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.
You will have heard me mention distinguished Shetland designer, Hazel Tindall, many times on this blog. I first met Hazel three years ago, when I was lucky enough to take a workshop with her during Shetland Wool Week. Over the course of the class, Hazel shared her knitterly tips and techniques, talked us through some beautiful examples of her work, and showed us just how she went about designing Fair Isle allover garments. It was a memorable afternoon. I was bowled over by the extent of Hazel’s talent, and by her generosity. Both of these qualities are in evidence in Hazel’s much-anticipated new film in which she demonstrates the creation of a beautiful Fair Isle cardigan from start to finish.
Here’s the trailer:
Hazel’s film is a wonderful way to learn more about Shetland knitting, colourwork, and garment construction. The format is innovative and useable, with a cardigan pattern being designed specifically for this film as an accompanying download. The steps of the pattern and the chapters of the film are cross referenced, making the process very simple and straightforward for the knitter to follow. Hazel’s Shetland Star cardigan is designed using the rich, saturated shades of Uradale Farm’s Double Knitting, a Shetland yarn which has been organically raised and processed. It is a lumber of familiar Shetland construction, featuring vertically placed stars interspersed with dicing, which showcase Hazel’s characteristic use of colour. The pattern comes in 10 sizes (from 23 to 46 ins).
The cardigan is knit in the round and steeked, and Hazel shows you from start to finish precisely how to construct and create it. You’ll learn how to swatch carefully, how to insert a pocket into colourwork, how to set up a sleeve and neckline, to cut a steek, to graft and finish the cardigan, and finally how to block a garment on a Shetland jumper board. If Shetland knitting methods are completely new to you, Hazel carefully introduces many objects and techniques that may be unfamiliar: long pins, knitting belt, wrapping string, and the use of cotton thread to create tension during knitting and to secure the fabric while blocking. All stages of the process are carefully illustrated – you really can learn at your own pace. And even if you are an experienced colourwork knitter, you will learn an awful lot from this film. I was both surprised and impressed by many of Hazel’s methods, and shall be immediately adopting her very nifty technique of picking up stitches around a steeked armhole or cardigan front opening. My one proviso is that, if you are a very beginner knitter, Hazel’s film may not be the best learning tool for you. But if you know the basics of stranded colourwork knitting, and want to discover more about this technique, then this film is a true gift. For who better to learn from than a Shetland designer with over 50 years experience, and the world’s fastest knitter to boot?
The DVD and download have been beautifully and professionally produced by Dave Donaldson and JJ Jamieson. Both sound and images are clear and sharp, but the film also has a wonderfully relaxed feel, enhanced throughout by the tones of Hazel’s lovely voice. I’ve already spent many happy hours knitting along with, and learning from, The Fine Art of Fair Isle Knitting, and imagine I’ll spend many more. In the final section, poet Stella Sutherland reads her wonderful piece The Allover, an insightful celebration of the “joy of creation” involved in knitting a Fair Isle garment, accompanied by beautiful images of the Shetland landscape. I can’t think of a more fitting conclusion to Hazel’s generous and inspiring film.
The Fine Art of Fair Isle Knitting is available on DVD or download directly from Hazel’s Website
One of the many fun elements of researching my book has been seeking out yoked sweaters on eBay and in charity shops. I have learned a lot from these garments, which are often a hybrid of machine and hand-knitting, and thought I’d share a few of them with you today. I think I showed you the Shetland yoke jumper I’m wearing above on a previous occasion. It has a machine knitted body and a hand-knitted tree and star yoke with a characteristically back-buttoned placket; it fits me well, and I wear it frequently. I wanted to mention this jumper today because it is, in yoke terms, somewhat anomalous: the way the pattern repeats have been calculated means that the tree is centred both front and back. The back opening thus divides a tree in half:
I imagine this will seem an insignificant matter to some of you – after all, the motifs are still balanced and centred – but when you’ve looked at many Shetland yokes, and many patterns for Shetland yokes, it immediately appears odd. My friend Ella* was quick to spot its curious tree placement, and in almost every other example I’ve seen over the past six months or so, the star is centred, not the tree. (If the garment is a jumper, the star is always at front centre, and if a cardigan, there’s an extra star to balance the pattern, so the front opening is always flanked by stars.) So this yoke is a curiosity of which I am particuarly fond – I think its anomalous nature only endears it more to me.
Here is a non-anomalous, fairly standard Shetland tree and star yoke, that I found on eBay:
The body and sleeves have been machined, and the yoke, ribbing, and front bands have all been finished by hand. Its nicely finished – here you can see how, on the inside of the garment, the yoke has been steeked and cut; the yarn ends have been woven in; and have then felted down with wear.
And here’s another Shetland tree and star – a jumper this time:
Again, the star is centred, and the garment is a machine / hand-knitted hybrid. I am fond of this one, because it bears the lovely trademark of the Shetland Woollen Industries Association:
Back in the 1920s, the SWIA was established to protect native Shetland wool, and to promote and protect the products that were made from it. The trade mark guaranteed that the goods were genuine Shetland wool products, grown and produced in the Shetland islands. Sadly, this trade mark is just one of a litany of many never-wholly successful attempts to protect the term “Shetland”, in reference to wool and textiles, from appropriation and misuse. (You can read more about this issue in this 1952 parliamentary motion and debate and in Sarah Dearlove’s chapter in Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present)
Here I am, spotting a couple of naughty rabbits about to chow down on what’s left of my leeks.
This jumper illustrates the evolution of the “Shetland” yoke (strictly speaking, its not made from “Shetland” wool, and neither is it made in Shetland) and despite the fact that its far too big for me I find it interesting because it demonstrates an important stage in yoke history as the garment became enabled for industrial mass production. These jumpers were – and are still – produced by Harley of Scotland, on, as I understand it, some pretty innovative knitting machinery that enables the speedy creation of completely seamless and circular yoked garments. The yoke design is pretty simple, and there’s certainly none of the wonderful individuality you find in so many hand-knit Shetland yokes, but I find the jumper intriguing precisely because the yoke is circular, fashioned in a Shetland style, and because hand-knitting has finally been taken out of the production equation.
Harley still produce similar garments to order, as you can see here
Finally, here is a recent yoke find by which I was particularly excited:
I purchased this beautiful Norweigan yoke on eBay, from an Edinburgh seller who remarkably turned out to be a reader of this blog (hello, Amy!). It is one of many iterations of Unn Søiland Dale’s “Eskimo” design (please note that my use of that word simply reproduces the given name of the sweater: I am in no way endorsing the term’s unpleasant and inaccurate ethnographic connotations). As the tree and star yoke is to Shetland, so Dale’s yoke is to Norway:
(Images of Unn Søiland Dale’s Eskimogenser from Digitalt.Museum)
In its many forms, but always with with similar motifs and this characteristic colourway, Dale’s yoked sweater seems to have been in constant production in Norway since 1952, when it was first designed. This yoke is a true Norweigan icon (and is referenced as such in a recent pattern collection by Sandnes Garn)
And just like its Shetland counterparts, this commercially-produced Norweigan yoke is also a hybrid of machine and hand knitting, with careful finishing.
. . . and beautiful hand-knitting on the yoke.
Amy, your sweater has gone to a good home and I feel honoured to have it among my yoke collection!
All of these yokes involve some machine knitting, and all of them have been in some way instructive when thinking about the construction and creation of my own hybrid machine and hand-knit yoke, which is now nearing completion.
Ella machined the body, I blocked and seamed the body and sleeve pieces; picked up stitches for the yoke and, over the weekend, knitted my yoke on. It has been a really interesting process, and is the very last bit of knitting there is for my book. All of the patterns, including this one, are now complete – we are almost there!
So, I suppose I’d better get on and finish those front bands. . . .
*Ella has also been documenting her knitwear collection! Pop over here to see more yokes.
Hello! I’m back again after a fantastic (and productive) couple of weeks research. I’ve had an amazing time in Sweden and Shetland, but what has really stood out to me about this past fortnight is the number of brilliant women whose company and conversation I’ve enjoyed. It has been a very long time since I’ve been this sociable, and I’ve returned home feeling really inspired and energised by all of the brilliant women with whom I’ve been able to spend time. So a big thanks to:
It was an incredible privilege to meet Kerstin, who is a truly lovely and incredibly talented individual. I was barely able to contain my excitement during a visit to her studio, in which I got to see her original swatches, personal collection of Bohus material, and the superb works of watercolour and textile art she’s produced over the past decades. In all respects, Kerstin and her work are massively inspiring. The following day Kerstin took me to the Röhsska Museum, where we had tremendous fun exploring their important collection of Bohus knitting. I learnt so much from Kerstin that day, and together we also discovered a swatch, which meant that we were able to identify a “mystery” design, that’s remained previously unidentified among the Bohus garments in Meg Swansen‘s collection.
(Meg’s mystery Bohus sweater is Grå Randen, a pre-1947 design by Anna-Lisa Mannheimer Lunn)
In my former academic life, as well as my present independent one, I’ve spent many happy days in many different archives. But I count this day with Kerstin in the Röhsska Museum as the highlight of my research career. For when does one have an opportunity to explore an archive with the very person whose work one is researching? And the fact that person is someone whose warmth and generosity means I feel I can count her as a friend makes it even more special. It was a once-in-a-lifetime day. Thankyou so much, Kerstin.
At the Bohusläns Museum I was made to feel immediately at home by Anna-Lena Segestam Macfie and Ann-Marie Brockman. Before I arrived in Sweden, Anna-Lena’s help was invaluable in making connections and tracking things down. While I was in Bohuslän she kindly took time to introduce me to the Museum’s wonderful collections – among which I discovered not only incredible textiles but the work of my new favourite folk artist, Carl Gustaf Bernhardson. With Anna-Lena and Ann-Marie I also visited nearby Gustafsberg, where I was in eighteenth-century heaven, and “took” the water from an historic well.
It was the first time I’d visited this part of Sweden, and I found Bohuslän to be an exceptionally beautiful and interesting place – reminscent in some respects of Shetland. I am already making plans for a longer visit.
In Shetland I spent a lovely few days working in the very convivial atmosphere of the Museum store. Jenny Murray not only helped me with my work, hunting down a very elusive jumper that I was interested in seeing, but kindly brought in her personal collection of yokes to show me. And thanks too to Laurie Goodlad, who lent me a costume, so I could join her and Jenny at their lunchtime swim at Clickimin.
Ella Gordon came along to the museum store to join me in my labours as a yoke detective. Ella is a skilled machine knitter as well as a hand-knitter, and not only does her matchless knowledge of Jamieson & Smith shade cards mean that she can usefully identify particular yarn colours in their many different incarnations over the past few decades, but she is able to “read” the garment construction of machined / hand-knitted Shetland yokes in a way that I cannot. I am so grateful for her help.
Ella also introduced me to machine knitting, which for me was very exciting and very interesting, and perhaps more like hand-knitting than I’d imagined. Together, we are producing a hybrid Shetland yoke (with Ella machining the body and me hand-knitting the yoke) and you’ll be able to read more about this process and its history in my book.
Sandra Manson (pictured here with Ella in my all-time favourite yarn shop and general wool haven) is someone whose wit and warmth I often miss when I’ve not seen her for a while. Do keep your eye out for the genius designs that Sandra’s recently produced for the Campaign For Wool’s Wool Ride this October.
Finally, I got to talk yokes with Shetland friends old and new: Misa Hay, Donna Smith, Louise Scollay, and Hazel Tindall. Thanks to Donna, Louise and Hazel for sharing thoughts, photographs and objects which have really helped to shape up my ideas, and to Misa for enthusiastic discussion of the pleasures of growing ones own tatties. As many of you may know, Hazel is about to release a wonderful and much-anticipated film to which I’m sure lots of you are looking forward. I am lucky enough to have a review copy in my hot little hands, and will tell you more about it another time!
Thanks so much to all of these brilliant women, in Sweden and in Shetland, for sharing their company, conversation, inspiration and expertise. Now I’m ready to sit down and write the final part of my book.
I have recently received a number of messages prefaced with this very question, and I thought that this rather basic introductory essay I wrote about knitting in the round, and steeking, might form a useful addition to my series of posts and tutorials about steeks for those who are curious. The essay is an edited version of a piece that was first published in the Rowan Magazine. Many thanks to the Shetland Museum and Archives for allowing me to reproduce details of garments in their collection.
There really is no “right” or “wrong” way to knit: different styles suit different individuals, and a wide variety of methods and techniques exist to match an equally wide variety of garments and fabric types. Yet knitting is a community with its own particular trends and followings, and like any other community, notions of “either / or” divide it. Do you knit English or Continental? Top-down, or bottom up? Do you work back-and-forth, or in-the-round? Such questions of technique — of the “best” stretchy cast-off method; of the “right” way to strand the yarn in colourwork — can transform a bunch of friendly knitters into fiercely opposing camps, each with its own passionate adherents. And there is perhaps no technical opposition more fundamental, or more divisive, than that which is perceived to exist between knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round.
The standard arguments of the two camps go as follows:
The back-and-forth faction insists:
1. I like a sleek well-fitted garment. Knitting back and forth allows a garment to be carefully shaped using the best tailoring techniques.
2. The torso is composed of curves and lumps of differing proportions. Tailored pieces create the best lines to accommodate these complicated shapes.
3. In the beginning was the sewing needle. Early humans fitted the first garments to the body by stitching pieces of animal skin together with seams. It must be right.
4. The pattern writers of knitting’s ‘golden age’ created beautiful vintage garments designed to be knit in pieces, back and forth. They knew what they were on about.
5. Flat knitting follows industry standards of garment construction and pattern design. Fashion knows best.
Against which the in-the-round faction counters:
1. I hate sewing seams and finishing. Knitting in the round involves little or no finishing.
2. The torso is basically a tube, supplied with two smaller, narrower tubes. Therefore all sweaters should be knit in tubular fashion.
3. The beginnings of knitting were circular. Medieval paintings depicted the Virgin Mary knitting in the round. It must be right.
4. Folk knitters all over the world have knitted socks and ganseys in the round for centuries. They knew what they were on about.
5. Elizabeth Zimmermann once designed a seamless yoked sweater which was violated by editors ‘translating’ it into back-and-forth instructions. EZ knew best.
While these two positions may seem intractably opposed, in fact, there are elements of truth in both. Though back-and-forth knitting has certainly dominated the standard lexicon of commercial knitting patterns since the 1920s, instructions for many items (socks, gloves, hats) have habitually been written to be knit in the round. And while the knitters of Estonia and Shetland, Norway and the Faroe Islands have produced in-the-round garments for centuries, these women were also talented seamstresses who used sophisticated tailoring techniques to add shape, structure and decoration to their knitted ganseys and jackets. Today, despite the strong antipathy that one method or another can arouse among some knitters, there is more interplay than ever between methods associated with knitting back-and-forth and knitting in-the-round. Commercial patterns are increasingly written to accommodate many different techniques of flat and circular knitting, while knowledge of aspects of both methods — of the speed and ease of knitting in-the-round or of the structure and clean finish of knitting back-and-forth — lends knitters the freedom to modify the construction of garments in ways that best suit them. One such technique — which enables an in-the-round jumper to be easily transformed into a flat cardigan–is the practice that is known as steeking. Because steeking involves taking scissors to one’s creations, it strikes fear into the heart of many knitters. But this technique, common to all Northern knitting traditions, is much simpler to work than many knitters imagine.
The etymology of the “steek”
The word ‘steek’ has its root in the general Middle English verb ‘steken’ meaning to shut or fasten. By the Eighteenth Century, ‘steek’ was a term common to Shetland, Scots and Northern English dialects and, while it might be used in reference to a closed gate, door, or mouth, it was most often associated with needlework or knitting. In Scots, the verb, ‘to steek’ meant to sew, darn, or knit:
“Wull ee steek this slittin oxter afore it geets ony woare?”
Will you stitch this fraying underarm before it gets any worse?
Or, when used as a noun, the word ‘steek’ simply meant ‘stitch’.
“For want of a steek a shoe may be tint”
For want of a stitch, a shoe may be lost
While in some parts of Scotland and Shetland the word “steeking” still primarily means to stitch or close, in contemporary knitting parlance, the word has mutated and morphed to signify the opposite: that is, for most knitters, steeking now means to cut open, rather than to fasten shut. Thus, in pattern books that have been produced over the past thirty years or so, one finds the word “steek” being used in reference to what, in sewing, is commonly called a seam allowance (a few stitches that are worked additionally to the main pattern). Put simply, then, for today’s knitters, a “steek” is a bridge of extra stitches, connecting two separate pieces of knitted fabric, enabling them to be worked swiftly in the round. Preparing, reinforcing, and then cutting open this seam allowance (the practice now commonly known as “steeking”) transforms the tube back into flat pieces.
Why use steeks?
Steeks can be inserted into any kind of knitted fabric, but their most common application is perhaps in knitting a cardigan using the Fair Isle method of stranded colourwork. This is because carrying and purling two shades of yarn can prove tricky: many knitters find that the purl stitches create significant differences in their tension, or are much slower and more cumbersome to work. But if a steek is cast on in the places where the knitting would have to be divided to be worked back and forth — namely, at the cardigan’s centre front opening, and sleeves — the knitter can work the entire garment in the round, without purling, all the way from hem to shoulders. When the steeks are cut open, the extra cast-on stitches act just like seam allowances around which the knitter can pick up stitches to create button bands and sleeves.
But don’t steeks unravel?
Knitted fabric certainly likes to unravel, but it does so horizontally. Steek stitches are cut on the vertical, making them far less likely to do so. As anyone who has pulled back their knitting will know, wool is also a very ‘sticky’ fibre which likes to retain its shape. If one is knitting with a pure-wool or majority-wool yarn then it is very easy to work a steek simply because the stitches ‘want’ to hold their shape rather than to unravel. That said, because the cut edges of the steek are generally used to pick up a sleeve or edging afterwards, it is useful to reinforce them before cutting to help them deal with any strain they might take afterwards. Steeks can be prepared, reinforced and finished in a wide variety of ways. Taking a look at the interiors of a range of historic and contemporary cardigans that have been knitted in the round, before being “steeked” open, illustrates just how different steeks can be.
This image shows the front button bands of a 1920s cardigan knit in several natural shades of Shetland wool. The band has been worked in corrugated rib; buttonholes have been cut vertically into the band; and machine stitching has been used to attach a reinforcing grosgrain ribbon to the inside. . .
. . . here you see the grosgrain button-band reinforcement from the inside, and, to its left, the raw edges of a steek, which has been cut open, and folded back to the inside of the garment, away from the bands. The steek has not been reinforced, or stitched down: because the natural Shetland wool is very ‘sticky’ and has a tendency to felt, the knitter has trusted to the natural action of wear, and, over time, the steek edges have slightly felted together and adhered to the inside of the cardigan. Leaving steek edges ‘raw’ and allowing for felting in this way is a common feature of many Shetland hand-knitted garments, such as yoked cardigans that are still produced and sold today.
Here, a steek has been cut to create the cardigan front opening, and the raw edges have been trimmed back, bound over, and secured to the inside with blue blanket stitch.
Here we also see the front and interior of a button band, illustrating a different and rather more laborious method of securing raw steek edges to the inside of a cardigan. The knitter has either created a wound steek (by winding both strands of working yarn round her needle several times) or a dropped steek (in which the steek bridge is knitted and unravelled). Both methods create a giant ladder of strands, and, when the knitting is complete, the knitter cuts this ladder in two, creating a series of ends, which are then individually woven in to the back of the work. A button band has then been picked up from the edge of the wound steek, and worked in moss stitch. The careful finishing of the steek has made the edges of this 1930s garment extremely neat and durable. (For more on this method, see Tom of Holland’s excellent tutorial on the “knotted steek” )
My own designs use similar techniques of steeking and reinforcing as these earlier garments. Above is a detail of my Ursula design. As you can see, a crocheted steek has been worked, a button band has been picked up along the steek edge, and a ribbon reinforcement has then been hand-sewn to the inside. Rather than leaving the steek edges raw, the crochet reinforcement has been carefully removed, and the steek edges lightly hand-stitched down to the inside.
Meanwhile, in my Bláithín , design, a ‘sandwich’ edging is worked to cover and enclose a crocheted steek, securing the cut edges, and rendering them completely invisible.
As we can see from these examples, there are a wide variety of ways to cut and finish a steek. And, because shaping can easily be worked around a seam allowance, steeking is a technique that can be used to knit just about any garment or object. Steeks easily lend themselves to the creation of tea-cosies and blankets, dog jackets and tank tops. Once you are able to cut up knitted fabric without fear, you really can make just about anything.
Want to learn how to work a crocheted steek, or steek “sandwich”? Find the rest of my steeking tutorials here! .