In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.
On with some highlights.
Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.
Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!
Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.
Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.
Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International
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.
Here are a couple more postcards from my collection in which knitting is represented in association with regional / national stereotypes.
This is an American card dating from the very early 1900s. It is number 11 in the popular “St Patrick’s series,” whose tone is, of course, incredibly sentimental and nostalgic. One could hardly imagine a representation of Irish femininity more stereotypical — the knitter stands barefoot outside her “wee humble cottage” in a shamrock-encircled John Ford fantasy of rural domesticity. The knitting is a sort of accoutrement of her simplicity, and her bare feet are a familiar feature of other postcards in this series.
This card was produced in the early 1900s by venerable British photographers Judges (who are still in the postcard printing business after a more than a century). By this point, the figure of the “Welsh Lady” in stovepipe hat and shawl had become a recognisable tourist novelty. Here, the ball of yarn and needles have been taken out of the dressing-up box to form decorative additions to her “costume.” I am interested in the subtle shifts of representation of Welsh women’s hats — as, in many Eighteenth-Century accounts I’ve read, the wearing of men’s hats is described as masculinising Welsh women in various ways. In this context, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby’s signature hats seem to be a deliberate form of costume, but by the time of Augusta Hall’s famous Cambrian sketches, the hats have become picturesque – and acceptably feminine – curiosties.
Augusta Hall, “Welsh Girl in the Costume of Pembrokeshire” in Cambrian Costume, Dedicated to the Nobility and Gentry of Wales (1834)
I am perhaps particularly interested in picture-postcard representations of the women of rural Wales because, where tea-drinking, hand-knitting, and “masculine” roles are concerned, there are so many similarities with familiar stereotypes of Shetland women.
As always, your thoughts and comments on these knitterly images are most welcome!
Renovation update! things seem to be going very well with the plumbing and plastering, though I am now in the odd and somewhat difficult position of having no water. I will now be offline for a few days as the work continues. Next time I post I hope to have a bathroom!
Here are a couple more postcards from my collection. Strictly speaking, these are reproductions of advertisments, but I am particularly fond of the Sunlight Soap image which, as you can see, has been pinned on my board for some time. I find it interesting for the way it represents knitting as a leisure activity, rather than as a part of women’s domestic labour. Washing is textile-related work for this nostalgically mop-capped woman, but the activity of hand-knitting is situated firmly in the category of “rest and leisure”. Since Sunlight has made the washing quick and easy, she can relax happily with her yarn and needles. This is interesting because, in other contexts at around the same time, hand-knitting was work and could easily be associated, in very different ways, with ideas of women’s labour. But quite apart from the questions it raises about what-is-work and what-is-not for women, I also like many things about the design of this advertisment – the giant ball of yarn in the foreground; the brilliantly white sheets waving gaily in the landscape; the knitter’s sense of contemplation; and the strong, bright colours of the image.
This advertisment — in which Jeanie and Jimmy are about to make a terrible mess on the carpet while playing sit-up-and-beg with a giant tin of digestives — is rather different. The yarn and needles are incidental to the scene, and seem to be there to give middle-class mother something to do, or perhaps to calm her nerves before she contemplates getting the dustpan and brush out. She stares at her offspring’s biscuity activities with a rictus grin which seems to say “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.” Quite apart from the crumb-related horror that is about to unfold, the association of digestives with dog biscuits is not one you’d imagine Mc Vities wanting to cultivate. Extraordinary.
I love reading your thoughts about these images — perhaps particularly when you disagree with me — so all comments are very welcome.
In other news, I have a couple of designs to release! More about that tomorrow.
I have a small (but ever growing) collection of prints and postcard in which knitters, and the activity of knitting, are represented. Some of these are really very interesting, and I thought I’d occasionally share them with you here.
This card, which was posted with an Austrian stamp in 1916, depicts a ‘continental’ knitter working on a long stocking, whilst literally being haunted by thoughts of war. It is undoubtedly a sentimental image: like equivalent representations of industrious female knitters in Britain and America during the First World War, the needles seem to be there to enable this woman to be ‘doing something useful’ for the war effort, producing functional objects that also serve as testimony of her affection. The woman’s face is the very image of serene meditation — her surroundings are quietly and comfortably domestic; but the ghost of the war hangs over her pleasant home in the shape of the uniformed figure by the window. Is this half-present soldier conjured up by the act of knitting itself, as the repetitive action of the needles frees the knitter’s mind to wander among her thoughts and memories? Is knitting, therefore, a soothing activity that allows this woman to be comforted in her solitude by the idea that she is creating something equally comforting for her absent beloved? Or is the transparent figure an actual ghost — the soldier who has returned after death to haunt his faithful partner? If so, then knitting is an activity that transforms the woman into a tragic figure: an image of steadfast affection and domestic industry, steadily turning out socks for a man already dead.
I find this image interesting because it is troubling and because it disturbs those gung-ho ‘knit your bit’ stereotypes that are generally associated with the 1914-18 war effort. The way that the solider’s ghostly presence brings the war into the woman’s domestic environment is deeply suggestive, and the whole image is, in its own way, as unhinged as the narrator of Philadelphia Robertson’s poem, A Woman’s Prayer (1916), who knits on the edge of sanity:
“I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit;
Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need,
Sometimes the newsboys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly
And when the house has grown quite still
I lean out on my window sill —
And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit”
I’ve scanned the reverse of the postcard, just in case any of you can decipher it.