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.

sunshine on . . .

leith

Yesterday we had beautiful weather while we popped back to our old stomping grounds in North Edinburgh and Leith to take some photographs of two new sweater designs. I’ve been working on these patterns for a while now, and they form part of my Edinburgh series — garments inspired by my favourite places in the great city in which I lived for a decade.

Here’s the photographer:

tom

And here’s a wee hint of what was being photographed:

teaser

I’m really excited to tell you all about these two designs and promise you’ll see more very soon!

shadows

As well as the two Edinburgh-series designs, I’m full of woolly plans for this WOVEMBER. The French translation booklet to accompany Colours of Shetland will soon be available, as will the second edition of the book itself, which is currently being reprinted (so if you’d like a print copy of the book, I’ll soon have my online shop up and running again). As well as the book, the shop will also be stocked with other items, including kits for three new accessories which I’m busy working on right now. Moving house has also meant moving work – it has taken a while to get everything set up, but now everything is ticking away in my studio and stock room and I’m enjoying seeing it all develop.

In the meantime, here are links to two WOVEMBER posts from two of my favourite woolly Shetland folk: Take a look at Ella’s incredible Spencer Dress, and Sarah’s fabulous collection of Shetland knitwear. (Sarah, of course, is the editor of Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present, of which more another time). Meanwhile, over on the WOVEMBER website, you’ll find lots of lovely things about growing wool this week, including this interview with Pam Hall about her Herdwicks and her farm. (Some of you may remember that I knitted this sweater, many, many moons ago, using wool from Pam’s sheep).

further flitting

Since my post yesterday, I’ve had some fascinating discussions on twitter and elsewhere about flitting, its modern usage, and its Scandinavian roots. This morning my friend Sarah pointed me in the direction of a wonderful Shetland song – Muckle Osla’s Flittin, which humorously documents a house move from Gulberwick (a village just south of Lerwick) to Walls (on the West Mainland). The final chorus of the song is so good, I just had to show you. I love the fit between the Shetland vocabulary and the song’s crazy rhythms, and the sheer quantities of knitting-related gubbins that Osla has to move really resonates with my current circumstances.

Wi her kists o claes, washing saes, tables, chairs, an presses,
Iron beds, Shetland speds, kirn staafs, an dresses,
Pots, pans, kettles, cans, tubs fur washin faas,
Osla shö wis gyain at flit fae Gulberweek at Waas.
Dir wis spinnie wheele, herrin creels, simmonds, nets, an tows,
Forks an rakes, deuks an drakes, an cocks an hens an hows,
Rugs an mats wi dugs an cats lyin heeds at traaws,
Da day at muckle Osla flit fae Gulberweek at Waas.
Dir wis wheelborrows, widden harrows, muckle bags o oo,
Yarn winds, window blinds, an wirset hank an cloo,
Bread bins, puddin pins, plates wi chinks an flaas,
Da day at muckle Osla flit fae Gulberweek at Waas.
Wi her gliv boards, sock boards, jumper boards, an aa,
Scriptirs, pictirs, ta hing upö da waa,
Rime books, hime books, books on udal laws,
Da day at muckle Osla flit fae Gulberweek at Waas.

Osla’s is a far more jolly “flit” than John Clare’s, which was enforced upon him by enclosure, and provides a nice counterpoint to the poem in yesterday’s post.
Thanks, Sarah x

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

At Reform Lane

Bruce and I took a few hours off today, and spent the morning drinking tea and eating scones with our friend Sarah.

Sarah has recently moved to Edinburgh from Shetland, and it was the first time I’ve had a chance to see her new studio.



I love to see different kinds of spaces dedicated to making — they always carry the distinctive stamp of the people who make in them. This space is very Sarah.

The studio is full of haberdashery — gorgeous trims and findings. . .

. . .Vintage lace meets digitally printed crepe de chine . . .

. . . so many lovely pieces.

Sarah’s silk-jersey accessories feel more like jewellery than scarves to me. Precious and liminal, their wave-inspired and deliciously fluid fabric seems to emerge from a space somewhere between land and water. I couldn’t leave without one.

What Sarah does with fabric is totally amazing (just look at this beautiful gown she recently designed). I fear her studio may be a place of dangerous temptation . . . but it is lovely to have her nearby.

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