Great Tapestry of Scotland 124-160

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Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Well, this is my final post on the Great Tapestry of Scotland! I have really enjoyed revisiting my photographs, and thinking more about the tapestry, and your comments have also provided much food for thought. These photographs are, of course only snippets, and you’ll find much more thorough information in the two books I mentioned in my first post about the project. But honestly, no books or photographs can reproduce the experience of seeing this incredible thing for yourself and, if you ever have the opportunity, I really recommend you do so!

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

I can’t say I have a favourite panel, though I do love Fairisle (126) the Isbister Sisters (115) and the Hutton panel (74) but as I went through my photos this morning, I found myself thinking about how much I loved the Cumbernauld panel (140) and how it seemed to sum up for me what this project is all about.

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Detail of Panel 140: Cumbernauld

Like many panels, this one celebrates the texture of ordinary people’s lives, and the ordinary spaces in which they live them. Andrew Crummy’s design – with the new town’s familiar roads and architecture – is incredibly witty and creative, and just like his Pictish or his Georgian panels, the style of the design has shifted in an inventive fashion here to suit the moment it represents. Cumbernauld’s local reputation is not unambiguous, but in this panel the urban environment appears beautiful and utopian simply because it is an everyday space of homes, and folk, and families. My favourite scene from Gregory’s Girl is referenced in the top left, and perhaps one of the reasons I like this panel so much is that so much of what it represents seems familiar to me from my own childhood and youth. Finally, the stitching on the panel is absolutely exquisite, and because of this the whole piece absolutely sings. Last Sunday, I spent some time admiring this panel, and I then read the information board which told me that just two Cumbernauld women had worked on the stitching, Elizabeth Boulton and Helen Conley. Conley and Boulton had depicted themselves as children in their signature at the bottom right of the panel, in a scene that seemed to be taken from an old photograph of the pair. I was suddenly struck by the sheer power of the Great Tapestry project – that these two childhood friends were quite literally making history, and with their needles stitching themselves into the story of their home, their town, their nation. What a wonderful thing to do.

So, some final highlights.

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Panel 125: The General Strike stitched by June McEwan, Karen Philpot and Gil Tulloch in Pitlochry

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Panel 126: Fair Isle Love this panel inordinately.

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Panel 129: The Great Depression The lone figure of Chris Guthrie defines the 1930s

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Panel 130: Tenement Life I loved everything about this wonderfully vibrant celebration of Scotland’s tenement communities

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Panel 132: The Clydebank Blitz I found this panel deeply affecting

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Panel 134: D-Day, 1944 Bill Millin defiantly pipes through the Normandy landings

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Panel 143: Linwood and the Hillman Imp I was particularly pleased to see a yoked jumper, appropriately appearing here in its early 1960s heyday!

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Panel 148: The rise of the SNP It amused me that Irn Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes appeared in this panel as 1970s nationalist icons.

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Panel 149: Scotland at the Movies. Whisky Galore! “No son of mine will be eating human flesh.”

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Panel 152: Gaelic Resurgent stitched by Christine Haynes and Pauline Elwell

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Panel 154: Dolly the Sheep Tom’s favourite panel, for its inventive depiction of science in stitch.

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Panel 155: The Scottish Parliament reconvenes, 1999. Incredibly beautiful stitching on this panel

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Panels 156 and 157: Parliament of the Ancestors, Parliament for the Future An appropriately vast and varied tapestry of Scottish identities, from Joanna Baillie to Oor Wullie.

Thanks for bearing with me through this photographic tour! And if you’d like to see all of my posts about the Great Scottish Tapestry together, you can do so here.

Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

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On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.

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The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.

This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.

So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23

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Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

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Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

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Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

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Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

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Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.

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Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

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Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

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Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

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Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

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Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.

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Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

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Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

A conversation with Hélène Magnusson

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(Hélène, Hiking and Knitting between Fire and Ice, against the spectacular backdrop of Eyjafjallajökull.)

When I visited Iceland I had the very great pleasure of finally meeting Hélène Magnusson, whose research and designs I have admired for many years. I visited Hélène in her lovely home in Reykjavik, where we drank tea, ate some delicious smoked lamb, and talked about things cultural, culinary, and woolly for several hours. We had such a good time chatting, I thought it might be fun to continue the conversation here . . .


1. I know you are French . . . can you tell us a little more about your background? Where did you grow up?

I have both the Icelandic and French nationality but was brought up in France. There I studied law and worked as a barrister for some years in Paris until I moved to Iceland. Law was interesting but I was never passionate about it, if not simply bored! Knitting however has always been something truly enjoyable. I was 7 when I learned to knit from my mother, as well as from books and I have been knitting ever since, whenever and where ever, making my own or following recipes, changing them, or not. It certainly made the law courses pass quicker!

2. And how and when did you come to relocate to Iceland?

Iceland has been on my mind from a pretty young age. My paternal grand-father from Normandy, a very tall man, with high cheeks, grey eyes and a little nose, kept telling me that we were descendants of the Vikings. I dreamt of Iceland with “Icelandic fisherman”, a book by Pierre Loti (I lived in a street that had the name of the author at age 3 to 5, and it has always been a favorite book at home). Because of my father’s job, we were moving constantly from one harbor to the other, and I felt a bit rootless. When I went hiking in Iceland for the first time in 1995 on a holiday, I immediately and finally felt home. The rest was easy: I came back to Paris, resigned from the bar, quit my job and 3 months later, I was installed in Iceland where I later met my husband, started studying mountaineering and textiles, worked as a cook during the winter and a mountain guide during the summer, had three daughters, bought a house, took my driving licence, … I enjoy a lot going on holiday to Normandy in the family house but Iceland is my home and where I want to die (at a very old age!)!

3. The landscape of Iceland is unique and truly magical. Even having only spent a few days there, I already want to come back and explore further. Is there a favorite place you like to be in Iceland? Can you tell us a little about it?

I love everything about Iceland. I love its roughness and emptiness, I love its harshness, how life is fighting so hard to survive. There are many beautiful places I have traveled to around the world but none has ever moved me as deeply than Iceland. Still after all this time, the landscape makes me extremely emotional.
I also love the fact that it is an island and that sea is all around, and you can still see it and smell it from the mountains, even from the top of Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland.

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(Icelandic sheep)

4. You have worked with Icelandic sheep, and I wonder how this hands-on experience has influenced your approach to design, textiles and yarn production?

Nowadays we often know rather little where a product really comes from – we talked a bit together about the misleading ways yarn can be labeled, and all the unsaid information and hypocrisy that can go behind something that is described on the label as 100% wool, from a specific country. So yes, having worked with sheep, knowing how they are brought up, how they behave, how the wool is behaving and evolving on the living animal, how farmers are considering the wool and the sheep, what process it follows before it comes into perfectly wound skeins in the knitters hands, all this has certainly influenced my designs, trying to find the best use for the wool and to take advantages of its intrinsic qualities or defects. And then working with sheep and wool was certainly an excellent preparation for me to begin producing my own yarn! Of course I had not the slightest idea that this would be the case at the time!

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Icelandic shoe inserts, whose unique history and designs are explored by Hélène in Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns


5. Icelandic knitted shoe inserts are a wonderful example of how decorative textiles played a crucial role in the everyday lives of ordinary people. What first drew you to these remarkable objects?

In the sheep farm where I worked I was first given a little pair of shoes with tiny inserts inside. Later while studying textiles, I was asked to make a presentation about design in a particular research exercise, and I chose to work with knitting. I knew I wanted to explore something really typically Icelandic and remembered the inserts in the little shoes. I then asked the National Museum to open for me their shoe-inserts cabinet, and I fell in love with them – – so colorful, joyful, beautiful and also so graphic. I also think there is a modern aesthetic in the shoe inserts that immediately drew me to them. But they were worn to barely be seen, hidden under the foot. I want to think it made people feel good to be wearing something pretty even if the wearers were the only ones to know. It came as a surprise to me to find out how little opinion old people had on the shoe-inserts – souvenirs of harsh centuries of poverty and dependency – and how very little young people knew about them, if anything at all.

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Icelandic soft shoes and shoe inserts from Icelandic Handknits


6. Your first book – Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns – is a tour-de-force of scholarly research combined with truly original knitwear designs. Can you tell us about the process of producing it?

In the research I carried out, I first presented the inserts not as utilitarian objects but as a collection of motifs that I classified by colors and patterns. This really impressed Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (Goddur), the head graphic designer professor and he is the one who encouraged me to write my graduation essay about them. (He was actually the only academic who was interested in this aspect of my work — the Fashion department didn’t see the inserts with a very sympathetic eye). With his encouragement, I continued to explore further research on the subject. Having previously studied law was tremendously helpful when trying to locate scarce information on shoe-inserts somewhere in a pile of hand-written ramblings about how life was in the Old Days! But if I had to do it all over again – or if I had the time to return to student life – I’d much rather study textile history than law: I’m a bit envious of your skills! I then got a grant from the Student Innovation Fund to make new designs based on the inserts. My graduation fashion collection (despite the reluctance mentioned above) was inspired by the shoe-inserts. I kind of got completely obsessed with the shoe-inserts!

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(Hammer Rose Vest from Icelandic Knitting: Using Rose Patterns)

What was crucial to me during the whole process was to show Iceland’s past and its traditions a lot of respect. First I wanted to record the traditions like they were and like they had evolved, so they wouldn’t get lost, but then I also wanted people to continue knitting after them, otherwise, they would simply die out! To this end, in the second part of the book, I designed garments and accessories all based on the inserts, using the techniques, working from the shape of the inserts or the shape of the motifs, keeping the colors like they were, playing with concepts, or the old sayings and stories that surrounded the inserts.

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(Hélène wearing the Skautbuningur cardigan from Icelandic Handknits)


7 .My favourite design in your important second book – Icelandic Handknits: 25 Heirloom Techniques and Projects – is probably the Skautbuningur cardigan. To me this design encompasses many of the signature elements of your work: it combines a thoughtful interpretation of traditional costume, with the construction of the modern Icelandic yoked sweater; involves a really nifty technical trick for finishing the front bands and facings and is also a wonderfully wearable garment. Do you have a favourite design in this book?

Thank you Kate! That is always a tough question! There are designs I liked at the time but feel I could improve today, then there are designs that I enjoyed designing because there was an interesting construction or a solution to find or a concept to work around but that are not necessarily outstanding as such and finally there are the designs that I would like to knit for myself and wear! I actually do wear quite many of my handknits: I have the chance that Icelandic wool ages really well so even worn they are still presentable at tradeshows!

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Klukka skirt from Icelandic Handknits

8. I love knitted undergarments and dresses and your Klukka- inspired design is another beautiful pattern in Icelandic Handknits. Could you tell us more about Icelandic Klukka and how they were made?

The klukka was a knitted slip, made of wool of course, worn by women under their clothes to keep warm. The body was often knitted with ribbing with and the skirt had an easy undulating lace pattern with stripes of colors enhancing the undulations. They could be handknitted but by the end of the 19th century/beginning of 20th century, many homes, where all the clothing was made, had knitting machines (like the one we saw in the fisherman’s house at the open Air Museum in Árbær). Klukka were, however often finished by hands with a little picot edge, which was crocheted or knitted.

9. And I understand that beautiful Icelandic lace dresses are the subject of your next book?

Yes, it was too bad you just missed by a couple of days the exhibition at the National Museum about the book process that I held for Design March!
While during researches on Icelandic knitting, I had come across a one article about an Icelandic woman who had been knitting lace dresses inspired by the traditional Klukka but much more intricate. It was always on the back of my mind to find out more about her and many years later, I decided to investigate and looked for the woman: she appeared to still be alive and accepted to meet me for an interview. After a couple of meetings, I thought that she and her work were so remarkable that I decided to write a whole book about her! It would be a terrible shame if her knowledge and expertise simply disappeared… She made one-of-a-kind dresses, but I include in the book patterns of some of her dresses and coats in multiple sizes. I’ve been working on it for a few years now. The most challenging part appeared to be the wool: the yarn she was using didn’t exist anymore and was much finer than the Einband from Istex, which is the only mill and the only Icelandic lace weight available (it’s close to fingering actually). Of course, I found some suitable yarns to knit the dresses, such as Shetland Supreme Lace 2 ply from Jamieson and Smith that you know well, but, without wanting to sound too dogmatic, I feel I OUGHT to use Icelandic wool as well!

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(Hélène’s Halldora design, from Icelandic Handknits, knitted with Love Story Artisanal 1 ply)

10. In conjunction with your research into Icelandic lace, I know you have been developing some very special laceweight yarn. Can you tell us more about your yarn experiments?

Yes, since there was no suitable Icelandic yarn for the dresses, I decided to make my own! I started making trials in a mini-mill in Belgium (there is no such thing as a mini-mill in Iceland so I sent selected wool abroad) and this is how Love Story Artisanal 1 ply was born. It is a beautiful fine lace-weight yarn made of high quality Icelandic wool, and very soft for an Icelandic yarn. Although it’s made by a machine, it is closer however to a handspun yarn. Because in a minimill you can work with small quantities at a time, I’m able to offer for sale many different shades of the natural Icelandic sheep colors as well as some plant-dyed colors. This artisanal production was very well received, and disappears very quickly. I find that I’m regularly out of stock and at the moment, I only have brown, black and white available… I can’t even imagine the complicated issues that would be involved with publishing a book recommending a yarn and not being able to keep up with the demand… So I’m heading for a bigger production for Love Story Artisanal 1 ply and that is easier to say than to do! Again I have turned to mills abroad since Ístex doesn’t have the capacity to make a finer lace. First there were many administrative obstacles to go through, one being that, despite all the campaigns for wool, unwashed wool is actually considered as an animal by-product by the EEC and goes by the same rules that meat carcass for shipping and handling… Then, it was not easy to find a mill that would be able to spin the Icelandic wool: it’s a very difficult wool to spin because of the mix of long and short hairs and a little challenging to make it into a fine regular lace. I sent wool here and there and was finally lucky to find a mill in Italy that had the confidence to make it: for the first trial, we made a one-ply but then decided to ply it so it would be more regular. . .

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(Grýla)

. . .and this is how my other yarn – called Grýla – was born: it’s a 2-ply yarn (Tvíband in Icelandic), made of 100% pure Icelandic wool, and is very sturdy and hardwearing (perfect for fine mittens for example!). It comes in 9 shades (that was the fun part for me choosing colors!) To go with it, I also made a Grýla Artisanal 2-ply in natural sheep colors: it’s spun at the mini-mill in Belgium with Icelandic lambswool and is really very soft. Grýla however is about the same weight as Ístex’s Einband so it is not terribly suitable for the lace dresses themselves (in fact that’s why it got the name of Grýla) but on its own terms it is a really lovely yarn! I knit my Icelandic Spring Shawl with it and it came out beautifully – I’ve also been working on a wee Grýla pattern collection that I will release in a few months.

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Icelandic Spring Shawl

. . . and now, I’m working on Love Story 2 ply, a yarn made of 100% Icelandic lambswool that will be absolutely perfect for the lace dresses! The lambswool being finer, it will be easier to make a finer yarn, also it’s much softer! I select high quality lambswool directly at Ístex washing station in Blönduós which is where the vast majority of farmers send their wool. I wanted first to buy it directly from the farmers but, though Ístex has been extremely cooperative and supportive of this project of mine, I still ran into many obstacles. As we speak, the wool is on its way to the mill in Italy: both white lambswool but also natural sheep colors, grey, brown and black. I can’t wait to see the end result but it will take a little while so we’ll all have to be patient!

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(Love Story yarn!)


11. You have a wonderful personal sense of style, Hélène, and I know that fashion was one of your previous scholarly interests. How (if at all) does contemporary fashion influence your current work?

Thank you Kate! I had two of my daughters while studying Textile design at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. While I was away on maternity leave for two years in a row (there’s only 16 months between them), the school undertook lots of changes and the Textile section was changed into a Fashion and Textile design section where the focus is on making a fashion line collection. So for this last year at school everything was new for me – it was a bit difficult with two babies a great learning experience for conveying ideas and make a coherent collection. During this last year at school, I also took all the basics courses in patterning, sewing, etc… I can’t say however I’m very much into following fashion at all! It all goes in a circle anyway… Still I’m probably influenced by my surroundings without noticing it!

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(Hélène in a stunning flowerpot coat of her own design)

12. With your tours, you are now introducing knitters all over the world to the landscape and culture of Iceland, as well as its textile history. Can you tell us about some of the locales and traditions you will be exploring on your tours in 2014?

I organise the knitting tours with Icelandic Mountain Guides-Iceland Rovers, a tour operator that I had already worked with as a mountain guide until I had my daughters (I had the 3 of them in just 4 years so there was no time then for guiding!). I design the tours and Mountain Guides see to all the practicalities (such as booking etc). My interest in Icelandic knitting heritage and my strong desire to share it and keep it alive, together with my experience as a mountain guide provides the impetus for these tours: they are designed to give an insight into Icelandic Culture and Knitting Traditions. Knitting is still today intrinsic to Icelandic culture, so discovering Iceland through the knitting will give you an immediate and really interesting insight into Icelandic Culture. The tours mix knitting with beautiful natural surroundings: we visit local museums and meet local people, knitters, spinners, dyers, designers, farmers. Each tour has its own way of exploring Icelandic knitting heritage, whether it´s by hiking, trekking or by short walks on a discovery adventure. The tours are also timed to coincide with the natural rhythms of the farming year, and explore several different themes associated with Icelandic culture and knitting.

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For example, the Hiking and Knitting with the Elves tour in late June takes for its theme Icelandic lace and is takes place among the fjords of East Iceland where the queen of the Elves herself resides. Elven women were told to pass down from the Elven world to the by stepping onto their lace shawl that they laid down over a swamp. The interesting and distinctive characteristics of Icelandic lace often derive from the subtle colors, tones and shades that we can also see in the landscapes that we are crossing during the tour. June is also the season of flowering in Iceland, a perfect tine to collect plants for dying the delicate lace yarns. The tour includes a plant-dying workshop, we meet with an amazing local lace knitter and discover different types of lace made for example from handyed reindeer skin (reindeer live solely in east Iceland).

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By contrast, The Enchanting North tour in July takes us through North Iceland to the fjord of Skagafjörður, the Textile Museum and the beautiful region of Mývatn. The hikes for this tour are pretty easy and accessible to the vast majority of participants and the tour gives a good overview of Icelandic landscape and knitting traditions. Additionally, we explore in some depth the Mittens traditions of Skagafjörður, which are distinctively and beautifully embroidered with and Old Icelandic cross-stitch.

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After this, in August, one of my popular tours – Hiking and knitting between Fire and Ice – goes through the Fimmvörðuháls mountain pass, still hot after an eruption, at the foot of the now famous Eyjafjallajökull. This is probably the most challenging tour for the legs and feet and the theme of the tour is Icelandic footwear, especially the tradition of Icelandic shoe-inserts and Icelandic intarsia. Then in September the Spinning and knitting the Icelandic wool tour takes place. This is the time when sheep are gathered from the mountains (where they graze freely all summer), and sorted between farmers during round-ups. The tour take us through the whole process of working with Icelandic wool: rounding up and sorting the sheep, shearing, cleaning, combing, spinning, plant dying and finally knitting with the yarn that we create spun. We also visit the Istex mill factory and local spinners and dyers. Finally, in late October there is the last tour of the year: Knitting in the Magical Icelandic Night: the sheep are in the farm and the shearing season is beginning, we are knitting in cozyness of a turf farm guesthouse. It’s the beginning of winter and through this experience we get to understand how Icelandic wool kept the nation warm for centuries. At this time of the year, the sun hardly rises above the horizon, and the light is completely amazing. A bath in a hot spring, northern lights and colorful mittens are also on the program.

I also have a few custom tours made especially for groups of knitters or travel agencies and I’m already working on the program for 2015!

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(Beautiful turf house at Glaumbaer)

13. In one way or another, you have been working with textiles and design in Iceland for almost fifteen years. Can you tell us something about the cultural shifts and changes you have observed in this field during this time?

I can clearly see a return to the roots and the prejudice against the past fade with the new generations. We talked a bit about it when you were here, regarding especially the turf houses, and you wrote an insightful post about it.
First there was the setting of Iceland Academy of the Arts and the construction of a Design and Architecture section. Although it may be still a bit early to tell, a definitive Icelandic design flair has emerged, bright and colorful and most of all full of energy.
The financial crisis is also a turning point to me. You can pretty much talk in terms of “before the crisis” and “after the crisis” to define an architecture design style. The before crisis being much show-off, a bit pretentious, expensive and big, often out of scale!

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(Harpa in Reykjavik. The antithesis of vernacular architecture?)


14. You seem to me to be a natural designer and craftswoman: someone who simply has to be making something. If you had unlimited time (and resources) what would you most like to design and make?

Yes I pretty much feel I’m losing my time when I don’t make something with my hands! If I had enough time, first, it would not have taken me WEEKS to answer your interview questions! I would certainly spent more time on other crafts and show my daughters much more than I do now – I would also long be done with the Icelandic costume I’m making for myself at the Handicraft Association of Iceland! I would definitively publish more designs: I have patterns that have been ready to be published for 6 months or more and never seem to see the light. Would I produce more designs? Certainly, it’s not the ideas that are missing! – BUT in a way the limitation is also a garde-fou and forces you to make choices, to eliminate, to refine and keep only the essential. Still, a few hours more per day would do me only good!

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(Hélène and her daughters at the sheep round-up)

Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and life, Hélène!

A brief history of British socks

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Things are very busy around here! For those of you interested in Peerie Flooers kits, I’ll be updating the shop this Friday, May 9th, at around 9pm GMT. Meanwhile, here’s another article I’ve had time to excavate from my archives — a survey of the history of socks and stockings in the UK, which was originally published in The Knitter a few years ago. The distinction between what I’ve referred to here as “luxury” and “utilitarian” socks, and the historic gendering of that distinction among sock / stocking knitters, still really interests me.

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A Brief History of British Socks

Socks have always been needed to protect the feet from the vagaries of the British weather. To stave off the wind and rain, our Celtic ancestors customarily wrapped and bound their feet and legs with woven woollen cloth. Later, Roman invaders found that Northern climes were tough on their Mediterranean feet, and found themselves ditching their sandals in favour of the footwear of the sensible ancient Britons. One of the 1st century correspondence tablets discovered at Vindolanda in Northumbria notoriously includes the instruction to “send more socks,” and among the site’s most important discoveries are a child-sized pair of woollen bootees. These ancient socks are formed like a rudimentary envelope, with a separate sewn-on sole and upper to accommodate the curves of a tiny foot.

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(Child’s woollen sock, found at Vindolanda)

Throughout the Medieval and Tudor periods, socks evolved with the changing vagaries of men’s fashion. As breeches decreased in length, so stockings grew longer, eventually extending from foot to waist in an all-in-one garment that resembled a pair of tights. Though Britain’s working people were certainly knitting their own homespun socks and stockings by this time, the hosiery of men of upper rank was still generally made of woven cloth with a back seam and bias cut. But by the 15th Century, the men of France and Italy led the way with their fine hand-knit silk stockings. Men found that the stretchy fabric had two benefits: ease of movement and an ability to show off a shapely leg. Aristocratic Britons were soon following their European neighbours, and knitted silk stockings became the rage among the British fashionable elite.

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(Late eighteenth-century stockings. Met Museum CI44.8.13ab)

By the 16th Century, hosiery, like other forms of clothing, was regulated by strict sumptuary laws. In 1566, surveillance techniques were employed by the City of London to ensure that the wrong kind of socks were not being worn anywhere in the capital. The London sock police comprised four “sad and discreet” persons, who were positioned twice a day at the gates of the city, checking the legs of those entering and leaving for erroneous hose.

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stocking frame knitter

In 1589, a sock revolution began in the home of William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire. A somewhat shadowy figure, Lee has become the stuff of knitting myth and legend through his development of the stocking frame. One story has it that he invented out of spite: having discovered that his sweetheart preferred her knitting to his addresses, he created a machine that would deprive her of her favourite occupation. But another version of the story suggests that Lee devised the stocking frame for his beloved wife, who had been forced to knit feverishly to supplement the family income. Either way, the origin of the stocking frame in a supposed battle of the sexes points to a division between male and female that was intriguingly written out in the later history of Lee’s machine: while framework knitting, much like weaving, became a respected masculine occupation, hand knitters were thought of as unskilled, remained un-incorporated, and were primarily women.

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Women of the Bluestocking circle, depicted as The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain in a print by Richard Samuel, 1779.

But British women changed the history of socks in different ways. Originally, “bluestockings” were simply common-or-garden socks; the ‘blue’ referring to the greyish hue of the worsted yarn from which they were spun and knitted. Rather than the costly white silk that was favoured by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots famously wore stockings of blue worsted at her execution. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, “bluestockings” had assumed an entirely new significance. British women were widely admired for their learning and literary abilities, and a salon culture flourished. In 1756, botanist, Benjamin Stillingfleet, turned down an invitation from woman-of-letters, Elizabeth Vesey because he didn’t possess the formal attire usually worn at a polite assembly. Vesey replied, “don’t mind dress! Come in your blue stockings,” and from then on, “bluestockings” became a shorthand not just for the informal spirit of such gatherings, but for Vesey’s group of learned friends, and female intellectuals more generally. By the close of the century, bluestocking had also become a term available for satire and abuse, as demonstrated by Rowlandson’s famous print of 1815.

bluestocking1815

The contrast between formal silk, and ordinary blue worsted, points to a division that defines the modern history of British socks. Socks basically came in two categories: luxury, and utilitarian. In the 18th century, the luxury sock would have been made from imported silk, or the fine fibres of long-wool sheep, by a male frame knitter in London or one of the growing towns and cities of the Midlands. The utilitarian sock, meanwhile, would have been hand-knit by a poor woman in a rural village, from the much coarser wool of the sheep of Westmorland, Wales, or Scotland. While frame-knit silk stockings were costly accessories worn by those of middling and upper rank, hand-knit worsted socks were plain, hard-wearing items favoured by soldiers and working folk. Such utility socks sold from 5 to 7 pence a pair, and, despite technological advances, the market for them remained buoyant for most of the 18th Century. Thousands of pairs were exported and sold in the British colonies, which were at that time bound by the mother country’s restrictions on manufacturing. In rural areas famed for sheep and wool, whole villages—such as Dent in Westmorland, Sanquhar in the Scottish Borders or Bala in North Wales—might be kept employed hand-knitting socks for the Americas. In 1767, Benjamin Franklin’s enterprising maidservant, Ann Hardy, made a reasonable secondary income by selling to Philadelphians the worsted stockings that her friends would regularly send to her from Britain.

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knitting stick, used by early nineteenth-century knitter, Jane Brown.

Following the American Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the bottom fell out of the export market for British hand-knitted socks. Village knitters found themselves forced to change strategy, and devised alternate woollen products which appealed to a more exclusive buyer, such as the famous patterned gloves of Sanquhar. Meanwhile, the luxury sock market seemed to shift in the opposite direction as skilled framework knitters found their craft increasingly downgraded and cheapened by the effects of the industrial revolution. The original Luddites were, in fact, sock knitters: men who, empowered by the license their charter gave for collective action, destroyed the wide stocking frames and shoddy goods of the new mill owners. The actions of the Luddities were punished by transportation and, in some cases, death: giant mills spread their chimneys over the Midlands, and the skill of framework knitting was soon lost. By the twentieth century, fine stockings of silk, cotton and nylon were being churned out on wide frames in factories all over the country. But the hand-knitting of socks never really disappeared: utility socks continued to be produced commercially on a small scale in the Shetland Islands and Aberdeen, and elsewhere throughout Britain, women (and girls) continued to knit socks for themselves and their families as they had done for centuries.

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Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Girl knitting a sock on Whitby Pier, c.1880. ©Frank Meadow Sutcliffe Gallery.

Today, in a world of cheap, mass-produced textiles, where we are often separated from the material origins and making of our clothing, a sock knitted by hand is a truly marvellous thing. Ann Budd has described knitted socks as “intimate luxuries” and, indeed that is what they have now become. Socks are ideal small canvases for the skills and preferences of knitters: made with beautiful hand-dyed, or colourful self-striping yarns; showcasing breathtaking stitch patterns; and featuring a level of detail and ornament to rival any sixteenth-century silk stocking. Contemporary sock designs range from the gorgeous to the whimsical, with beaded tops, lacey cuffs, intriguing heels, or incorporated hand-spun pet hair. Many new sock designs feature innovative shaping techniques, allowing knitted fabric to adapt to the curves of instep and ankle, in a way that recalls the bias cut of early stocking hose.

But, however luxurious the yarn, however complex the design, most of all, socks are made to be worn and walked in. The popularity of hand knitted socks has also meant that the age-old skill of darning has gained a new lease of life, as today’s knitters prolong the life of their favourite accessories by repairing worn-out heels and toes. And, as our Roman ancestors found, socks have always been uniquely connected to the British climate and landscape.

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Felicity Ford’s “Swaledale Sea Socks”

Handling skeins of wool raised and spun in Cornwall and Kent reminded artist and knitter, Felicity Ford, of the sounds and textures of the beaches of Britain’s South coast. Inspired by the connection between yarn and landscape, she knitted up her “Swaledale Sea Socks” using natural and blue worsted yarn. “I like the imaginative link between the tactile qualities of wool (used to clothe the feet) and terrain, (upon which those clothed feet walk),” says Ford. “In a world where yarn is increasingly sourced from nameless, faraway places, this sense of locale and traceability – plus their evocative, tactile qualities – made my Swaledale sea socks seem intimately connected to the landscapes where I have since walked in them.” In Ford’s new bluestockings, the history of British socks seems to have come full circle.

felixsocks
(Felicity Ford’s “Swaledale Sea Socks”)

Further Reading:
Nancy Bush, Folk Socks (1994)
Richard Rutt, The History of Handknitting (1987)
E.P. Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class (1963)
Joan Thirsk, “The Fantastical Folly of Fashion: The English Stocking Knitting Industry, 1500-1700” (1973; reprinted 1984).

my tam – at Gawthorpe!

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While I was away in Lancashire I popped over to Gawthorpe to see preparations for the new season’s exhibitions. Excitingly for me, my Richard the Roundhead Tam is included, – the first time my work has ever been displayed in a museum or gallery context. I can tell you that the thought of the tam being exhibited (and examined) weighed on my mind somewhat while I was knitting it, and because of this I was very pernickety with my finishing. I was heartened to read that Emma Varnam also felt similarly when producing her glorious Soliders Quilt Cushion!

Alongsisde the new knit and crochet designs, there is much more for visitors to Gawthorpe Textile Collections to enjoy as well:

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Rachel and her team are hard at work preparing the displays, including the beautiful beaded dress which you can see to the left.

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The collection includes many wonderful books of lace swatches, including this example, which Rachel Kay Shuttleworth has annotated in characteristically direct fashion.

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This amazing hexagon quilt is a recent acquisition, and joins the display for the first time this season.

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Here is Jennie Pitceathly, director of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, who I persuaded to snap a few photographs of me wearing my Richard the Roundhead tam, for you to see.

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Me and the tam, hanging about outside Gawthorpe’s very imposing front door. . .

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Then I said goodbye to the tam, which has now joined its fellows in one of the display cases.

I have received quite a few enquiries about the Richard the Roundhead design, and I wanted to be sure you all know about the background of this project. With support from Arts Council England, Gawthorpe commissioned me to produce the pattern, I was paid for this commission, and in return waived all rights in the design. I do not directly sell this design, nor do I profit from it. Its purpose, like the other patterns produced by Debbie Bliss, Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie and Jane Ellison, is solely to raise funds for Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. If you purchase this pattern, therefore, you are directly supporting one of the most significant textile collections in the UK, enabling Jennie and Rachel and their team to continue the work that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began, inspiring future generations about textiles and textile history. If you are a shop with a wholesale enquiry about the Richard the Roundhead pattern, you should contact Gawthorpe Textile Collections directly.

Gawthorpe Hall and its Textile Collection re-opens to the public on March 29th Please do pop along if you can!

Lancashire Weekend

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We have been away in Lancashire for the weekend. Tom will shortly be participating in a rather testing race, and the Bolton Hill Marathon provided the ideal training run. While he was off doing that, me and my parents visited Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.

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For someone interested in textile history this is a truly wonderful place to spend a day. Helmshore is one of those great Lancashire places whose very landscape and infrastructure tells the story of industrial development. The story begins with a small eighteenth-century wool processing mill, where locally hand-woven cloth was fulled and finished during the late Eighteenth Century, providing the uniforms for British soliders fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Waterwheel and fulling stocks are still in situ, and for me it was well-worth the visit just to learn more about this aspect of textile processing in the region.

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In the Nineteenth Century, Lancashire grew rapidly as a global centre of the cotton industry, and downstairs in Helmshore’s second mill there’s a superb interpretation which allows the visitor to get to grips with cotton in its colonial and imperial contexts, as well as in terms of local social history. There are also some fabulous historic machines to wonder at – including a Water Frame (above), which I’d never seen before.

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Until the late 1970s, Helmshore was a “shoddy mill”, producing a relatively coarse-cotton thread to be used in household textiles, and I had not appreciated the multiple stages of recycling that might be involved in its production. Cotton waste might be circulated and re-circulated through the different stages of production several times, before being finally spun into thread on these mules.

mule

It is wonderful to see these machines in action, demonstrated by their knowledgeable guides, and though it would be impossible (and undesirable) to recreate the appalling noise, dust and humidity that cotton mill workers had to endure, I do think that being in such spaces, among the whirring doffers, carders and condensers, allows one to gain a good sense of the former life of the mill. My Grandparents laboured in similar environments, and I came away with a renewed appreciation of what work must have signified to them.

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In short, I would heartily recommend a visit to Helmshore Mills, and the cafe, which serves tasty home-baked Lancashire fare – such as Eccles Cakes – is also excellent.

And, in other news:

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Tom came 16th in the hill marathon which was a very good result . . .

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. . . Bruce has hurt his nose, forcing us to construct a makeshift cone out of pieces of plastic pending a visit to the vet. . .

And, having arrived home across the border, I have now updated the shop with more Ecclefechan mitt kits.

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today’s inspiration

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Kerstin Olsson in Karen Invarsson’s Bohus design “The Swan”.

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Twiggy iconic in Fairisle

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The McCartneys in Shetland

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Yoke design by Unn Søiland (1951)

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f57d1d79c1aa725d7a75f686668f709d
41f045b45d3665c76e18589d0920892e

Yokes, knitted & crocheted pre-1950

Can you guess what my next book is going to be about?

of handkerchiefs

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I have a terrible cold. When one is sniffling and snuffling and generally feeling lousy, there’s nothing more comforting than a nice handkerchief, of which, it occurred to me this morning, I possess quite a few. So I took some photographs of the ones that aren’t in use or in the wash.

Some of them are gifts . . .

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This one came from Felix

helen

. . .and my sister bought this one for me, probably when the Horrocks exhibition was on at the V&A.

I have acquired the majority of my hankies very cheaply in charity shops and on eBay. I find their workaday machine embroidery very pleasing. . .

motif

. . . and some were once bought in other countries . . .

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(I have actually visited Lugano, which made this one a rather nice find)

For some reason this one is my favourite for actual nose blowing: I like its 1960s brown; its tesselated design, and it also has a really high thread count, which makes it very soft.

favourite

I have a few nice examples where the corners are edged with lace

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and of course, I have also acquired a few that are just too nice to use. This one is an interesting combination of drawn-thread work with machine embroidery.

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drawnthreads

This one is very fine indeed . . .

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. . . it has been torn, and rather inexpertly mended.

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This lovely example of whitework and drawn thread work is the oldest handkerchief I own.

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old2
old3

. . . but the simple motifs and lines of this example make it my confirmed favourite.

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best2
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It occurred to me that the simple square of fabric that goes under the name of handkerchief has a long history as an everyday object, with many different meanings, and many different uses. Handkerchiefs are multiply functional and decorative: not merely for mopping watery eyes and noses, carelessly dropped or ardently retrieved they might act as symbols of romantic attachment and desire. Handkerchiefs are intimate and personal objects, and as such, might be means of connecting a wearing-body to a sense of place: as a souvenir, a handkerchief might be a tiny repository of memory and personal connection, or, unfolded from the pocket of an eighteenth-century lady or a twentieth-century airman, might disclose a sneakily concealed map of unfamiliar territory. As furoshiki they are a means of wrapping and transporting food or gifts, and they can be worn about the person in a multitude of ways. I imagine the head-scarf / kerchief springs immediately to mind. . .

Audrey In Paris

. . . but, when considering a kerchief as a garment, my first thought was of this portrait of Frances Burney.

Burney1780
Frances Burney by Edward Burney (1780). National Portrait Gallery.

Kerchiefs — a length or folded triangle of fabric that covered neck and bosom providing warmth, coverage, and decoration — were a familiar staple of eighteenth-century women’s dress. Oddly, this meaning of kerchief does not appear in Cumming and Cunnington’s Dictionary of Fashion History, and receives only passing mention in the OED. If you’ve read as many eighteenth-century letters and novels as I have you would find this omission curious . . . but the issue is probably merely one of shifting nomenclature as well as fashion. Kerchiefs in the 1780s grew ever more voluminous and diaphanous . . .

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George Romney, portrait of Catherine Clemens, 1788.

. . . and by the early 19th century these garments were referred to not as a homely English kerchief but as a carelessly elaborate French fichu

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Late eighteenth-century American kerchief / fichu in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, I have come some way from where I began with my own kerchiefs, which is to say that putting this post together has, for an hour or so, successfully distracted me from the realities of my cold.

PS: thanks for your good wishes: my first driving lesson was OK: despite much swearing and occasional kerb-mounting, according to my instructor I was “no too bad”. I hope to be back behind the wheel as soon as I’ve stopped sneezing.

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.”

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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.

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.

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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.

a day at Gawthorpe

Some days I wake up and I feel massively, incredibly lucky to have somehow landed here, in this curious new life, as a designer of hand-knits. Last Thursday was one of those days. Because I had been invited — along with Debbie Bliss , Jane Ellison, Claire Montgomerie, and Emma Varnam — to visit Gawthorpe Textiles Collection.

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Gawthorpe Hall. Left to right Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie, Jennie Pitceathly and Debbie Bliss.

Originally built for Lancashire’s prominent Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s, with a Victorian redesign by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, Gawthorpe Hall itself is extremely impressive. But the building wasn’t what we had come to see.

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Gawthorpe is home to an important textile collection, ammassed by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Born in 1886, and heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth used her means and her position to gather textiles from all over the world, and to disseminate information about the traditions and skills that were involved in their production. By the age of 26, she had gathered over 1000 items, and began organising, cataloguing, and sharing her collection with interested visitors. Today the collection that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began over a century ago now comprises more than 30,000 amazing textiles, showcasing a diverse array of needle crafts from elaborately embroidered Chinese Emperor’s robes, to Mechlin Laces; from Bolivian chullos to Indian shawls; from embroidered maps to soldier’s quilts.

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We designers had been invited to take part in an exciting project. We’d been commissioned by Gawthorpe (with funding from the Arts Council) to produce an accessory inspired by an item (or items) from Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s collection. We began the day with a tour of the part of the collection that’s on public display.

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I particularly liked the display of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s desk and work boxes, complete with blotting paper, original haberdashery and notions, and projects in various states of completion. You could imagine her having just left the room, to take a break from her lace work.

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One of the most appealing things about this collection is the way that the hand and mind of its creator is so apparent in it. Reading Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s annotations and catalogue cards give a great sense of the extent of her vast knowledge about textiles and textile history . . .

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. . . as well as a flavour of her personality through her idiosyncratic – and strongly held – views.

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Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was also an incredibly skilled needlewoman herself, and the collection includes many examples of her work. I was particularly taken with this beautiful crewel work bedspread that she embroidered for herself.

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Begun in 1905, work on this bedspread and its accompanying accessories took Rachel thirteen years. She completed the project with a palm-tree flourish on Armistice day 1918.

After tea and cake (cake!) we adjourned to the library where Rachel Terry, the collection’s curator, had gathered an incredible range of objects for us to examine and be inspired by.

There were beautiful and intriguing knitted items . . .

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. . . and work involving other media and skills.

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One of the real highlights of the day for me was getting to examine some eighteenth-century pockets – of which the collection has several examples. You know I dearly love a pocket.

Here, Debbie and I . . .

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. . are checking out these beauties . . .

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. . .which date from the early eighteenth century and whose neat chain-stitch is still beautifully fresh and bright.

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Here, Rachel is showing us a tiny pocket . . .

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. . . which had been fashioned for an infant.

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And I was gobsmacked by the detail of the beautiful corded quilting on this pocket . . .

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. . . which had clearly been cut from an earlier garment. The fabric was certainly too glorious to waste!

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Can you think of anything better than hanging out in a library with great company, getting to examine beautiful historic textiles, and being able to learn about those textiles from their curators? Well, I certainly can’t. It was an amazing day. Now Debbie, Jane, Claire, Emma and I have to go away and have a think about the design we intend to create. The idea is that we all produce patterns for our designs, which will be available as part of a kit from Gawthorpe this coming Spring. I will keep you updated as to my progress with the project as time goes on. I also imagine it may be hard to keep me away from Gawthorpe . . . I definitely intend to be back.

I was deeply impressed by the collections at Gawthorpe, which really are superb, and are a definite must-see if you have a chance to visit this lovely part of Pennine Lancashire. It was also fantastic to spend time with my comrade-designers, all of whom were tremendous fun and none of whom I’d met before. But more than this, I was blown away by the dedication, knowledge and generosity of Jennie Pitceathly, Rachel Terry and their small team at Gawthorpe. “I have a vision,” wrote Rachel Kay Shuttleworth in 1912, “of a place of meeting where neighbours will come for many reasons to seek stimulating thought by meeting other active minds, to find refreshment and inspiration and a joy in beauty”. This truly is what Jennie and Rachel are creating at Gawthorpe, and I feel honoured to be involved.

Gawthorpe Hall – including the Rachel Kay Shuttleworth Textile Collection – is open to the public 12 noon-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday until 3 November 2013. The hall will re-open in the Spring of 2014, when our patterns and kits inspired by the collection will go on sale!


For more information and updates see the Gawthorpe Textiles website. You can also follow them on twitter: @RBKS_textiles


All images in this post are reproduced courtesy of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are not to be reproduced without permission.

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