(This is a body and sleeves, knitted up on her machine by Ella Gordon, onto which I’m about to hand-knit a colourwork yoke. Hundreds of thousands of such garments were – and indeed still are – made in like manner in Shetland and elsewhere.)
Thanks so much for your comments on the previous post. As so often, you have given me pause for thought. Some of you have written privately to me that you felt my post unfairly dismissed not just the Munrospun kits, but by implication, the women who made things from them. I can only apologise, and assure you that this was not my intention. These kits undoubtedly enabled many knitters – women with multiple demands on their time, who enjoyed straightforward knitting – to create and wear a lovely hand-made colourwork item. As I said in the previous post, acts of making are always to be applauded, and there are certainly many things to applaud about the way that these kits, so often bought as gifts, lent ordinary knitters all over the world access to Shetland and Scottish yarns and designs. I also have absolutely nothing against the pieced construction of the kit, against knitting back and forth, or against plain stockinette (which really is probably my favourite kind of evening knitting). However, I do readily concede that my first thoughts about the kit were with the knitter-producer behind it, rather than the knitter-consumer to whom it was addressed.
I’ve spent the past few weeks carefully trying to think about yokes from a Shetland perspective. I have examined lots of archive material, looked at knitting, photographs of knitting, personal pattern books and commercial, printed patterns. I’ve conversed with knitters who, over the past half century have differing personal experiences of producing hand-knitted yokes for market. I’ve spoken to Shetland friends about their memories of yoke-wearing and knitting, and I have seen contemporary Shetland women, young and old, of all shapes and sizes, who are wearing Fairisle yokes again. The familiar tree and star designs, hand-knitted onto machined bodies, first so popular in the 1960s are, once more, everywhere in Shetland, and, I think, are clearly gaining fashionable ground farther afield as well. (PLEASE BEAR IN MIND: if you ever find yourself in a shop on the street in Lerwick, looking at a lovely hand-knitted item, it is always worth asking how, and how much, the knitter has been paid for their work. If you don’t get a straight answer, please don’t buy the item). Anyway, I suppose my first thought, upon opening the Munrospun kit, was of the person who knitted that yoke, of how many similar yokes they would have knit, and of the colourwork yoke itself as, by this point in the 70s, a standardised item produced for a ready market – a market of makers, or those interested in making, but an emphatically commercial market nonetheless. Looking at the kit, I also felt that it seemed to mark a definitive moment in the story of the hand-knit yoke: the height of its popularity, but also the turning point of its decline. (It is certainly the case that by the late 70s, hand-knitted yokes were beginning to be seen as old-fashioned, negatively preppy, or just staid, and that hand-knitting itself went into severe decline over the course of the decade that followed). None of this is meant in any way to dismiss the women who made themselves lovely Munrospun cardigans and jumpers, and these kits were certainly enjoyed, both in the making and in the wearing, by many, many knitters. But I do feel the analogy that some of you drew with boxed cake mixes – products that similarly became popularly available in this era – is moot: such mixes certainly offered a speedy, accessible, and in some senses, empowering alternative to baking from scratch, but no one would argue the cakes tasted better.
So that’s how my thoughts have been unravelling this morning. I want to sincerely apologise to any of you who felt affronted by the previous post, and to thank all of you for your comments, whose lively debate and multiple perspectives really make this blog what it is, and always act as a prompt to me to try to see the bigger picture.