It’s election time here, and while we were in Shetland, our paths crossed with those of Scotland’s first minister on her campaign trail. The other day I was in the Shetland Archives and came across a fascinating campaign-trail image from over a hundred years ago. I thought you might be interested to see it.

cathcartwason

J Cathcart Wason and his agent, campaigning in Shetland, Shetland Times, January 25, 1910. Image reproduced courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives.

J. Cathcart Wason was M.P for Orkney and Shetland between 1900 (when he returned to Britain from New Zealand) and his death in 1921. His parliamentary career seems to have been distinguished by participation in debates on agriculture and economics; his support of bicycles (against the motor car); and by his notorious habit of knitting socks for himself in the House of Commons tea room, or while waiting for parliarmentary divisions. According to an obituary: “Mr Wason confessed that his original purpose in learning to knit was to commend himself to the women of the islands of Orkney and Shetland . . . but as he became proficient in the craft he found it a most soothing occupation for dull hours.” What’s so striking about the image of Cathcart Wason campaigning in the 1910 election is that he is sporting a recognisable item of Shetland knitwear — a hap. His hap features a peaked lace edging, the familiar Shetland “auld shall” (old shell) border and a plain centre of garter stitch “riggies”. It would be wonderful if he had knitted his hap himself, though I rather imagine it was either a gift from a supportive constituent, or perhaps something he purchased himself, directly from a Shetland knitter, or a reputable Lerwick emporium of Shetland hosiery. (Cathcart Wason was an articulate opponent of the exploitative forms of barter-truck that persisted in Shetland).

But the simple fact that Cathcart Wason was keen to wrap himself up in his hap and be thus depicted says quite a lot, I think. His hap seems to be an emblem of knitterly solidarity, a badge of his attachment to Shetland, and to Shetland industries. When asked (as he often was) about his knitting, Cathcart Wason was apparently keen to remind all enquirers that “the wool he was knitting with was no ordinary kind — it was Shetland wool.” Shetland wool and knitting were clearly a source of identity and pride for Cathcart Wason: this, and the fact that he is gladly sporting what would have been regarded in 1910 as a woman’s garment makes him a rather appealing figure. Happily, in 2016, it is not in the least unusual to see a bloke either knitting or wearing a hap, and in this as perhaps some other respects, J Cathcart Wason was a man before his time. Last week in Shetland, Scotland’s first minister apparently purchased yarn from Jamieson and Smith. Might we soon look forward to seeing her happed up in a comparable manner to her parliamentary forebear?

This image was a happy find while I was poking around one of the wonderful scrapbooks held in the Shetland archives. When I come across these wonderful titbits, I feel immensely grateful to the collectors and compilers of Shetland ephemera who later donated their exhaustive albums and scrapbooks to the archives. I am also grateful to Angus and his colleagues, whose enabling presence makes the Shetland archives one of my all-time favourite libraries of the world in which to work (my other favourites are the Library Company in Philadelphia, and the Houghton Library at Harvard, in case you were interested)

39 thoughts on “J Cathcart Wason, Shetland’s knitting M.P.

  1. That he thought women important enough to want to draw their approval politically is interesting, let alone that he continued to knit after learning. Thanks very much for sharing.

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  2. Scottish island politics are completely fascinating. My partner worked as a civil servant for a Highlands and Islands MP back in the 90s and I remember that, from his account, the relationship between the MP and those he served was much more like that I’m familiar with in the Republic of Ireland than a normal UK representative. Close relationships with his constituency meant that even getting out of the airport took forever with people to be greeted and alliances to be formed. It is easy to imagine Cathcart Wason sitting with his constituents in a surgery knitting along with them.

    Joan

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  3. Love Cathcart! We have a health facility here in Cody Wyoming named Cathcart. Relation? I am honored to be going to Scotland in September with my best friend who is a fabulous knitter. She is knitting me a hap shawl for the occasion and of course we will be spending several days on Shetland!

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    1. I’m just north of you in Montana and the bit about knowing his constituents caught my eye — out here in our low-population states it’s kind of similar. I’ve certainly spent more time with my Governor and Senator here than I ever did in California — I half suspect they might recognize me on the street! (and we need more homegrown Montana/Wyoming wool brands!)

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  4. The Danish European Councillor Margrethe Vestager is also a knitter.
    in a BBC article on her it is said: “For Danes, she is as renowned for knitting, bread-making and tweeting as she is for tackling issues that no-one else has yet dared to touch.” [http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32410052]

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  5. Marilyn Waring, a member of the NZ parliament from 1975 to 1984, often knitted in the chamber. She was also the youngest person ever to be elected to the NZ House (aged 23). And she managed to bring down a government lead by her own party after she had fallen out with them. I think she is your kind of woman, Kate: fearless and smart. You can read more here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Waring) – although the knitting isn’t mentioned, sadly.

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  6. And talking of knitting MPs. The former and present Patrons of our Guild are both knitters and, now, former MPs. The present patron was a member of the Australian Senate and is now a lively, active member of the Guild. We are fortunate to have someone who has taken a genuine interest in the value of handcrafting over many years. I know other MPs who knit and embroider – and a High Court judge too. It is just rather sad that schools apparently don’t see the value in all this….sigh -but at least I have a topic for tomorrow’s blog post!

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  7. A very enjoyable post, it is interesting to see that we knitters across the world seem to feel that knitting for politicians might improve some policy decisions. Considering basics and appreciating his Shetland wool obviously stood J Cathcart Wason in good stead with his constituents. He must have been quite a man.

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  8. I work as the head of conservation at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Thanks for mentioning us! It is truly and excellent library, both the collection and the staff. (If I don’t say so myself…)

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  9. The joys of knitting know no bounds! When I was a beginning teacher in northern Manitoba, Canada, I decided to teach knitting to my students so they would have something to do during the recess and noon hour periods which were too cold for playing outside. I was thrilled to receive a message from a former parents many years later letting me know that her son remembered that I had taught students to knit and that he still knit items.

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  10. Loved the obit quote that led him onto really liking the ‘makin’. what a cool guy, thanks. If Sophy needs any help dragging ‘candidates’ off the stage with circular needles I’m with her!!!

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  11. LOL! I had the exact same image, byLorili! I read that and immediately envisioned a dog very competently working on socks. The dog of my heart was part GSD (German Shepherd Dog), and was wicked smart and independent. Based on her, I have absolute confidence that should a GSD decide that they needed socks or that the ones being provided were substandard, a GSD would spend a little time matter-of-factly pondering the issue, quietly but intently observing knitting. They would figure it out — perhaps some arrangement whereby one needle was stuck into the ground and kept still, while the other was worked with a paw and the working yarn slipped over and off with the nose. With complete competence and coordination, they’d knit up 2 pair. (They’d probably sensibly create 8 in total so that they had extras to rotate to extend wear.)
    I’m sure that German shepherds (the humans) were quite coordinated and competent in their knitting as well.

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  12. No knitting *in* Parliament, but Australia’s first female Prime Minister was/is a knitter. She was featured with her knitting in an Australian women’s mag when her rating were diving, in an effort to shed the ‘hard-nosed harpy’ type image. From vague memory, it did not work/ backfired somewhat (she was perceived (inconsistently) as BOTH a backstabbing unfeminine shrew and a fluffy incompetent woman unsuited to the public sphere). History will be kinder to her than the media ever were.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/25/gillard-ridiculed-knitting-royal-kangaroo
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/25/julia-gillard-knitting

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    1. Oh yes Julia was well and truly berated for knitting. But she was never going to be allowed to do anything without being attacked. One if the nastiest and most disgraceful episodes in Australian histiry.

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      1. I love Julia so much. Australian politics are some of the most misogynist I have ever known, I cannot believe that Barnaby Joyce is currently acting PM. What is going ON! No amount of knitting is helping me make sense of it.

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  13. In this US election year, I *ENVY* you J Cathcart Wason! I could write that there are some candidates on which I’d like to use my circular knitting needles to drag them off the electoral stage – but I don’t want to sound aggressive. Nor do I want potentially to damage my needles!

    I think Mr Wason was brilliant to bring his knitting to the seat of government. Probably there are many times that many congressmen and senators are dreadfully bored (and perhaps MPs too?). I am glad Mr Wason promoted Shetland and Orkney’s wool industries. Perhaps if he had not, we would not have them to enjoy today.

    Thank you for posting this.

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  14. I wish we could see MPs knitting in the House of Commons these days, instead of seeing them sitting glued to the screens of tablets and phones. I feel certain they’d make more sensible decisions if only they had some in-progress socks on hand!

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  15. What a wonderful post! At one class I attended at EYF someone mentioned that they knitted socks at work meetings. Another attendee thought this was unprofessional, then it almost got quite heated. I didn’t get involved but perhaps I would have mentioned this MP had I known!

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  16. Wonderful find! Such fun to picture him knitting his socks with nonplussed disregard for any onlookers with raised eyebrows!

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  17. Wonderful. I believe primary schools in Shetland only very recently stopped teaching knitting to all primary school children.

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      1. oops, I copied another comment by mistake, sorry about this!
        It’s great to see people campaigning to bring back knitting in schools… That’s how I learnt myself, in the 80’s. In Belgium at that time, girls learnt to knit in primary school while boys were doing sports or mechanics! Now it is not taught at all :-(

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