The Fine Art of Fair Isle Knitting

dvd-cover-front2

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).

Sophie_-_3_medium2

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

Brilliant women

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:

kirstensstudio
Kerstin Olsson.

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.

graranden

(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.

vinterfiske
(Carl Gustaf Bernahardson, Vinterfiske, Bohusläns Museum)

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.

gustafsberg
(Gustafsberg)

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.

jennysyokes
(Jenny’s yokes)

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.

ellainarchives
(Ella in the archives)

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.

crofthooseswatch
(a crofthoose swatch from Ella’s machine)

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.

sandraandella

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.

shettimes
(from the Shetland Times)

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!

hazel

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.

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.

a woolly wednesday. . .

atmos2

As the weather grows more chilly, things are becoming very busy round here — in a good way. I have been knitting and designing and writing for weeks now, in advance of a few new Winter releases. In a few days I will be publishing the next design in my Edinburgh Series of garments (which you’ll see hinted at above), inspired by the industrial and maritime heritage of Leith. This design is cosy and wintery and woolly and I’m very happy with it – I hope you like it too.

Additionally, I’ve been working really hard on some new seasonal accessory designs. . .

pomteaser

. . . which will soon be available as kits in my online shop. Colours of Shetland (now in its second edition) is finally back in stock (hurrah!) , and I’m looking forward to it being joined by Snawheid, and several other jolly kits over the next couple of weeks. I’m developing these kits as something of an experiment, so you must tell me if there are particular designs of mine that you’d like to see available and I’ll see what I can do.

I’m also rather happy about a couple of vintage knitwear finds . . .

This jumper (an ebay find) is destined to become a pair of SWANTS!

swants

. . . and if you have seen Ella’s blog recently, you’ll know why I am unbelievably excited by this:

zedress

Ye gods! It is indeed one of Margaret Stuart’s beautiful Spencer dresses and it is now in my possession! Seriously, this is a completely amazing garment (that fits me too) and I am incredibly grateful to Ella for enabling its acquisition. More of this anon.

In the meantime, here are a few woolly links for you this Wovember Wednesday:
Needle and Spindle‘s lovely post about Pelle’s New Suit – a beautiful children’s story from 1912 that tells the story of a jumper.
Caroline Walshe thoughtfully documents the process of growing, preparing, spinning and knitting a shawl from the fleece of Jake, her Jacob wether. This is one of the most inspiring pieces about process that I’ve read in a long time.
Equally inspiring, but for different reasons, is Cecilia Hewitt’s piece about her unique and very beautiful handspun yarn. Cecilia’s sense of place and colour has something truly magical and profound about it – but her work is also refreshingly grounded in the ordinary and everyday. “An intriguing patch of colour in the hedge turned out to be a crisp packet.”
Finally, via 60 North TV and the Shetland Times, a short video about this year’s Shetland Wool Week. Highlights include Oliver Henry talking about his work grading fleeces, and brief clips of Hazel, Tom, Sarah and, of course, Felix singing the Shetland wool song!

hat at Hermaness

hat1

I’ve had a lot of queries about Peerie Flooers over the past few days, so here are a couple more photos of the particular hat in question. After being approached by the wardrobe folk involved with Shetland, I knitted up this new sample especially for the production. I remember knitting it over the May bank holiday, while Tom was running the Jura Fell Race, and then posting it off the following week.

hat2

Mel also knitted up an o w l sweater sample, which sadly wasn’t used in the production in the end. But you may have spotted other Shetland knitwear on screen: Hazel Tindall’s beautiful Eid Top was unmistakable, even at a distance, and I was very excited to spot a Sheep Heid in the Up Helly Aa crowd. During filming in Shetland, my friend Sarah worked in wardrobe, and they did a great job.

hat3

These photographs were taken out at Hermaness last September, and because I know someone is bound to ask about my yellow raincoat, it is from Seasalt, I highly recommend it, and you can find it here.

hat4

Thanks for all your well-wishes. I am still not at my best healthwise, unfortunately, but with careful pacing hope to be back up to speed very soon. xx

Shetland Wool Week in pictures, part 2


Mel at Aithsetter


Mel and Hazel McKenzie, our Wool-Week landlady.




Sandra and Ella at J&S (if you are wondering about their cardigans, there’s a free pattern here)


Eric Stewart, showing us around the impressive textile facilitation unit at Shetland College


Knitters from six nations enjoying a trip to Unst (yoohoo ladies! It was lovely to meet you!)


Hazel Tindall, teaching Fair Isle


Gudrun, teaching lace


Susan, looking fabulous


Chris Harrison, Operations Director of Vi-Spring, receiving an award from Eric Wilson, past-master of the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, and one of the directors of the Campaign for Wool


Oliver Henry, telling us about the development of the new Shetland Heritage Yarn

(if you look at the window-reflections in the previous 2 photographs, you’ll see Misa and Deborah — the organisational geniuses behind Shetland Wool Week, to whom we are all incredibly grateful for this fantastic event! I think I can also spot Jane’s back in a rather pleasing cardigan . . .)


Me and Bess Jamieson – both wearing Fairisle – at the Shetland Textile Museum.

(Big thanks to Cathy Scott for permission to reproduce her photos of the Unst trip and Hazel’s workshop)

an afternoon with Hazel Tindall

I think that the most enjoyable few hours knitting I’ve ever had was the afternoon I spent last Wednesday with Hazel Tindall at the Braewick Cafe. Since 2008, Hazel has held the title of the world’s fastest knitter, working an unbelievable 262 stitches in 3 minutes. She is also an incredibly talented designer – Jamieson & Smith carry many of her patterns, and you’ll find her Peat Hill Waistcoat in their new Knit Real Shetland book. And last but definitely not least, Hazel is a patient and generous teacher, sharing her skills, ideas, and expertise with groups who want to learn more about traditional Fairisle knitting. I had been looking forward to taking a workshop with Hazel, as I was sure it was going to be a treat. And it really was.

Hazel began by telling us about the qualities of Shetland wool, and spoke of her particular affection for the natural sheep shades with their unique warmth and durability. She showed us swatches she had knitted of the same lozenge pattern in different natural colours, revealing the wide variety of aesthetic effects that can be created with this subtle palette of greys, browns and fawns.

The knitterly potential of the natural palette was perfectly illustrated by this fabulous hoodie which Hazel had designed.

Here’s a close-up.

Then it was time for us to experiment with the natural sheep shades. A hush descended . . .

The tea kept flowing, and we kept working under Hazel’s guidance.

This is what we could see outside the windows.

. . . all too easy to get distracted.

Later, Hazel treated us to a demonstration of her working methods. I particularly liked her emphasis on keeping the knitting under control – excess fabric is tied down and tethered, loose strands are kept far away from each other, the project knows who is the boss — no tangles are going to occur here!

Like other Shetland knitters I’ve met, and perhaps contrary to popular conception, Hazel finishes garments with knotting.

Mary Jane mentioned some beautiful knots the other day; and I’ve seen many garments in museum collections that are finished in a like manner. Personally, I never say not to a knot . . .

Would you like a peek of Hazel knitting?

Early in the clip, Hazel is slowly demonstrating how she makes stitches and shifts the work around the wires, and you can see that by the end she is beginning to build up a mind-boggling speed . . .

After the demonstration, Hazel reached behind her into a basket and brought out several of her amazing finished creations. Hold your breath, folks!





There are so many impressive things here, but I particularly like the way that some of Hazel’s designs establish a strong sense of vertical continuity through combinations of pattern and colour. I also felt, when looking at Hazel’s work, that you could really feel the pleasure she’d taken in the knitting. These are garments that really speak of their maker’s distinctive creative curiosity.

Later, over a slice of home-baked cake (nom) and another cup of tea (joy), Hazel treated us to a reading of Stella Sutherland’s beautiful poem about Fairisle knitting — “The Allover”.

Please turn up your audio, and ignore the white noise and clinking tea-cups in the background — it is worth hearing.

The first stanza in the clip reads:

Your mind haes a joy o creation
laek writin a rhyme — hit’s nae lee —
whin your fingers an wires in relation
maks da colours an patterns agree.

All I can say is that these lines absolutely perfectly express what I feel about Fairisle knitting.

Outside, the clouds moved across Eshaness’s golden hills and grand open sky.

Nowhere in the world to match this.

Thankyou, Hazel.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,262 other followers