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.

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 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?

Anne Eunson’s artistry

What’s this? A fence?

A fence and a flowerbed?

Take a closer look . . . for this is no ordinary fence. . .

. . .this is a knitted fence . . .

. . . a Shetland lace fence, no less.

This beautiful and imaginative creation is the work of Anne Eunson of Hamnavoe, Burra. Anne loves lace knitting, and how better to express that affection than by completely wrapping one’s garden up in Shetland lace? The fence is fashioned from strong black twine (the same kind that is used to make fishing nets) and Anne knitted it up on specially adapted curtain poles. It took her about three weeks to knit enough lace to surround her front garden, using a 23 stitch repeat of a familiar Shetland lace pattern.

It kills me how the pattern is revealed so strongly, as if it were stretched around the garden on gigantic blocking wires. I gasped when I saw it and really think it is just about the most beautiful fence I’ve ever seen.

I love the way that the lace and Anne’s planting speak to and interact with one another, as the heads of daisies peak through the yarnovers. It is as if the flowers are wearing a shawl, and the shawl has been decorated with flowers. A knitterly Eden! Anne told me that she was really pleased with the finished fence, and says that she now has plans for further lacy additions to her garden. Watch this space, Shetland!

Thanks so much, Anne for your kind permission to write about your work and reproduce these photographs.

respect


(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.

60 North

Just dropping in quickly to say that the new issue of 60 North is out! What? You’ve never heard of 60 North? The name refers, of course, to Shetland’s line of latitude, and is a really well-produced magazine put out by my friends at Promote Shetland. Features in the magazine explore many different aspects of Shetland’s landscape, archeology, wildlife, and culture – including (of particular interest to me) – a piece on Shetland Wool Week, and a great article exploring the fine local tradition of Sunday Tea. Also, you may remember that last Summer I published a feature exploring the history of Shetland Lace with Rowan. I know that those of you who are not in the UK sometimes find it difficult to get hold of the Rowan Magazine, so we have now re-published this piece in 60 North, where everyone can see it. Yes, that’s right: 60 North is available online and it is completely free! Stick the kettle on and and download yourself a copy!


(Image © Mirrie Dancers Project / Roxanne Permar)

Sunday at Mel’s

It has been a quiet few days round here. Perhaps inevitably, my burst of hat-related energy was followed by an evil bout of post-stroke fatigue that has been all the more galling because I had been so looking forward to this week. Felix is in Edinburgh, and we had some fun things planned, none of which I have been able to do because I’ve been so damn tired. But happily today I did manage to haul myself out of the house and round to Mel’s for an afternoon of convivial knitting. The magnificent beast at the top of this post is Mel’s cat Moose — perhaps the superlative feline knitting companion. Please to note, in the photograph above, the insistent — yet respectful — way he has claimed Mel’s knitting as his own.

Unlike my own animals, who seem to enjoy disrupting yarn-related activity, Moose is a very calming and relaxing presence. Here, for example, he takes a wee snooze on my knee while the knitterly business of the room goes on around him.

And here he reveals himself as a cat of taste, displaying his approval of a couple of tasty balls of Rowan fine tweed, and Mel’s recently completed Betty Mouat sweaters – yes, that’s plural – of which more later.

Felix is sporting marvelous socks (spoils of a recent trip to Estonia), and knitting up a Deco in John Arbon’s new yarn, inspired by the pastel Art Deco buildings she saw in Miami.

Mel is knitting the Latvian Garden Blanket in some very pleasing shades of Jamieson and Smith.

and I am working on a pair of fingerless gloves to match last week’s hat.

After a tedious few days, it was lovely to spend the afternoon in the company of two of my very favourite people.

. . .and one of my favourite cats.

In other news:

:: I don’t know if the Rowan members out there have already seen the digital edition of Magazine no. 50? There’s all sorts of interesting additional behind-the-scenes content, including photoshoots and video interviews with Rowan’s designers . . . and, if you turn to pages 40-41, you can click through to see another wee video accompanying my feature on Shetland lace. This footage comes from the epic day when Mel, Emma and I drove the length of Shetland, took 8 boats, and braved the queasy horrors of some very choppy water between the mainland and Whalsay, to go and visit Ina Irvine and Hazel Laurenson. Ina and Hazel are two of the talented women involved in the Shetland Fine Lace Project , and, despite my shaky camera, you can get a taste of their marvelous knitting, which is on sale in the Shetland Museum Shop.

:: If you are out and about in Dublin next week, I’ll be at This is Knit’s annual yarn-tasting and am also looking forward to meeting the wonderful knitters who made my blanket. I think the yarn tasting may well be sold out now, but if you’ve booked, I’ll see you there!

As you might imagine, I’m hoping for a bit of an energy boost to carry me across the sea to Ireland. More on my return!

shetland lace


Excitement! Unable to wait for my copy to turn up in the post, I just popped up to John Lewis to pick up the new Rowan Magazine. Rowan (who will soon be bringing out a new laceweight yarn) wanted a substantial piece on the history of lace knitting and this is what I came up with. I have to say that, out of all the features I’ve researched and written for magazines over the past few years, I am most pleased with this one. Why so? Well, for a start, in contrast to many accounts of Shetland lace as ‘traditional’ knitting, I have what I think is an important argument to make about lace always being an innovatory textile produced in response to the demands of a commercial market and changing fashionable trends. Plus, researching this piece not only gave me an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable creative artistry of Shetlanders and Shetland, but meant that I actually got to go there. Through working on this piece, I met Sarah, Oliver and Sandra at Jamieson and Smith; Carol Christiansen at the Shetland Museum and Archives; the wonderful folk at the Unst Heritage Centre and superlative knitters like Ina Irvine and Mary Kay, who published the Shetland lace patterns that my grandma used to knit from Woman’s Weekly. I heart Shetland! I genuinely loved working on this feature, and in many ways, feel that it marks the beginning of an association that I know will be long-lasting. Perhaps I will see you up there during Shetland Wool Week.

In other exciting news, a pepper has appeared on the plant on the kitchen windowsill.


My First Pepper! Huzzah!

she swatch sea shells


(photo by me, courtesy Shetland Amenity Trust)

I’ve been swatching sea shells on-and-off for a few months now. To explain: when I visited Shetland in January, I fell in love with this stole, shown to me by the wonderful Carol Christiansen at the Shetland Museum and Archives (it is seen here from the wrong side). The colours were probably not those I would have personally chosen, but just look at the pattern! There was garter stitch! Openwork! Undulating hues! An intriguing effect created with what appeared to be dropped stitches! What wasn’t to like? After a few days on Shetland I realised that this stole showcased a pattern that would be immediately familiar to any local knitter — the cockleshell. I’m sure most experienced Shetland knitters would describe the cockleshell as one of the simplest openwork repeats there is, and it seems to be the scarf pattern of choice for many a beginner who is getting to grips with lace. On Shetland, you can’t move for cockleshell lace — it is everywhere! What a place to be.


When one goes looking for it, the pattern is pretty much everywhere, too – you’ll find one variant or another in most stitch dictionaries and introductions to knitted lace. Barbara Walker has it listed as “grand shell, or hoopskirt” in her Second Treasury, and darkly warns “raw beginners” to “stay away from this one” (the dropped yarnovers, perhaps?)

It is also a curiously mercurial pattern that, when knitted in different types of yarn, produces startlingly different effects. Above is “Margaret’s cockleshell scarf” from Carol Noble and Margaret Peterson’s Knits from the North Sea, which is worked in quite a heavy 4 ply merino. But when knitted in fine Shetland laceweight, the pattern can be light, airy, and delicate. To get a sense of just how beautiful the pattern can be, take a look at this gorgeous example, knitted in Supreme 1ply by Sandra at Jamieson & Smith.

Some versions of the Shetland cockleshell open up the lace with fine yarn and double yarnovers, while others create an effect that, with single yarnovers and kfb increases, is more ‘closed’, lending itself better to coloured stripes. For my purposes, I was more interested in the second version, and began to swatch using the variant described in Glady’s Amedro’s Shetland Lace.

I tried a few different yarn weights . . .



. . .and colours . . .


I liked some swatches more than others, but I felt that the fabric was a little too ‘closed’ and that my shells just weren’t shell-y enough. I returned to the stole I’d originally admired in the Shetland Museum . . .


(photo by me, courtesy Shetland Amenity Trust)

The stole formed its shell with a greater number of dropped yarnovers than Amedro’s variant, and there seemed to be a little more space between repeats. I charted up my own variant, using the stole as a guide. I began swatching again. BINGO! This really looked much more balanced. It was at this point I discovered Fleegle’s no-purl-in-the-round garter stitch, and plans for a twist on the traditional cockleshell were properly afoot. Energy levels permitting (I’m not quite out of the woods yet – bah) I’ll show you the final results of my Shetland sea-shell swatching this weekend!

To be continued. . .

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)

knitterly things


(Tom takes a wee break from knitterly things in the Unst Bus Shelter.)

As you may have guessed, I was occupied with a few knitterly things while visiting Shetland. I can’t really talk about these yet, unfortunately, but hopefully it will be worth the wait. I can say, though, that I met some truly lovely people, all of whom were involved with knitting in some way. As a knitter, in fact, I found Shetland a rather humbling place: Fairisle colourwork and Shetland Lace are Britain’s most unique and innovative hand-knitted textiles, with a long and important history. Women have been spinning, designing, and creating the most beautiful things on these islands for generations, and these knitterly traditions are still very much alive. I met some incredible knitters of whose skills I was completely in awe, yet who were totally unassuming about their talents. But while these women seemed to regard their own knitting as quite unremarkable, they also held a profound respect for their craft and its local traditions, which also made a deep impression on me. While I have to hold fire on the detail, then, I can mention the knitterly highlights of my trip. If you are ever visiting the Shetland Islands, here are three places not to miss.

1. The Shetland Museum and Archives

(left to right: yarn sample card; Robert Williamson’s pattern book (reproductions of which are available from the Museum shop); Tom tries his hand at cairding; marvelous 1860s tam)

Now, I got to go behind the scenes at the Shetland Museum and Archives, where I enjoyed a feast of breathtaking lace (of which more later), but what is front-of-house is just as inspiring. What’s on display here is certainly the best, most thoughtfully-curated exhibition of hand-knitted textiles I’ve ever seen. Knitting can sometimes be difficult for the visitor to get a sense of in a museum context, but here good use is made of nifty drawers and pull-out cases which enable you to get a look at some marvelous things close-to. A well-chosen selection showcases a wide range of examples of the many different kinds of knitted garments that were produced on Shetland over the past couple of centuries: from luxury or prize-winning one-offs; to commercial responses to changing fashions; to functional shawls, socks and sweaters that were worn by islanders themselves. In the latter category is this century-old fisherman’s undershirt, with which I was very taken:

Knitted in the round, grafted at the shoulders, and featuring underarm-vents, this garment’s construction is intuitive simplicity itself: a sort of light and airy prototype of EZ’s seamless hybrid. Better than any modern merino baselayer, I reckon. (Memo to self: it is time to complete the J&S Shetland baselayer that you began knitting before life interrupted by stroke)

2. Unst Heritage Centre

I think that the Unst Heritage Centre may well be the spiritual and material home of knitted lace. I saw some incredible things here that completely blew me away (again, I must keep schtum. . . frustratin!). It is a small selection, but it really is worth seeing, so if you are a lace knitter or handspinner, with any interest at all the history of fine lace I strongly urge you to visit the Unst Heritage Centre. You will not be disappointed. During the Spring and Summer months, there are displays of traditional skills from some of the most talented knitters and spinners you will ever meet, and the wonderful Rhoda Hughson (formerly Britain’s most northerly head-teacher) runs a series of great heritage walks from the centre, one of which is herring-themed. How cool is that?

Unst is a beautiful place. I have to go back.

3. The Woolbrokers
It is no secret that Jamieson and Smith produce some of my all-time favourite yarn, and simply being at Woolbrokers HQ on North Road was enough to fill me with foolish excitement. I dashed about snapping pictures and squooshing yarn and fibre like a loon.

When I had calmed down, Sarah and Oliver kindly showed me around. It was a privilege to learn about Shetland sheep and wool from someone of Oliver’s knowledge and expertise. And did you know that Jamieson and Smith grew up and developed around the herring industry? Neither did I. The woolbrokers buy more than 80% of Shetland’s clip . . .

. . . and here is a mere fraction of that annual haul of fleeces, with Sarah looking rather pensive in the foreground. For those of you who know how pasture can affect the quality of fibre, these true Shetland fleeces — soft and fine and springy — are are the real deal. While the finest wool is transformed into J&S’s amazing new worsted-spun laceweight (of which more another time), the heavier grades are put to use in the Shetland wool carpeting, with which I now want to cover my home. And then, of course, there is the Fairisle yarn. . .

. . . tasty jumper weight, in over 100 different glorious shades. Here are the skeins I needed to complete my project ( Shades FC61, 72, and – probably my current favourite – the elusive and complex 366).

Thanks for a great day Oliver, Sarah and Sandra!

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