the fabulously dedicated women who curate and care for it. The research involved in a project like this is meat and drink to me: it was fantastic to spend some time researching the history and context of Rachel Shuttleworth’s coverlet, and I particularly enjoyed finding out about Richard Shuttleworth’s role in the Civil War. Finally, as a Lancastrian myself, the design really does mean something to me, and I confess to feeling a modicum of local pride when I finally finished the knitting, and popped the red rose of Lancashire on the top of that tam.
The pattern for the Richard The Roundhead Tam is now available to download here!
I am sure you will hear more from the other designers about their patterns in the coming days, but I thought I would give them a quick mention too.
Debbie has designed a beautiful needle case inspired by one of Gawthorpe’s ticking samplers (a genre of sampler I find particularly appealing. Those stripes!).
Jane has designed a lovely hat and mitt set, inspired by historic swatches in the stitch and sample books held in Gawthorpe’s textile archives.
Gawthorpe’s collections are particularly rich in lace, and Claire Montgomerie drew on this for her exceptionally pretty capelet, whose crocheted motifs echo those of several lace fragments.
And Emma produced this wonderful cushion cover, inspired by what is surely one of the most moving items in Gawthorpe’s collection: a military quilt, stitched from uniform scraps by a convalescing solider.
All proceeds from the sales of these designs will go to Gawthorpe, to help care for this important historic collection for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by. You’ll find the whole collection available to peruse over here on Ravelry.
I have a terrible cold. When one is sniffling and snuffling and generally feeling lousy, there’s nothing more comforting than a nice handkerchief, of which, it occurred to me this morning, I possess quite a few. So I took some photographs of the ones that aren’t in use or in the wash.
Some of them are gifts . . .
. . .and my sister bought this one for me, probably when the Horrocks exhibition was on at the V&A.
I have acquired the majority of my hankies very cheaply in charity shops and on eBay. I find their workaday machine embroidery very pleasing. . .
. . . and some were once bought in other countries . . .
(I have actually visited Lugano, which made this one a rather nice find)
For some reason this one is my favourite for actual nose blowing: I like its 1960s brown; its tesselated design, and it also has a really high thread count, which makes it very soft.
I have a few nice examples where the corners are edged with lace
and of course, I have also acquired a few that are just too nice to use. This one is an interesting combination of drawn-thread work with machine embroidery.
This one is very fine indeed . . .
. . . it has been torn, and rather inexpertly mended.
This lovely example of whitework and drawn thread work is the oldest handkerchief I own.
. . . but the simple motifs and lines of this example make it my confirmed favourite.
It occurred to me that the simple square of fabric that goes under the name of handkerchief has a long history as an everyday object, with many different meanings, and many different uses. Handkerchiefs are multiply functional and decorative: not merely for mopping watery eyes and noses, carelessly dropped or ardently retrieved they might act as symbols of romantic attachment and desire. Handkerchiefs are intimate and personal objects, and as such, might be means of connecting a wearing-body to a sense of place: as a souvenir, a handkerchief might be a tiny repository of memory and personal connection, or, unfolded from the pocket of an eighteenth-century lady or a twentieth-century airman, might disclose a sneakily concealed map of unfamiliar territory. As furoshiki they are a means of wrapping and transporting food or gifts, and they can be worn about the person in a multitude of ways. I imagine the head-scarf / kerchief springs immediately to mind. . .
. . . but, when considering a kerchief as a garment, my first thought was of this portrait of Frances Burney.
Kerchiefs — a length or folded triangle of fabric that covered neck and bosom providing warmth, coverage, and decoration — were a familiar staple of eighteenth-century women’s dress. Oddly, this meaning of kerchief does not appear in Cumming and Cunnington’s Dictionary of Fashion History, and receives only passing mention in the OED. If you’ve read as many eighteenth-century letters and novels as I have you would find this omission curious . . . but the issue is probably merely one of shifting nomenclature as well as fashion. Kerchiefs in the 1780s grew ever more voluminous and diaphanous . . .
. . . and by the early 19th century these garments were referred to not as a homely English kerchief but as a carelessly elaborate French fichu
Late eighteenth-century American kerchief / fichu in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Well, I have come some way from where I began with my own kerchiefs, which is to say that putting this post together has, for an hour or so, successfully distracted me from the realities of my cold.
PS: thanks for your good wishes: my first driving lesson was OK: despite much swearing and occasional kerb-mounting, according to my instructor I was “no too bad”. I hope to be back behind the wheel as soon as I’ve stopped sneezing.
Everything is relative: I am sure that those of you in North America, who have been shovelling the white stuff for months, will not be in the least excited to hear that it actually snowed, but here, where winter has been horribly dank and soggy thus far, it is an exceedingly welcome change. It is the cold, crisp, crunchy days that get me through the Winter: there have been far too few of them and I confess that the sight of this in the morning made me foolishly happy.
Bruce is also in a good mood.
I love to walk in the snow, and we spent a good couple of hours out there this morning in the silence, with no other folk in sight. Birds seemed everywhere, immediately spotted against the landscape’s white blanket. As well as the usual neighbourhood woodpecker and buzzards I saw an osprey by the loch and a hen harrier hovering above the snow-covered fields. The birds are pairing up: this cold snap has come late, and there are already signs of Spring.
I wonder how the bulbs I planted will fare.
Well, its back to my desk. I have my first post-stroke driving lesson tomorrow – wish me luck!
One of the many things that makes me very happy as a designer is seeing different interpretations of a sweater I’ve created. I often learn a lot from the modifications knitters make to my patterns, and sometimes a simple change of shade can make a design look like a completely different garment. The Puffin sweater is one of my favourite patterns in Colours of Shetland, and it was designed with a very specific palette in mind: the puffin-y palette, which you can see above in Rebecca’s lovely sweater. But many knitters, through subtle or dramatic alterations in the design’s original shades, have created some wonderfully different Puffins. Here, with their permission, are a few examples I’d like to show you.
Here’s Barbara in her Puffin, together with Bramble (who, like Barbara, enjoys visiting Shetland). At a first glance, Barbara’s sweater looks pretty much like my original, but she has actually swapped the garment’s main colour – Jamieson & Smith Jumper Weight shade 77 – for shade 81, which is a much quieter, softer black. I confess that shade 77 can be a real bear to knit with, as well as to photograph, and I love the slightly muted effect that shade 81 has lent to Barbara’s Puffin.
When designing the Puffin sweater, I spent an awful lot of time swatching to create the correct colour sequence for my chevrons, and was interested to hear that Rhiannon and Valerie did the same when making theirs . . .
Rhiannon began by swatching a dark-to-light gradient across the yoke, but when that didn’t work out, came up with a chevron sequence of several graded and contrasting monochrome shades, using Jumper Weight shade 27 for the main colour. Valerie is very fond of the undyed, sheepy shades of Jamieson and Smith Shetland Supreme. She settled on Shetland Black (shade 2005) for her main colour, with 7 different shades worked through the yoke. The way these these natural shades effortlessly speak to each other means that the effect is both simple and striking. I think Valerie’s and Rhiannon’s natural Shetland sweaters are absolutely stunning.
Erin has actually knit the puffin Sweater twice: first for her sister, and then for herself. Erin used a combination of Brown Sheep Nature Spun fingering and Knit Picks Palette to make her sweater (both of which have a large colour range) and like Valerie and Rhiannon she swatched several times before settling on this particular sequence for her chevrons. “I tested a few combinations,” says Erin, “mostly involving some orange and gold colors I had in the Nature Spun fingering . . . but everything looked a little too 70s shag carpet.”
After rejecting the 1970s palette, Erin settled on this lovely combination of tan and teal in the yoke, both of which really pop out against the subtle stone shade she used to knit the body.
Deb’s “parrotty puffin” is one of my favourite iterations of this sweater – it is just so striking!
“The yarn was given to me by my sister,” says Deb. “She’d had it since the late 1980s, still in its original bag with the pattern she was planning to make – a typically 80s, oversized and brightly-coloured jumper. I’m not a big fan of fluffy yarns but accepted it because I really liked the highly saturated colours. It then sat in my stash for some time while I tried to work out what to do with it. When the Puffin Sweater was released, I knew straight away that it was the one! While I was working on it, it occurred to me that the colour scheme was very reminiscent of Rainbow Lorikeets – the friendly little parrots that visit the balcony of my flat every day. So, I’m very glad to have kept the birdie theme going.”
As well as the bright lorikeet palette, I really like the way that Deb’s more closely-placed colour changes through the yoke lend the garter-stitch chevrons an incredibly graphic, luminous effect.
Both Kate and Maureen chose a paler palette for their Puffins:
Kate found the chevron yoke to be reminiscent of waves, and chose the graduated blues of the yoke “to evoke the Shetland and Suffolk coastlines,” and to contrast with her favourite winter white (Kate has blogged about her sweater here). Maureen, meanwhile, loves to fill her wardrobe with colour, and was keen to knit herself a sweater to match the wonderful kilt she’d recently treated herself to from Scottesque. She devised a pretty pastel palette, which is perfectly complemented by the corrugated rib at the hem and cuffs. Both Maureen and Kate used slightly thinner Shetland yarns when knitting, and their sweaters have a lovely light and feminine feel.
Zaz’s hand-spun puffin sweater is truly a labour of love, and is the garment that prompted me to write this post.
Zaz won a prize in the 2012 Tour de Fleece, and requested this beautiful custom-dyed BFL and silk fibre from Mandacrafts.
The fibre waited for the right project to come along, and when Zaz saw the puffin sweater she felt she had to make it, since the puffin (or Macareux moine) is the symbol of Bretagne where, says Zaz “everything I love is.”
Zaz – a beginner spinner – mixed and spun the custom-dyed fibres with natural shades of BFL to give several distinct shades. She wanted to create a light fingering 1-ply yarn with a slightly variegated effect, which to her recalled the granite landscape of the Sept-Isles in Bretagne. “All the yarns are ‘spotted’ because the pink granite is, and the light among the forests in Bretagne is too.” says Zaz, “I did not blend the colours at all, I just put them close together and spun.” Zaz spun with friends in her Ravelry group: “I was encouraged by showing off my progress,” she says, “I did not feel the different steps as being long but just all luminous and exciting.”
This is the yarn that she created. . .
. . . which she then knit up into this beautiful sweater
“Although this is a process project,” says Zaz, “I love it with a passion…I believe the best creations come when there is a basis for things (like a passion for a landscape, its history or a funny story).”
I entirely agree with Zaz, and love the way that she has spun and knitted her own story and distinctive sense of place into her sweater.
But I have to conclude this puffin post with a photograph of Mary’s “puffling”, which she knitted for her grandaughter, Robyn, who loves all things red and Robin coloured.
Mary knitted the puffling from assorted stash yarn, working a basic yoked cardigan, and adapting the puffin chevron yoke to be worked back and forth in a smaller size. Mary’s photograph of her lovely wee girl, in her puffling cardigan, in this gorgeous landscape, just makes my heart sing.
Thankyou, Puffin knitters, for all this inspiration!
Writing of the worn and mended Fair Isle sweater that Shetland knitter, Doris Hunter created for her fiancé, Ralph Patterson, who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, editor Sarah Laurenson states: “Ralph’s sweater is much more than a physical object. It is a site of personal and political meanings containing traces of world events and the lives of individuals.” Sarah’s astute remarks on this incredible piece of knitwear speak much more broadly to the content of the wonderful book she has recently produced with the Shetland Museum and Archives. In Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present we discover the intriguing stories of creative, enterprising, and brave Shetlanders like Doris and Ralph within the many cultural and economic contexts that make Shetland textiles so unique. Drawing on the knowledge of curatorial staff of the Shetland Museum, academics and researchers from several Scottish Universities, as well as a wealth of local expertise, this book is an important testimony to the significance and impact of Shetland textiles worldwide.
The crucial factor shaping the production of Shetland textiles from the Mesolithic to today is of course, the wool grown by its native sheep. A fabulous piece by Elizabeth Johnston introduces us to some of Shetland’s earliest examples of woollen textiles, while other sections of the book explore the the effects of the landscape on the development of the breed, alongside the realities of keeping a flock, and working with wool in Shetland.
We learn that there are 57 names in Norn “specific to colours and patterns in sheep,” and gain insights into what makes Shetland “oo”, as a fibre, so very distinctive. Other things make “Shetland” distinctive too. Unlike, say, “Harris” tweed, (which refers to cloth woven on the island of Harris, but whose provenance is yarn spun from the fleeces of many different breeds and crosses, who may be raised in many different locales), “Shetland” is unique in its breadth of reference: to a particular group of islands; to the name of a particular breed of sheep; to the fibre those sheep produce; to the yarn spun from that fibre; and to the cloth, knitwear, and other manufactured products that are created from that yarn. Unlike “Harris” (an island ‘brand’ now famously trademarked and protected by national regulatory bodies), the broader resonances of “Shetland” ironically meant that it failed to gain the same protection. According to Sarah Dearlove in her important chapter on Shetland tweed, “the word “Shetland” and its use in the woollen industry in general has been the islands’ achillles heel.”
And yet, although the cachet of terms such as “Shetland” and “Fair Isle” means that they are frequently exploited, in some senses that very exploitation has also ensured their continued prominence and visibility within the textile industry. As Sarah Laurenson puts it: “histories of Fair Isle knitwear have to a large extent been shaped by marketing stories which do not necessarily fit with with the ideas and identities of people in Fair Isle and throughout Shetland. However, these stories have driven the commercial success of the style. Without them, there would be no Fair Isle knitwear.”
Shetland textiles are truly spectacular, and the book includes discussion of many important pieces, now housed in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. There’s a great discussion of the incredible lace garments created by enterprising Lerwick hairdresser, Ethel Brown, and anyone who has seen Jeannie Jarmson’s prize-winning rayon tank top (depicted above on the book’s front cover) will not be surprised to learn that she hurt her hands in its making. Yet though these showstoppers are breathtaking examples of what makes Shetland textiles so special, it is also refreshing to read chapters focusing on the everyday. This is the forté of Carol Christiansen (curator of textiles at the Shetland Museum and Archives) and her sections in the book are genuinely illuminating. You’ll learn about the careful reconstruction of the woollen garments worn by the “Gunnister Man” by Carol and her team, revealling “crucial evidence for how early modern clothing was made, worn, and mended.” And while we are all familiar with the beauty of Shetland lace and colourwork, few are perhaps aware of the unique graphic appeal of the “taatit rugs”, which Shetlanders created as bedcovers and wedding gifts from the Eighteenth-Century onwards.
Building on the book’s wealth of original research is Ros Chapman’s piece about Shetland Lace. Her chapter effortlessly mingles intriguing documentary evidence with tantalising anecdote: “there was even an exhibition of Shetland knitting held in a Philadelphia department store containing a reconstructed croft around which knitters, ponies and sheep exhibited their uniqueness.” Ros’s lively chapter is merely the tip of the iceberg of a wonderfully thorough research project into the history, significance, and practice of Shetland Lace knitting. She is clearly going to produce an important book which I’m already looking forward to reading.
Shetland’s knitters are, of course, at the heart of this book, and form the focus of Brian Smith’s and Lynn Abram’s contributions.
As Brian Smith puts it:
“It is important to remember, and easy to forget, that the people who knitted those tens of thousands of stockings and mittens, as well as performing other chores in and out of the home were Shetland women. It was an “honest man’s daughter” who came to Bressay Sound in 1613 with her knitting and got assaulted in the process; it was women who knitted the “Zetland hose and night caps” that Dutchmen were still buying there two centuries later; Shetland’s land rent was being paid from the women’s hosiery in 1797; they created the stockings and gloves presented to the Queen and Duchess of Kent in 1837; the “hose, half hose, gloves, mittens, under waistcoats, drawers, petticoats, night caps, shawls &c &c” in Standen’s Shetland and Scotch warehouse in 1847; and the Shetland goods on show in the Great Exhibition in 1851. And little cash they got for their pains.”
Brian and Lynn’s chapters unfold carefully researched, well-written, and nuanced narratives about the economic realities of Shetland women’s lives, and the part that knitting has played in shaping them. All of us who enjoy our knitting as a stimulating or relaxing leisure pastime should read these chapters to gain insight into what it really meant to be a knitter in Shetland.
Brian’s chapters unpack the truck system (by which Shetland knitters were paid in goods rather than cash), which lingered on in Shetland well into the twentieth century. His account of the effect of collective action by the Shetland Hand Knitters Association, which was developed under the same post-war influences as the British Welfare State, is particularly interesting (and heartening).
Lynn’s piece reveals the wide variety of ways in which Shetland knitters used their own enterprise to support their families in response to extremely challenging social and economic conditions. “We were more or less financially secure” recalled crofter Agnes Leask after purchasing a knitting machine in the early 1960s, “as long as I could churn out about a dozen jumpers a week.” Lynn’s chapter (as much of her work) is extremely important in the way that it suggests the public and social resonances of a craft which is too often regarded in narrowly private contexts. “Hand knitting,” writes Lynn “was far from a domestic activity undertaken by women in the privacy of their own homes. In fact Shetland knitting created social networks and . . . relationships which aided women’s survival in the face of economic crises, personal loss, and the vagaries of living in these islands.”
As well as providing a rich overview of Shetland textiles and the history of their production, the book also introduces us to some of Shetland’s most talented contemporary makers and artists – Hazel Tindall, Emma Blain, Ella Gordon, and Donna Smith – all of whom are experts in their fields. These interviews suggest how Shetland textiles not only have an inspiring present, but a very bright future, a fact celebrated by Jimmy Moncrieff in his foreword to the volume.
I suppose I should mention by way of a disclaimer that the people mentioned in this post, who created and contributed to this wonderful book, are my good friends, colleagues and acquaintances. You would perhaps be very surprised if I didn’t like this book. But then I would be very surprised if you didn’t like it either.
If you buy one book about textiles this year, make it this one.
Sarah Laurenson, ed., Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present (Lerwick: Shetland Heritage Publications, 2013)
All images in this post are the copyrighted property of the Shetland Museum and Archives and are reproduced with their permission.
Thank you all so much for the wealth of information you provided in your comments on the last post. I am now happily at the trip-planning stage, and am really looking forward to visiting Sweden in the early Summer. And as if to provide a colourful antidote to this January’s rather relentless grey, today this book arrived, which I have spent the morning enjoying. It is a 1949 English translation of a book published by the Nordiska Museet, documenting traditional working-class Swedish “costume” by district and parish. Ingemar Tunander’s illustrations are really beautiful, and one must be circumspect about the effect such illustrations have of fixing “costume” in time, as if it were somehow static and unchanging, but the book’s commentary is interesting in acknowledging this, and in its remarks about the influence of modern economic and fashionable changes on what was regarded “traditional” dress. The book has certainly given me lots to think about. Some of the knitwear is spectacular, even in illustration, and I’m particularly interested in the over-apron reticules which closely resemble British women’s pockets. Ah, roll on Summer, and a visit to the Nordiska Museet.
Anna Maja Nylen, Swedish Peasant Costumes, illst. Ingemar Tunander; trans. William Cameron (Nordiska Museet, 1949)