I recently had a chat with one of my favourite designers, Gudrun Johnston, and thought I’d bring this to you today. I just love Gudrun’s work. She has this knack of producing designs that are are always classic, timeless and wearable, often using stitch patterns (particularly those originating from Shetland) in really innovative and interesting ways. And if you’ve ever knit one of Gudrun’s designs, you’ll know that she always writes a clear and eminently knitterly pattern. She’s a great designer creating beautiful knitwear, and her Shetland Trader Book Two is for me one of the real stand-out collections of recent months. I wanted to talk to Gudrun about her work, and hear more about producing this stunning collection, and I thought you’d like to hear more about it too.
If you’d like to get a real flavour of Shetland Trader Book Two (and its beautiful Unst location) Gudrun’s photographer, Kathy Cadigan, shot this lovely video, which makes a great accompaniment to the interview.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your knitting background, Gudrun? Did you learn to knit as a child? And when did knitting turn into a business for you?
Despite being born in Shetland and having a mother who was designing knitwear during my early years, I actually didn’t learn to knit until I was around age 9 and it didn’t happen in Shetland!
I was living on a different island off the west coast of Scotland (the Isle of Rum, to be precise) and was attending a teeny primary school. At one point my brother and I were the only pupils. Like I said, teeny. The schoolteacher introduced me to knitting, though all I remember is creating a rather unattractive pastel-green ribbed vest.
I didn’t pick it up again until around 11 years ago. I was more than rusty, but I found all the basics were still there. I was quickly obsessed with creating knitted items and dove head first into exploring the possibilities. In terms of it becoming an actual business… that more gradually crept up on me.
Like other indie designers I owe a lot to the launch of Ravelry. It was perfect timing for me in that I was just getting started writing and publishing my own patterns and here was this easy platform from which I could connect with knitters all over the world! It really snowballed from there with all sorts of great connections being made with people in the industry.
2. I often find that absence from a well-known and well-loved place can shape oneʼs sense of it as much as constant presence. Has this been your experience regarding your relationship with Shetland? And if so, does this occasional distance / absence have any influence on your designs?
My relationship with Shetland has had a huge influence on my designs. Although I very much identify with being from Shetland now, that wasn’t the case for most of my childhood. I was born there (and my great grand parents were from Shetland) but after 13 years of living there my parents relocated to mainland Scotland when I was around 4.
We made occasional visits to Shetland over the years but it wasn’t until my parents retired back there about 12 years ago that I have been a more frequent visitor. This coincided with my interest in knitting. So as I was getting reacquainted with the Shetland landscape and people I was also learning about the rich knitting traditions.
Now I get to visit Shetland more frequently and always look forward to the time I spend there. Every visit opens up a new opportunity to connect and dig deeper, to learn new things about the wool industry and history, see new designers work and get inspired, quite often by the landscape. I feel like I’m from Shetland now in a way I didn’t when I was a kid, I like to imagine that I’ll end up there more permanently at some point in the not too distant future.
3. Your mum, Patricia Johnston, worked in a similar field and I was lucky enough to be able to see one of her original designs in a recent exhibition in Lerwick. That exhibition really made me appreciate your mumʼs important position as one of a handful of Shetland women who, in the 1970s, took the knitwear industry into their own hands, and began to shape its direction in really innovative and creative ways. Your brand now shares its name with hers, and I wonder if you could say a little about how her precedent inspired (and continues to inspire) you?
I am so proud of what my mum accomplished with her business, and being able to carry on the Shetland Trader name is such an honor. I was incredibly moved to see her sweater in the exhibition and so glad to see her get recognition for her role in the Shetland knitwear industry. Despite not being a Shetlander (she’s English), or a knitter, she blended the traditional with the contemporary to create some incredibly unique garments.
As these were all made to order garments we don’t have many in our possession any longer. I have a few of her kids garments that were worn by my siblings and I. They’ve been passed on to our children. Believe it or not, they’re still going strong. I have a folder of photographs showing all of my mother’s designs. I often look through it for inspiration. I also more recently came across two sweaters that were purchased by a Shetlander at a local sale. These particular sweaters really speak to her eye for detail. Unusually, they blend Fair Isle with lace, and have beautiful bell sleeves and high turtlenecks. Very seventies, yet still current!
My mum had taste with her own unique flair. And a good work ethic that inspires me every day.
4. Shetland Trader book 2 is a wonderfully balanced collection, with different signature pieces featuring a variety of texture, colour and openwork; different yarn styles and weights and a wide range of techniques. I know from experience that creating this balance can be an awful lot of work! Can you say a little about how you went about planning the collection?
I would love to be able to say that all of those aspects were very carefully planned out, but that isn’t totally true! I knew that for this second collection I wanted Shetland yarns to feature heavily. That served as the foundation for many of the designs. I had already worked with several of the yarns available, but others were less familiar to me. I spent time swatching and gathering ideas.
My first collection had featured Shetland Lace patterns. Although I wanted to bring this into the new collection, I also wanted to explore the use of Fair Isle this time around. I had a lot of ideas for this collection, some came fully formed and definitely influenced other pieces in the collection and others never made it in. Sometimes narrowing down all the possibilities is the hardest part!
5. The collection is photographed in a beautiful Shetland location, Belmont House, in Unst. This extraordinary setting has a wonderful ease and tranquility, and the house and your designs somehow really speak to one another! Can you tell us a little about this location and how it inspired the collection?
I was just starting to put the collection together when I first visited Belmont House, a self-catering property in a marvelously remote location. I was with fellow designer (and friend) Mary Jane Mucklestone. We were considering Belmont for our Shetland trips and had organized to take a look around. The property – inside and out – blew us away. It was so beautiful. Some very dedicated and passionate people had meticulously restored it, with perfect attention to detail.
It wasn’t quite right for our trips, but I quickly realized how perfect it would be for photographing the new collection! Choosing yarn colours for the collection, I referenced the palette from Belmont House often as well as the general Shetland landscape. Having spent time inside the house meant it was easier for me to plan for the photoshoot too.
We stayed in the house over 3 days and had lots of time to find the best backdrops for each design. With it being summertime, we had plenty of light to play with, including the beautiful Shetland simmer dim. The quality of that evening light is remarkable. Aside from being there to shoot for the book, I had a contingent of my extended family there. We had a lot of fun!
6. Designers often work very differently, and Iʼm always interested to hear about the stages of their process. Can you talk us through the process of creating one of the designs in Shetland Trader book 2?
One of my favorites from the collection is the Belmont cardigan, so let me tell you about that!
Usually I begin a design with sketching and swatching and this was true for Belmont. I knew I wanted it to be a fitted and cropped style of cardigan, and I knew exactly the yarn I wanted to use (in this case Jamieson and Smith Shetland Heritage in a lovely fresh green). I had already decided on the lace pattern I wanted to use. It was a lace pattern that came about as the result of a knitting mistake made by a Shetland knitter. I had already used the same pattern in the Hermaness Hats (also part of this collection). So I spent time swatching and trying to figure out how I wanted the lace to sit on the fronts. I tend to knit fairly elaborate swatches to figure out any unusual shaping rather than doing lots of maths ahead of time. My brain works best that way. Once I settled on my idea, I figured out the numbers for the size I was making. I will usually just write the pattern out only in the size I’m making and do the grading afterwards.
In this case my notions of what the gauge was like in a swatch became quite different once the knitting was underway. Because the fronts are all in lace and the back in Stockinette Stitch, there was going to be a difference in gauge. I didn’t compensate enough for that and once I was past the hem and working on the body (it is knit seamlessly bottom up) it was apparent that there was far too much fabric on the back! I had to completely rip back and re-do some numbers Not too drastic, but an example to me of how knitted fabric can surprise you!
7. I think your work has an immediately recognisable aesthetic: thereʼs always a certain ease about it, and a way of making classic stitches feel unfussy, fresh and contemporary. Can you talk a little about the design styles and kinds of aesthetics that you draw on for inspiration?
I tend to wear fairly unfussy clothes. I don’t feel comfortable when there is too much going on in the fabric. No ribbons and frills for me! So I think when it comes to designing hand knits it’s natural for me to keep the lines clean and make the garment something that will appeal across the board. I am hugely influenced by the Shetland knitting traditions, the lace patterns in particular, and enjoy finding ways to use them in a contemporary context. You can find those clean lines in Shetland lace patterns as they are often very geometric and distinct. They can be elaborate and sometimes difficult to knit, but yet they retain a certain simplicity and timeless quality.
8. I find that it’s incredibly important to have a convivial and collaborative team of folk around me when working on a large project. Could you tell us about the different people involved in producing Shetland Trader Book 2?
I couldn’t agree with you more! It can be hard to work in isolation so much. When it comes to getting to work with other people it’s very refreshing.
Seeing as I knew that I would be in Shetland for the shoot it made sense to get some Shetland lassies involved in the modeling. I began by asking Ella Gordon, who you know well. I had met her several times and knew that she’d be a great model, especially as a wool lover and employee of Jamieson and Smith! I then figured it would be nice to have a second face for contrast and approached Ella’s friend Vivian (also a Shetlander). I had seen photos of her via Ella’s instagram feed. Thankfully, she was enthusiastic to join us too. This worked out really well as the two of them were very relaxed and comfortable during the shoot (and also just lovely to hang out with)!
Ella in Burrafith
The photographer, Kathy Cadigan, was also someone I already knew and liked. Conveniently enough, she had signed up to come on our first Shetland trip (which happened right before the shoot). I love Kathy’s aesthetic and energy and knew she would capture exactly what I was aiming for with this collection.
Ella and Vivian in Hermaness Hats
Mary Jane is not only a dear, dear friend of mine, but an experienced stylist. I was very pleased to have her there to keep tabs on all things style/clothing related!
On the technical side of things I had Carrie Hoge do all the graphic design. She had done such a lovely job on my first Shetland Trader collection. I feel very in tune with her whole design aesthetic.
For technical editing I had Heather Zoppetti (who is also my wholesaler and a wonderful designer in her own right). For sample knitting I had a trusted and exceptional knitter, Nicole Dupuis to help me out.The printing was done by Puritan Press, who had also produced my first book. They are a small press in New Hampshire and wonderful to work with! They even made sure to have some early books ready for me to collect and bring to Wool Week last year!
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget my extended family, who made meals for us all!
All of these people made the book what it is, and I’m so incredibly grateful to have been able to work with them all!
9. Can you tell us about the textile and knitting tours youʼve recently been organising in Shetland? Will those be running again this year?
Various people had asked both Mary Jane and me if we would ever consider doing trips to Shetland. We eventually thought why not! Our first two trips ran last year, one in the summer and the other during wool week. We had groups of 12 on each trip. The accommodation was in Burrastow House, another beautiful location on the west side of Shetland. We had the place to ourselves and the group were served delicious meals by the charming Belgian owner, Pierre.
The trips are heavily fiber focused, but we also wanted people to truly experience the Shetland landscape and it’s inhabitants. There were fiber related classes, visits to Jamieson and Smith and Jamieson’s yarn companies, visits to a working croft where we watched hand clipping of Shetland sheep (with the option to have a go), visits with local designers, talk and tour of the Shetland Museum Textile exhibit, a boat trip to see some birds and seals, and of course down time for everyone to do some of their own exploring!
The two trips are fairly similar with the biggest differences being the time of year and the fact that the Wool Week trip means there are even more knitters in Shetland and even more fibery things happening!
I’m pleased to say that they both seem to have been successes! We received very positive feedback from the groups. There are even 5 of them returning for their own trip to Shetland for Wool Week this year.
So yes, we are running them again in 2015! We have already built up an email list of potential participants, so they have had the initial information and option to sign up early. We will be opening the remaining spots up to the general public soon. Information can be found on my website.
10. Finally, whatʼs next for the Shetland Trader?
The next big thing for The Shetland Trader (and my family) is that it will be based in Scotland as of this summer! This will mean closer proximity to Shetland (we will be living in Edinburgh) and hence lots more opportunities to visit and gather inspiration! It will also make it easier to run the trips, and potentially mean I can do them more often.
In terms of the design side of things I am hoping to start work on another collection that would see some of my mother’s designs written up with some of my touches thrown in. Of course there will also continue to be collaborations with other yarn companies too!
Thanks so much for this illuminating chat, Gudrun! I’m really looking forward to seeing more of you when you return to bonnie Scotland!
One of the most frequent requests I receive by email is to help knitters ‘translate’ my owls pullover design into a cardigan.
This is not as straightforward as it sounds. The owls pullover was designed to be a tightly-fitting garment, with negative ease and back shaping (which would sit rather oddly as a cardigan). The pullover is worked in the round (while a cardigan is generally worked back and forth) and this has implications for the way the owl cables are charted and rendered. Additionally, the owl cables are not centred around a front opening (as they would need to be to accommodate the button bands).
So I have designed the Owligan.
This is a very straightforward pattern, knit up in super-bulky yarn at 2.5 sts to the inch. The pattern is ideal for a beginner knitter, and comes with a number of different options to accommodate different skills and requirements. The sleeves can be knit flat, or in the round; the owl cables can be worked from a chart or from written instructions; and the body can be worked to two different lengths. The short length is shown above (worked in New Lanark Chunky with the yarn held double) and the longer length is shown below (worked in TOFT Ulysses chunky, which really is a super super bulky yarn!).
Unlike the owls pullover, the Owligan is designed to be worn with quite a bit of positive ease. I’m wearing both the long and short versions of the garment with 6 ins positive ease in these photographs. The pattern is graded in seven sizes, to fit bust measurements of 30 to 55 ins.
The two yarns I’ve used for these samples are very different. TOFT Ulysses chunky is a smooth, worsted spun yarn which is soft both to knit and wear. It is a beautiful, special and very luxurious yarn – and its price reflects this. New Lanark chunky is a woollen spun yarn with a much more rustic feel. While it is certainly not as soft to knit as the TOFT, the yarn relaxes, expands and blooms considerably after washing (so be sure to always wash your swatch!). Its a great everyday yarn that’s very reasonably priced, and knits up into a wonderfully woolly and robust garment.
If you have previously purchased the owls or owlet patterns, the Owligan pattern can be yours for half price. Simply put the Owligan in your Ravelry basket, then enter the code OWL50% (for owls pattern) or OWLET50% (for owlet pattern) and the discount will be applied when you checkout. (Note: if you received either pattern as a gift or freebie, I’m afraid there is no discount as there’s no previous purchase). But if you have previously purchased one of the aforementioned patterns, however long ago that was, the discount will be applied, and the Owligan will be half price.
The Owligan is not only a super-speedy knit, but is also wonderfully wearable – particularly in the current weather! Mel and I have become a little obsessed with knitting Owligan samples – so you might see another couple, worked up in different yarns, popping up here over the next few weeks. . .
Thanks so much for your comments on the previous post, which mean an awful lot to me. I’ve a wee bit more to say about my recovery, and will do so in the next post.
It was this time of year when I first visited Shetland. How well I recall that crazy drive across Unst in a blizzard! The weird half-light at midday! My first feeling of the profound difference of the place, but my immediate sensation that it was somewhere I could easily feel at home. . . Anyway whatever it is, for the past few days, I’ve been strangely feeling the pull of Shetland on me. Perhaps it is because I’m wearing a lot of Shetland wool: I’ve scored quite a few vintage sweaters recently, and these are now in regular circulation in my winter wardrobe.
Perhaps it is because I’ve been listening to Shetland voices. A recent episode of Radio Scotland’s “Our Story” featured many of my Shetland friends and acquaintances talking about knitting. Please go and listen to the programme if you haven’t already. This really is a great programme (in a great series) which, because it is largely shaped by the words of ‘real people’, rather than the agenda of ill-informed researchers, is SO much better than the ‘novelty’ accounts of knitting of which the mainstream UK media is often sadly so full. You’ll hear Oliver Henry enthusing about the unique qualities of Shetland’s “kindly wool”, Carol Christiansen unpacking the origins of island knitting in the Shetland Museum, Hazel Tindall on the cost of knitting, and knitting as ‘wearable art’, Jan Robertson’s truly lyrical account of the colours of Shetland sheep, and Ella Gordon talking in a most inspiring fashion about design and her sense of place. (The programme is just under half an hour long, and is available on the BBC iplayer for the next 29 days)
There’s a lovely piece by Donna Smith, this year’s patron of Shetland wool week, about the importance of knitting to her own sense of heritage and identity. Donna is one of those people who just seems to have an easy and effortless sense of style, and this image of her knitting a beautiful fair isle glove while wearing a sleek bright blue leather makkin belt and an Orla Kiely print really sums her up for me.
Glasgow University’s Ros Chapman shares her research in a brilliant and very telling piece about knitting and Shetland’s truck system – which made me think differently about the various ‘repository’ shops that sprang up around Scotland and England in the late nineteenth century, some of which still exist today.
. . . There’s a feature by Alistair Hamilton about Edmund Hillary’s world famous Everest sweater (a Shetland icon) as well a fabulous account of last year’s Wool Week by Diana Lukas-Nulle and a profile of Selina May-Miller, Shetland Wool Week’s new co-ordinator.
Finally, I wonder if my current yen for Shetland has anything to do with what arrived in the post this morning? These are seed potatoes – Shetland black tatties, to be exact. Last time I saw Misa we spent a good hour enthusing about gardening, and particularly about the joys and challenges of growing vegetables in our respective parts of the world. I am intrigued to see how Misa’s Shetland black tatties fare down here with me in the west of Scotland, and how lovely it was, on a cold January day to open this parcel, see its sprouting contents, and to feel excited about growing things again. Thanks so much, Misa!
So, in short, I find myself with a curious yearning to be in Shetland . . .which sadly cannot be fulfilled right now. I’ll just have to make do with the live broadcast from Up Helly Aa next week . . .
Skein Queen has also been very busy preparing yarn bundles for these mittens. The yarn – Voluptuous Skinny – is a lovely plump, woolly 4 ply. It is spun up by John Arbon, and composed of 80% Exmoor Blue and 20% organic merino. The yarn is just ideal for a pair of colourwork mittens – the stranding creates a fabric that’s dense and warm, soft and springy. The pattern includes instructions for two sizes of mitten, small and large, and each Skein Queen yarn bundle will include more than enough yarn to knit the largest size.
I’ve also put together a time-limited promotion for those who want to make Jazz Hands to match their Epistropheids. If you purchase both patterns on Ravelry, using the code HEIDANDHANDS you will receive 40% off your total – that’s both patterns for £3.95. Please be sure to add both patterns to your Ravelry cart (using the ‘add to cart’ option) before entering the code or the system won’t apply the discount. Previous Epistropheid purchases should also count toward the promotion – if you encounter any problems please do let me know.
I’ve been enjoying the snowy weather and have been wearing my Jazz Hands pretty constantly since the cold snap started – my hands have been toasty warm!
I’ve had cause to celebrate Mel’s knitting on more than one occasion here. . .
Some of you may recognise Mel as a model from Yokes: Mel has many strings to her supremely talented bow, and I’m lucky enough that she works with me on projects such as Yokes as a sample knitter, design consultant, and all-round offerer of sage advice.
My principal aim when pattern-writing is always clarity, and Mel’s suggestions often help me to achieve that. Keith Moon is a simple sweater with a few nifty details, and Mel’s advice after knitting her version really helped me to hone the instructions for finishing the collar.
Mel and I have very different colour insticts – though we rarely gravitate towards the same shades, her choices always appeal to me, and often make me think about colour in a different way. Her teal-y green, coal black and silver grey Keith Moon is completely different to my nautical original, and it is totally gorgeous.
Mel also recently knitted an Epistrophy in exactly the same yarn (tasty Toft DK), but the reverse colourway to the original. Again, it looks very different to my sample, and it is just so neat and lovely I had to show you.
I don’t mind admitting this is one of my all-time favourites of all the sweaters I’ve designed and knit and -ye gods – I want a dark grey Epistrophy now! Indeed I might have tried to sneak off with it after we took these photographs this afternoon, but Mel is wise to my ways. . .
The day before Christmas eve a wonderful package arrived from Sweden. This was inside. Kerstin Olsson – who you may remember I had the pleasure of meeting a few months ago, and about whose important work for Bohus Stickning I devoted a chapter to in my Yokes book – had done me the honour of knitting me a scarf!
Oh my! And this was not just any scarf! For Kerstin had knitted this lovely gift from original Bohus Stickning yarns — the same yarns with which she knit and designed during the company’s heyday in the 1960s.
An awful lot of work went into developing and maintaining the production of Bohus Stickning yarns such as EJA (Emma Jacobsson Angora). The dye palette was rich and varied, and, to meet Emma’s exacting standards, the spinning, blending, and handle of the fibres had to always be of the very highest quality.
When I visited Göteborg, Kerstin showed me some Bohus Stickning shade cards. Handling them, I was astounded both by the quality of the yarns and the sheer richness of the palette: the vast number of shades the company produced was really pretty astounding. These yarns and palette were Kerstin’s raw materials. It was their quality and variety that allowed her to experiment so successfully with colour, shade, and texture, and to create her wonderful yoke designs, alive with hazy, shimmering hues.
Kerstin’s aesthetic is clearly evident in this fabulous scarf! When I took it out of the bag Tom immediately exclaimed how wonderful the colours were – and they really are.
It is just so lovely. I am pretty overwhelmed.
Kerstin also kindly included some wee twists of yarn in her package – for repairs.
As a knitter, I’m often prompted to reflect on the meanings invested in acts of making, giving and receiving, and as a researcher, I often find that objects that interest me carry a sort of numinous significance . . . .Well, as both knitter and researcher, I can tell you that this beautiful gift, from an incredible designer and artist, created with these wonderful fifty year-old yarns really means an awful lot to me. I was deeply moved when I opened the package and am so very, very happy with my scarf!
Thankyou so much for this precious gift, Kerstin. I feel very honoured indeed to receive it, and shall always treasure it.
So, as December draws to a close, farewell, 2014, and thankyou all for reading! Its been lovely to share this year with you!
Clearly it is hat season in this house, as I appear to be unable to stop churning out Epistropheids. Tom requested one, and chose the yarn – Rowan Felted Tweed in Phantom and Clay.
Both these shades feature pleasing sky-blue tweedy flecks, and speak to each other rather nicely. Tom wanted a predominantly brown hat so I reversed the chart colourway from dark to light. I was at first concerned that the Felted Tweed feels slightly less plump at this gauge than the TOFT dk I’d used for my original, but it knit up evenly, and the fabric bloomed really nicely after blocking. It has made a lovely hat.
So now we both have matching heids. Do we look insanely his and hers? WHO CARES.
Hope you are all enjoying the season! I have to say that it feels rather nice to slow down a little . . . which for me seems to involve less time sitting at the computer, and more time sitting in front of old films knitting like mad!