Fair Isle in Whalsay

Are you going to Shetland Wool Week this year? If so, can I strongly suggest you set aside a day in your itinerary for a trip to the wonderful island of Whalsay?. The Whalsay Heritage Centre is currently hosting an exhibition of the island’s fair isle knitting that will, I assure you, really blow your mind. You might have heard about this exhibition already from Ella or Hazel – indeed, since the moment I caught a glimpse of the knitwear included in it on Instagram I have been absolutely desperate to go! When I finally did so during our last Shetland trip it did not disappoint. Indeed, as a careful and comprehensive exploration of creative knitterly skill and a distinctive island aesthetic I would say its the best exhibition of its kind I’ve seen – anywhere.

Like elsewhere in Shetland, in Whalsay knitting was a way for many women to support their families (initially through truck and later as paid outworkers). From the 1920s on, fair isle knitting had become incredibly fashionable worldwide, and Whalsay knitters were kept busy with orders. But as well as knitting pre-determined designs from swatches given to them by merchants, the island’s talented knitters experimented creatively with pattern and colour, developing distinctive allover styles.


If I were to think of a “Whalsay” style of knitting, this is what springs immediately to my mind: an allover with strong diagonals, often diced in appearance, often worked over a dark background, and sometimes making use of frequent (and creatively surprising) shade changes.


This truly beautiful sleeveless vest was knitted by Mary Irvine (nee Robertson) in the 1940s. The gauge of the garment is minute and the knitting is absolutely impeccable. Mary’s bold colour scheme is far cry from the familiar blue, red and yellows of “traditional” fair isle – indeed its near-neon shades seem strikingly contemporary.

This style of knitting – using a single, tessellating motif (rather than alternating larger and smaller bands of patterning as in ‘traditional’ fair isle ganseys) was perhaps epitomised by what was known as the “Whalsay pattern.”


Here are two Whalsay lasses – Babie Jean Polson (nee Irvine) and Maggie Shearer (nee Hutchinson) – looking completely fabulous in allovers made in the “Whalsay pattern”. If you think this motif looks a wee bit familiar, that is because a vest was knitted for Winston Churchill using this pattern, and thereafter it was renamed the “Churchill pattern”. (It appears under this name in pattern directories such as Smith and Bunyan’s Shetland Knitters Notebook).


As well as an array of incredible garments, the exhibition includes photographs of Whalsay fair isle (which you can peruse via a video slide show), and a selection of notebooks and swatch collections from many of the islands’ wonderful knitters. Swatch collections are one of my favourite things ever, and those included in this exhibition were a particular treat for the eye.


As well as personal swatch collections, there are samples from a more industrial context. I wrote about the shifting commercial pressures on Shetland knitting in Yokes, and it was fascinating for me to see this embodied in the standardised star designs from which Whalsay knitters would have worked from in the 1960s, as market demand for these sweaters rose to its height.


Each colourway is identified by a different name: “cactus”, “cosmos”, “arctic”, “fjord.”


Knitting is often characterised by interestingly specific gendered divisions of labour. In 1960s and 70s Shetland, machine-knit bodies and ribs might be made by both women and men, but generally it was women only who hand-knit fair isle yokes and borders. A Whalsay exception was Magnie Irvine, whose work is seen above.


The familial and cultural connections the curators were able to draw on in putting the exhibition together is perhaps what makes it so powerful and unique. It is rare enough for hand-knitting to find its way into a collection; rarer still for those collections to retain detailed information about a garment’s provenance or history. But here you are able to examine a beautiful hand-knit allover together with a photograph that documents its wearing and its wearer. And then, turning to the comprehensive (and impressive) catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, you can read the name of the knitter who made the garment, for whom the garment was made, and details of its history. You learn that a particular gansey was knitted for a grandson, who refused to wear it, but which was later happily sported by his sister. You discover, after admiring a particular pair of socks, that Bella Arthur knitted them for Amanda Pottinger, who wore them inside her rubber boots when she went sledging. You can trace the work of some famously talented Whaslay knitters (such as Ina Irvine), and reflect on the development and achievement of an individual’s recognisable knitting style over several decades. How amazing is that? The catalogue also includes answers to some of the random questions I have found myself asking when examining an item of knitwear in a museum collection. For example, of the mixing of synthetic yarns with Shetland wool during the 1980s, I learned that Whalsay knitters did this “so that the white stayed white.”


These might seem incidental details, but they are not. Such information is really important if we are to retain and develop our understanding of hand-knitting and its history in locations like Whalsay. The more we know, the more we can really shout about the significance of hand-knitting: a craft whose cultural importance has often gone under-documented and under-appreciated because it was performed in a domestic context, largely by women.

This marvellous exhibition reveals the centrality of hand-knitting to the cultural life of Whalsay, and pays deserved testimony to the creative talent of the knitters who live and work there. Revealing how a distinctive textile aesthetic emerged and developed over the course of a century in a small, specific island context alone makes the exhibition really important, but more than that, it is also local history, family history, social history at its very, very best.


A great admirer of Missoni, I recently travelled to London to see an acclaimed exhibition . Entering the main display space, I was stunned by the overall effect of the collected garments, but deeply disappointed by the lack of ANY contextual information in the exhibition or catalogue which might have added to my understanding of the fashion house’s distinctive aesthetic. The garments were displayed on an all-but inaccessible tiered crowd of mannequins, with self-indulgent pyrotechnics of light and sound distracting from, rather than adding to, one’s appreciation. In which seasonal collection did that swimsuit appear? What might have influenced the distinctive palette of that cardigan? Who knew! I spent about an hour in that room, squinting at the detail of a garment several feet above me, trying to get a good look at it before the lights inevitably popped off and plunged me once more into darkness. It was a frustrating experience.

So I would like to say that in all respects Fair Isle Knitwear Through the Decades at the Whalsay heritage centre beat Missoni Art Colour at the Fashion and Textile Museum hands-down. I had exactly the same “WOW” reaction upon entering a space filled with stunning, colourful knitwear, but then, being drawn to an item that interested me, I could actually spend some time happily learning about where it was made, by whom, for whom, and the broader cultural and aesthetic context that had influenced its making.


So all I can say is a massive thankyou and congratulations to Linda Shearer,  Amanda Pottinger and Ruby Thelma Williamson for creating and curating this incredible exhibition, which has both enriched my understanding and really inspired me. Grateful thanks, too, to the generous people of Whalsay who loaned or donated knitwear to the exhibition.


And while we are on the subject of inspiration, the exhibition concludes with the work of the island’s peerie makkers: young Whalsay lasses who love knitting fair isle, and regularly win prizes for their knitting at the local shows. In the image above you can see examples of their work, deploying their own colour choices, developing their own knitterly aesthetics. . .


I think we can say the future of fair isle in Whalsay is in good hands.

The exhibition can currently be seen in Whalsay Heritage Centre, and, due to popular demand will remain in situ for another year.