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