Today’s hap is a rather special one. It is the work of Shetland designer, Donna Smith, who you may know as the patron of Shetland Wool Week, 2015, and the creator of the famous Baa-ble hat. Donna’s hap was inspired by her great auntie Emma Isbister, a wonderful knitter, who has been making Shetland haps for many years. During my research for this book, Donna took to me to visit Emma, who kindly talked to me about her knitting. You’ll find her hap construction methods (along with those of many other Shetland hap makers) discussed in a special chapter in the book.
Donna’s design is named Houlland, after the the croft on Shetland’s west side where Emma once lived. The design takes Emma’s favourite lace motifs (such as the tree and brand iron edging) and combines them into what might be regarded as a contemporary iteration of what in Shetland was once known as a “fancy hap” (a hap knitted from finer yarn, and with a patterned centre, that might be worn for “best” or gifted on the occasion of a new baby). The motifs in Donna’s hap have a long history, but she deploys them in the clean, structured and modern way that is characteristic of all of her designs, to create a hap that is beautifully decorative while remaining functional and wearable. The yarn used is Jamieson & Smith Shetland Supreme 2 ply lace weight , which comes in a range of beautiful natural sheep shades, and which was developed with the Shetland Museum and Archives to match the characteristics of the yarns used many decades ago by Shetland lace knitters like Donna’s great auntie Emma.
I caught up with Donna recently to talk about her hap.
KD You were patron of Shetland Wool Week in 2015, for which you designed the Baa-ble Hat pattern (which knitters all over the world have made). I wondered if you could say a few words about your experience of being patron, and the importance of Shetland Wool Week generally?
DS Being Patron of Shetland Wool Week last year was an amazing experience, I got to meet so many inspiring people and I have learned so much about how the hand knitting industry works. It has also opened up so many exciting opportunities for me, ones I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had this this role. The Baa-ble hat pattern was a huge success, far more than I ever anticipated. It was so encouraging to hear from knitters who were making it and it was their first time knitting with more than one colour or it was their first ever knitting project, that was really what I wanted to achieve. Shetland Wool Week is such an important event in Shetland’s calendar, it is an event that celebrates Shetland Wool and all the crafts associated with it as well as highlighting the importance of textiles within Shetland’s heritage. Shetland Wool really is such a good product and it is important that it is shown to a wider audience. It’s also a great way to bring people together that have an interest in textiles and to encourage new people to try out knitting. A few years ago it seemed as if the traditional techniques used in Shetland knitting was going to be lost as only the older generations were knitting and it wasn’t being carried on by younger people. Now, things are much better and there is a resurgence in the interest in the knitting and traditional crafts, this is partly due to events such as Shetland Wool Week.
KD Your design is inspired by your great Auntie Emma Isbister, a hap knitter. Could you tell us a little about this remarkable woman?
DS Auntie Emma has always been a very inspirational person. She is one of those women who can do anything and isn’t afraid of giving things a go. She worked as a nurse in her younger years and brought up four children; it was while she was waiting for the arrival of her first child that she knitted her first Shetland lace hap and has knitted countless haps since then as well as other lace garments such as cardigans and scarves. Can you believe she can knit a full sized lace hap in a week! Much of her work has been done for orders from personal customers, knitwear agents as well as gifts for family members – she made a lace hap for my son when he was born almost five years ago with lace croft houses in it which makes it a very special thing indeed. The amazing thing is that all of her work is done from memory, nothing is written down (unless she is designing a new lace pattern, such as the croft house design, and she will dot it out on graph paper), she just instinctively knows what will work and what won’t work.
KD Your hap is called Houlland — the name of the croft where Emma grew up on Shetland’s west side. Many people have little idea about what the landscape of Shetland is actually like — could you describe Houlland for them?
DS The first thing that many people notice when they visit Shetland for the first time is the lack of trees, particularly in the country areas. Houlland was a very typical croft (a croft is a small farm), a small house located in a fairly barren landscape.
. . .They kept animals such as sheep and hens and grew a few vegetables such as potatoes, kale and carrots. The weather in Shetland, combined with the salty sea air can be very harsh, making it very difficult for things to grow in areas with little shelter. The family lived off their animals and crops, and the women in the house knitted garments to supplement the income from the croft. A van selling groceries came around once a week and the knitted goods were sold and then the money was used to buy goods such as tea, flour and sugar. Auntie Emma remembers knitting spencers (long sleeved garter stitch undergarments) when she was a young girl and going out to the van to sell them. It’s very easy to romanticise the life they had at Houlland but in reality it was very hard.
I work in a similar way I think, I very often get an idea for a garment that I think would look good with a particular dress or outfit and then I work backwards. I have a vision of a finished item in my head but then I have to try to recreate it! Other times I get an idea for a pattern or colourway, maybe from fabric, or a pile of stones or a pattern in a book and think that would look good on a certain piece of clothing.
KD You’ve created art and design work in many different media, from felted fabric to knitted stitches. I feel that, whatever medium you are using, your work has an immediately recognisable aesthetic – and I wondered how you would define your signature style?
I like geometric and simple shapes, I have never been into frills (much to my Mam’s disappointment!), I like clean lines, pattern repeats and neutral colours so naturally that comes out in my work whatever the medium is. I find symmetry and straight lines very pleasing although you would never guess that when looking at my messy desk!
It is a wonderful place.
Donna and I thought you might also like to see these photographs of Houlland, being worn by Emma, who inspired it.
The cardigan Emma is wearing was knitted more than 70 years ago, and she adapted it from a waistcoat by knitting on new sleeves
Thankyou, Emma, and thank you Donna, for your beautiful, thoughtful design which speaks to Shetland knitting’s past and future!
Tomorrow’s hap design will be revealed over on Jen’s blog! You can see all haps currently revealed on Ravelry and pre-order the book here (next week I hope to be able to show you the exciting sight of the book coming off press at the printers!)