Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present

cover

Writing of the worn and mended Fair Isle sweater that Shetland knitter, Doris Hunter created for her fiancé, Ralph Patterson, who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, editor Sarah Laurenson states: “Ralph’s sweater is much more than a physical object. It is a site of personal and political meanings containing traces of world events and the lives of individuals.” Sarah’s astute remarks on this incredible piece of knitwear speak much more broadly to the content of the wonderful book she has recently produced with the Shetland Museum and Archives. In Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present we discover the intriguing stories of creative, enterprising, and brave Shetlanders like Doris and Ralph within the many cultural and economic contexts that make Shetland textiles so unique. Drawing on the knowledge of curatorial staff of the Shetland Museum, academics and researchers from several Scottish Universities, as well as a wealth of local expertise, this book is an important testimony to the significance and impact of Shetland textiles worldwide.

rolags
(natural fleece shades)

The crucial factor shaping the production of Shetland textiles from the Mesolithic to today is of course, the wool grown by its native sheep. A fabulous piece by Elizabeth Johnston introduces us to some of Shetland’s earliest examples of woollen textiles, while other sections of the book explore the the effects of the landscape on the development of the breed, alongside the realities of keeping a flock, and working with wool in Shetland.

oliver

We learn that there are 57 names in Norn “specific to colours and patterns in sheep,” and gain insights into what makes Shetland “oo”, as a fibre, so very distinctive. Other things make “Shetland” distinctive too. Unlike, say, “Harris” tweed, (which refers to cloth woven on the island of Harris, but whose provenance is yarn spun from the fleeces of many different breeds and crosses, who may be raised in many different locales), “Shetland” is unique in its breadth of reference: to a particular group of islands; to the name of a particular breed of sheep; to the fibre those sheep produce; to the yarn spun from that fibre; and to the cloth, knitwear, and other manufactured products that are created from that yarn. Unlike “Harris” (an island ‘brand’ now famously trademarked and protected by national regulatory bodies), the broader resonances of “Shetland” ironically meant that it failed to gain the same protection. According to Sarah Dearlove in her important chapter on Shetland tweed, “the word “Shetland” and its use in the woollen industry in general has been the islands’ achillles heel.”

labels
(Shetland tweed labels)

And yet, although the cachet of terms such as “Shetland” and “Fair Isle” means that they are frequently exploited, in some senses that very exploitation has also ensured their continued prominence and visibility within the textile industry. As Sarah Laurenson puts it: “histories of Fair Isle knitwear have to a large extent been shaped by marketing stories which do not necessarily fit with with the ideas and identities of people in Fair Isle and throughout Shetland. However, these stories have driven the commercial success of the style. Without them, there would be no Fair Isle knitwear.”

kep
(early Fair Isle kep. Shetland Museum and Archives)

Shetland textiles are truly spectacular, and the book includes discussion of many important pieces, now housed in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. There’s a great discussion of the incredible lace garments created by enterprising Lerwick hairdresser, Ethel Brown, and anyone who has seen Jeannie Jarmson’s prize-winning rayon tank top (depicted above on the book’s front cover) will not be surprised to learn that she hurt her hands in its making. Yet though these showstoppers are breathtaking examples of what makes Shetland textiles so special, it is also refreshing to read chapters focusing on the everyday. This is the forté of Carol Christiansen (curator of textiles at the Shetland Museum and Archives) and her sections in the book are genuinely illuminating. You’ll learn about the careful reconstruction of the woollen garments worn by the “Gunnister Man” by Carol and her team, revealling “crucial evidence for how early modern clothing was made, worn, and mended.” And while we are all familiar with the beauty of Shetland lace and colourwork, few are perhaps aware of the unique graphic appeal of the “taatit rugs”, which Shetlanders created as bedcovers and wedding gifts from the Eighteenth-Century onwards.

taatitrugs

Building on the book’s wealth of original research is Ros Chapman’s piece about Shetland Lace. Her chapter effortlessly mingles intriguing documentary evidence with tantalising anecdote: “there was even an exhibition of Shetland knitting held in a Philadelphia department store containing a reconstructed croft around which knitters, ponies and sheep exhibited their uniqueness.” Ros’s lively chapter is merely the tip of the iceberg of a wonderfully thorough research project into the history, significance, and practice of Shetland Lace knitting. She is clearly going to produce an important book which I’m already looking forward to reading.

teeniewlliamson
(Teenie Williamson (left) in a hand-knitted print o’da wave jumper)

Shetland’s knitters are, of course, at the heart of this book, and form the focus of Brian Smith’s and Lynn Abram’s contributions.

As Brian Smith puts it:

“It is important to remember, and easy to forget, that the people who knitted those tens of thousands of stockings and mittens, as well as performing other chores in and out of the home were Shetland women. It was an “honest man’s daughter” who came to Bressay Sound in 1613 with her knitting and got assaulted in the process; it was women who knitted the “Zetland hose and night caps” that Dutchmen were still buying there two centuries later; Shetland’s land rent was being paid from the women’s hosiery in 1797; they created the stockings and gloves presented to the Queen and Duchess of Kent in 1837; the “hose, half hose, gloves, mittens, under waistcoats, drawers, petticoats, night caps, shawls &c &c” in Standen’s Shetland and Scotch warehouse in 1847; and the Shetland goods on show in the Great Exhibition in 1851. And little cash they got for their pains.”

samhibbert1818
(Sketch of a Shetland knitter by Samuel Hibbert (1818)

Brian and Lynn’s chapters unfold carefully researched, well-written, and nuanced narratives about the economic realities of Shetland women’s lives, and the part that knitting has played in shaping them. All of us who enjoy our knitting as a stimulating or relaxing leisure pastime should read these chapters to gain insight into what it really meant to be a knitter in Shetland.

truckcommission

Brian’s chapters unpack the truck system (by which Shetland knitters were paid in goods rather than cash), which lingered on in Shetland well into the twentieth century. His account of the effect of collective action by the Shetland Hand Knitters Association, which was developed under the same post-war influences as the British Welfare State, is particularly interesting (and heartening).

sha

Lynn’s piece reveals the wide variety of ways in which Shetland knitters used their own enterprise to support their families in response to extremely challenging social and economic conditions. “We were more or less financially secure” recalled crofter Agnes Leask after purchasing a knitting machine in the early 1960s, “as long as I could churn out about a dozen jumpers a week.” Lynn’s chapter (as much of her work) is extremely important in the way that it suggests the public and social resonances of a craft which is too often regarded in narrowly private contexts. “Hand knitting,” writes Lynn “was far from a domestic activity undertaken by women in the privacy of their own homes. In fact Shetland knitting created social networks and . . . relationships which aided women’s survival in the face of economic crises, personal loss, and the vagaries of living in these islands.”

ella

As well as providing a rich overview of Shetland textiles and the history of their production, the book also introduces us to some of Shetland’s most talented contemporary makers and artists – Hazel Tindall, Emma Blain, Ella Gordon, and Donna Smith – all of whom are experts in their fields. These interviews suggest how Shetland textiles not only have an inspiring present, but a very bright future, a fact celebrated by Jimmy Moncrieff in his foreword to the volume.

I suppose I should mention by way of a disclaimer that the people mentioned in this post, who created and contributed to this wonderful book, are my good friends, colleagues and acquaintances. You would perhaps be very surprised if I didn’t like this book. But then I would be very surprised if you didn’t like it either.

If you buy one book about textiles this year, make it this one.

Sarah Laurenson, ed., Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present (Lerwick: Shetland Heritage Publications, 2013)
ISBN 978-0-9572031-3-6


All images in this post are the copyrighted property of the Shetland Museum and Archives and are reproduced with their permission.

um, a tea cosy?

lawersbanner

For reasons completely unfathomable to me, knitters have been contacting me asking me to provide instructions to modify the Tea Jenny hat pattern into a Tea Cosy. I am frankly at a loss to understand exactly why one would prefer put teapots on a teapot rather than a human heid, but what can I say: your wish is my command. These modification instructions are based on the assumption that your teapot is large and round (like a head) and the proportions are based on the generously-sized 4-6 cup teapots in my own possession. The Tea Cosy is the same basic shape as the hat with the addition of an i-cord carry loop and steeked openings for the spout and handle, similar to those that are used on my Sheep Carousel pattern. These free instructions have been written as a good-will gesture for your knitterly assistance only: that is, they are, (as yet) completely untested. Anyone who has already bought the Tea Jenny pattern can now download the separate PDF for the Tea Jenny Tea Cosy as an additional extra via their Ravelry libraries, or can download the modification instructions for free by clicking this link
Note: you’ll have to have your copy of the Tea Jenny pattern to hand for the instructions to make any sort of sense.

Happy knitting!

slouchs

thinking time

lerwick

Well, I had a fantastic time in Shetland. As I was on my own, I stayed in Lerwick. I really enjoyed meeting up with Shetland friends old and new, and pottering about toon.

commercialst

shutters

lodberrie

stoneandwater

But I was there to work — I have a couple of writing commissions in the pipeline, one of which involves producing a short history of Fair Isle knitting for a new (and very exciting) book about Shetland textiles. So I examined a lot of Fair Isle pieces, and I thought a lot about them.

fairislefromfairisle

I saw some truly incredible textiles . . .

checkerboard

. . . so many of which defied any idea of the ‘traditional’ in Fair Isle knitting.

silkandwool

(This striking allover features 4 shades of Shetland wool and 3 shades of artificial silk)

motifs
(Fair Isle motifs, but not Fair Isle knitting)

plaid
(Fair Isle or . . .Tartan?)

So much to think about.

me

ready for autumn

The leaves are turning.

In the hedgerow, just a few berries remain . . .

. . . and there is a decided nip in the air.

But I am ready for Autumn. I have a new hat . . .

. . .and mittens.

These lovely things were not knitted by me, but by my friend, Sandra Manson. I know Sandra from Jamieson & Smith, and she is a legendary knitter and designer. Sandra has an amazing feel for pattern, and a superlative eye for colour. Over the past year or so, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and swatching with, the rich and varied palette of Jamieson & Smith Jumper weight, testing out interesting combinations, permutations, and encountering its many intriguing, mercurial or troublesome shades. Sandra has been knitting with Jamieson & Smith jumper weight for many years, and she knows its palette forwards and backwards. I feel we speak the same knitterly language. On my last visit to Shetland, I had the pleasure of seeing several of Sandra’s swatches and finished garments — some of which really blew my mind. I find something almost thrilling in seeing one shade working alongside another in unexpected combination, and Sandra clearly feels the same. I could rattle on about the potential of this shade and that with her for many hours — I suppose, put simply, we are both colour nerds.

I love the swirling raised crown decreases and the pleasing solidity of that mid-green (which is shade 118, for those who are interested). Sandra said that, when she’d finished knitting, the patterns and colours reminded her of Easter eggs and picket fences. I can see exactly what she means.

One of the (very minor) frustrations of designing is that I am often unable to wear my samples (if I want them to stay looking their best). But this Autumn, I shall wear Sandra’s hat and mittens with pride!

Thankyou, Sandra x

in colour

gneiss4

I’ve been thinking a lot about colour of late, and about how closely one’s experience of colour is tied up with one’s experience of landscape. I had a conversation with Mel the other day — concerning the crazy hues of the lichens she’d seen in a particular West Highland location — and was reminded of another recent landscape encounter, and the incredible colours it involved. We enjoyed a fleeting visit to Lewis and Harris a few weeks ago (we will be back for a proper holiday later in the year – hurrah), and were lucky enough to visit the standing stones at Calanais. Stone circles are breathtaking spaces, of course, but among these stones at close quarters, what I was most struck by was their varying textures, shades and colours.

gneisser

Human hands moved these stones into position more than four thousand years ago, but the rock from which they are formed is much, much older. This is some of the most ancient stuff in the world in fact — Lewisian Gneiss, more than three billion years old. For those of you who, like me, find geological time so mind-boggling that it is virtually meaningless, this rock has been around since before the earth cooled down and the mountain-wrapping work of continents began. Lewisian Gneiss is a metamorphic rock, with a foliated and coarsely granular character. And if you are wondering about my geological vocabulary, its partly from the GCSE I did many moons ago (thankyou, Mr Boardman), but mostly drawn from Hutton’s Arse , a book that I quite enjoyed — Malcolm Rider’s deeply dodgy politics notwithstanding. While I found his particular brand of localism offputting to say the least, he knows a hell of a lot about gneiss. Discussing some notable late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century geologists, Rider talks about how their accounts of the landscape of northern Scotland as monochrome and “sterile” really missed the point. The rock that at a distance seems to be a “familiar weathered grey” turns out at close quarters to be something else entirely:

“a closer look . . .shows that the gneiss has a fine banding on a centimetre scale, in greys, whites, and dark colours, beautifully picked out by a combination of ice smoothing and several thousand years of rain and weather. The climate of Scotland is very good at this.”
(Huttons Arse, p. 178)

Rider describes Lewisian gneiss as a “terrestrial mille feuille” and I remembered this when looking at the standing stones at Callanais.

gneisser2

I spent a long time looking at the intrusions of pink granite against the banded grey. And closer inspection of the stone revealed a shimmering mass of many colours: dark flecks of magnetite and mica, luminous quartz and feldspar. This is the composition of the rock itself — and then there are the hues of a changing climate — the stone folds weathered and darkened by wind and water; pale pin pricks of butter and pea-coloured lichen. Around the stones are purple and yellow and white wildflowers, and beyond them, the deep blue-green haze of the ground, lochans, and hills of Lewis.

gneiss1

The banded pinks and greys of the gneiss at Calanais have stayed with me, and I’ve been thinking about them more since I began reading Alice Starmore’s Book of Fairisle Knitting a few days ago. I’m still digesting the implications of Starmore (I lack the words right now) but all I can say is that the woman is a genius, and that her genius is bound up with the Lewisian landscape that surrounds her. There are many things to like about Starmore, but her eye for quotidian detail — for the beautiful and colourful in the ordinary — is really something else. The shades of this tam were inspired by those of a sprig of clover that had pushed its way through the cracks in a strip of tarmac. It just about kills me.

tamcolours
© Alice Starmore.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,426 other followers