Hello! Hope you have had a nice weekend! On Saturday Mel and I took a wee trip to Aberdeen, to visit Scottesque. You may remember that I’ve mentioned Scottesque before (in connection with the midi kilt with which I styled my Buchanan yoke).
I absolutely love my midi-kilt – I think its handkerchief paneling and bias-cut lines makes it an incredibly flattering and feminine way to sport tartan, and I find it really easy to wear. I commissioned my midi-kilt from Scottesque by email: having found an iteration of the “ancient” Buchanan tartan that I liked, and which was a good match for my yarn palette, I sent them my measurements and they designed and made my kilt for me. Anyway, I recently had an idea for a special and slightly more complicated garment (of which more later), and I thought it would be great if I could talk to Scottesque about creating it for me. So Mel and I hit the road, and found Scottesque in the lovely Rosemount area of Aberdeen (just down the road from the Beechgrove Garden, which I confess I found rather exciting).
Scottesque is run by Jan, who has worked with textiles in Aberdeen for many years. Her business began with vintage and upcycling, and grew to focus on giving tartans and tweeds a contemporary feminine look. When she applied techniques of draping and folding to the design that became her signature midi-kilt, Scottesque never looked back. The bias lines of the fabric, and the design’s subtle volume and drape means this is a skirt shape that looks good on just about everyone.
It was fantastic to see Jan’s shop and workshop, and get a sense of what’s going on at Scottesque.
Mel fell in love with the greens and magentas of the Lindsay tartan.
And I was blown away by the array of beautiful fabrics . . .
. . . and colours . . .
. . . but most especially by Jan’s design acumen, bringing tartan to life with characteristic pleating, volume, and drape.
Mel and I had a fantastic time, and, ahem, placed some orders . . .
. . . so if you find yourself in Rosemount, I highly recommend a trip to Scottesque (especially as there’s a spring sale on at the moment!) But if you are unlikely to able to get to Aberdeen, you can always order a kilt to fit you, in your choice of Tartan, by contacting Scottesque directly.
I am a great fan of haps (which form the focus of one of my long-term projects) and I’m very happ-y indeed to see increasing interest in these simple and timeless shawls: Gudrun has a wonderful Craftsy class on haps, and has been running a knit-along for her full and half hap patterns for a couple of months. And, yesterday, led by Louise from Knit British, the much-anticipated hap-along began!
These patterns are inspired by, and share elements of ‘traditional’ Shetland haps: they are worked over a garter stitch fabric; are knitted in a “heavy” rather than a “fine” Shetland wool yarn; and feature simple Shetland openwork patterns, rather than fine lace. Their construction, however, is rather different from the borders-in, or centre-out method used by Shetland knitters to create a hap: Northmavine is a top-down, centre-out design, and Hap for Harriet is worked from side to side with some simple shaping and openwork to create its sweeping points.
My understanding of the word “hap” is as a simple wrap or covering – a word that has been used in Scotland and Northern England for centuries to convey the idea of cosiness and warmth. I wrote about the etymology of “hap” in Colours of Shetland thus:
“As knitters, we may have come across the word “hap” in reference to Shetland (or Shetland-type) shawls featuring simple openwork, but what precisely does it mean? “Hap” is a word common to Scots and Northern English dialects, as well as Shetland, and means to wrap, to cover, or conceal. From the 14th century on, the word “hap” crops up frequently in a wide variety of Northern texts, its usage ranging from the quotidian (the protection of crops in cold ground, the repair of a thatched roof) to the sombre (the wrapping of a corpse or the burying of a secret). In Scots, to be “weel happit” means to be well wrapped-up against the cold, and, it is perhaps in reference to colder winter weather that the word has been most often used. In The Brigs of Ayr (1786) for example, Robert Burns summed up the time of year as “when the stacks get on their winter haps”, and James Hogg memorably captured the atmosphere of a chilly evening: “When gloamin o’er the Welkin steals / And haps the hills in sober grey” (Forest Minstrel, 1810). More recently, ‘hap’ appears as a singularly Wintery covering in Edinburgh author, James King Annand’s lovely poem, Purple Saxifrage (1991).
Aneath a hap o snaw it derns
Deep in a dwam for maist the year
To burst throu in a bleeze o starns
Syne skail its flourish on the stour.
Beneath a hap of snow it hides
Deep in a dream for most the year
To burst through in a blaze of stars
Then spill its flourish on the storm)
When the weather is chilly, what better way to be “weel happit” than in a warm and cosy wool shawl? While, in 19th-century mainland Scotland, the noun “hap” might suggest a plaid or other type of women’s wrap, in Shetland a “hap” came specifically to refer to the attractive openwork coverings made and worn by the knitters of those islands. In contrast to the luxurious fine lace shawls that were produced for merchants or special occasions, haps were intended for everyday use, to be worn around the house or on the hill. Spun and knitted thicker than fine lace, a hap was a garment with a function: to keep the body warm. Wrapped and tied around the torso, or tucked hood-like around the neck and chin, a good hap would efficiently insulate its Shetland wearer against the exigencies of cold and wind. Knitted over a background of garter stitch, and featuring shaded chevrons of familiar Shetland openwork patterns (first in natural sheep-shades, and later in dyed colours), haps could also be incredibly beautiful and striking in their simplicity. Like the best kind of functional clothing, haps possess a certain timelessness of design, and today this Shetland classic is frequently re-interpreted by knitters around the world.”
Colours of Shetland, 2012, p.52-3
I think it is their functional quality – coupled with a certain elegant simplicity – that make haps appeal to me so much as both a designer and a knitter. These are garments to be made and worn. They are relaxing to knit, add colour and warmth to our outfits, and have a certain timeless ease which to me suggests the importance and longevity of the simple shawl in women’s wardrobes. Because of this, the Northmavine Hap and the Hap for Harriet are among my favourite designs, and if you are making either in the hap-along I do hope you enjoy the patterns!
(Hap for Harriet in Old Maiden Aunt Shetland 2ply)
(Northmavine Hap in Jamieson and Smith 2 ply Jumper Weight)
Thanks so much for all your good wishes over the past couple of weeks. I really have been quite unwell, and because of this somewhat grumpy – hence the silence here. As you might imagine, it can take me a while to recover from what to most folk is a routine infection, and I find this really frustrating, but am happily regaining my energy now. If you are waiting for an email response to a customer service query I promise I’ll get back to you soon!
The other day Brenda, my lovely neighbour, appeared with a piece of paper in her hand, a gift for me. When I unfolded it, the piece of paper turned out to be a rather interesting and very beautiful hand-painted floral design, which I could immediately tell was some sort of pattern repeat.
But what sort of pattern repeat? I have a limited knowledge of weaving, but in many respects this pattern didn’t really resemble the weaving directions I’d seen. Upon further examination, I felt the motifs had a sort of open quality about them that suggested lace. There was an identifying number on the reverse of the paper.
This suggested the pattern was intended for use in an industrial, commercial context. But what kind of machines produced charted lace? I examined the patterning and instruction marks, all of which were carefully hand-painted. . . as was the lettering.
Then I noticed this word – Madras. I had a vague recollection of some kind of openwork fabric of that name being produced at the turn of the twentieth century. Poking around my books, I found a reference to “Scottish Madras” in Lesley Jackson’s Twentieth Century Pattern Design. Semi-sheer muslins with openwork patterns were traded from, and associated with the Indian port, and, in much the same culturally appropriative way that Paisley became a byword for textiles originating in Kashmir, so an Ayrshire iteration of Madras’s gauzy, lacey muslins began to be produced in the mills of the Irvine valley from the 1870s onwards.
Further poking around revealed more information: that Scottish Madras was introduced to Ayrshire by Alexander Morton, a Scottish textile innovator and entrepreneur who admired and emulated the technology of the Nottingham Leavers Lace machine. The semi-transparent nature of the fabric meant that it was ideal for curtains, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, design houses such as Voysey and Morris & Co were using Morton’s machinery to create lightweight curtain and furnishing fabrics for sale at outlets such as Libertys, in London. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, several mills in Irvine valley were hard at work creating fine lace fabrics like “Scottish Madras”.
Scottish Madras was, then, quite a specialised textile, involving precise design techniques and innovative technologies. The resulting fabric was pretty ubiquitous in the 1910s, and decorated countless early twentieth century domestic interiors. But what had happened to these technologies? Had they died out, as did so many other important innovations, when the Scottish textile industry declined later in the century? Well, imagine how delighted and excited I was to discover that that a company still exists in Ayrshire, using essentially the same specialised technologies to create contemporary interpretations of this important and distinctive local fabric! That company is MYB textiles and I suggest you pop over to their site immediately to read about their history producing Scottish Madras and laces. Even more excitingly, Kashka Lennon, one of the designers at MYB textiles, was able to tell me more about the pattern Brenda had given to me.
According to Kashka: “This is a Nottingham Lace draft, you can tell from the colour used to paint it, the red symbolises the most opaque areas, the green semi-sheer, the white represent the sheer of the lace and the blue symbolises the tags used to pull the yarns together to create very open areas of the design. I can also tell that the design you have would’ve have been for a small 16” café net style fabric by the orientation of the pattern on the graph paper.”
Kashka also mentioned that while she has been taught to recreate these patterns digitally (perhaps in much the same way as we knitwear designers do using Illustrator and other charting software) her design director was trained to make drafts using a similar hand painted technique to that of my chart.
There are beautiful and intriguing things about so many charts and patterns. I find this chart especially beautiful and particularly intriguing because it was a gift that has taught me something about a distinctive Scottish textile I never really knew existed. I now intend to visit MYB textiles to find out a little more about the techniques and traditions of machine-made lace in Scotland! I am very excited about this and promise to report back here after my trip!
Thankyou, Brenda, for sending me on this journey!
Finally! A break in the weather. It is beginning to feel vaguely Spring-like at last.
Primroses! Things in bloom on my doorstep again!
Bruce and I have been making the most of the weather on our daily walks.
You can see the water levels of Loch Lomond are rather high – a result of the near-biblical rain we’ve been having of late.
One of my greatest pleasures on my walks is observing the way the weather (of which there is a lot out here) transforms familiar objects. The light, for example, is different every single day. This tree (a favourite) looks different each time I see it. Yesterday it was all but submerged.
Tom has been making the most of the weather too – running the Deeside Way – a 33 mile race in preparation for the Highland Fling. I rather like the lo-fi jam-jar lid ‘medal’. 4 hours 19 minutes! Well done, Tom!
I had hoped to show you some knitting today – but there is honestly not much to see. For the past few weeks I have been working on a garment with an, um, “atypical” construction. Today I had to concede that despite my best efforts it really hasn’t worked out. Now, if you were ever in need of a tightly-fitting woolly superhero outfit that sits on the bias, then what I have created would suit you rather well. Sadly, though, this wasn’t quite the look I was after. Time to rip it out and start again!
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!
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 . . .
Yes, you did read that correctly — Cockatoo Brae. This remarkable phrase is, in fact, the name of a lane in Lerwick, Shetland, and it is also the name of the final yoke in my collection.
This design emerged from an exciting collaboration with my friend Ella. In Shetland, machine and hand knitting go very much, as it were, hand in hand. In fact, at certain crucial points in its twentieth-century story, machine knitting might be said to have saved the Shetland hand-knitting industry from extinction. The two crafts (and they are both crafts) are importantly imbricated, and perhaps especially so where the yoke sweater is concerned.
Hybrid yokes – where the body and sleeves are knitted by machine, and the yoke subsequently knitted on by hand – were one of the mainstays of the Shetland wool industry from the 1950s through the 1970s. I devote a chapter to this topic in my book, and you can read more about it there, but suffice it to say that, after my research I felt it was very important to include one such hybrid yoke design in my book. Cockatoo Brae is that yoke.
On one of my recent visits to Shetland, I was very keen to learn more about machine knitting from Ella, who runs her own business centred around the wonderful machine-knitted items that she designs and makes.
Ella’s Crofthoouse Cushions
At her studio in Cockatoo Brae, Ella introduced me to the process of creating machine-knitted fabric. Like many committed hand-knitters, I suppose I had certain lingering assumptions about what machine knitting involved (knitting by machine? surely this is the devil’s work?!) but these were quickly exploded. I discovered that the process was not only extremely skilled, but also – in the simple act of making stitches – much, much more like hand-knitting than I’d imagined. It is also quite physically demanding!
When I returned home after my visit I began designing a chart using an interesting variant of the ubiquitous tree and star motifs that appear on countless Shetland yokes. It is no coincidence that the shades I chose echoed those of the swatch we had created in Cockatoo Brae. Much of the inspiration for Ella’s design work comes from the 1970s: a decade during which Shetland knitters were producing thousands of yokes for a buoyant commercial market, but when the advent of North Sea Oil also changed the face of the Shetland knitting industry. The 1970s are an interesting moment of transition in Shetland, and Ella’s work interrogates and reflects this. I wanted the palette of our yoke to reflect it too.
The bright green is Jamieson and Smith shade FC11 and the orange shade is 125. (This rich tomato-soup shade is one of my all-time favourite Jamieson and Smith colours – I absolutely love it!). For the main body of the sweater I chose FC58 – a wonderfully complex heathered brown that in fact has more individual colours blended in it than any other shade in the Jamieson and Smith palette. After Ella and I had settled on the chart and palette, I provided her with a pattern and she got to work creating the sweater’s machined components. (Ella will write in more detail about the process of knitting the body and sleeves on her machine, and you’ll be able to read about the process on her blog)
Some time later, I received this bundle in the post
As machine-knit yarn is oiled, I decided to block the separate pieces quite vigorously first so I could see that the hand-knit and the machine-knit fabric were behaving the same way, and that I could be sure that my gauge would match up. After blocking the pieces, I seamed them up with matress stitch. Ella had left small sections of ‘waste’ knitting at the tops of the sleeve and body pieces that could be unravelled to create a set of live stitches. So I unravelled the waste, set sleeves and body on a circular needle, and cast on a nine stitch steek over the cardigan’s front opening to enable me to knit the yoke on in the round.
Here’s the yoke in progress.
Here it is blocking
Creating this yoke with Ella was a fascinating and really enjoyable process for me, and I felt I understood much more about the textile practices and history I’d been researching through the simple act of knitting this garment. Sometimes making really is learning.
If you’d like to create your own Cockatoo Brae in exactly the same way we did, I’ve included instructions for flat machine-knitting body and sleeves in the book. But don’t worry –if you’d prefer to hand-knit the design in its entirety – working the whole garment in the round and then steeking it open afterwards – those instructions are also included.
We shot these photographs on a lovely autumn day around the lower slopes of Ben Lawers and Meal nan Tarmachan, where Tom was running a hill race. Tom ran very well, and I think the photographs he took after the race show the garment perfectly suited to its setting.
I’d like to give a big shout-out to Tom today, who has really shared my Yoke vision, and whose considerable skills as a photographer are in evidence throughout. His images – which beautifully illustrate each garment in a separate, distinctive location suited to its style – are an essential element of the larger creative process behind this book. Thanks, Tom x.