Next week (all being well at the printers) we are hoping to release our new Shetland Oo book! For those who don’t know, this is not a book of patterns, but a documentary project in words and photographs exploring the world of Shetland wool. Tom travelled all over Shetland meeting and photographing Shetlanders who work with wool, and has taken some truly stunning images that collectively document the closely interwoven nature of sheep, textiles and human labour, and the way these things are written through the wonderful island landscape. The book begins with a history of work with wool in Shetland, written by me, and I’ve also produced profiles of – and interviews with – the many individuals and businesses you’ll find depicted in its pages.

I don’t mind saying that it is a project I’m incredibly proud of, and Tom and I are both hotly anticipating holding the book in our hands next week! We have produced a split edition – which means some of the copies are hardback, and some paperback. The hardbacks will be a limited edition of 500 copies, each of which will be numbered, and signed by both Tom and myself. If you are interested in purchasing the book when it goes on sale (and you’ve not done so already) please sign up for our shop newsletter to be the first to hear about release. If you’ve got any questions about the book, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below, and I’ll do my best to respond in the next post.


In the run up to publication, we thought it might be fun to introduce you to a few of the people and businesses you’ll meet in Shetland Oo: individuals and companies who you might not have come across before. Today’s conversation is with Joanna Hunter, the talented founder and owner of distinctive Shetland knitwear brand, Ninian.

KD Can you tell me a little about your background in knitwear design, and how you came to establish Ninian?

JH: I always had an interest in textiles and coming from a family of knitters it was a natural progression for me. My grandmother and forebears were a great inspiration and I was always surrounded by knitwear, much of it handed down through generations. I wanted to make Shetland knitwear contemporary and fun and set up my own business to do this in 1999 after I finished my studies at the Shetland College. Initially I sold to trade in the US, Scandinavia, Italy and throughout the UK, as well as to department stores in Japan. In 2003 I decided to open a shop on Commercial Street in Lerwick so that I could reach the Shetland public directly and I began to design more with this market in mind. In 2009 we expanded to selling directly to public in a rather different location – London – through a retail outlet in the apple market in Covent Garden. Working amongst the designers and makers in Covent Garden as well as being face to face with a fashion conscious London crowd gave me a great stimulus for future creative designs. The commute between Shetland and London was however hard to sustain with the birth of my children and in 2011 an opportunity came along to move Ninian into larger premises with a studio in the centre of Commercial Street. Here I was able to spend more time on designing new collections of knitwear and expanding the retail side of the business, and we also set up a website through which customers are now able to see and buy my collections directly from me from all over the world.


My design work is helped by the two very special places where I work. The studio in Lerwick overlooks the harbour with seals playing in the water and boats passing by. My home studio on our croft, in the peace and tranquility of Burra Isle, has a 180 degree view of an inlet to the sea where we can see otters and seals play as well as all our Shetland sheep in the fields. We breed Shetland sheep on our croft although and I have a tendency to get a bit too close to them (I had one pet sheep called Betsy who I hand reared and who lived to the grand old age of 14). Wool and sheep are a way of life here and the inspiration is all around me.


KD: Like the best Shetland designers, your work is immediately recognisable. Could you put into words what you think is distinctive about your aesthetic?
JH: I am not stuck or bound by the way things have always been done. I like my garments to have a modern, timeless shape with a contemporary slant and incorporate patterns into the garments in playful ways. My main emphasis is on colour. I spend a lot of time with mood boards working with colours and like to use colours in different and unusual ways. I use clashing and block colours in ways that others don’t. I also pride myself on the quality of my garments which are all made in Shetland and hand finished by myself or a member of my team. The combination of design and quality makes my knitwear distinctive and easily recognisable.

Aunty May’s crossover cardigan

KD: What’s the most inspiring thing about Shetland?
JH: The light. Colours come to life in Shetland. The light and the tranquility stimulate the mind.

KD: What do you most enjoy about the process of designing / making?
JH: I love seeing something that is in my head develop from a sketch to a full design to a finished product that I can later see being worn by passers by in the street. I love pushing the boundaries and doing new things and then seeing the reaction. I especially love bouncing off new ideas with my daughter Zoe (who is now a budding designer in her own right).


KD: Ninian is an iconic shop on Shetland’s most iconic thoroughfare. Do you ever think about your shop’s position in terms of the street’s retail history? How has the Lerwick retail landscape changed in the years you’ve had the shop?
JH:I first started with a pop-up shop at the Market Cross, in 1999 during the tall ships first visit to Shetland. I opened Ninian at the North end of the street in 2003, moving again to where we are now, in the centre of the main street in 2011 so I’ve seen the street from a few different angles. Two of the buildings that we’ve been in have previously been knitwear outlets and I love hearing the stories people come in with. I do however remember stories of my forebears being treated with scant dignity when they went to the street to sell their knitting. Owning a shop myself in a premises where my forebears used to go to to sell their knitwear has a very particular resonance for me and has made me determined to always treat everyone right and always pay a fair price for work done. We buy in hand knitted gloves and hats to compliment our own collections, from very talented local talented knitters. There has always been a good vibe on the street and it’s never been busier than now, with a new generation of shops and businesses giving it a new vitality. It would be nice to think that we’ll be remembered in a 100 years time when someone looks back on old photos.

Fairisle hat and snood

KD: what do you think your customers enjoy most about your knitwear?
JH: We get lots of feedback from customers about the quality of the knitwear and they all like the fact that they can come into the studio for a nosey if they’re in Shetland to see how and where it is actually made. I pride myself on making sure that all our garments are of the highest quality and that our designs are fun and timeless. Our customers like the fact that they are buying something unique that you won’t see elsewhere.


KD: Finally, what’s next for Ninian?
JH: I’m hoping to launch a new label in the next year which will be more fashion orientated, where I can try out a few of my more outlandish ideas. Watch this space! I am really loving teaching workshops too so I’d like to do more of that, it’s amazing how quickly they sell out whenever they go on sale.

Aunty May’s Fairisle cushion.

Thanks so much for the chat, Joanna! You can find Ninian at 80 Commercial Street, Lerwick, or online here. You can also see what Joanna is up to by following her on Instagram: @ninianshetland


10 thoughts on “Ninian

  1. What a wonderful play on colours. NICE work. I ‘need’ a soft cover of the Shetland Oo. Thank you. And thank you for leading us to so many people and places.


  2. I would like to buy a hard back copy of the book both my in laws came from Unst and my mother in law use to knit the wedding ring shawls .


  3. This shop looks marvelous. And had I not followed your blog, I would have never known about it. Sorry if my question strays a bit from the intended post, but to all of you fair isle knitters, do you purchase fair isle jumpers you have not made yourself? I am picky with what sweaters I buy (if any) because I want to make them myself. However these, esp the V neck all over pattern, for a female, is spot on for what I have wanted to knit. I have not found a V neck, all over Shetland pattern to knit that I like. Anywhere. The Aunty May Jumper is EXACTLY what I have been looking for. In an odd way I would feel guilty buying this because I truly want to make it. Any comments?


    1. I do, yes, because I haven’t successfully mastered color work yet! But also because I want to support wool production, local industry, ethical businesses, quality products, etc. so I’m also glad that Kate shared Ninian–it looks like exactly the kind of thing I would be happy to own.


  4. What a wonderful post! I am waiting–not patiently–the email with the message about your new book. This interview was just wonderful—Kate, I love that you seem to know the questions we all want answers to as well! Such creative talent—thanks for sharing!


  5. When I was in Lerwick in 2013 I loved the shop, the clothing was beautiful but it was really cold and windy, no surprise there then, so I bought a fair isle scarf in many shades of green. It is so warm and cosy with such a vibrant selection of greens, it has been admired every time I have worn it. It always reminds me of a wonderful holiday in Shetland, Fair Isle and Orkney.
    I am looking forward to your new book more than ever now.


  6. When I lived in the Finistère in Brittany, it was always the light people remarked on. A whole school of painting existed in Pont Aven in the 19th century simply because the light there was so extraordinary. What is it about northern coastal regions that makes the light so special I wonder?


  7. Now as well as trying to get to Up Helly Aa, I’m also going to have to try and book in at the same time for a workshop with Joanna. In fact after your post yesterday I ended up binge watching the first Season of Shetland on Netflix last night. Again. So tired now.


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