Shetland Oo: making a book

Hello – it’s Tom here – for a change. Kate is busy working on her Islay project, and I’m taking a break today from shipping out orders. I wanted to say thanks so much for your interest in our Shetland Oo book. Apart from being my first major project as a photographer, Oo is the first book that I’ve made entirely in-house: that is, as well as being responsible for all of the images in the book, I developed the book design, selected everything from paper and formats to finishes, worked on the layout, and managed the print and production process. It has been an interesting task, and one I’ve really enjoyed.


My governing idea behind the book was to celebrate the working life of a distinctive local industry – Shetland wool. Much of the work that’s done with wool is invisible or overlooked – historically, I think, because it was frequently performed by women, in their own domestic spaces. So I wanted to show how much hard work and incredible skill goes into work with wool, and I’ve often used black and white photography to illustrate this in the book. I think that black and white images are not only great for depicting form and conveying texture but that, free from the distraction of colour, the medium itself can confer an immediate dignity on a subject. This sense of the dignity of work was what I wanted to highlight, particularly in my photographs of women like Ina, Elizabeth or Emma engaged in the skilled activities of spinning or knitting.


I spent a lot of time thinking about what size and shape the book should be. In the end I settled for a shape that would accommodate the majority of portrait shots and a size that was large enough for good image reproduction without being unweidly or bulky. I wanted the book to feel good in the hand and look neat when it was opened – not flop about.


Simplicity was my aim throughout when working on the layout. I read Kate’s text carefully, and chose and placed images where they best conveyed a sense of the book’s whole ‘story’. So, for example, the book opens and ends with a lighthouse – just as your journey would if you were approaching or leaving Shetland. I particularly enjoyed creating a visual narrative between the profiles – so, for example, a spun thread drawn out a machine at Jamieson’s mill on one page is almost caught up by Elizabeth Johnston working on her wheel on the next. My goal was to let the photographs and the accompanying text do all the talking, without any unnecessary design embellishments.


Gilroy is the font I chose for the book – a sans-serif font with simple, clean lines. Gilroy feels modern and geometric in nature, and is both useful and versatile to work with because it supports a range of opentype features.


Paper stock was another thing I thought long and hard about. I wanted something which would reproduce my photographs at their best, but might also make a positive contribution to the experience of reading the book and to the object itself. After examining countless books, and debating matters with our printer, in the end I selected an uncoated stock whose rough texture seemed especially appropriate for the subject matter of wool and work. The paper has a nice contemporary feel, and, because it has no coating, a heavier grade of stock can be used without adding unnecessary weight to the finished book-object. And as well as the look and feel, it also smells great! (Uncoated paper absorbs more ink so that when you first open the book you get that nice, familiar “booky” smell).


I love endpapers and think they are often one of the nicest things about hardback books as objects. When we agreed to produce a split edition (including some hardbound books as well as paperbacks in the print run) the first thing I knew was that we were going to have endpapers. I selected a swatch from the many that are hanging about this house (as I’m sure you can imagine) and photographed it. I really liked the way that the knitted chevrons led the reader to turn the page and enter the book, like a woolly welcome.


Having created the endpapers for the hardback, I felt the paperback would benefit from a similarly woolly welcome, so I designed over-sized covers with flaps which were printed on the inside with the same Fairisle pattern. After I’d decided that one of my portraits of Oliver Henry was going to work as the cover image, I was particularly happy with the way that I could carry the image over onto the front of the flap, with the Fairisle pattern on the reverse.


The covers of both editions are treated with a special velvety finish, and the paperback flaps also double up as a handy bookmark.


It was very important to me that the book was a really nice object – something with its own beauty both inside and out. As I’m sure you can tell, I am quite precise and exacting in my design requirements, and I have to say a massive thank you to our printers, Bell & Bain. As well as being a local business with a long history of producing top-quality books, they are also staffed by a wonderful, helpful team of people who really – genuinely – love books. I want to say a massive thanks to Derek, Ashley and Carole at Bell & Bain for their enthusiasm for this project and their advice throughout the process.


The finished book is something I feel very proud of. When I left my job twelve months ago to join Kate in the business of wool and knitting I did not imagine that I’d be designing and producing my own book in under a year. The fact that that this has happened is because of two groups of people: first, the Shetlanders who with unfailing grace and generosity allowed me into their lives to photograph their work and second, you, who are interested in what we are doing here with wool, with words, with photographs and with paper.



If you’d like to read more about the photographic process behind Oo, our friend Felix interviewed me a few days ago over on her blog.

all the best