I am not a Shetlander. I love Shetland, and I feel a connection to those islands and their culture that is (for me) profound and meaningful, but I am not a Shetlander. I think it is important for me to remember that, particularly as I am currently working on a collection of designs that use Shetland wool, and are all inspired by different aspects of Shetland and its landscape. In my previous job as an historian, I found it very useful to remind myself of the distance between myself and the eighteenth-century subjects I was working on. If you read a lot of eighteenth-century diaries and letters, you start to get to feel like you ‘know’ the people who wrote them. But you don’t know them, and it is really important to remember the distance that separates you from those folk, because that distance stops you from making foolish assumptions, and helps you to maintain respect.
I am not a Shetlander. But I feel a profound sense of irritation — that occasionally approaches outrage — when I happen across certain kinds of misrepresentation of Shetlanders and Shetland. Knitting books and magazines are particularly bad in this regard. There are many things that irk me in these knitterly accounts (don’t even get me started on the romanticisation of the truck system) but one of the things that irritates me most is the assumption that the islands are “remote” and difficult to access. Really? What does “remote” even mean? Shetland was not remote for the Vikings, and nor was it remote for the merchants of the 17th- and 18th-century Baltic. By the early 19th Century, commercial shipping meant that Shetland was actually much better connected than many English provincial towns — the sea meant that these islands were not remote at all. And what, really, is ‘remote’ about Shetland today? We are a nation of islands, and like many other parts of the British Isles, you can access Shetland easily by flight or ferry. No one ever describes the Isle of Man or Guernsey as ‘remote’ — but what’s the difference? It is, in fact, much more difficult for me to get to the Channel Islands than it is to hop on a plane to Shetland.
The assumption that Shetland, its people, and its culture, are terribly ‘remote’ feeds into a discourse of exoticism within which the islands are marked by a sense of arcane difference. And this is not only completely misleading, but, in making Shetland seem like some sort of antediluvian curiosity, is also profoundly damaging (and disrespectful) to its culture: a culture within which which wool and knitting play an important role. As I said, mainstream knitting books and magazines have a disappointing tendency to reinforce these ‘exoticising’ assumptions, and this is perhaps because (with a handful of notable exceptions: Miller, Starmore, Amedro, Johnston), they have been produced by people who know an awful lot about knitting but not very much about Shetland. Examples abound, but here is a recent one that I found all the more galling for being produced by someone whose work I otherwise like and admire.
In an article published recently in Interweave’s new e-mag Lace Knits (2012), Franklin Habit describes Shetland as “a windswept, sheep-infested archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland,” a statement which not only feeds into the discourse of the exotic, but is also geographically incorrect (Shetland is located to Scotland’s northeast). The article purports to unlock the mysteries of the origins of Shetland lace — but there’s no mystery about it: basic geography might also have enabled Habit to understand the connection between the first ‘Shetland’ knitting patterns produced by Jane Gaugain and the remote ‘sheep-infested archipelago’. (Gaugain traded on the North side of Edinburgh, whose ships, warehouses, and shops were, by the 1840s, stuffed full of finished Shetland goods, including fine openwork shawls produced by the knitters of Unst and Dunrossness) Describing Shetland lace, as Habit does, as “set-dressing for a high budget fairytale”, simply compounds the misleading idea of the islands as unreal, remote fantasy-places, detaching lace from its real (and important) role in Shetland as a constituent of the skills and materials of everyday life. Habit’s piece has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing what he acknowledges are ‘myths’ about Shetland lace simply by repeating them in lieu of historical fact. I found the lack of basic, accurate information in his article all the more odd, because it really is not difficult, even when one is located on another continent, to research Shetland knitting history and culture. In fact, unlike other parts of Britain, Shetland is unusually well-resourced in this regard. There is a wonderful archive, with a great online catalogue and other accessible material. This archive is staffed by an equally wonderful team of people who are more than happy to help anyone with an interest in any aspect of Shetland culture. Shetland also abounds with well-known, generous, and knowledgable knitters, who are more than happy to talk about their craft and its history. Why not just do some research?
If you have any interest at all in Shetland knitting, then there is no better place to start than with Real Shetland Yarns, a book supported by the Shetland Museum and which, in so many respects, is the complete opposite of Habit’s article. During Shetland Wool Week last year, you might remember that I mentioned the Shetland Stories competition — a project highlighting the importance of wool and knitted textiles to Shetland culture. Forty of these stories have now been gathered together in this wonderful collection, which is seriously the best book about textiles that I’ve come across since Vladimir Arkhipov’s Home Made (2006). Here, told in Shetlanders’ own words, is the story of Shetland wool. Each ‘story’ is short (just 300 words) and reading each piece in isolation gives you a snapshot of the role of “oo” in an individual life: an incident, a garment, an animal, a memory. The stories are brief, then, but their cumulative effect is profound. Taken as a whole, the book effectively unlocks the division of labour, and lays it out before you, introducing Shetland wool at every stage from husbandry through to retail. We learn of the care of sheep, of common grazing, of rooing and gathering hentilags, of carding and spinning, of knitting by hand or by machine, of weaving cloth, of finishing garments, of dressing shawls, of brokering, buying and selling, of designing and exporting. We see a boy’s perspective on the work that is going on around him; we see a girl being taught to knit by her father; we see men and women supporting their families through their craft; we read of knitted garments loved and hated; knitted garments that won prizes; knitted garments inspired by archeological finds; knitted garments that were worn by several generations of the same family, and are still being worn today. We meet Jacko the extraordinary caddy lamb, and equally extraordinary knitting heroines like Ena Leslie; we see vet, Debbie Main taking an impromptu ride on the back of a too-lively tup; we are privileged to peer into the pages of Hazel Tindall’s mother’s diary and to read Norma Anderson’s thoughts about her grandmother’s beautiful lace garments; we see young Eva Irvine, selling her family’s hand-knit hosiery in Lerwick, and catch a glimpse of of Andy Holt, working away on his pasap machine during the long winter nights on Papa Stour. Some of these stories are funny, some are deeply moving, but this is in no way a sentimental book. It is a real book. It is a book that shows just how important wool, and the creative skills associated with it are to the everyday lives of people in a community which is emphatically not exotic, not ‘remote’, but rather an ordinary — though distinctive — part of the contemporary British Isles. It is a book that instills respect for that community and the crafts and culture that are so important to it. It is a book that all knitters should read.
Jacko in his later years. Image ©Hazel Mackenzie, reproduced in Real Shetland Yarns, p.62.
I love camping: I suppose there is just something about taking the time to simply be in the outdoors that allows the world to insinuate itself upon you in the most pleasing way. And I find Islay a particularly inspiring landscape. I like to potter about just looking at stuff, and always come home with a head and notebook full of ideas. Good weather helps too, of course: being able to sit outside in the long, light evenings watching hares, and listening to the wark-wark of corncrakes is a delicious kind of treat.
The things I see around me in Scotland, and the photographs I take of them are certainly my principal source of inspiration. Oftentimes it is the “feel” of something in a photograph (or perhaps more accurately the memory the photographs invoke of the feel of a place, thing, or occasion) that sparks off an idea. Here are a few groups of images that may or may not work their way into a thought . . . that later works its way into a design.
We live in a typical, late-Victorian, Edinburgh tenement. It has high ceilings, and the rooms are reasonably sized, but there are not many of them. Most of the other flats in our building have an extra room which has been created by the division of the kitchen into two. But we kept the large kitchen, and took the unusual step of making a room in what most folk would regard as a cupboard. This room – known as ‘the pod’ – is the size of a single bed. Above head height is a stash of yarn and fabric and half of my (seasonally-rotating) wardrobe. Down below there are print-covered walls and book-covered shelves, a desk, a chair, and a computer. As it is small and windowless, there are no distractions: the pod has seen the thrashing out of many ideas and is a really good thinking space. It is also posessed of mysterious tardis-like properties — we have actually managed to fit a (small) sleeping guest in it, and, if there is something that we want to to watch on the iplayer, Tom and I and my knitting all get in it together (though things become tight when the animals want to join in). I wrote a book in the pod, and this blog, as well as all of my knitting designs are produced from inside it. It probably sounds a little peculiar to say that this tiny, windowless box is my favorite room–but it really is.
The pod has been a sort of faded-mid-blue colour for several years (we did what everyone does when they buy their first place, and painted every room a different shade). You can get a reasonable sense of the colour of the walls (as well as of the teetering terror of the upper shelves) from the picture in this post. (Were marvelous Messy Tuesdays really three years ago? Perhaps it is time to revive them.) Anyway, I have wanted to freshen up the pod up for a while, and particularly so now that my change of employment circumstances is imminent. My delayed birthday present was some paint from Farrow and Ball and we have spent the past couple of days sorting things out, and redecorating.
Sorting through things one has gathered generally prompts reflection, and this was certainly the case yesterday as I rearranged my shelves. As you might imagine, I am an inveterate buyer and hoarder of books. Now, in my mind, there has not been much buying and hoarding over the past couple of years, because I have had a stroke, but the contents of my bookcases show how far this is from being the case. Imperceptibly, a change has taken place. Rather than lots of books about eighteenth-century American politics, there is now a whole shelf of books about Scotland, and another one dedicated to the history and representation of the Scottish fishing industry. The woollen trade has its own area, and who knew that I had acquired so many of the pleasingingly idiosyncratic volumes published under the Shire imprint? I also seem to own everything that came off the Dryad or Odhams presses, and there are a disturbing number of gigantic tomes about fashion illustration and design. On another shelf, there are neuroscience textbooks, alongside memoirs of those who have suffered stroke, Parkinsons, and other conditions. Oliver Sacks has his own space, too, as I have, with increasing distaste, been working my way through his annoying essays with a view to writing about him at some point. (I regard Sacks in much the same way as my former colleague, Tom Shakespeare, memorably describes him: “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”)
I wrote a little glumly not so long ago about facing the fact that I was no longer an academic. But what my bookshelves reveal is that — as many of you pointed out in your comments at the time — I clearly couldn’t stop being one if I tried. I have many interests, and I love transforming the things that I am interested in into other things — words, photographs, sweaters. I no longer have an institutional context, and I am also considerably poorer than I was. Donuts are not everything, though: I still have a brain that works, a whole lot of ideas, and a pod of my own in which these ideas can take whatever shape I choose. I will never be happy about having had a stroke; about having to deal with its debilitating, chronic consequences; or about having to leave a job that, despite the many horrors of the ‘current climate’, I genuinely enjoyed. Yet I very much doubt that the working environment of UK Universities PLC was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she wrote about the hopeful prospect of women’s intellectual and creative independence in 1929. Perhaps, with a couple of years hindsight, I will be glad that I no longer have to implement national and institutional policy decisions with which I do not agree, and produce research ‘outputs’ so formally, always with an eye to the next assessment deadline.
In any case, re-painting the pod was an extremely good move. We are still working on the finishing touches (prints need hanging, the computer is not set up and, most unusually, I am writing this from the living room). Perhaps I’ll show you some photographs tomorrow.
I am writing a feature about the history of protective clothing. As part of this, I’m conducting a series of short interviews with people who wear such garments as part of the work that they do. Does your job involve wearing a pair of dungarees or overalls, an apron, a tabard, a hi-vis vest, or a boiler suit? Would you mind having a quick email conversation with me about your protective clothing and how you regard it? If so, please leave a comment on this post or email me at the address you will find in the ‘get in touch’ section on this page. Muchas gracias.
The gloves were still there when I passed by earlier, but had been joined by a wee stripey companion. . .
Happily, I was able to stop Bruce before he made off with the gathering.
Perhaps folk are abandoning their winter accessories willy-nilly – it certainly feels like Spring today.
I do hope that all of you reading this blog realise, by now, just how important you have all been to me over the past year. It has been a very strange and challenging time for me, but you have all been there every difficult step of the way. It has helped me enormously to read your encouraging and supportive comments, and at key moments, you all helped me to stay on top of things. You were willing to share with me your own experiences of loss, illness, disability, and the endless, weird frustrations of brain damage and fatigue. You assured me that I could deal with these things. Coping with serious health issues can put one in quite a lonely place, but, because of this space, I have never felt alone. I was incredibly moved by the cards and letters you sent to me while I was in hospital, and since then, the postman has continued to deliver things to me from my ‘virtual’ friends that I have found both touching and heartening. And, a few days ago, as the first anniversary of my stroke approached, a package turned up whose contents really floored me.
Check out my new felted-tweed scarf! What a thing of knitterly JOY it is! These mitred squares were designed by Pam; the co-ordinator of the whole collaborative enterprise was sneaky, wonderful Heather; and eleven other women were involved in its production. I had the pleasure of meeting Heather in 2009, but the other knitters / crocheters are only ‘known’ to me, to a greater or lesser degree, through the interweb. I have their blogs marked in my feed reader; I follow them on flickr; I favourite their ravelry projects; I read their comments here. A couple I do not ‘know’ at all, but they know of me, and cared enough about my situation to lend their hand to a shared project that might bring me love and cheer.
In my other life as an academic, I’ve spent a lot of time researching eighteenth-century women’s correspondence, their commonplace books and albums. I am interested in these books both as material objects and as works of collaborative authorship. Transatlantic gift-books particularly intrigue me as, on many occasions, the contributors to, and recipients of these books never met each other, but felt a close connection that was just the same as if they had been friends in person. Often, (and particularly in the case of the many Quaker women I have looked at) it was the bond of family or religion that first forged that connection; but women were also brought together in the material world of the letter or gift-book through their political affiliations, a love of gardening or stitch, poetic talents, or other shared interests. Contributing to a gift-book allowed dispersed communities of women to consolidate a virtual connection in and through a material object.
Now, academic folk like me can be sniffy about drawing casual comparisons between moments and cultures that are otherwise vastly different, but particularly since my stroke, I have been very struck by how close-seeming the worlds of the transatlantic eighteenth century and the contemporary craft-related internet can be. Myself and the makers of this lovely scarf ‘know’ each other because of our mutual interest in making things; our shared likes and dislikes, our favourite patterns or techniques, our tastes, our knowledge and our expertise. Just like an eighteenth century gift-book collaboratively produced by women who did not personally ‘know’ one another, this scarf is a material object that illustrates just how meaningful such ‘virtual’ connections can be. Though I have never met them, I can see the individual signatures – the ‘handwriting’ – of my friends in their personal choice of yarn colours or design, their different gauges, and their ways of making stitches. Like many an eighteenth-century woman, I am massively cheered and comforted by their gift, and by the shared affection it suggests. And certainly, this scarf is, to me, just as precious a thing as a gift book would have been to its eighteenth-century recipient.
I love this beautiful scarf, and I love what it represents. I am grateful to its makers, and, in a larger way, over the course of the past year, I have become increasingly, incredibly, grateful to the larger knitterly community of which it is such a heartening iteration. Sometimes it seems too easy to be sentimental about knitting, but, bloody hell, over the past year I have been in need of bucketloads of knitterly sentiment. I have indeed felt the knitting LOVE.
So I am grateful to Alice, Anne, Ashley, Babs and big Babs, to Christy, Carolyn, Erin, Heather, Lauren, Maryse, to Sarah, and to Pam. And I am grateful to all of you who come here, silently or vocally, and who have all, in one way or another, buoyed me up with your good wishes. Thanks for sticking with me over this hideously testing but, in many ways, strangely re-confirming year. Big knitterly love to you all.