Hello! I’m just home again after a fantastic trip to London. I was there to attend the opening of the Sonia Delaunay retrospective (of which more shortly), but I also . . .
. . . had a wonderfully jolly time in Fortum and Mason with top wool comrade, Felix. We drank posh tea, talked feminism and politics, and filled our faces with finger sandwiches and cakes. The battenberg comes highly recommended.
. . . spent a lovely afternoon with Rachel (brilliant tech editor, talented designer, fellow northerner, and all-round good egg). It was ideal weather for some leisurely pottering around the streets of Clerkenwell, hanging out at Loop, sampling the unbelievably delicious wares of Paul A Young, and finding a length of beautiful fabric at the Margo Selby sample sale.
. . . spent a morning at the Foundling Museum – an institution of which my background in eighteenth-century history means I know a reasonable amount, but which I’d never visited. Nothing can really prepare you for the profoundly moving affect of the ordinary objects and textiles that parents left as identifying “tokens” for their children. (If you’d like to know more about these, do go and explore the excellent website associated with John Styles’ Threads of Feeling exhibition)
I also had the very great pleasure of meeting up in Covent Garden with one of my knitting heroes – the incredible June Hemmons Hiatt. I only spent couple of hours with June, but could honestly have sat and talked matters knitting and otherwise with her all day. Every project June undertakes speaks of a truly exemplary care and thoroughness and I find her tremendously inspiring. We all have The Principles of Knitting on our bookshelves. We know it is the book any designer or knitter can turn to with any kind of technical question, and be certain of finding a clearly-written, well-illustrated answer. For over three decades this book has set a standard, and we are all beneficiaries of June’s hard work. I have often been struck by the fact that this repository of knitterly wisdom has emerged from the tireless research of one individual over several decades, and if you’d like to read more about the process of creating (and recreating) The Principles of Knitting, there’s a really fascinating account on June’s website. As someone who knows a reasonable amount about the interconnected worlds of scholarly research and book production, I find what June’s achieved pretty staggering.
Thankyou, London, for the sunshine, and the inspiration!
I’ll be back tomorrow with Sonia Delaunay.
I recently had a chat with one of my favourite designers, Gudrun Johnston, and thought I’d bring this to you today. I just love Gudrun’s work. She has this knack of producing designs that are are always classic, timeless and wearable, often using stitch patterns (particularly those originating from Shetland) in really innovative and interesting ways. And if you’ve ever knit one of Gudrun’s designs, you’ll know that she always writes a clear and eminently knitterly pattern. She’s a great designer creating beautiful knitwear, and her Shetland Trader Book Two is for me one of the real stand-out collections of recent months. I wanted to talk to Gudrun about her work, and hear more about producing this stunning collection, and I thought you’d like to hear more about it too.
If you’d like to get a real flavour of Shetland Trader Book Two (and its beautiful Unst location) Gudrun’s photographer, Kathy Cadigan, shot this lovely video, which makes a great accompaniment to the interview.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your knitting background, Gudrun? Did you learn to knit as a child? And when did knitting turn into a business for you?
Despite being born in Shetland and having a mother who was designing knitwear during my early years, I actually didn’t learn to knit until I was around age 9 and it didn’t happen in Shetland!
I was living on a different island off the west coast of Scotland (the Isle of Rum, to be precise) and was attending a teeny primary school. At one point my brother and I were the only pupils. Like I said, teeny. The schoolteacher introduced me to knitting, though all I remember is creating a rather unattractive pastel-green ribbed vest.
I didn’t pick it up again until around 11 years ago. I was more than rusty, but I found all the basics were still there. I was quickly obsessed with creating knitted items and dove head first into exploring the possibilities. In terms of it becoming an actual business… that more gradually crept up on me.
Like other indie designers I owe a lot to the launch of Ravelry. It was perfect timing for me in that I was just getting started writing and publishing my own patterns and here was this easy platform from which I could connect with knitters all over the world! It really snowballed from there with all sorts of great connections being made with people in the industry.
2. I often find that absence from a well-known and well-loved place can shape oneʼs sense of it as much as constant presence. Has this been your experience regarding your relationship with Shetland? And if so, does this occasional distance / absence have any influence on your designs?
My relationship with Shetland has had a huge influence on my designs. Although I very much identify with being from Shetland now, that wasn’t the case for most of my childhood. I was born there (and my great grand parents were from Shetland) but after 13 years of living there my parents relocated to mainland Scotland when I was around 4.
We made occasional visits to Shetland over the years but it wasn’t until my parents retired back there about 12 years ago that I have been a more frequent visitor. This coincided with my interest in knitting. So as I was getting reacquainted with the Shetland landscape and people I was also learning about the rich knitting traditions.
Now I get to visit Shetland more frequently and always look forward to the time I spend there. Every visit opens up a new opportunity to connect and dig deeper, to learn new things about the wool industry and history, see new designers work and get inspired, quite often by the landscape. I feel like I’m from Shetland now in a way I didn’t when I was a kid, I like to imagine that I’ll end up there more permanently at some point in the not too distant future.
3. Your mum, Patricia Johnston, worked in a similar field and I was lucky enough to be able to see one of her original designs in a recent exhibition in Lerwick. That exhibition really made me appreciate your mumʼs important position as one of a handful of Shetland women who, in the 1970s, took the knitwear industry into their own hands, and began to shape its direction in really innovative and creative ways. Your brand now shares its name with hers, and I wonder if you could say a little about how her precedent inspired (and continues to inspire) you?
I am so proud of what my mum accomplished with her business, and being able to carry on the Shetland Trader name is such an honor. I was incredibly moved to see her sweater in the exhibition and so glad to see her get recognition for her role in the Shetland knitwear industry. Despite not being a Shetlander (she’s English), or a knitter, she blended the traditional with the contemporary to create some incredibly unique garments.
As these were all made to order garments we don’t have many in our possession any longer. I have a few of her kids garments that were worn by my siblings and I. They’ve been passed on to our children. Believe it or not, they’re still going strong. I have a folder of photographs showing all of my mother’s designs. I often look through it for inspiration. I also more recently came across two sweaters that were purchased by a Shetlander at a local sale. These particular sweaters really speak to her eye for detail. Unusually, they blend Fair Isle with lace, and have beautiful bell sleeves and high turtlenecks. Very seventies, yet still current!
My mum had taste with her own unique flair. And a good work ethic that inspires me every day.
4. Shetland Trader book 2 is a wonderfully balanced collection, with different signature pieces featuring a variety of texture, colour and openwork; different yarn styles and weights and a wide range of techniques. I know from experience that creating this balance can be an awful lot of work! Can you say a little about how you went about planning the collection?
I would love to be able to say that all of those aspects were very carefully planned out, but that isn’t totally true! I knew that for this second collection I wanted Shetland yarns to feature heavily. That served as the foundation for many of the designs. I had already worked with several of the yarns available, but others were less familiar to me. I spent time swatching and gathering ideas.
My first collection had featured Shetland Lace patterns. Although I wanted to bring this into the new collection, I also wanted to explore the use of Fair Isle this time around. I had a lot of ideas for this collection, some came fully formed and definitely influenced other pieces in the collection and others never made it in. Sometimes narrowing down all the possibilities is the hardest part!
5. The collection is photographed in a beautiful Shetland location, Belmont House, in Unst. This extraordinary setting has a wonderful ease and tranquility, and the house and your designs somehow really speak to one another! Can you tell us a little about this location and how it inspired the collection?
I was just starting to put the collection together when I first visited Belmont House, a self-catering property in a marvelously remote location. I was with fellow designer (and friend) Mary Jane Mucklestone. We were considering Belmont for our Shetland trips and had organized to take a look around. The property – inside and out – blew us away. It was so beautiful. Some very dedicated and passionate people had meticulously restored it, with perfect attention to detail.
It wasn’t quite right for our trips, but I quickly realized how perfect it would be for photographing the new collection! Choosing yarn colours for the collection, I referenced the palette from Belmont House often as well as the general Shetland landscape. Having spent time inside the house meant it was easier for me to plan for the photoshoot too.
We stayed in the house over 3 days and had lots of time to find the best backdrops for each design. With it being summertime, we had plenty of light to play with, including the beautiful Shetland simmer dim. The quality of that evening light is remarkable. Aside from being there to shoot for the book, I had a contingent of my extended family there. We had a lot of fun!
6. Designers often work very differently, and Iʼm always interested to hear about the stages of their process. Can you talk us through the process of creating one of the designs in Shetland Trader book 2?
One of my favorites from the collection is the Belmont cardigan, so let me tell you about that!
Usually I begin a design with sketching and swatching and this was true for Belmont. I knew I wanted it to be a fitted and cropped style of cardigan, and I knew exactly the yarn I wanted to use (in this case Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage in a lovely fresh green). I had already decided on the lace pattern I wanted to use. It was a lace pattern that came about as the result of a knitting mistake made by a Shetland knitter. I had already used the same pattern in the Hermaness Hats (also part of this collection). So I spent time swatching and trying to figure out how I wanted the lace to sit on the fronts. I tend to knit fairly elaborate swatches to figure out any unusual shaping rather than doing lots of maths ahead of time. My brain works best that way. Once I settled on my idea, I figured out the numbers for the size I was making. I will usually just write the pattern out only in the size I’m making and do the grading afterwards.
In this case my notions of what the gauge was like in a swatch became quite different once the knitting was underway. Because the fronts are all in lace and the back in Stockinette Stitch, there was going to be a difference in gauge. I didn’t compensate enough for that and once I was past the hem and working on the body (it is knit seamlessly bottom up) it was apparent that there was far too much fabric on the back! I had to completely rip back and re-do some numbers Not too drastic, but an example to me of how knitted fabric can surprise you!
7. I think your work has an immediately recognisable aesthetic: thereʼs always a certain ease about it, and a way of making classic stitches feel unfussy, fresh and contemporary. Can you talk a little about the design styles and kinds of aesthetics that you draw on for inspiration?
I tend to wear fairly unfussy clothes. I don’t feel comfortable when there is too much going on in the fabric. No ribbons and frills for me! So I think when it comes to designing hand knits it’s natural for me to keep the lines clean and make the garment something that will appeal across the board. I am hugely influenced by the Shetland knitting traditions, the lace patterns in particular, and enjoy finding ways to use them in a contemporary context. You can find those clean lines in Shetland lace patterns as they are often very geometric and distinct. They can be elaborate and sometimes difficult to knit, but yet they retain a certain simplicity and timeless quality.
8. I find that it’s incredibly important to have a convivial and collaborative team of folk around me when working on a large project. Could you tell us about the different people involved in producing Shetland Trader Book 2?
I couldn’t agree with you more! It can be hard to work in isolation so much. When it comes to getting to work with other people it’s very refreshing.
Seeing as I knew that I would be in Shetland for the shoot it made sense to get some Shetland lassies involved in the modeling. I began by asking Ella Gordon, who you know well. I had met her several times and knew that she’d be a great model, especially as a wool lover and employee of Jamieson and Smith! I then figured it would be nice to have a second face for contrast and approached Ella’s friend Vivian (also a Shetlander). I had seen photos of her via Ella’s instagram feed. Thankfully, she was enthusiastic to join us too. This worked out really well as the two of them were very relaxed and comfortable during the shoot (and also just lovely to hang out with)!
Ella in Burrafith
The photographer, Kathy Cadigan, was also someone I already knew and liked. Conveniently enough, she had signed up to come on our first Shetland trip (which happened right before the shoot). I love Kathy’s aesthetic and energy and knew she would capture exactly what I was aiming for with this collection.
Ella and Vivian in Hermaness Hats
Mary Jane is not only a dear, dear friend of mine, but an experienced stylist. I was very pleased to have her there to keep tabs on all things style/clothing related!
On the technical side of things I had Carrie Hoge do all the graphic design. She had done such a lovely job on my first Shetland Trader collection. I feel very in tune with her whole design aesthetic.
For technical editing I had Heather Zoppetti (who is also my wholesaler and a wonderful designer in her own right). For sample knitting I had a trusted and exceptional knitter, Nicole Dupuis to help me out.The printing was done by Puritan Press, who had also produced my first book. They are a small press in New Hampshire and wonderful to work with! They even made sure to have some early books ready for me to collect and bring to Wool Week last year!
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget my extended family, who made meals for us all!
All of these people made the book what it is, and I’m so incredibly grateful to have been able to work with them all!
9. Can you tell us about the textile and knitting tours youʼve recently been organising in Shetland? Will those be running again this year?
Various people had asked both Mary Jane and me if we would ever consider doing trips to Shetland. We eventually thought why not! Our first two trips ran last year, one in the summer and the other during wool week. We had groups of 12 on each trip. The accommodation was in Burrastow House, another beautiful location on the west side of Shetland. We had the place to ourselves and the group were served delicious meals by the charming Belgian owner, Pierre.
The trips are heavily fiber focused, but we also wanted people to truly experience the Shetland landscape and it’s inhabitants. There were fiber related classes, visits to Jamieson and Smith and Jamieson’s yarn companies, visits to a working croft where we watched hand clipping of Shetland sheep (with the option to have a go), visits with local designers, talk and tour of the Shetland Museum Textile exhibit, a boat trip to see some birds and seals, and of course down time for everyone to do some of their own exploring!
The two trips are fairly similar with the biggest differences being the time of year and the fact that the Wool Week trip means there are even more knitters in Shetland and even more fibery things happening!
I’m pleased to say that they both seem to have been successes! We received very positive feedback from the groups. There are even 5 of them returning for their own trip to Shetland for Wool Week this year.
So yes, we are running them again in 2015! We have already built up an email list of potential participants, so they have had the initial information and option to sign up early. We will be opening the remaining spots up to the general public soon. Information can be found on my website.
10. Finally, whatʼs next for the Shetland Trader?
The next big thing for The Shetland Trader (and my family) is that it will be based in Scotland as of this summer! This will mean closer proximity to Shetland (we will be living in Edinburgh) and hence lots more opportunities to visit and gather inspiration! It will also make it easier to run the trips, and potentially mean I can do them more often.
In terms of the design side of things I am hoping to start work on another collection that would see some of my mother’s designs written up with some of my touches thrown in. Of course there will also continue to be collaborations with other yarn companies too!
Thanks so much for this illuminating chat, Gudrun! I’m really looking forward to seeing more of you when you return to bonnie Scotland!
Here is today’s yoke – Ásta Sóllilja. I began this design with the idea of using colour to create a transition from deep blue to silver grey around the edges of a jumper. I wanted the edges of the design to shimmer a wee bit, in such a way that they might seem to fuse or merge with a darker skirt or pair of jeans. I had fun playing with the Ístex lett lopi palette, and eventually came up with this:
After I’d established the chart for the edges of this design, I took a trip to Iceland. There I purchased this amazing book
This wonderful tome reproduces charts and patterns from the textile designs in the sjónabók manuscripts, which are held in the national museum of Iceland. It is a truly fabulous book, which blew me away, not only with the distinctive charts and patterns but with its fascinating analysis of the geometry and four-fold symmetry of Icelandic design. From many patterns in the book, I selected a single version of the hammer rose motif, and played with it, inverting and modifying it in such a manner that allowed me to feature it over the whole depth of a colourwork yoke.
(If you would like to learn more about this motif and its history in Iceland, see Hélène Magnússon’s important book Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns)
While I was working on this design, I was also reading Halldór Laxness’s dry and incisive Icelandic novel Independent People (1954). Laxness’s account of an Icelandic valley and its human and animal inhabitants had a profound effect on me. I found myself thinking about the book for several weeks afterwards, musing particularly on its relationship with another important twentieth-century account of rural life on the cusp of modernity – Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932). There are many thematic comparisons to draw between these two novels, particularly as regards their representation of gender, sexuality and ideas of women’s independence (I would really rather like to write about this one day). The story of Laxness’s female protagonist – Ásta Sóllilja – in the end pans out rather differently from that of Gibbon’s Chris Guthrie, and the determination, imagination, and arrested potential of the Icelandic character was cause of much reflection. So I named this design after her.
Designing this jumper really made me fall in love with Icelandic wool: wind and weatherproof, light and warm, in such a beautiful range of colours. The finished yoke is a cosy, easy to wear garment, and is one of those jumpers that I find myself wanting to just throw on and head outside.
Equally well suited to an Icelandic glacial valley, or a breezy Hebridean beach.
PS In very exciting news, it looks as if the book is actually going to print today, so I will shortly be able to activate the shop for pre-orders.
It is always lovely to be sent copies of new books – particularly when they are inspirational tomes from folk I like and admire. Here are two I’ve recently received.
This is Windswept by Marie Wallin. You’ll all know Marie from being, until last year, Rowan’s creative director. While continuing to work with Rowan as their head designer, last year Marie went freelance, and established her own business and brand. This book is her first independent book of hand-knit designs, and it is very beautiful indeed.
Marie has an immediately recognisable style as a designer, and the whole book to me seems very her. There are 12 designs – 8 garments and 4 accessories. Some involve cables, and some colour, but all feature interesting details, classic shapes and gorgeous styling. Lovage – the yoked jumper above – is a case in point. It is knit up in 9 rich shades of Rowan Fine Tweed, and includes the intriguing detail of an optional crocheted trim along the sleeves. Lovage is worked in the round, using traditional Fairisle techniques.
. . as are the Mint wrap and Camomile tam, which also showcase Marie’s distinctive sense of colour.
My favourite design in the collection is the Sage tunic / dress.
Knit in 13 shades of Rowan Felted Tweed, I think this is an absolutely stunning piece. For me it strikes that truly enviable design-balance of being both incredibly striking, and eminently wearable. And who can argue with those corrugated-rib-topped pockets?
Dill – the jumper which appears on the book’s front cover – is another glorious design. This is worked in cushy, hazy Rowan Cocoon, and features interlaced cables and optional scallop-lace crocheted trim around the neckline.
The designs were shot over the course of a day in picturesque Whitstable (and you can read more about the place and shoot on Marie’s blog). The location, the light, the styling, and the photography are all absolutely lovely, and really add, I think, to the coherent feel of this collection.
In short, this is a truly beautiful and inspirational collection of which my only criticism is that the charts are not reproduced in colour (I find monochrome charts with symbols used in place of colour a real bear to read . . . but this may be just me.) It is particularly exciting to see Marie designing using a range of different techniques and skills, and I’m already looking forward to seeing where her freelance adventure takes her next.
Toasty (I keep wanting to say Tasty) has just been published by lovely Rachel Coopey. It is a book of ten accessory designs: 6 hats, a pair of mitts, a pair of mittens, a scarf and a cowl. All the designs are knit up in baa ram ewe‘s Titus – a yarn of which I am inordinately fond, and which Rachel has used to superb effect in her designs in this book.
mmm . . . tasty/toasty parkin-coloured Titus, and tasty/toasty undulating cables. This design is called Ripon, and I think of it – with its nifty twists and decreases as a very Coopey-like design. But I am also very excited by what Rachel is doing with colour at the moment.
Rachel brings the same poise and structure that is such a feature of her textured stitch patterns to her colourwork. These are the Aiskew hat and mittens, and, with their neat chevrons, they are my favourite designs in the book. Though the Bedale hat comes a very close second.
I don’t know if you’ve worked with one of Rachel’s designs before, but I think that she is an exceptional pattern writer: really clear and precise. I reckon its hard to go wrong with a Coopey pattern.
Rachel will be writing about the process of designing each one of the pieces in Toasty, so pop over to her blog to read more!
This is a great contemporary accessory collection, from a talented designer, who continues her thoughtful exploration of stitch in ways that are always appealing. My single criticism of this book is that the photography perhaps isn’t as clear and sharp as as it should be to properly illustrate Rachel’s super designs at their best.
It is really nice to recommend the interesting work of other women, who, like me are working independently in hand-knit design. It occurred to me today, as it does on many days, what a lively and varied and talented milieu I now find myself among. You can purchase Windswept directly from Marie here, and Toasty directly from Rachel here.
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.
A few months ago, a publisher asked me if I’d like my work to be featured in a new book introducing English-speaking designers, patterns and knitting methods to a Japanese audience. I was very excited to be included, particularly as Japanese craft books are one of my secret vices — I am often bowled over by the clear layouts of these books, as well as their beautiful designs, and the quiet intimacy of their photography and styling. I also love the way that Japanese sewing, knitting and quilting patterns are charted, often making them possible for non-native speakers to interpret. Well, ‘Happy Knitting’ has just turned up, and its so nice I had to show you.
Me! In a Japanese knitting book! And I’m in good company . . .
The photography is sweet and lighthearted . . .
. . . mmmm . . . tasty yarn.
As well as introducing the work of several different designers, the book shows the Japanese knitter how to use Ravelry and other online resources produced in English, as well as illustrating techniques and equipment common to Western styles of knitting . . .
There are also a couple of simple patterns, which are used to illustrate English-speaking methods of pattern-writing and design.
Its a really lovely book. And how nice would it be to see an equivalent, introducing Japanese designers, resources, and techniques to an English-speaking audience? (I’m looking at you, Kyoko)!
BNN Publishing, Japan
These designs were inspired by Shetland’s iconic lighthouses . . .
. . . such as the Bressay light, which provides the dramatic backdrop to these photographs.
Seven of Shetland’s lighthouses, including the one at Bressay, were designed and constructed by a pioneering family of engineers — the Stevensons (about whom you can read more in the book).
The golden paintwork that distinguishes a Stevenson lighthouse, together with classic matelot stripes, inspired this pair of quintessentially nautical designs.
With simple shaping, and a single round of colourwork per repeat, these are incredibly easy patterns to knit.
The gauntlets will keep your hands and wrists cosy in chill sea breezes . . .
. . .and the sweater is just the ticket for a windy cliffside walk.
Because I know you like to see my styling assistant — here he is, supervising the progress of the shoot.
And having a nice sit down while I gamely attempt to hug a lighthouse . . .(can you spot the Bonxie / Arctic Skua in this shot?)
And I just have to let you know that the books have now left the printers and are actually on their way to me. Nic, my amazing art and production editor, has just shown me a copy of the book on Skype, and, though I do say so myself, it really does look bloody amazing. I’m sure you are getting a sense now of the aesthetic structure of the book — that is — how each of my ‘colour stories’ has its own distinctive palette and theme. In the book, these individual palettes distinguish each section, through the patterns, charts, essays and photography right down to the level of fonts and layout. It looks like it is the truly lovely object I always wanted it to be!! I foresee a very busy weekend signing books (each copy purchased from my online shop will be signed) and then we will be ready to put them on sale on Monday.
Book deliveries permitting, I’ll be back tomorrow to show you the book’s final pair of colourful designs. . . .
Until then . . .
A few weeks ago, I discovered a craft / design book that really blew me away. This hasn’t happened for a while, and I love this book so much that I’ve been itching to mention it. Here’s how I came across it: back in April, I decided I would design a tea cosy for Woolfest. I knew that, if I was going to design a tea cosy it had to be an all-out kitschy novelty item, and I also knew that I wanted the design to have a Woolfest-appropriate sheepy theme. After a few days of thinking about sheep; of the generic shape and design of tea cosies; and just letting things mill about and brew in my head (my general way of working), I had a mild eureka moment: a Sheep Carousel! Yes! This idea seemed a good one, and I felt excited about designing and knitting it. But had anyone thought of it before? Tea cosies (which are often striped) seemed to lend themselves so well to representing a circus tent or merry go round: perhaps another designer had previously had the same idea? This does occasionally happen, and I find it is generally worthwhile checking such things out before one embarks upon a design, so I spent a morning poking around the interwebs, searching for sheep carousels, and carousel tea cosies. During my search I discovered that Jade Starmore had designed a marvelous carousel-themed baby blanket called Widdicome Fair; that Kathleen Sperling had designed an intarsia merry-go-round child’s hat; and that a JC Penney carousel sweater had recently generated some interest when it featured on Glee last year:
So there were a few knitted carousel designs, but none featured sheep, and none were tea cosies. But then, on one of my searches I came across a discussion of a “Merry go Round” tea cosy in a book by Ike Rosen called Modern Embroidery. Like most carousels, this one apparently featured horses rather than sheep, and it was a stitched rather than a knitted design, but I was nonetheless intrigued and wanted to check it out. So I tracked the book down on ABE. Here is the tea cosy in question:
It was indeed a carousel, but happily quite different in inception to the stripey marquee and bouncing sheep that had popped into my brain. . .
. . . and, as it turned out, Rosen’s merry-go-round was, for me perhaps one of the least interesting designs in a book which was packed full of TOTALLY AMAZING THINGS.
Rosen’s book was first published in Germany in 1970, and translated into English in 1972. Rosen addresses herself to women with “two left hands” who assumed that embroidery had to be fiddly, complicated, and difficult to execute. She clearly wanted Modern Embroidery to be an enabling beginner’s book, and so the stitches featured in her designs are very simple – most use a combination of stem stitch and chain stitch. But the variety of results Rosen achieves with this limited range of stitches is pretty incredible, as well as really beautiful.
This is a book very much of its moment – pitching its use of colour and simple ornament as definitively “modern”: “Sensitive people of taste,” writes Rosen:
” . . . at the beginning of this century, were no longer able to put up with the overpowering ornamentation of the last century, and consequently the reaction against it was a rigorous cut-back of all artificial adornments. A new objectivity asserted itself, and strove under the leadership of prominent architects and artists for a pure clean-cut form. We have been profiting from it up to the present time and we are still gaining from it, for it is a style which was carefully thought out from many angles and deliberately fought for.”
But, among the clean modernist lines that then dominated design, Rosen detects “a longing for pattern,” and a yearning for bright colours that might “harmoniously unify various articles in a room.”
The styling of Rosen’s embroidery in “modern” 1970s interiors speaks to this idea of harmony — decor, objects, and designs speak to each other in a most extraordinary matchy-matchy way . . .
. . . these purple and orange plates with their nifty built-in egg-cups and even the eggs themselves are carefully styled to tone in with Rosen’s table runner . . .
. . . and the forms of cakes and biscuits echo Rosen’s abstract designs.
Despite the overwhelming 1970s vibe of this book (and it is overwhelming – shades of brown, orange and purple dominate; cigarettes nestle daintily among the pretzels) as one flicks through it, it is difficult not to find something contemporary and familiar about Rosen’s designs; hard not to think that Orla Kiely has somehow been inspired by these chained-stitched stems and pears. . .
And there are many knitting design-echoes too: these oven mitts immediately reminded me of Heidi Mork’s lovely Vinterblomster mittens.
But perhaps it is less a question of direct influence: rather, Rosen, (much like Orla Kiely and the inimitable Spillyjane) has a feel for a combining the folksy and the abstract in bold, simple and colourful design.
Rosen’s design referents are vast and eclectic, ranging from the Bauhaus through to Tiny Tim. The text of the book is extraordinarily eclectic too: there are occasions where Rosen seems to be setting out an entire design manifesto, while at other times she becomes philosophic and reflective with observations about the gendered division of labour or the tastes and habits of modern teenagers. In fact, I would say that the book is worth getting hold of not just for the designs (which I absolutely love) but for Rosen’s text, which is often weirdly engaging, even in translation. For example, this is how Rosen introduces my favourite design in the book:
“The more people there are, the scarcer mushrooms and edible fungi become. The case is similar to that in the adage: where we set foot, no more mushrooms grow. Moroever, at the present time, with more free time and a lot of cars to take us out into the open, we would have a lot of fun looking for mushrooms. Let us hope that some professor or other will find an opportunity of making these mushrooms grow in increased numbers everywhere. Since we are accustomed to the fact that scientists make everything possible, and in double-quick time as well, we will console you with this prospect, and in the meantime we have embroidered a dish of mushrooms which at least you can feast your eyes upon.”
Personally, I think there is only one appropriate reaction to “The Dish of Mushrooms” which is to hail it as a work of pure stitched genius.
I’ve not been able to find out about much about Ike Rosen herself – – perhaps because my German is so poor. I wonder whether any German readers might know more about Rosen and her influence? In the meantime, if any English speakers would like to track down a second-hand copy of the 1972 edition of Modern Embroidery, here are the details:
Ike Rosen, Modern Embroidery (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972) ISBN 0 7134 2655 1
In case you were in any doubt at all: I love this book!
Today I’m really pleased to bring you an interview with Jean Moss, as part of the blog tour for her new book, Sweet Shawlettes, which has just been published. With twenty-five different designs, this book is a veritable showcase of cowls, shawls, capelets and collars. Small projects provide an ideal canvas for exploring new techniques, and one of the most distinctive things about Jean’s book is the sheer range of knitterly styles and techniques it covers. So if you have never tried entrelac, intarsia, or shadow knitting, there’s a nifty project or two in here for you.
Perhaps contrarily, given its impressive technical range, my favourite design in Sweet Shawlettes is possibly the simplest – Enigma – a dramatic and contemporary two-piece shawl. Knit in plain stockinette with two sweet-shop shades of kidsilk haze, it has a truly elegant simplicity.
Working with Rowan, and Jamieson and Smith, as well as international brands like Ralph Lauren and Benetton, Jean has been at the forefront of British knitwear design for more than three decades. Based in the UK, but traveling all over the world, the trajectory of her career really interests me, so I began by asking her how it all started.
Could you tell us a little about how your design career began?
Originally I learned to knit before I went to school because I wanted to please my beloved grandmother who spent hours teaching me. A fallow period ensued but my interest was rekindled in my teens when I started to make my own clothes. It was the swinging sixties and I loved what I was seeing on the street and in magazines, but had no way of achieving anything similar other than to pick up my needles again. From then on I was hooked. It never occurred to me that I’d ever be able to make a living out of it, especially as I had no formal training in design, but after getting requests for sweaters I’d made for the kids, I decided that it might be a way of making some extra cash from home. No-one was more surprised than I was to find that very quickly I was presenting my designs to luminaries such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and they were placing orders! It was a meteoric learning curve!
. . .and how you began to create designs for hand knitting?
When I started, I was living in an ramshackle old farmhouse with my husband, two toddlers and a menagerie of pets miles away from anywhere. My husband was commuting daily to teach miles away, so we were wracking our brains to find another way of making a living, which involved less travelling. So… we bought a knitting machine! My designs sold well so we quickly had to get more people to knit them. At a London show an agent for Ralph Lauren asked me to do some handknits for him. I jumped at the chance although at the time I had no production capacity and handknitting was definitely not my forte, but within six months we had 2000 knitters in the UK producing handknits for the Polo/Ralph Lauren label as well as selling my own collections to boutiques in the US and Europe. Obviously, as I had no design training whatsoever, there’s a certain amount of luck involved, but this was the eighties when the ethos was go for it and anything can happen.
From your perspective, how has British knitting and knitwear design changed since the 1980s?
The internet has changed everything. When I started I saw myself as a fashion-led knit designer, producing fair isle, aran, lace and intarsia sweaters which were difficult to knit, had limited production and therefore had a very high price point. However, the cult of the knitted stitch has superseded the fashion angle now. Knitters are into techniques, relaxing with their knitting and sharing the fruits of their labours with their friends and the web is a fantastic tool for facilitating this. If you look at the most successful books on knitting right now they are all about techniques – there are far fewer book which are purely collections of designs. This is fine with me as I’ve always been interested in both – I love fashion, but I’m also a technique junkie, so I try to make each design a mini tutorial for at least one technique.
How would you describe your style? Do you feel this has evolved over time?
My signature style has always been a combination of colour, texture and form. However, I’m interested in exploring as much of the art of knitting as I can and I like to think my designs are ever-evolving as I learn more and more. I keep my camera to hand and I take many pictures of interesting objects, people and places – looking back over them often sows the seeds of new patterns. Fashion is essentially ephemeral, and what gives me a buzz is creating timeless pieces that transcend fashion, which hopefully will look just as good in twenty years time as the day they were knit.
You have a great knack of selecting exactly the right yarn for a design. What’s most important to you in a yarn?
I’m flattered that you think that as I do try hard to find beautiful yarns for my designs. I make a list of the yarn requirements for each project and then try to find one that fits the bill. Having said that, it’s become impossible to be au fait with every yarn on the market at any given time, so I always start with yarn companies I love like Rowan, Sublime or Jamieson & Smith. You can never know how a yarn will behave until you’ve swatched it, some projects demand drape, others need stitch definition and every pattern is different, but for me it’s important for the yarn to feel good in the fingers whilst being knit.
I love the glamour of the 1920s and 30s. Poiret’s orientalism, Fortuny’s sumptuous pleats and the fashion drawings of Erte and Iribe are all hugely inspiring. Women were trying out all sorts of new ideas as they threw off the shackles of the Victorian era and fashion design was innovative, outrageous and chic – all the things I love. It’s hard to name one fashion icon, but having done a whole book on Audrey Hepburn, I must say the research was a delight. She was the perfect muse, as Ralph Lauren famously remarked: “Who wouldn’t want to drop everything and design for Audrey Hepburn?”
Definitely Morocco, but I love the theatricality of Venice too. I’ve been hosting knitting holidays with my partner Philip Mercer for ten years now, mainly in the UK, but our trip to Morocco last year was one of my favourites – design inspiration wherever you look.
Your love of plants and flowers has inspired many of the designs in “Sweet Shawlettes”, and your garden is clearly very important to you. Do you see any similarity between the processes involved in knitwear design and gardening?
Yes I do find many similarities. At the start of each book I have to have a couple of weeks of cooking time, when I do nothing but displacement activities like gardening, cooking, playing guitar or going on long walks. This gives me a chance to mull over and crystallise ideas and it’s amazing how the seeds of designs are often planted years before and given the right conditions they spring forth – much like growing plants.
Now, a giveaway! Courtesy of the nice people at Taunton Press, I have a copy of Sweet Shawlettes set aside for one of you. Following Jean’s remarks about gardening and knitting, to enter, please leave a comment on this post telling us the name of your favourite garden flower. We’ll (randomly) select the winner on March 21st, the date of the final stop on Jean’s world blog tour.
Good Luck, Everyone!
If you’d like to follow the Sweet Shawlettes world blog tour, here is the full list of destinations:
Wed 7 Mar Jen Arnall-Culliford Knitwear Jen Arnall-Culliford
Thurs 8 Mar Yours Truly
Fri 9 Mar Rock and Purl Ruth Garcia-Alcantud
Sat 10 Mar Woolly Wormhead Woolly Wormhead
Mon 12 Mar Yarnscape Alison Barker
Tues 13 Mar Confessions of a Yarn Addict Anniken Allis
Wed 14 Mar Joli House Amanda France
Thurs 15 Mar This is Knit Lisa & Siobhan
Fri 16 Mar The Knitting Institute Katy Evans
Sat 17 Mar Life’n Knitting Carla Meijsen
Sun 18 Mar ConnieLene Connie Lene
Mon 19 Mar Just Call Me Ruby Susan Crawford
Tues 20 Mar Tiny Owl Knits Stephanie Dosen
Wed 21 Mar Ulla-Bella Anita Tørmoen