I suspect many of you will now know that my good friend Felicity Ford’s fabulous new tome, The Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook has just been published!
Felix is a close friend of mine, and, as I also played an editorial role in the production of her, ahem, masterwerk, I have, as you’d imagine, only positive things to say. But I have to briefly say them anyway, because I just know that you will love this book.
I have never met anyone quite so full of joy as Felix, anyone quite so enthusiastic and energetic, or anyone who, in quite the manner that she does, is able to appreciate and celebrate the sheer wonder of quotidian things: snacks, plants, spaces, socks, beer, bricks, wool. In this book she enables you to turn the last thing on that list – wool – into all of the items that precede it. Using the fabulous shades available in the Jamieson & Smith jumper weight palette, and some really innovative methods of sketching and swatching, Felix shows you how to develop the aesthetic skills to translate everday objects into glorious knitting.
With Felix you can learn how to knit a fruitcake . . .
. . . discover how to look anew at the ordinary spaces that surround you . . .
. . . develop a luminous palette with which to celebrate an extraordinary building . . .
. . . or translate the vintage aesthetics of a favourite tome into a pair of fabulous fingerless gloves.
Felix is many things: talented artist, lyrical writer, innovative designer, and all-round good egg. You’ll find her with all of these hats on in this book, and one of the things I love so much about it is just how Felix it all is.
This is certainly a personal book, then, but it is also a precise and professional tome too. The book is beautifully produced: the layout (by Nic Blackmore) has an elegant simplicity and the photographs (by Fergus Ford) not only clearly illustrate Felix’s work but enhance its rich context. The book has useful patterns too: after teaching you how to create beautiful colourwork swatches, Felix carefully shows you some simple methods of incorporating your original stitch patterns into wearable items, such as legwarmers and gauntlets.
The Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is both enabling and inspiring. It will change the way you look at your knitting and the world. There’s not another book anywhere like it. It is truly original – just like its author.
The Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is now available!
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.
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.
If you are like me and have long admired the longevity, distinctive mod styling, and careful brand aesthetic of British retailer Fred Perry your heart may have skipped a wee beat when you read those words. Fred Perry Knitting Patterns? Really?
Yes, really. The gorgeous golden cardigan on the left currently retails on Fred Perry’s website at £125, but the company is also offering knitters the amazing opportunity to really re-create this look themselves – why not download the pattern for free and whip one up today!
There are eleven designs for men and women, including both garments and accessories. Every attention has been paid to the patterns’ careful vintage styling and ‘authentic’ mid-century graphic design and layout.
But sadly, the same care and attention has not been paid to the content of the patterns themselves.
The recommended yarn for these patterns is Rowan British wool Red Faced Leicester. Have you come across this yarn? Or heard of a Red Faced Leicester sheep? No, nor have I. In effect, Fred Perry is suggesting you knit this sweater with a yarn which does not exist, that grows on a non-existent sheep.
Red Faced sheep do exist:
One must assume Fred Perry is unable to distinguish between these delightful creatures and others, equally delightful, but rather different.
Sadly, the problems don’t stop there. There’s no gauge or sizing information (!), nothing about yarn weight, quantities, shades, or other materials required, and the ‘language’ of these patterns would, I imagine, confuse any hand knitter either vintage or modern.
. . . certainly this contemporary knitter could make neither head nor tail of the incomplete and oddly constructed Cabled beanie pattern, which you might imagine, would be one of the easiest designs to get to grips with. Could it be, then, that Fred Perry’s offer to “knit your own” garment from their Autumn / Winter 2013 knitwear collection is merely a sneaky marketing ruse? A way of spinning and bolstering the brand identity of mass-market knitwear through recourse to familiar ideas of the ‘vintage’ and ‘handcrafted’? Surely not!
But, when you fail to knit yourself a lovely golden Aran cardigan from Fred’s badly-put-together pattern (which fails to include instructions for the sleeves) , you can easily return to the website to purchase one ready-made. As you can see, this cardigan was “originally designed for fishermen on the Scottish isle of Aran” [sic] as opposed to the Irish Aran islands . . . you know, Fred, where actual “Aran” knitwear comes from? Perhaps the error-ridden and confusing “knitting patterns” are merely the tip of an eroneous marketing iceberg? Oh Fred! How cruelly you shatter my mod dreams!
Discussing a British brand I like and admire in this context is all the more galling as I really think these patterns are a brilliant idea. Why not engender more collaboration and interplay between high street retailers and hand-knitters? Between ideas of making and consumption? Between the world of “knit” as it is currently taught on fashion and textile courses, and the world of “knitting” as now practiced all over the world by savvy and talented craftspeople? Having had a good look at the Fred Perry Knitting Patterns, it strikes me that their single biggest problem is that they have been produced by someone who might know an awful lot about designing for Shima knitting machines, but has no understanding of the evolving descriptive vocabulary of contemporary hand knitting. With just a little more effort Fred Perry might have produced something truly innovative here, rather than this epic – and slightly cynical – fail.
All of your thoughts are welcome.
Thanks to Karie (@kariebookish), Helen (@ripplecrafts) and Benjamin (@knityounexttues) for the enlivening twitter debate which prompted me to write this post.
I’ve been really inspired by some fantastic knitting books which have turned up here recently, so I thought I’d give them a shout-out. First up is Rachel Coopey‘s much anticipated first collection. Rachel is truly the Queen of Socks — she has a distinctive feel for pattern and structure which suits her foot-shaped canvas perfectly. Her designs are thoughtful, precise and definitively knitterly — she often reverses or mirrors stitch patterns across her socks in ways that are not only aesthetically pleasing but will really engage the maker’s interest through a pair. For example, Milfoil (the green pair that you can see above), has a horizontal mirror between cuff and foot that makes each sock the opposite of the other, while in Budleigh (my favourite design in the collection) neat cables and twisted stitches flow through the design with a vertical reflection that separates left from right.
Inside the book are ten beautifully written and laid-out patterns; a technical section with instructions for essential sock-knitting techniques (including a useful illustrated afterthought heel-tutorial) and jolly English seaside photography. What’s not to love?
You can pre-order the book directly from Rachel here.
Next up, and top of the tree for pure knitterliness, is Lynne Barr’s new book, The Shape of Knitting. Lynne has an amazingly innovative approach to stitch, and I think she is one of the most creative and inventive designers around today.
My approach to design tends to be very referential. I see a thing, or read a thing, or hear a thing — I like the thing — and I want to somehow render, or celebrate, or get to the heart of the thing in stitches. Lynne’s approach is completely different, and I completely love it. She says:
Inspiration isn’t always derived from things we see around us — or even from words we read or hear. Sometimes it comes from something intangible within us. When playing with a technique, I sometimes feel like a dowser, but holding knitting needles instead of a dowsing rod to guide me toward an unknown goal.
I feel about two hundred years behind Lynne’s design-aesthetic — a plodding Wordsworth to her John Ashberry. Don’t get me wrong — I love the technical aspects of designing, and I like to make stitches do things for me, but I think that Lynne’s relationship to stitch is on another level entirely — like the listener of a symphony who has somehow become a sort of instrument themselves. If you have any interest in the creative possibilities of knitwear design, then you need to immediately get hold of a copy The Shape of Knitting to put on your shelf next to Lynne’s previous book.
Finally, here is a book I’ve been looking forward to seeing for some time.
I admire Rosa Pomar for many reasons, but perhaps most for her thorough commitment to exploring and documenting the history of Portuguese textiles from the grass-roots up. Behind this wonderful book stands several years work, as Rosa has travelled around Portugal, researching animal husbandry, spinning, weaving, knitting, garment construction, and the traditional craft and design practices of men and women all over her beautiful country. Though my Portuguese is non-existent, I still find so much food for thought here.
As well as exploring the history and distinctive techniques of Portuguese hand knitting, the book also includes patterns for twenty lovely accessories inspired by traditional design. I think that this one is my favourite . . .
. . . not least for the way it showcases Rosa’s own Mirandesa yarn, which is hand spun and plied in Trás-os-Montes from the wool of Churra Galega Mirandesa sheep. This book marks an important landmark in the way the history of hand knitting is researched and written about, and you can buy it from Rosa here.
I am not a Shetlander. I love Shetland, and I feel a connection to those islands and their culture that is (for me) profound and meaningful, but I am not a Shetlander. I think it is important for me to remember that, particularly as I am currently working on a collection of designs that use Shetland wool, and are all inspired by different aspects of Shetland and its landscape. In my previous job as an historian, I found it very useful to remind myself of the distance between myself and the eighteenth-century subjects I was working on. If you read a lot of eighteenth-century diaries and letters, you start to get to feel like you ‘know’ the people who wrote them. But you don’t know them, and it is really important to remember the distance that separates you from those folk, because that distance stops you from making foolish assumptions, and helps you to maintain respect.
I am not a Shetlander. But I feel a profound sense of irritation — that occasionally approaches outrage — when I happen across certain kinds of misrepresentation of Shetlanders and Shetland. Knitting books and magazines are particularly bad in this regard. There are many things that irk me in these knitterly accounts (don’t even get me started on the romanticisation of the truck system) but one of the things that irritates me most is the assumption that the islands are “remote” and difficult to access. Really? What does “remote” even mean? Shetland was not remote for the Vikings, and nor was it remote for the merchants of the 17th- and 18th-century Baltic. By the early 19th Century, commercial shipping meant that Shetland was actually much better connected than many English provincial towns — the sea meant that these islands were not remote at all. And what, really, is ‘remote’ about Shetland today? We are a nation of islands, and like many other parts of the British Isles, you can access Shetland easily by flight or ferry. No one ever describes the Isle of Man or Guernsey as ‘remote’ — but what’s the difference? It is, in fact, much more difficult for me to get to the Channel Islands than it is to hop on a plane to Shetland.
The assumption that Shetland, its people, and its culture, are terribly ‘remote’ feeds into a discourse of exoticism within which the islands are marked by a sense of arcane difference. And this is not only completely misleading, but, in making Shetland seem like some sort of antediluvian curiosity, is also profoundly damaging (and disrespectful) to its culture: a culture within which which wool and knitting play an important role. As I said, mainstream knitting books and magazines have a disappointing tendency to reinforce these ‘exoticising’ assumptions, and this is perhaps because (with a handful of notable exceptions: Miller, Starmore, Amedro, Johnston), they have been produced by people who know an awful lot about knitting but not very much about Shetland. Examples abound, but here is a recent one that I found all the more galling for being produced by someone whose work I otherwise like and admire.
In an article published recently in Interweave’s new e-mag Lace Knits (2012), Franklin Habit describes Shetland as “a windswept, sheep-infested archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland,” a statement which not only feeds into the discourse of the exotic, but is also geographically incorrect (Shetland is located to Scotland’s northeast). The article purports to unlock the mysteries of the origins of Shetland lace — but there’s no mystery about it: basic geography might also have enabled Habit to understand the connection between the first ‘Shetland’ knitting patterns produced by Jane Gaugain and the remote ‘sheep-infested archipelago’. (Gaugain traded on the North side of Edinburgh, whose ships, warehouses, and shops were, by the 1840s, stuffed full of finished Shetland goods, including fine openwork shawls produced by the knitters of Unst and Dunrossness) Describing Shetland lace, as Habit does, as “set-dressing for a high budget fairytale”, simply compounds the misleading idea of the islands as unreal, remote fantasy-places, detaching lace from its real (and important) role in Shetland as a constituent of the skills and materials of everyday life. Habit’s piece has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing what he acknowledges are ‘myths’ about Shetland lace simply by repeating them in lieu of historical fact. I found the lack of basic, accurate information in his article all the more odd, because it really is not difficult, even when one is located on another continent, to research Shetland knitting history and culture. In fact, unlike other parts of Britain, Shetland is unusually well-resourced in this regard. There is a wonderful archive, with a great online catalogue and other accessible material. This archive is staffed by an equally wonderful team of people who are more than happy to help anyone with an interest in any aspect of Shetland culture. Shetland also abounds with well-known, generous, and knowledgable knitters, who are more than happy to talk about their craft and its history. Why not just do some research?
If you have any interest at all in Shetland knitting, then there is no better place to start than with Real Shetland Yarns, a book supported by the Shetland Museum and which, in so many respects, is the complete opposite of Habit’s article. During Shetland Wool Week last year, you might remember that I mentioned the Shetland Stories competition — a project highlighting the importance of wool and knitted textiles to Shetland culture. Forty of these stories have now been gathered together in this wonderful collection, which is seriously the best book about textiles that I’ve come across since Vladimir Arkhipov’s Home Made (2006). Here, told in Shetlanders’ own words, is the story of Shetland wool. Each ‘story’ is short (just 300 words) and reading each piece in isolation gives you a snapshot of the role of “oo” in an individual life: an incident, a garment, an animal, a memory. The stories are brief, then, but their cumulative effect is profound. Taken as a whole, the book effectively unlocks the division of labour, and lays it out before you, introducing Shetland wool at every stage from husbandry through to retail. We learn of the care of sheep, of common grazing, of rooing and gathering hentilags, of carding and spinning, of knitting by hand or by machine, of weaving cloth, of finishing garments, of dressing shawls, of brokering, buying and selling, of designing and exporting. We see a boy’s perspective on the work that is going on around him; we see a girl being taught to knit by her father; we see men and women supporting their families through their craft; we read of knitted garments loved and hated; knitted garments that won prizes; knitted garments inspired by archeological finds; knitted garments that were worn by several generations of the same family, and are still being worn today. We meet Jacko the extraordinary caddy lamb, and equally extraordinary knitting heroines like Ena Leslie; we see vet, Debbie Main taking an impromptu ride on the back of a too-lively tup; we are privileged to peer into the pages of Hazel Tindall’s mother’s diary and to read Norma Anderson’s thoughts about her grandmother’s beautiful lace garments; we see young Eva Irvine, selling her family’s hand-knit hosiery in Lerwick, and catch a glimpse of of Andy Holt, working away on his pasap machine during the long winter nights on Papa Stour. Some of these stories are funny, some are deeply moving, but this is in no way a sentimental book. It is a real book. It is a book that shows just how important wool, and the creative skills associated with it are to the everyday lives of people in a community which is emphatically not exotic, not ‘remote’, but rather an ordinary — though distinctive — part of the contemporary British Isles. It is a book that instills respect for that community and the crafts and culture that are so important to it. It is a book that all knitters should read.
Jacko in his later years. Image ©Hazel Mackenzie, reproduced in Real Shetland Yarns, p.62.
It is a while since I have been totally blown away by a book. Here is that book – a very generous gift to me from Mai, one of my Estonian readers.
It is hard to know how to start telling you about what this incredible tome contains – it really is that amazing. Perhaps I can start with a couple of images:
Like other areas of Estonia, Muhu island is proud of its textile traditions.
These textile traditions are many, varied, and very distinctive, and this distinction and variety is due to the incredible needlework skills of the women of Muhu. I’ve written a little before about how interesting I find Estonian ‘folk’ costumes, and about how the strong sense of regional and national identity one sees expressed in such textiles emerged against a backdrop of cultural annexation. I have only had the opportunity to read about Estonian knitted textiles before – but this book gives a much fuller picture of the wide-ranging skills of the women of Muhu, who are clearly possessed of a quite remarkable creative energy!
I have a perennial interest in how textile ‘traditions’ emerge on, and cluster about, islands. Muhu shares many cultural similarities with, for example, Shetland: over the past couple of centuries, the women have tirelessly worked the land in the absence of their menfolk in the fishing, and (later) the construction industries, and this has produced a similar discourse about the indomitable and formidable qualities of Muhu women.* Just like the women of Shetland, those of Muhu are described as proud, strong, and capable. They are skilled with their needles; they are dryly humorous. This Muhu aphorism is so very similar to some Shetland sayings I’ve seen:
“Kuidas Muhu naine korraga 4 asja tegi:
Ma aasi loomad karjaaruse, kudusi cardud,
aasi ärraga juttu ja kussi kua”
(How Muhu women do 4 jobs at once:
I was driving the cattle to the meadow, kniting,
talking to the landlord, and taking a piss)
But what makes Muhu very different from Shetland – and what I had never thought about until I absorbed myself in this marvelous book – is that domestic textiles (until very recently) never expanded beyond being dowry gifts or heirlooms into being produced for a market. Kabur, Pink and Meriste explain that the driving principle behind Muhu women’s production of domestic textiles was “to make one’s clothing as fine as the finest garment of one’s home village, and even a little bit better.” Without the pressures of external commercial markets, the women of Muhu simply competed among themselves to produce domestic textiles of ever-more glorious variety, ornament and colour. I think it is the sheer variety of styles and skills that I find most striking about these textiles, which include . . .
Stranded colourwork mittens, gloves and stockings – here with duplicate stitches . . .
stockings and gloves with travelling stitches . . .
. . men’s ‘vatt’ in traditional orange and black two-colour knitting (characteristic Muhu colours are bright pink, bright orange, and bright yellow)
. . . crocheted lace (this example was based on traditional Muhu designs, and was produced by Kaidi Holm of Vanamoisa village in 2010)
. . . satin stitch (shirt collar from Tõnise farm in Koguva village)
. . . beading (bridal cap, owned by Helju Vaher of Võlla village)
There are also examples of different kinds of weaving, machine embroidery, and lace techniques. Clearly these women have an inexhaustible range of textile talents! Kabur, Pink and Meriste introduce the reader to gloriously decorative slippers and blankets, aprons and belts, skirts and jackets, stockings, gloves and baby garments. And as if the sheer range and variety of highly-skilled techniques that these women had mastered wasn’t enough, they then start to combine them in ways that are quite breathtaking.
But it isn’t just the pictures in this book that are absolutely wonderful. Kabur, Pink and Meriste also provide charted instructions for much of the embroidery, crochet, and knitting, and talk about technique in a way that not only demonstrates their own practical knowledge, but generously allows the reader to share in it as well. So the editors introduce the reader to, for example, the distinctive Muhu zigzagging decrease (which I am itching to try out on a sock) and explain how large bold motifs were added to the centre of plain-coloured mittens (using a particularly nifty combination of intarsia and double knitting).
This combination of the historical and the practical is what makes their book so very good, and it is really quite unusual. Textile books are often rather rigidly (and annoyingly) divided between the academic or the ‘how to’ markets, but Kabur, Pink and Meriste’s super tome happily crosses that divide, allowing the reader to gain a close, material understanding of some truly amazing objects – the sort of understanding that you would only ordinarily gain by taking a visit to an archive, handling textiles, turning them inside out, examining their stitches and their seams, decoding their canny methods of construction, and then going away to try things out for yourself. It is an absolutely brilliant book: the images are glorious, the cultural information is carefully and respectfully put together, the instructions for the different techniques are clear and well-demonstrated. Having this book in one’s hands really is the closest thing I’ve ever encountered to actually being right in among a museum textile collection. It is a very rare treat. Now, when do I get to go to Estonia?
So thankyou, Mai, for this lovely gift; thankyou, Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, and Mai Meriste for making this treasure trove available (and in English, too, which is a particular treat for me) and thankyou, most of all, to the needlewomen of Muhu to whose incredible talents this book pays fitting tribute. I’m thrilled to have been introduced to – and enormously inspired by – you all.
Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island: A Needlework Tradition from Estonia (Saara Publishers, 2011) ISBN: 978-9949-9181-3-3
*For more on this discourse of indomitable femininity in relation to Shetland, see Lynn Abrams’ important book Myth and Materiality in a woman’s world: Shetland 1800-2000 (Manchester UP, 2005)