A Legacy of Shetland Lace

cover

I encountered many knitting books in 2012, but this was my favourite by far. Unlike so many books that have recently been written about Shetland, and Shetland knitting (my own included) this one has been produced by Shetlanders themselves. And not just by any Shetlanders. I don’t think it is going too far to say that the group of women behind this book are among the best knitters in the world. Their work is certainly the very finest that Britain has to offer. In this wonderful tome, key members of The Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers share their knowledge of the old traditions and contemporary practice of Shetland fine lace knitting. It is a timely publication. I have had cause to complain here several times about the misleading rubbish that is often peddled under the name of knitting ‘history’ and, unfortunately, Shetland textile traditions have suffered more than most in this regard — partly due to bias and poor scholarship, and partly too because Shetland’s knitter-designers tend to focus their talents on their needles rather than on the printed page. But here, we see the beautiful work, hear the articulate voices, and are able to work from the stunning patterns of Shetland’s wonderful knitter-designers. In so many ways, this book is their gift to the rest of us, and a very welcome gift it is too.

shells
(Shelley Scarf, designed by Lauretta Robertson)

The book includes a balanced collection of 21 designs. These range from familiar and simple Shetland openwork patterns (such as those that appear on Zena Thomson’s borders-in Traditional Hap, or Lauretta Robertson’s Shelley Scarf) to dazzling showcases of the finest of fine Shetland lace (such as Susan Johnson’s breathtaking Chapelside Stole, or Mary Kay’s St Ringan’s Scarf). There are also a couple of lovely lace garments to knit. No-one designs a yoked sweater better than Hazel Tindall, and her Gairdins Top is a very fine example. I also found myself drawn to Lauretta Robertson’s Laureya Cardigan , with its neat and pleasingly structural allover stitch pattern.

laureya
(Detail of Lauretta Robertson’s Laureya Cardigan )

Photographing fine lace can be very tricky, and Dave Donaldson has done a great job here. Most of the designs have been carefully pictured on blank, dark backgrounds. Close-ups help the reader / knitter to understand the rhythm of the designs, and provide useful visual cues to the accompanying charts.

vaga
(Close up of edging of Zena Thomson’s Vaga Scarf).

The charts are large and well laid out, and the patterns clearly written and explained.

One aspect of Shetland knitting that non-Shetlanders are often bamboozled by is its basic equipment. How are long wires and a makkin belt really used? What exactly is a woolly board? One of the many lovely things about this book is that the women involved in it have taken time to illustrate and explain these mystifying objects . . .

gilda
(The beginnings of Zena Thomson’s Gilda Scarf pictured with a makkin belt)

raepinstring
(lace tethered to the belt with a ‘raepin string’ to create tension )

Included here are also instructions for different methods of blocking and stretching (careful finishing really is crucial in all kinds of Shetland knitting), and there’s also a useful glossary of Shetland knitting terms unfamiliar to most of us. If you don’t know what “wrang loops” are or what it means to “spret” your knitting, here is the place to find out.

kemp

In amongst the designs and patterns, you’ll also find informative and witty anecdotes, together with interesting explanations of other knitting-associated dialect terms, all of which lends the book a distinctive Shetland flavour.

There are many things to love and admire about this book, but one of its most enjoyable aspects for me was reading the brief biographies of each designer. All of these women are truly amazing award-winning knitters, but I know from having met several of them that they can also be modest to the point of total silence about their considerable talents. Through their short biographies, we learn about what knitting has meant to them, about their own aesthetic tastes and predilections, and much more generally about a community in which lace knitting developed its own particular practices and economy, and played (and indeed continues to play) a crucial role in the lives of many women. Shetland knitters should be proud of their legacy, and it is wonderful to see that pride evidenced — albeit quietly — in the hopes that each designer expresses here for the book to which they have contributed. Winne Balfour hopes “that this book may encourage young knitters to take an interest in and enjoy learning, developing and continuing the skills of the legacy we have been left.” Zena Thomson hopes “that the clear patterns and photographs in this book will help people to try out patterns they might otherwise not have tried.” Pearl Johnson “is very glad that this book has been produced by folk living and knitting in Shetland and hopes that it will raise more awareness of Shetland traditional knitting,” and Susan Johnson “hopes this book reaches everyone interested in Shetland, Shetland lace and knitting, and that they receive and appreciate the spirit of quiet enjoyment that produced it.” That quiet enjoyment is evident on every single page of this great book, which should have pride of place on every knitterly bookshelf.

Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, A Legacy of Shetland Lace (Lerwick: Shetland Times LTD, 2012). ISBN 978-1-904746-76-8

*You can buy A Legacy of Shetland Lace directly through the Shetland Times Bookshop or from Jamieson and Smith.

*And did you know that the Shetland Guild of Spinnners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers have their own Ravelry Group?

112, Jermyn Street

I was going through my photographs of our London trip last night, and remembered I hadn’t told you about 112, Jermyn Street. One of the things I enjoy about London is the way that, simply wandering about, one encounters places with interesting associations. Inevitably, my touchstones are eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ones, but I’m sure it is the same for those with knowledge of earlier or later periods. This means that my sense of metropolitan geography is rather idiosyncratic – in Soho, I think of Angelica Kauffman; in the City, the spire of the church of St Stephen Walbrook reminds me of 1760s radicalism. On this occasion, I became very excited when, as Tom and I were on our way to have a reccy at the marathon’s finish line arrangements, we happened upon an address with woolly associations.

This fine stone building, where you can now buy Jones’ boots or Emmett’s shirts, was once the home of Edward Standen’s Shetland Warehouse.

Edward Standen was a mid nineteenth-century merchant with a Shetland wool obsession. In some poorly-researched sources, he is credited with ‘encouraging’ or even ‘inventing’ Shetland fine lace, but, as any early nineteenth-century Unst knitter would tell you, this is pure bunkum. What can be said of Standen is that he was the first merchant to popularise Shetland lace in England (fine Shetland shawls were already being worn by fashionable women in Edinburgh and elsewhere in mainland Scotland). With a background in farming and the linen trade, Standen first visited Shetland in 1839, and, like many a visitor before and since, seems to have taken the islands to his heart. He was motivated by profit too, of course, and found a niche for himself importing large quantities of quality hand-knitted goods, which, like most other merchants (despite the 1831 act outlawing such exchanges) he acquired from knitters through truck. Enthusiastic about many aspects of island life, he visited annually, and also seems to have had a sideline importing Shetland sheep and ponies to the home counties – a rather less successful venture than his knitwear business, which thrived from its premises at 112, Jermyn Street, Mayfair.

Here is one of the many advertisements which Standen placed in The Morning Post in 1843:

It is interesting to note the sheer variety of knitted goods that were being sold at 112, Jermyn Street: by the 1840s, one generally thinks of shawls and veils as dominating Shetland’s knitterly output, but Standen was clearly doing a roaring trade in undergarments, gloves, and traditional stockings as well. Two types of shawl are mentioned here — decorative fine lace and the warmer, more workaday hap — but neither is prioritised. By the following year, however, the text of Standen’s advertisements had altered, with the fine lace shawls receiving special mention as gifts that might be ordered and shipped all over the country. The Shetland Warehouse had clearly found its feet in fine lace’s luxury market.


(Here are the upper stories of 112, Jermyn Street. In my imagination, that turret is stuffed with shawls!)

While the labour of Shetland’s knitters enabled his London business to thrive, in some ways the islands were not kind to Edward Standen. While on his annual visit to Shetland in 1844, he was the sole survivor of a terrible boating accident. Then, the following year, he collapsed while walking the 24 miles between Sumburgh Head and Lerwick, and suddenly died, after developing pneumonia. In his posthumously published Paper on the Shetland Islands Standen praised the islands’ craftswomen, celebrating their “exquisite knitting,” and “great variety of original patterns”, suggesting that “the habitants of . . . Shetland, deserve credit and encouragement for their taste, skill, and industry.”

After his death, Standen’s family continued to promote and profit from that industry. The Mayfair Shetland Warehouse’ remained, selling fine hand knits to London’s fashionable elite throughout the 1850s. In 1851, Standen’s sister, Sarah, commissioned the famous madder-dyed bridal veil which was displayed to great acclaim at the Great Exhibition. And at some point over the next century and a half, this intricate and typically gaudy example of mid-nineteenth century fashion made its way back North from 112, Jermyn Street. It can now be seen on display in the wonderful collections of the Shetland Museum.

Further reading, Linda Pryor, Knitting by the Fireside and on the Hillside (1995)
Edward Standen A Paper on the Shetland Islands (1845)

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