A day at Sanquhar

melshands

Have you been to Sanquhar? I am ashamed to say that I hadn’t — until Saturday.

underconstruction

Sanquhar Knitting Workshop was part of Glasgow University’s Knitting in the Round project and was held at A’ the Airts, a lovely community arts centre at the heart of Sanquhar.

maydisplay

At the workshop May MacCormick, who has knitted literally hundreds of pairs of Sanquhar gloves, was demonstrating her considerable skills.

mayknitting

I was particularly intrigued by the finger gussets, which, as I understand it, are a unique feature of these gloves.

fingergusset

My comrade-in-wool Tom of Holland, gave a great talk about Sanquhar patterns and the many different ways in which they have inspired him, from the creation of swiss-darned socks to pencil case patterns

tom

Then over at the Tolbooth Museum we were introduced to many intriguing items from the collection. I particularly liked the selection of gloves that had been commissioned by a local cyclist to match her different outfits. She possessed gloves in Sanquhar patterns knitted in wonderful shades of russet and gold, and must have cut a very striking figure as she zipped about on her bike.

yellowandbrown

Her beautiful gloves were evidently much loved and used, as is apparent from their very visible mends.

repairedpalm

One thing that particularly intrigues me about the Sanquhar story is the relationship between the local carpet industry, and domestic hand knitting.

wovencarpet

Woven rugs and carpets, with geometric monochrome patterns similar to those that characterise the gloves, were created in the homes of Sanquhar folk. The gloves were knitted from the strong yarns used to weave these rugs, as well as from the drugget threads that were used in John McQueen’s Mill, a carpet and blanket manufacturer formerly situated in Crawick, near Sanquhar.

display

It was a day which brought much knitterly food for thought.

Building_View

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the folk at A’ The Airts, many exciting projects are underfoot: projects that will assure a bright future for the distinctive knitting styles of Sanquhar. I thought A’ the Airts was a very inspiring place: one of those exemplary, welcoming community arts centres which local folk really feel part of and proud of – and with reason. When you have an opportunity, I suggest you go and visit the centre and the Tolbooth Museum, and make sure you leave time to have lunch in the cafe, and enjoy some of Norma Simmon’s fantastic locally produced and home-cooked food.

Thanks to Glasgow University and A’the Airts for a great day.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 60 – 92

64

There have been some interesting questions in the comments on my previous posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry. Elaine and Deborah asked what materials had been used in the creation of the tapestry – well, the stitchers used Peter Grieg linen and Appletons crewel wool throughout. Terry asked why it was called a tapestry at all, given that strictly speaking it isn’t, which is an interesting question. I couldn’t find a direct answer to this, but speaking personally, my sense of it is that for the majority of folk who are not involved in craft, design, or the fibre arts, the word tapestry immediately suggests the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not woven either, but is similarly embroidered, from similar materials, in a similarly collaborative fashion. Perhaps its the public, narrative connotations of the word “tapestry”, derived from its associations with Bayeux, that have lead the project to be so described? Those who have been directly involved might like to add their thoughts in the comments below. And yes, I am aware of the Prestonpans and Diaspora projects, and am very much looking forward to seeing them both.

As I continue through my photographs of the tapestry, I find myself vaguely frustrated that there are things that I missed, or failed to record with a photograph, particularly in the eighteenth-century sections. . . but I suppose the tapestry’s richness, its inexhaustive nature, is one of the most wonderful things about it. Plus, I fully intend to spend time with it again when it comes to New Lanark in October. Regarding panel 64, which you can see at the top of this post, one of my academic interests many moons ago was the development of what we now know as sign language out of the “natural” philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. I was particularly pleased to see a panel recording the pioneering work of Thomas Braidwood, who established the first school for signing in Edinburgh in 1760.

So here are some more tapestry highlights . . from my favourite period in Scottish history.

65
65
Panel 65: James Small and the invention of the swing plough. Love the neeps and kale. “The swing plough changed cultivation radically and by doing that it changed the world”

67
Panel 67: Edinburgh’s New Town. Auld Reekie’s familiar Enlightenment geography

70
Panel 70: Adam Smith Delighted to see Smith’s invisible hand . . . made visible!

73d
73b
73c
Panel 73: Weaving and Spinning Loved this panel, stitched by Frances Gardner and Jacqueline Walters. The details of the lace shawl particularly killed me.

74a
74b
Panel 74: James Hutton’s theory of the earth the birth of modern geology.

75
Panel 75: Smoked fish I love how the figure of the fisher lass merges in with the landscape in this panel – that’s her striped skirt you can see in the photo. Finnan Haddies, Arbroath Smokies . . . nom.

77a
77b
Panel 77: Scotland and the drive for Empire I liked how this panel carefully represented the Atlantic Triangle as a commercial, profit-driven enterprise, with hideous human costs.

78
Panel 78: New Lanark Loved the Falls of Clyde, the silent monitor (I have one on my desk) and the way the figures of the dancing children echo their depiction in contemporary prints of the period. (In the eighteenth-century panels, I often noticed Crummy’s designs directly referencing contemporary prints and paintings.)

87
Panel 87: The Growth of Glasgow A truly wonderful panel, stitched by the Glasgow Society of Women Artists

90
Panel 90: Kirkpatrick Macmillan celebrating the modern bicycle’s 1839 wooden prototype

92
Panel 92: The Scots in India this richly coloured and beautifully detailed panel, stitched by Edinburgh’s Wardie Church stitchers, is truly a work of art.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

intro

On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.

viewing

The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.

This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.

So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23

3a
3b
Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

4
Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

5one
5two
Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

7three
7one
7two
7four
Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

8
Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

9one
9two
Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.

10
Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

11
Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

15
Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

17
Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

20
Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.

22
Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

23
Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

A Hap for Harriet

hap3lo

I have a new pattern out today! This is A Hap for Harriet.

hap6lo

I recently heard that my friend, former colleague, and doctoral supervisor, Professor Harriet Guest, was about to retire, and I thought it might be nice to produce and name a design in her honour. Before I began, I had some discussion with Harriet’s husband, John, about colours. Through a cunning ruse, John discerned that “a muted, not too intense green, jadeish but a tiny bit duskier” would be one of Harriet’s preferences. I immediately thought of this:

bitterbug

This is a lovely Shetland 2 ply, dyed up in inimitable fashion by my friend Lilith, in her Bitterbug shade. It’s a heavy laceweight, with 800 yards to the 100g skein. It is worsted-spun, both soft and lofty, and blocks out beautifully to create a fabric that is amazingly light and warm. It was the perfect yarn for the hap or wrap I had in mind.

hap9lo

The hap features a garter stitch centre and a Shetland openwork edging which creates a series of sweeping points. The construction is very simple: it is knit from side to side, the edging and centre are worked simultaneously, and some shaping is added to create a long, shallow triangle.

hap4lo

The result is a simple, dramatic and extremely versatile wrap that can be worn in many different ways.

hap5lo
hap11lo
hap8lo

I designed this hap to make the most of a special skein of yarn: simply weigh your skein and follow the percentage instructions in the pattern (the pictured hap measures just over two metres in length). As well as information about how to adjust the hap’s dimensions, the pattern also includes two full sets of instructions: the first for knitters who like to knit from charts, and the second for those who prefer written instructions.

hap2lo

Today, at the University of York (where I studied, and later worked for many years) there is a colloquium celebrating Harriet’s important work and influence. The hap will be presented to Harriet today, and is my contribution to that celebration. Many moons ago, Harriet supervised both my Masters and Doctoral theses. She had a profound influence on my thinking and writing, and I know I am better at both because of the happy evenings I spent with her discussing matters Eighteenth Century and otherwise over a pint (or two) at the Minster Inn. When I later returned to York to work as a lecturer, Harriet and I established a Master’s degree in Women’s Writing at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, and together we edited Charlotte Smith’s important 1790s novel Marchmont for Pickering and Chatto – a project of which I am still proud. A few days after my stroke in 2010, Harriet appeared in Edinburgh, arms full of vintage detective fiction, which we both enjoy. To me, Harriet has been inspirational teacher, supportive colleague and a true friend. It was often (somewhat dismissively) asked of eighteenth-century women intellectuals whether they could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus, or write the History of England. Well, I can tell you that as well as changing the way the world thinks about Eighteenth Century literature and culture, Harriet can make a pudding, knit a cardigan, cultivate a garden, sing any tune you like from the Cole Porter song book, and make you laugh out loud.

harriet

Congratulations, Harriet. Hope to see you soon in Herefordshire.

hap1lo

If you’d like to knit your own hap, the pattern is available digitally via Ravelry or in print via MagCloud.

A conversation with Hélène Magnusson

fireicetour_eyjafjallajokull_background
(Hélène, Hiking and Knitting between Fire and Ice, against the spectacular backdrop of Eyjafjallajökull.)

When I visited Iceland I had the very great pleasure of finally meeting Hélène Magnusson, whose research and designs I have admired for many years. I visited Hélène in her lovely home in Reykjavik, where we drank tea, ate some delicious smoked lamb, and talked about things cultural, culinary, and woolly for several hours. We had such a good time chatting, I thought it might be fun to continue the conversation here . . .


1. I know you are French . . . can you tell us a little more about your background? Where did you grow up?

I have both the Icelandic and French nationality but was brought up in France. There I studied law and worked as a barrister for some years in Paris until I moved to Iceland. Law was interesting but I was never passionate about it, if not simply bored! Knitting however has always been something truly enjoyable. I was 7 when I learned to knit from my mother, as well as from books and I have been knitting ever since, whenever and where ever, making my own or following recipes, changing them, or not. It certainly made the law courses pass quicker!

2. And how and when did you come to relocate to Iceland?

Iceland has been on my mind from a pretty young age. My paternal grand-father from Normandy, a very tall man, with high cheeks, grey eyes and a little nose, kept telling me that we were descendants of the Vikings. I dreamt of Iceland with “Icelandic fisherman”, a book by Pierre Loti (I lived in a street that had the name of the author at age 3 to 5, and it has always been a favorite book at home). Because of my father’s job, we were moving constantly from one harbor to the other, and I felt a bit rootless. When I went hiking in Iceland for the first time in 1995 on a holiday, I immediately and finally felt home. The rest was easy: I came back to Paris, resigned from the bar, quit my job and 3 months later, I was installed in Iceland where I later met my husband, started studying mountaineering and textiles, worked as a cook during the winter and a mountain guide during the summer, had three daughters, bought a house, took my driving licence, … I enjoy a lot going on holiday to Normandy in the family house but Iceland is my home and where I want to die (at a very old age!)!

3. The landscape of Iceland is unique and truly magical. Even having only spent a few days there, I already want to come back and explore further. Is there a favorite place you like to be in Iceland? Can you tell us a little about it?

I love everything about Iceland. I love its roughness and emptiness, I love its harshness, how life is fighting so hard to survive. There are many beautiful places I have traveled to around the world but none has ever moved me as deeply than Iceland. Still after all this time, the landscape makes me extremely emotional.
I also love the fact that it is an island and that sea is all around, and you can still see it and smell it from the mountains, even from the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland.

Icelandic_sheep
(Icelandic sheep)

4. You have worked with Icelandic sheep, and I wonder how this hands-on experience has influenced your approach to design, textiles and yarn production?

Nowadays we often know rather little where a product really comes from – we talked a bit together about the misleading ways yarn can be labeled, and all the unsaid information and hypocrisy that can go behind something that is described on the label as 100% wool, from a specific country. So yes, having worked with sheep, knowing how they are brought up, how they behave, how the wool is behaving and evolving on the living animal, how farmers are considering the wool and the sheep, what process it follows before it comes into perfectly wound skeins in the knitters hands, all this has certainly influenced my designs, trying to find the best use for the wool and to take advantages of its intrinsic qualities or defects. And then working with sheep and wool was certainly an excellent preparation for me to begin producing my own yarn! Of course I had not the slightest idea that this would be the case at the time!

shoeinserts
Icelandic shoe inserts, whose unique history and designs are explored by Hélène in Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns


5. Icelandic knitted shoe inserts are a wonderful example of how decorative textiles played a crucial role in the everyday lives of ordinary people. What first drew you to these remarkable objects?

In the sheep farm where I worked I was first given a little pair of shoes with tiny inserts inside. Later while studying textiles, I was asked to make a presentation about design in a particular research exercise, and I chose to work with knitting. I knew I wanted to explore something really typically Icelandic and remembered the inserts in the little shoes. I then asked the National Museum to open for me their shoe-inserts cabinet, and I fell in love with them – - so colorful, joyful, beautiful and also so graphic. I also think there is a modern aesthetic in the shoe inserts that immediately drew me to them. But they were worn to barely be seen, hidden under the foot. I want to think it made people feel good to be wearing something pretty even if the wearers were the only ones to know. It came as a surprise to me to find out how little opinion old people had on the shoe-inserts – souvenirs of harsh centuries of poverty and dependency – and how very little young people knew about them, if anything at all.

20shoes1
Icelandic soft shoes and shoe inserts from Icelandic Handknits


6. Your first book – Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns – is a tour-de-force of scholarly research combined with truly original knitwear designs. Can you tell us about the process of producing it?

In the research I carried out, I first presented the inserts not as utilitarian objects but as a collection of motifs that I classified by colors and patterns. This really impressed Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (Goddur), the head graphic designer professor and he is the one who encouraged me to write my graduation essay about them. (He was actually the only academic who was interested in this aspect of my work — the Fashion department didn’t see the inserts with a very sympathetic eye). With his encouragement, I continued to explore further research on the subject. Having previously studied law was tremendously helpful when trying to locate scarce information on shoe-inserts somewhere in a pile of hand-written ramblings about how life was in the Old Days! But if I had to do it all over again – or if I had the time to return to student life – I’d much rather study textile history than law: I’m a bit envious of your skills! I then got a grant from the Student Innovation Fund to make new designs based on the inserts. My graduation fashion collection (despite the reluctance mentioned above) was inspired by the shoe-inserts. I kind of got completely obsessed with the shoe-inserts!

hamarosavesti
(Hammer Rose Vest from Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns)

What was crucial to me during the whole process was to show Iceland’s past and its traditions a lot of respect. First I wanted to record the traditions like they were and like they had evolved, so they wouldn’t get lost, but then I also wanted people to continue knitting after them, otherwise, they would simply die out! To this end, in the second part of the book, I designed garments and accessories all based on the inserts, using the techniques, working from the shape of the inserts or the shape of the motifs, keeping the colors like they were, playing with concepts, or the old sayings and stories that surrounded the inserts.

Skautbuningur
(Hélène wearing the Skautbuningur cardigan from Icelandic Handknits)


7 .My favourite design in your important second book – Icelandic Handknits: 25 Heirloom Techniques and Projects – is probably the Skautbuningur cardigan. To me this design encompasses many of the signature elements of your work: it combines a thoughtful interpretation of traditional costume, with the construction of the modern Icelandic yoked sweater; involves a really nifty technical trick for finishing the front bands and facings and is also a wonderfully wearable garment. Do you have a favourite design in this book?

Thank you Kate! That is always a tough question! There are designs I liked at the time but feel I could improve today, then there are designs that I enjoyed designing because there was an interesting construction or a solution to find or a concept to work around but that are not necessarily outstanding as such and finally there are the designs that I would like to knit for myself and wear! I actually do wear quite many of my handknits: I have the chance that Icelandic wool ages really well so even worn they are still presentable at tradeshows!

30skirt1
Klukka skirt from Icelandic Handknits

8. I love knitted undergarments and dresses and your Klukka- inspired design is another beautiful pattern in Icelandic Handknits. Could you tell us more about Icelandic Klukka and how they were made?

The klukka was a knitted slip, made of wool of course, worn by women under their clothes to keep warm. The body was often knitted with ribbing with and the skirt had an easy undulating lace pattern with stripes of colors enhancing the undulations. They could be handknitted but by the end of the 19th century/beginning of 20th century, many homes, where all the clothing was made, had knitting machines (like the one we saw in the fisherman’s house at the open Air Museum in Árbær). Klukka were, however often finished by hands with a little picot edge, which was crocheted or knitted.

9. And I understand that beautiful Icelandic lace dresses are the subject of your next book?

Yes, it was too bad you just missed by a couple of days the exhibition at the National Museum about the book process that I held for Design March!
While during researches on Icelandic knitting, I had come across a one article about an Icelandic woman who had been knitting lace dresses inspired by the traditional Klukka but much more intricate. It was always on the back of my mind to find out more about her and many years later, I decided to investigate and looked for the woman: she appeared to still be alive and accepted to meet me for an interview. After a couple of meetings, I thought that she and her work were so remarkable that I decided to write a whole book about her! It would be a terrible shame if her knowledge and expertise simply disappeared… She made one-of-a-kind dresses, but I include in the book patterns of some of her dresses and coats in multiple sizes. I’ve been working on it for a few years now. The most challenging part appeared to be the wool: the yarn she was using didn’t exist anymore and was much finer than the Einband from Istex, which is the only mill and the only Icelandic lace weight available (it’s close to fingering actually). Of course, I found some suitable yarns to knit the dresses, such as Shetland Supreme Lace 2 ply from Jamieson and Smith that you know well, but, without wanting to sound too dogmatic, I feel I OUGHT to use Icelandic wool as well!

Halldora_love_story
(Hélène’s Halldora design, from Icelandic Handknits, knitted with Love Story Artisanal 1 ply)

10. In conjunction with your research into Icelandic lace, I know you have been developing some very special laceweight yarn. Can you tell us more about your yarn experiments?

Yes, since there was no suitable Icelandic yarn for the dresses, I decided to make my own! I started making trials in a mini-mill in Belgium (there is no such thing as a mini-mill in Iceland so I sent selected wool abroad) and this is how Love Story Artisanal 1 ply was born. It is a beautiful fine lace-weight yarn made of high quality Icelandic wool, and very soft for an Icelandic yarn. Although it’s made by a machine, it is closer however to a handspun yarn. Because in a minimill you can work with small quantities at a time, I’m able to offer for sale many different shades of the natural Icelandic sheep colors as well as some plant-dyed colors. This artisanal production was very well received, and disappears very quickly. I find that I’m regularly out of stock and at the moment, I only have brown, black and white available… I can’t even imagine the complicated issues that would be involved with publishing a book recommending a yarn and not being able to keep up with the demand… So I’m heading for a bigger production for Love Story Artisanal 1 ply and that is easier to say than to do! Again I have turned to mills abroad since Ístex doesn’t have the capacity to make a finer lace. First there were many administrative obstacles to go through, one being that, despite all the campaigns for wool, unwashed wool is actually considered as an animal by-product by the EEC and goes by the same rules that meat carcass for shipping and handling… Then, it was not easy to find a mill that would be able to spin the Icelandic wool: it’s a very difficult wool to spin because of the mix of long and short hairs and a little challenging to make it into a fine regular lace. I sent wool here and there and was finally lucky to find a mill in Italy that had the confidence to make it: for the first trial, we made a one-ply but then decided to ply it so it would be more regular. . .

Gryla
(Grýla)

. . .and this is how my other yarn – called Grýla – was born: it’s a 2-ply yarn (Tvíband in Icelandic), made of 100% pure Icelandic wool, and is very sturdy and hardwearing (perfect for fine mittens for example!). It comes in 9 shades (that was the fun part for me choosing colors!) To go with it, I also made a Grýla Artisanal 2-ply in natural sheep colors: it’s spun at the mini-mill in Belgium with Icelandic lambswool and is really very soft. Grýla however is about the same weight as Ístex’s Einband so it is not terribly suitable for the lace dresses themselves (in fact that’s why it got the name of Grýla) but on its own terms it is a really lovely yarn! I knit my Icelandic Spring Shawl with it and it came out beautifully – I’ve also been working on a wee Grýla pattern collection that I will release in a few months.

springshawl
Icelandic Spring Shawl

. . . and now, I’m working on Love Story 2 ply, a yarn made of 100% Icelandic lambswool that will be absolutely perfect for the lace dresses! The lambswool being finer, it will be easier to make a finer yarn, also it’s much softer! I select high quality lambswool directly at Ístex washing station in Blönduós which is where the vast majority of farmers send their wool. I wanted first to buy it directly from the farmers but, though Ístex has been extremely cooperative and supportive of this project of mine, I still ran into many obstacles. As we speak, the wool is on its way to the mill in Italy: both white lambswool but also natural sheep colors, grey, brown and black. I can’t wait to see the end result but it will take a little while so we’ll all have to be patient!

coeur
(Love Story yarn!)


11. You have a wonderful personal sense of style, Hélène, and I know that fashion was one of your previous scholarly interests. How (if at all) does contemporary fashion influence your current work?

Thank you Kate! I had two of my daughters while studying Textile design at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. While I was away on maternity leave for two years in a row (there’s only 16 months between them), the school undertook lots of changes and the Textile section was changed into a Fashion and Textile design section where the focus is on making a fashion line collection. So for this last year at school everything was new for me – it was a bit difficult with two babies a great learning experience for conveying ideas and make a coherent collection. During this last year at school, I also took all the basics courses in patterning, sewing, etc… I can’t say however I’m very much into following fashion at all! It all goes in a circle anyway… Still I’m probably influenced by my surroundings without noticing it!

Flmowerpot
(Hélène in a stunning flowerpot coat of her own design)

12. With your tours, you are now introducing knitters all over the world to the landscape and culture of Iceland, as well as its textile history. Can you tell us about some of the locales and traditions you will be exploring on your tours in 2014?

I organise the knitting tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides-Iceland Rovers, a tour operator that I had already worked with as a mountain guide until I had my daughters (I had the 3 of them in just 4 years so there was no time then for guiding!). I design the tours and Mountain Guides see to all the practicalities (such as booking etc). My interest in Icelandic knitting heritage and my strong desire to share it and keep it alive, together with my experience as a mountain guide provides the impetus for these tours: they are designed to give an insight into Icelandic Culture and Knitting Traditions. Knitting is still today intrinsic to Icelandic culture, so discovering Iceland through the knitting will give you an immediate and really interesting insight into Icelandic Culture. The tours mix knitting with beautiful natural surroundings: we visit local museums and meet local people, knitters, spinners, dyers, designers, farmers. Each tour has its own way of exploring Icelandic knitting heritage, whether it´s by hiking, trekking or by short walks on a discovery adventure. The tours are also timed to coincide with the natural rhythms of the farming year, and explore several different themes associated with Icelandic culture and knitting.

shaws

For example, the Hiking and Knitting with the Elves tour in late June takes for its theme Icelandic lace and is takes place among the fjords of East Iceland where the queen of the Elves herself resides. Elven women were told to pass down from the Elven world to the by stepping onto their lace shawl that they laid down over a swamp. The interesting and distinctive characteristics of Icelandic lace often derive from the subtle colors, tones and shades that we can also see in the landscapes that we are crossing during the tour. June is also the season of flowering in Iceland, a perfect tine to collect plants for dying the delicate lace yarns. The tour includes a plant-dying workshop, we meet with an amazing local lace knitter and discover different types of lace made for example from handyed reindeer skin (reindeer live solely in east Iceland).

north

By contrast, The Enchanting North tour in July takes us through North Iceland to the fjord of Skagafjörður, the Textile Museum and the beautiful region of Mývatn. The hikes for this tour are pretty easy and accessible to the vast majority of participants and the tour gives a good overview of Icelandic landscape and knitting traditions. Additionally, we explore in some depth the Mittens traditions of Skagafjörður, which are distinctively and beautifully embroidered with and Old Icelandic cross-stitch.

fireicetouor

After this, in August, one of my popular tours – Hiking and knitting between Fire and Ice – goes through the Fimmvörðuháls mountain pass, still hot after an eruption, at the foot of the now famous Eyjafjallajökull. This is probably the most challenging tour for the legs and feet and the theme of the tour is Icelandic footwear, especially the tradition of Icelandic shoe-inserts and Icelandic intarsia. Then in September the Spinning and knitting the Icelandic wool tour takes place. This is the time when sheep are gathered from the mountains (where they graze freely all summer), and sorted between farmers during round-ups. The tour take us through the whole process of working with Icelandic wool: rounding up and sorting the sheep, shearing, cleaning, combing, spinning, plant dying and finally knitting with the yarn that we create spun. We also visit the Istex mill factory and local spinners and dyers. Finally, in late October there is the last tour of the year: Knitting in the Magical Icelandic Night: the sheep are in the farm and the shearing season is beginning, we are knitting in cozyness of a turf farm guesthouse. It’s the beginning of winter and through this experience we get to understand how Icelandic wool kept the nation warm for centuries. At this time of the year, the sun hardly rises above the horizon, and the light is completely amazing. A bath in a hot spring, northern lights and colorful mittens are also on the program.

I also have a few custom tours made especially for groups of knitters or travel agencies and I’m already working on the program for 2015!

Glaumbaer-Turf_house_for_you
(Beautiful turf house at Glaumbaer)

13. In one way or another, you have been working with textiles and design in Iceland for almost fifteen years. Can you tell us something about the cultural shifts and changes you have observed in this field during this time?

I can clearly see a return to the roots and the prejudice against the past fade with the new generations. We talked a bit about it when you were here, regarding especially the turf houses, and you wrote an insightful post about it.
First there was the setting of Iceland Academy of the Arts and the construction of a Design and Architecture section. Although it may be still a bit early to tell, a definitive Icelandic design flair has emerged, bright and colorful and most of all full of energy.
The financial crisis is also a turning point to me. You can pretty much talk in terms of “before the crisis” and “after the crisis” to define an architecture design style. The before crisis being much show-off, a bit pretentious, expensive and big, often out of scale!

harpa_reykjavik_01
(Harpa in Reykjavik. The antithesis of vernacular architecture?)


14. You seem to me to be a natural designer and craftswoman: someone who simply has to be making something. If you had unlimited time (and resources) what would you most like to design and make?

Yes I pretty much feel I’m losing my time when I don’t make something with my hands! If I had enough time, first, it would not have taken me WEEKS to answer your interview questions! I would certainly spent more time on other crafts and show my daughters much more than I do now – I would also long be done with the Icelandic costume I’m making for myself at the Handicraft Association of Iceland! I would definitively publish more designs: I have patterns that have been ready to be published for 6 months or more and never seem to see the light. Would I produce more designs? Certainly, it’s not the ideas that are missing! – BUT in a way the limitation is also a garde-fou and forces you to make choices, to eliminate, to refine and keep only the essential. Still, a few hours more per day would do me only good!

sheep_rpund-Up_my_family
(Hélène and her daughters at the sheep round-up)

Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and life, Hélène!

Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present

cover

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.

rolags
(natural fleece shades)

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.

oliver

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.”

labels
(Shetland tweed labels)

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.”

kep
(early Fair Isle kep. Shetland Museum and Archives)

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.

taatitrugs

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.

teeniewlliamson
(Teenie Williamson (left) in a hand-knitted print o’da wave jumper)

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.”

samhibbert1818
(Sketch of a Shetland knitter by Samuel Hibbert (1818)

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.

truckcommission

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).

sha

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.”

ella

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)
ISBN 978-0-9572031-3-6


All images in this post are the copyrighted property of the Shetland Museum and Archives and are reproduced with their permission.

Gawthorpe, encore

fronds

In between developing kits and other designs, I’ve been working on my Gawthorpe project (which you may remember is a commission to produce a pattern inspired by the wonderful textile collections of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth). The piece on which I’ve decided to base my design is a large coverlet, featuring deep teal-coloured woollen embroidery on a plain linen background. I knew that this beautiful piece had been stitched by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth herself, but I had only seen it behind glass on my first visit, as it was part of the collection on display. So I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to pop back to Gawthorpe to take a closer look, and do a little research.

gawthorpepic

I had assumed, when I first saw the coverlet, that the motifs were ferns, or fern-inspired, but this turned out not to be the case. In her notes about it, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth describes the motifs as “big feathers” and gives two sources of inspiration for the pattern she’d used. The first is another piece in her collection, which had been embroidered by Rachel’s contemporary, Hilda Ashworth . . .

hildaashworth

. . . which had in turn been inspired by an original Tudor piece, purportedly embroidered by Amy Robsart (the wife of Robert Dudley, whose death in mysterious circumstances made her something of a sentimental cause célèbre at the turn of the twentieth century). Robsart’s original crewel-work, featuring the “big feathers” was part of the collection of Rachel’s friend, and champion of the Arts and Crafts movement, Lewis F. Day, and Rachel had borrowed it when drawing up her own design.

notes

Rachel’s coverlet features a total of 100 feathers, each of which features a different embroidery stitch.

knotsandchains

Rachel described the coverlet as “a sampler of line stitches.”

fabric

The embroidery is made with a lovely teal-coloured wool, which due to its provenance from different sources and dye-lots, has faded over time into several different deep blues and greens. I find this uneven fading both attractive and intriguing, because of the way it writes the time and process of Rachel’s stitching into her finished piece.

stitchdetail

The colour Rachel chose for her stitches is a similar shade as the ink she familiarly used to write with. The annotations to many pieces in her collection are written in her hand, in a shade of ink, which has also faded over time in an uneven way, to a series of greens and blues that echo the varied hues of her stitching on the coverlet.

RBKSannotations

And just like her handwriting, Rachel’s signature is evident in the coverlet she embroidered, which is a showcase of the varied possibilities of crewel embroidery, and the skill of a truly talented needlewoman. It is a piece in which Rachel’s deep knowledge, and love of, stitch is immediately apparent. But it is a piece with a family story as well.

inscription

Around the border of the coverlet, Rachel stitched a Latin inscription in Lancastrian red. Translated, the inscription reads:

“He who would have ordained that his children should acknowledge the supreme Lord has survived by family descent a great many generations. His granddaughter of the tenth generation fashioned this work of devotion with her needle.”

Rachel had designed the coverlet to commemorate her ancestor Richard Shuttleworth, also known as Richard the Roundhead, or “Old Smoot”. A prominent parliamentarian, Richard had led the Lancashire forces against the King during the civil war, served as a magistrate during the commonwealth period, and, having reconciled himself to monarchy under Charles II, was the parliamentary member for Preston for a total of eleven terms.

Using motifs inspired by Tudor embroidery, the coverlet speaks to Rachel’s heritage in a prominent Lancashire family (a heritage of which she was clearly very proud), and perhaps quietly celebrates the commonwealth politics of her famous ancestor.

initialsandshuttles

Rachel completed her work by stitching her own initials around a crest of her own devising depicting weaving shuttles, thereby connecting her heritage and family name to her own profound love of textiles.

atworkonbedspread
(Rachel Kay Shuttleworth, at work on the coverlet)

Rachel stitched away on her huge “Richard the Roundhead” bedspread for several decades. Though she embroidered the finished date of the piece as 1966, she was actually still working on it at the time of her death in 1967. Her niece, Rosemary Kay Shuttleworth, completed her aunt’s work, and it is now a key piece in the Gawthorpe collection.

The coverlet has such a wonderfully rich context, which I’m glad I took the time to find out about, and which I hope I’ll be able to speak to a little in my own design. There will be feather-y motifs, shades of wool inspired by Rachel’s stitches and handwriting, and a nod to Rachel’s (and my own) Lancastrian heritage.

More soon!

All images in this post are the copyrighted property of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are reproduced here with their permission.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,430 other followers