For many of us, tea and knitting go together like . . . well, like tea and knitting. Personally, I can think of no better beverage to accompany the activity of knitting than what Dr Johnson (a great tea drinker) would have referred to as a dish of fine bohea, (or in my case, Yorkshire). Knitters love tea. Like many other shops, my local yarn store also serves tasty pots of tea, and does what can only be described as a roaring trade in tea cosies. This connection between teapot, yarn, and needles seems so self-evident to knitters that it has even inspired a recently published book of patterns (which I have not seen, so can make no remarks upon).
But I’ve been pondering the connection between tea and knitting in a rather different context of late, while reading about the knitters of nineteenth-century Shetland. We have all probably absorbed one stereotype of such women, from these frequently reproduced images of creel-laden figures, knitting while walking, and gathering fuel.
Through the second half of the Nineteenth Century and into the Twentieth, such postcards lent Shetland workers the status of picturesque curiosities (in a manner not dissimilar to those depicting Welsh women with spinning wheels and stove-pipe hats). Yet despite the novelty-value of such images, they reflected a certain reality, while also suggesting a (largely positive) notion of the women of Shetland as models of virtue, industry, and physical capability. This image of the Shetland knitter as an indomitable multi-tasker perhaps still persists, but far less familiar today is another stereotype — just as persuasive and pervasive in depictions of Shetland — of the women of those islands as inveterate addicts of tea.
In 1840, Edinburgh children’s author, Catherine Sinclair wrote about the “marvellous excess” of the tea drinking she had encountered on Shetland. Sinclair’s writing was generally lively and emotive, but on the subject of tea-imbibing working women particularly so: “the indulgence amounts to an absolute vice!” she remarked. Sinclair followed up these histrionics with a few examples of Shetland’s purported tea excess, including the story of “a poor man in the parish of Bressay, who had the expensive affliction of a tea-drinking wife, and was cheated by her secretly selling his goods to obtain tea.” For several decades after her book appeared, Sinclair was cited as the principal source of evidence for many other publications making similarly misguided claims about the crazed-tea-dependent women of Shetland. For example, her “poor man of Bressay” appears in Chambers’ 1854 Compendium, his story embellished as follows:
“Although intemperance in the use of intoxicating liquors could be cited as an unfortunate feature in some departments of the population, Shetland is still more remarkable for the ineconomic use of a beverage which is ordinarily considered the antagonist of intemperance -– I allude to tea. No kind of beverage is so much relished by the female peasantry of Shetland as tea. To get tea they will venture as great and unprincipled lengths as any dramdrinker will go for his favourite liquor.”
A couple of years later, Sinclair was cited again, backing up the claims of the Statistical, Topographical and Historical Gazetteer of Scotland that: “A passion for tea, to the extent of feeling the narcotic influence of the herb, seems so strong and general as to threaten that country [Shetland] with serious disaster.” In Sinclair’s tour, and in the host of other publications that followed her lead, the working women of Shetland were described as obsessed with, addicted to, and ruined by tea. Women had, in fact, made tea “the curse of Shetland.”
Tea was indeed the curse of Shetland, but not as Catherine Sinclair would have it. It was at the heart of the islands’ pernicious truck system, in which labour and goods were bartered rather than paid in cash. The merchants and shopkeepers of nineteenth-century Shetland had transformed tea into specie: the currency which women received in payment for their hard work — and that hard work was, of course, knitting. The fine hosiery and shawls that Shetland knitters produced were valued in tea, and paid in tea. Thus the claims of Sinclair and others that, “excessive indulgence [in tea] keeps the Shetland peasant lower in the scale of poverty,” completely missed the point. In fact, what reinforced the poverty of Shetland knitters was not tea-addiction or indulgence, but the fact that they received no other form of payment for their work. In the words of Lynn Abrams (to whom my discussion here is indebted): “The consequence of this system of payment was that hand knitters were forced to spend much time and energy turning the payment they received for their hosiery into items they needed, or into cash – – a family could not live on tea alone.”
Truck had been illegal in Britain since 1831, but the law had proved notoriously difficult to enforce. In 1872, the UK truck commission visited Shetland, and their report makes sobering reading. Shetland women spoke articulately of the tyranny of knitting, and the baleful economic effects of payment in tea. Despite the findings of the commission, truck persisted in various forms on Shetland for several decades, and women continued to receive no other remuneration than undrinkable quantities of tea that they were forced to sell on to their neighbours at a loss. No wonder then that, in the words of Lynn Abrams again: “knitting evokes little sentimentality among Shetland women for they are conscious of its alternative symbolism — of the exploitation of women’s labour and skills by merchants.” Tea and knitting are one of today’s happy luxuries. But I’ll remember before I stick the kettle on that they were, in living memory, also the agents of women’s economic oppression.
Further reading / viewing:
I strongly urge anyone with an interest in Shetland knitting to read the chapter on ‘work’ in Lynn Abrams incisive and insightful Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000. (Manchester University Press, 2005). You can ask your library to order it, or acquire it on interlibrary loan if it isn’t locally available.
Alice Starmore, Book of Fairisle Knitting (1988). Happily for everyone, soon to be reprinted.
Catherine Sinclair, Shetland and the Shetlanders, or, the Northern Circuit (1840).
Rosie Gibson, “The Work they Say is Mine” (1986). Award-winning documentary about Shetland working women.
Jenny Brown (Gilbertson), “Rugged Island,” (1934). Both films are available through the BFI.