knitterly things

(Tom takes a wee break from knitterly things in the Unst Bus Shelter.)

As you may have guessed, I was occupied with a few knitterly things while visiting Shetland. I can’t really talk about these yet, unfortunately, but hopefully it will be worth the wait. I can say, though, that I met some truly lovely people, all of whom were involved with knitting in some way. As a knitter, in fact, I found Shetland a rather humbling place: Fairisle colourwork and Shetland Lace are Britain’s most unique and innovative hand-knitted textiles, with a long and important history. Women have been spinning, designing, and creating the most beautiful things on these islands for generations, and these knitterly traditions are still very much alive. I met some incredible knitters of whose skills I was completely in awe, yet who were totally unassuming about their talents. But while these women seemed to regard their own knitting as quite unremarkable, they also held a profound respect for their craft and its local traditions, which also made a deep impression on me. While I have to hold fire on the detail, then, I can mention the knitterly highlights of my trip. If you are ever visiting the Shetland Islands, here are three places not to miss.

1. The Shetland Museum and Archives

(left to right: yarn sample card; Robert Williamson’s pattern book (reproductions of which are available from the Museum shop); Tom tries his hand at cairding; marvelous 1860s tam)

Now, I got to go behind the scenes at the Shetland Museum and Archives, where I enjoyed a feast of breathtaking lace (of which more later), but what is front-of-house is just as inspiring. What’s on display here is certainly the best, most thoughtfully-curated exhibition of hand-knitted textiles I’ve ever seen. Knitting can sometimes be difficult for the visitor to get a sense of in a museum context, but here good use is made of nifty drawers and pull-out cases which enable you to get a look at some marvelous things close-to. A well-chosen selection showcases a wide range of examples of the many different kinds of knitted garments that were produced on Shetland over the past couple of centuries: from luxury or prize-winning one-offs; to commercial responses to changing fashions; to functional shawls, socks and sweaters that were worn by islanders themselves. In the latter category is this century-old fisherman’s undershirt, with which I was very taken:

Knitted in the round, grafted at the shoulders, and featuring underarm-vents, this garment’s construction is intuitive simplicity itself: a sort of light and airy prototype of EZ’s seamless hybrid. Better than any modern merino baselayer, I reckon. (Memo to self: it is time to complete the J&S Shetland baselayer that you began knitting before life interrupted by stroke)

2. Unst Heritage Centre

I think that the Unst Heritage Centre may well be the spiritual and material home of knitted lace. I saw some incredible things here that completely blew me away (again, I must keep schtum. . . frustratin!). It is a small selection, but it really is worth seeing, so if you are a lace knitter or handspinner, with any interest at all the history of fine lace I strongly urge you to visit the Unst Heritage Centre. You will not be disappointed. During the Spring and Summer months, there are displays of traditional skills from some of the most talented knitters and spinners you will ever meet, and the wonderful Rhoda Hughson (formerly Britain’s most northerly head-teacher) runs a series of great heritage walks from the centre, one of which is herring-themed. How cool is that?

Unst is a beautiful place. I have to go back.

3. The Woolbrokers
It is no secret that Jamieson and Smith produce some of my all-time favourite yarn, and simply being at Woolbrokers HQ on North Road was enough to fill me with foolish excitement. I dashed about snapping pictures and squooshing yarn and fibre like a loon.

When I had calmed down, Sarah and Oliver kindly showed me around. It was a privilege to learn about Shetland sheep and wool from someone of Oliver’s knowledge and expertise. And did you know that Jamieson and Smith grew up and developed around the herring industry? Neither did I. The woolbrokers buy more than 80% of Shetland’s clip . . .

. . . and here is a mere fraction of that annual haul of fleeces, with Sarah looking rather pensive in the foreground. For those of you who know how pasture can affect the quality of fibre, these true Shetland fleeces — soft and fine and springy — are are the real deal. While the finest wool is transformed into J&S’s amazing new worsted-spun laceweight (of which more another time), the heavier grades are put to use in the Shetland wool carpeting, with which I now want to cover my home. And then, of course, there is the Fairisle yarn. . .

. . . tasty jumper weight, in over 100 different glorious shades. Here are the skeins I needed to complete my project ( Shades FC61, 72, and – probably my current favourite – the elusive and complex 366).

Thanks for a great day Oliver, Sarah and Sandra!