The Fine Art of Fair Isle Knitting

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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).

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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

two new books

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It is always lovely to be sent copies of new books – particularly when they are inspirational tomes from folk I like and admire. Here are two I’ve recently received.

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This is Windswept by Marie Wallin. You’ll all know Marie from being, until last year, Rowan’s creative director. While continuing to work with Rowan as their head designer, last year Marie went freelance, and established her own business and brand. This book is her first independent book of hand-knit designs, and it is very beautiful indeed.

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Marie has an immediately recognisable style as a designer, and the whole book to me seems very her. There are 12 designs – 8 garments and 4 accessories. Some involve cables, and some colour, but all feature interesting details, classic shapes and gorgeous styling. Lovage – the yoked jumper above – is a case in point. It is knit up in 9 rich shades of Rowan Fine Tweed, and includes the intriguing detail of an optional crocheted trim along the sleeves. Lovage is worked in the round, using traditional Fairisle techniques.

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. . as are the Mint wrap and Camomile tam, which also showcase Marie’s distinctive sense of colour.

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My favourite design in the collection is the Sage tunic / dress.

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Knit in 13 shades of Rowan Felted Tweed, I think this is an absolutely stunning piece. For me it strikes that truly enviable design-balance of being both incredibly striking, and eminently wearable. And who can argue with those corrugated-rib-topped pockets?

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Dill – the jumper which appears on the book’s front cover – is another glorious design. This is worked in cushy, hazy Rowan Cocoon, and features interlaced cables and optional scallop-lace crocheted trim around the neckline.

The designs were shot over the course of a day in picturesque Whitstable (and you can read more about the place and shoot on Marie’s blog). The location, the light, the styling, and the photography are all absolutely lovely, and really add, I think, to the coherent feel of this collection.

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In short, this is a truly beautiful and inspirational collection of which my only criticism is that the charts are not reproduced in colour (I find monochrome charts with symbols used in place of colour a real bear to read . . . but this may be just me.) It is particularly exciting to see Marie designing using a range of different techniques and skills, and I’m already looking forward to seeing where her freelance adventure takes her next.

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Toasty (I keep wanting to say Tasty) has just been published by lovely Rachel Coopey. It is a book of ten accessory designs: 6 hats, a pair of mitts, a pair of mittens, a scarf and a cowl. All the designs are knit up in baa ram ewe‘s Titus – a yarn of which I am inordinately fond, and which Rachel has used to superb effect in her designs in this book.

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mmm . . . tasty/toasty parkin-coloured Titus, and tasty/toasty undulating cables. This design is called Ripon, and I think of it – with its nifty twists and decreases as a very Coopey-like design. But I am also very excited by what Rachel is doing with colour at the moment.

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Rachel brings the same poise and structure that is such a feature of her textured stitch patterns to her colourwork. These are the Aiskew hat and mittens, and, with their neat chevrons, they are my favourite designs in the book. Though the Bedale hat comes a very close second.

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I don’t know if you’ve worked with one of Rachel’s designs before, but I think that she is an exceptional pattern writer: really clear and precise. I reckon its hard to go wrong with a Coopey pattern.

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Rachel will be writing about the process of designing each one of the pieces in Toasty, so pop over to her blog to read more!

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This is a great contemporary accessory collection, from a talented designer, who continues her thoughtful exploration of stitch in ways that are always appealing. My single criticism of this book is that the photography perhaps isn’t as clear and sharp as as it should be to properly illustrate Rachel’s super designs at their best.

It is really nice to recommend the interesting work of other women, who, like me are working independently in hand-knit design. It occurred to me today, as it does on many days, what a lively and varied and talented milieu I now find myself among. You can purchase Windswept directly from Marie here, and Toasty directly from Rachel here.

Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present

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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.

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(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.

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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.”

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(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.”

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(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.

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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.

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(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.”

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(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.

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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).

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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.”

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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.

Of Note

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I’ve been really inspired by some fantastic knitting books which have turned up here recently, so I thought I’d give them a shout-out. First up is Rachel Coopey‘s much anticipated first collection. Rachel is truly the Queen of Socks — she has a distinctive feel for pattern and structure which suits her foot-shaped canvas perfectly. Her designs are thoughtful, precise and definitively knitterly — she often reverses or mirrors stitch patterns across her socks in ways that are not only aesthetically pleasing but will really engage the maker’s interest through a pair. For example, Milfoil (the green pair that you can see above), has a horizontal mirror between cuff and foot that makes each sock the opposite of the other, while in Budleigh (my favourite design in the collection) neat cables and twisted stitches flow through the design with a vertical reflection that separates left from right.

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Inside the book are ten beautifully written and laid-out patterns; a technical section with instructions for essential sock-knitting techniques (including a useful illustrated afterthought heel-tutorial) and jolly English seaside photography. What’s not to love?

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You can pre-order the book directly from Rachel here.

Next up, and top of the tree for pure knitterliness, is Lynne Barr’s new book, The Shape of Knitting. Lynne has an amazingly innovative approach to stitch, and I think she is one of the most creative and inventive designers around today.

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My approach to design tends to be very referential. I see a thing, or read a thing, or hear a thing — I like the thing — and I want to somehow render, or celebrate, or get to the heart of the thing in stitches. Lynne’s approach is completely different, and I completely love it. She says:

Inspiration isn’t always derived from things we see around us — or even from words we read or hear. Sometimes it comes from something intangible within us. When playing with a technique, I sometimes feel like a dowser, but holding knitting needles instead of a dowsing rod to guide me toward an unknown goal.

I feel about two hundred years behind Lynne’s design-aesthetic — a plodding Wordsworth to her John Ashberry. Don’t get me wrong — I love the technical aspects of designing, and I like to make stitches do things for me, but I think that Lynne’s relationship to stitch is on another level entirely — like the listener of a symphony who has somehow become a sort of instrument themselves. If you have any interest in the creative possibilities of knitwear design, then you need to immediately get hold of a copy The Shape of Knitting to put on your shelf next to Lynne’s previous book.

Finally, here is a book I’ve been looking forward to seeing for some time.

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I admire Rosa Pomar for many reasons, but perhaps most for her thorough commitment to exploring and documenting the history of Portuguese textiles from the grass-roots up. Behind this wonderful book stands several years work, as Rosa has travelled around Portugal, researching animal husbandry, spinning, weaving, knitting, garment construction, and the traditional craft and design practices of men and women all over her beautiful country. Though my Portuguese is non-existent, I still find so much food for thought here.

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As well as exploring the history and distinctive techniques of Portuguese hand knitting, the book also includes patterns for twenty lovely accessories inspired by traditional design. I think that this one is my favourite . . .

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. . . not least for the way it showcases Rosa’s own Mirandesa yarn, which is hand spun and plied in Trás-os-Montes from the wool of Churra Galega Mirandesa sheep. This book marks an important landmark in the way the history of hand knitting is researched and written about, and you can buy it from Rosa here.

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(Orkney and Shetland in Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas.)

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.


(extract from Franklin Habit’s article in Interweave’s new e-mag, LaceKnits (2012). On the map, at least, the Shetland islands are correctly located)

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.

from Muhu Island

It is a while since I have been totally blown away by a book. Here is that book – a very generous gift to me from Mai, one of my Estonian readers.

It is hard to know how to start telling you about what this incredible tome contains – it really is that amazing. Perhaps I can start with a couple of images:

Like other areas of Estonia, Muhu island is proud of its textile traditions.

These textile traditions are many, varied, and very distinctive, and this distinction and variety is due to the incredible needlework skills of the women of Muhu. I’ve written a little before about how interesting I find Estonian ‘folk’ costumes, and about how the strong sense of regional and national identity one sees expressed in such textiles emerged against a backdrop of cultural annexation. I have only had the opportunity to read about Estonian knitted textiles before – but this book gives a much fuller picture of the wide-ranging skills of the women of Muhu, who are clearly possessed of a quite remarkable creative energy!


Muhu knitters. Photo reproduced from Rina Tomberg, Vatid, Troid, Vamsad: Knitted Jackets of West Estonian Islands. (Estonian Academy of Arts, 2007).

I have a perennial interest in how textile ‘traditions’ emerge on, and cluster about, islands. Muhu shares many cultural similarities with, for example, Shetland: over the past couple of centuries, the women have tirelessly worked the land in the absence of their menfolk in the fishing, and (later) the construction industries, and this has produced a similar discourse about the indomitable and formidable qualities of Muhu women.* Just like the women of Shetland, those of Muhu are described as proud, strong, and capable. They are skilled with their needles; they are dryly humorous. This Muhu aphorism is so very similar to some Shetland sayings I’ve seen:

“Kuidas Muhu naine korraga 4 asja tegi:
Ma aasi loomad karjaaruse, kudusi cardud,
aasi ärraga juttu ja kussi kua”

(How Muhu women do 4 jobs at once:
I was driving the cattle to the meadow, kniting,
talking to the landlord, and taking a piss)

But what makes Muhu very different from Shetland – and what I had never thought about until I absorbed myself in this marvelous book – is that domestic textiles (until very recently) never expanded beyond being dowry gifts or heirlooms into being produced for a market. Kabur, Pink and Meriste explain that the driving principle behind Muhu women’s production of domestic textiles was “to make one’s clothing as fine as the finest garment of one’s home village, and even a little bit better.” Without the pressures of external commercial markets, the women of Muhu simply competed among themselves to produce domestic textiles of ever-more glorious variety, ornament and colour. I think it is the sheer variety of styles and skills that I find most striking about these textiles, which include . . .

Stranded colourwork mittens, gloves and stockings – here with duplicate stitches . . .

stockings and gloves with travelling stitches . . .

. . men’s ‘vatt’ in traditional orange and black two-colour knitting (characteristic Muhu colours are bright pink, bright orange, and bright yellow)

. . . crocheted lace (this example was based on traditional Muhu designs, and was produced by Kaidi Holm of Vanamoisa village in 2010)

. . .cross stitch (This example is a traditional cap that belonged to the Raunmägi family of Liiva village)

. . . satin stitch (shirt collar from Tõnise farm in Koguva village)

. . . beading (bridal cap, owned by Helju Vaher of Võlla village)

There are also examples of different kinds of weaving, machine embroidery, and lace techniques. Clearly these women have an inexhaustible range of textile talents! Kabur, Pink and Meriste introduce the reader to gloriously decorative slippers and blankets, aprons and belts, skirts and jackets, stockings, gloves and baby garments. And as if the sheer range and variety of highly-skilled techniques that these women had mastered wasn’t enough, they then start to combine them in ways that are quite breathtaking.


Handknitted stocking with openwork and cross stitch (knitted and embroidered by Eleena Tuulmägi of Lõetsa village in the 1970s. Now owned by Tiina Tuulmägi).


Handknitted stockings with crocheted calves (Stockings owned by Ekaterina Aljas (born 1896) of Nautse village. Now owned by Helena Erik)


Hand knitted stockings with satin stitch ( embroidered by sisters Ekateria and Maria Kesküla of Leeskopa village in the late nineteenth century. Now owned by Inga Paaskavi)

But it isn’t just the pictures in this book that are absolutely wonderful. Kabur, Pink and Meriste also provide charted instructions for much of the embroidery, crochet, and knitting, and talk about technique in a way that not only demonstrates their own practical knowledge, but generously allows the reader to share in it as well. So the editors introduce the reader to, for example, the distinctive Muhu zigzagging decrease (which I am itching to try out on a sock) and explain how large bold motifs were added to the centre of plain-coloured mittens (using a particularly nifty combination of intarsia and double knitting).

This combination of the historical and the practical is what makes their book so very good, and it is really quite unusual. Textile books are often rather rigidly (and annoyingly) divided between the academic or the ‘how to’ markets, but Kabur, Pink and Meriste’s super tome happily crosses that divide, allowing the reader to gain a close, material understanding of some truly amazing objects – the sort of understanding that you would only ordinarily gain by taking a visit to an archive, handling textiles, turning them inside out, examining their stitches and their seams, decoding their canny methods of construction, and then going away to try things out for yourself. It is an absolutely brilliant book: the images are glorious, the cultural information is carefully and respectfully put together, the instructions for the different techniques are clear and well-demonstrated. Having this book in one’s hands really is the closest thing I’ve ever encountered to actually being right in among a museum textile collection. It is a very rare treat. Now, when do I get to go to Estonia?

So thankyou, Mai, for this lovely gift; thankyou, Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, and Mai Meriste for making this treasure trove available (and in English, too, which is a particular treat for me) and thankyou, most of all, to the needlewomen of Muhu to whose incredible talents this book pays fitting tribute. I’m thrilled to have been introduced to – and enormously inspired by – you all.

Anu Kabur, Anu Pink, Mai Meriste, Designs and Patterns from Muhu Island: A Needlework Tradition from Estonia (Saara Publishers, 2011) ISBN: 978-9949-9181-3-3

*For more on this discourse of indomitable femininity in relation to Shetland, see Lynn Abrams’ important book Myth and Materiality in a woman’s world: Shetland 1800-2000 (Manchester UP, 2005)

brown is the colour

I’ve been reading lots of knitting / textile-related tomes recently, and thought I’d write about them over the next few posts. First up is a book I had few expectations of: Bruce Weinstein’s Knits Men Want. Weinstein set himself a difficult task here — designs for men are notoriously hard to get right, not to mention tricky to market. And when I read that the book also purported to offer a fool-proof guide for any woman knitting for her man, I confess that I was ever-so-slightly wary. As someone interested in the representation of gender difference, I am suspicious of any of that “men are from mars” gumph, and so many things written about knitting “for him” seem to me to be a bit weird and, indeed, sometimes just a little bit offensive, in what’s said about men’s tastes and preferences. I found Debbie Stoller’s Son of Stitch n Bitch troubling in this regard. I was also quite astounded by some of the designs Stoller selected in terms of the assumptions they were implicitly making about masculinity. If one were to believe the patterns in her book, men are beer-swilling pirates with a penchant for pole dancing, and want to display their love of these activities in knitwear.

(no pirate-themed garments here, thank gawd)

But I sort of trusted that Weinstein’s book would be different. For a start, the author is an experienced knitting instructor with long-standing knowledge of what works in men’s knitwear, and had got Jared Flood – a model of masculine good taste if ever there was one – to do the photography. So I expected the book to to be carefully put together and to look nice to boot – but what surprised me was that it was also witty. I found the observations Weinstein made about women knitting for men, masculine tastes, and the relationship of wearers of both sexes to their sweaters, to be moot and pointed and not at all presumptous. His writing, in fact, is refreshingly dry. The book includes 10 ‘rules’ of knitting for men, comparative lists of gendered behaviour and suchlike — formats we are all very familiar with from a host of women’s magazines — yet the approach to these popular genres in Knits Men Want seems happily slightly tongue-in-cheek. I had warmed to Weinstein by page 10, on which I was instructed to ‘nix the knitted iPod, golf club and beer cosies’ (sorry, Debbie).

Flood’s photography, with it’s characteristic quietness, works perfectly with the designs in this book, which are classic go-to garments for men of all tastes and ages. Each pattern is usefully written for multiple gauges, so one could actually make the hoodie pictured above in five different weights of yarn. This is a great touch. In my experience, a bloke quite likes to pick out the yarn for his sweater himself, but does not necessarily understand the importance of gauge. Using this book, you could stop worrying about stitches per inch, and knit the sweater with the Chosen Yarn, whatever tension it worked at. The multiple-gauge instructions are also put together well. Since I’ve started producing designs myself, I look at layout and pattern writing with quite a critical eye, and the patterns here seemed to be really well written, laid out, and edited.

But what of the designs themselves? I was taken with most of the sweaters, in particular the Basic Cardigan with it’s neat, unfussy panels of reverse stockinette, and this Baseball Jersey, which features a two-tone saddle shoulder (in my opinion, a saddle-shouldered sweater looks good on any man). In fact, the only sweater I wasn’t too keen on was the button-up Henley — merely a personal preference, as I’m frankly not keen on any sweater in that style. But then, this book is not really for me – it’s true test is whether or not men actually want the knits in Knits Men Want. Tom really liked Weinstein’s designs, and perhaps more tellingly, so did our friend The Mule, who was visiting last weekend. While Tom’s response to garment design has inevitably been tempered by years of cohabiting with an obsessive knitter and her mountains of yarn, Mule has no such bias. He is a sort of blind taster where knitting patterns are concerned – as well as a nattily turned-out male individual – and his view should therefore be respected. He liked the Basic Cardigan and Ski Sweater because they “looked hand-knitted,” and thought the hat and gloves were great. The only garment he wasn’t overly keen on was the hoodie, which he felt was too much an “imitation of generic high-street style.” Overall, Mule thought that Weinstein’s designs were very pleasing, and found them all to be simple, understated and masculine. And these are, as Weinstein repeatedly points out in his accompanying essays, the qualities most blokes really want to find in a knitted thing.

I would do well to take Weinstein’s words on board, as I frequently fall into the knitterly traps that he writes about, ignoring masculine tastes and working to my own. For example, I am currently knitting a pair of socks with this lovely skein (kindly gifted to me by Heather during my last trip to the US). Now, Tom is strangely drawn to brown yarn in the manner of a bee, and, upon seeing the socks that rock, immediately bagsed it for himself. I then made the foolish mistake of sitting him down in front of ravelry, and showing him several patterns. I first suggested Nancy Bush’s Gentleman’s Sock with Lozenge Pattern to which his response was “those bobbly bits (translation: purl stitches) look a bit uncomfortable.” We then moved on to Gentleman’s Fancy Sock which drew an immediate “I’m not sure about this ‘fancy’ business.” Several other sock patterns were proffered and immediately vetoed. While I felt these designs were simple and unfussy, this clearly wasn’t how Tom saw them. What he really liked, he said, was the chocolatey colour of the yarn: “can’t you just make me some nice, plain brown socks with it?” Now, if you want to knit for a bloke, says Weinstein, you should respect their tastes, rather than your own knitterly predilections. The simple, understated and carefully thought-through designs in his book clearly speak to those tastes. Written in multiple gauges, they give the knitter many options for producing things that their blokes might actually want to wear, rather than wear grudgingly, or not at all. This is a very useful book, then. My only criticisms are that Weinstein might have included a few pointers about custom shaping (while men, as he says, don’t enjoy fittings, most appreciate a sweater that fits well) and begun his size range at a 38 rather than a 40 (some men are wee). Meanwhile, I am knitting some nice, plain, brown socks.

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