a chat with Misa Hay

Misa – photo by Susan Molloy

There is no getting away from the fact that, whatever business you are in, this year has been a very weird one. Having to change the nature and direction of what you are doing – often very rapidly – is never an easy thing, and this year there have been so many of those changes. Like all creative enterprises, we have had to alter quite a lot of what we do. This has been by no means straightforward, and I’ve observed our contemporaries and colleagues responding to changing circumstances and making such alterations – often with great admiration – and in this context, there are few people I admire more than Misa Hay. I first met Misa when I was working on Colours of Shetland back in 2012, and since then we’ve collaborated on a range of projects for Shetland Wool Week, 60 North, and Shetland Oo. Misa has many talents, and for a few years now her company – Shetland Wool Adventures – has been successfully bringing tourists to Shetland for a wonderfully bespoke and specialised experience, enjoying the wealth of woolly creativity that abounds in those islands.

photo by Susan Molloy

All of Misa’s plans for 2020 were interrupted this spring. With bookings cancelled, and the future of tourism, travel and hospitality in the islands uncertain, Misa’s change in direction was rather radical: instead of bringing people to Shetland, she decided to bring Shetland to us.

Working with many of the creative individuals and small enterprises around Shetland that feature in her tours, Misa has commissioned, developed, and produced a beautiful publication (which we are now very proud to stock in the KDD shop!) – the Shetland Wool Adventures journal.

Hesti Hat by Ella Gordon. Photography by Susan Molloy

Leafing through the pages of this journal, you get to travel vicariously with Misa, to and around Shetland.

Substantial in every sense of the word, this publication is a truly beautiful thing – a purposeful and joyous celebration of so many of the things there are to love about Shetland. I wanted to find out more about this great project, so last week I caught up with Misa to find out more about how the Journal had come about.

Hi Misa! Many congratulations on producing this beautiful, inspiring, and thought-provoking publication. Can you tell me a bit about the background behind the journal’s production, and how it came about?

Hello Kate, thank you so much for the opportunity to speak about the new Shetland Wool Adventures Journal with you!

In spring I had to make big changes in my business due to the pandemic. 2020 was supposed to be my busiest season, with fifteen tours scheduled. But after a huge amount of hard work and a year of preparations this was taken away in the blink of an eye. Like many other small businesses and tourism operators, I found myself in turbulent waters, without any stable points to work towards. Everything was in a state of flux and there were so many variables. So many questions. And not many answers. But I knew I had to act.

The end of March and April were hard. Very hard. But this struggle brought one thing home to me for which I am immensely grateful – the need for absolute focus.

So after the initial shock, when things had settled a bit and my head calmed down, I realised that it was simpler than I thought. The pandemic was a catalyst for starting the Journal which is a combination of my passions – Shetland, the Shetland wool and textile industry, heritage, local produce, sustainable tourism, photography, publishing and beautifully produced print. I really feel very grateful for the opportunity to channel the anxieties of that time into something I’m absolutely passionate about – promoting what’s special about Shetland.

The Journal was created during challenging times, but working on it brought me joy and I’m very happy to have started a new creative project which will hopefully spread the love of Shetland, creativity and positivity further afield.

It’s been wonderful and uplifting seeing many designers, craftspeople and small businesses working hard on developing new products, including many online classes, workshops or other experiences. I’m a great believer that every challenge also is an opportunity and although it’s not been easy I have been given the opportunity to change the way I run my business and I believe that it is on a way to be more sustainable on a personal level for myself. I think we have all learned something from the current situation and perhaps we realised what the real values and priorities in life are.

I couldn’t agree more, Misa. On that note, I particularly enjoyed reading Vivian Ross Smith’s reflections on the complexities of her own island-ness, and how an island-state of mind might be beneficial in managing situations like those which we’ve all had to face and deal with this year. Could you say something about your own personal experience of the past few months in Shetland?

The past few months have been challenging, especially at the beginning of the pandemic as many of us felt very isolated. In particular those with families outside Shetland I’d say. Shetland has felt safe, which is really good, but I realised how much I miss travelling off the isle for short periods of time. There are still very mixed feelings within the community about how travel to and from the islands should be managed and whether the islands should be opened up to visitors or not. Personally I know it’s a difficult decision but I also know that Shetland has a very short tourism season and many people depend on this for their living.

Sadly, like many places, our tourism has been hit extremely hard and it will take a long time to rebuild it. It does worry me seeing several tourism establishments closing down and tourism not being taken seriously. Because there are so many things directly connected to this – local craftspeople, food producers, hospitality employees and many more who directly depend on income from selling their goods and services to people visiting Shetland.

I remain positive though and I hope, through initiatives like the Journal, we can all contribute a little bit towards the promotion of our tourism industry and our isles. Shetland has a reputation of working together so hopefully we can come through this together.

One thing I really enjoy about Shetland generally is its palpable sense of interconnection, and joined-up-ness – whether that’s within communities, or between creative disciplines. This is something the journal very powerfully captures. I wondered if you could talk more about the interconnectedness of Shetland life and what it means to you?

Thank you so much for your kind words, I’m very humbled! But I completely agree about the joined-up-ness. One of the things I’ve always loved about Shetland is that anything is possible and people will always support each other. Whether it’s a new enterprise or a project you can count on the help of the community. People in Shetland are generally very generous with their time, that’s my own experience but I also often hear it from my tour guests.

Shetland is also a very inspiring place and I particularly enjoy the fact that most people have several vocations. Often on the side of a professional full time or a part time job people will follow their passions and devote their spare time to crotfing (small farming), crafts or other creative pursuits. I love the enterprising spirit of Shetlanders and the positive attitude too. Also the fact that they are always willing to share the passions and knowledge with others. I think the Shetland Wool Week initiative is the perfect example of the community working together and sharing the place with people from outside Shetland.

Misa’s Storm Dennis Snood. Photography by Susan Molloy

You produced your first knitting pattern for the journal! It’s really beautiful . Can you tell us more about this process and how you found it? Will you be doing more designing? (I do hope so!)

The Storm Dennis Snood! I can hardly believe the incredibly positive and encouraging feedback I’ve been receiving since I shared it on social media. I created the design with Marie Bruhat of Fair Isle Knitting Holidays in February during a wonderful stay in Fair Isle where I went with Donna Smith to learn about machine knitting, the history of Fair Isle knitting and the place itself. Marie, originally from France, is passionate about design and craft and she is also keen to share the traditional island knitting skills and promote the heritage of the isle. I love her idea of developing week-long stays in Fair Isle focusing on developing designing and knitting machine knitting skills.

Misa’s Storm Dennis Snood. Photography by Susan Molloy

The snood was made as my project during the stay but as there have been so many positive comments and compliments about the design, I asked Marie to help me to make it into a knitting pattern. When I was a teenager I used to make my own clothes and although I’ve always loved colour and design, I never imagined myself designing a knitted garment so it still feels a little surreal to be honest. I would love to learn more about garment construction and get better at knitting too as, living in a place that’s full of talented knitters, I feel my skills are very basic at the moment…

Brough Shawl by Donna Smith. Photography by Susan Molloy

And which pattern from the journal would you like to knit next?

I would love to knit Donna Smith’s Brough Shawl as I think it’s the perfect accessory for Shetland’s climate all year round. And of course because it is grey (my favourite colour), knitted in Donna’s own Langsoond yarn. I’m a huge fan of Donna’s designs as they are simple but elegant and timeless, modern but based on traditional patterns often inspired by her family’s older designs.

And regarding my next possible design? I have an idea in my head for a tank top based on an old jumper that my grandmother knitted for my father a long time ago. Sadly the jumper is long gone but the pattern is in my head. Hopefully this winter there will be a bit of time to do this.

Da Mirkin Mitts by Alison Rendall. Photography by Susan Molloy

You are a keen vegetable gardener, and cook – and the journal includes many tasty Shetland recipes. What’s your personal favourite Shetland speciality to grow and eat?

Growing fruit and vegetables in Shetland is a challenge as our growing season is on average 100 days shorter than on the mainland. And that’s a huge difference. It’s a lot of hard work as for anything you want to grow you need to build shelter first. So after many years of trial and error I have now a short list of vegetables that I think are worth growing. Some things, in fact, grow exceptionally well – such as rhubarb. So I love experimenting with it and there are two favourite recipes by Diana Henry for using it: sweet pickled rhubarb which goes beautifully with pickled herring and also rhubarb cake.

I also love growing salad leaves and herbs. And greens like curly kale or cavolo nero as these are wonderful for making all sorts of salads and smoothies throughout the year. They really are great as that they survive the Shetland winter, so early in the spring you get wonderfully fresh greens which is something I always crave at the beginning of spring.

And lastly there are the wild plants too. Foraging has become increasingly popular these days and my most favourite edible plant has to be the humble nettle that grows in abundance everywhere. My secret tip is drinking nettle tea for a week or two at the beginning of March when we feel tired as when our bodies really lack nutrients and vitamins after the winter. Nettle tea is wonderful for boosting energy levels and it contains a lot of iron. I’m really inspired by a local medical herbalist Suze Walker. And nettle soup is a must!

Finally, I know you are already planning for the journal’s next issue. Can you give us a few wee hints of what’s in store?

I’ve been thinking about the next volume a lot and I would like to include more interviews with local artists and craftspeople as well as small business owners. There are so many inspiring people and stories in Shetland and story telling is a wonderful way of bringing people together.

In terms of knitting patterns I think the focus will be on tank tops.

And of course a lot of beautiful photography and tips for those who are planning to visit Shetland.

Thanks so much for this illuminating chat, Misa! I’m away to make myself some of Wilma Malcomson’s treacle bannocks from the recipe in the Journal – NOM!

The journal includes the gorgeous Night Hawk pattern by Wilma, as well as her bannock recipe . . .

The Shetland Wool Adventures Journal is now available in the KDD shop. We applaud this wonderful publication, and the spirit behind it, and intend to stock future issues!

Inside the journal you’ll find: 6 knitting patterns, a delicious selection of Shetland recipes (the rhubarb section is particularly good!), a range of fabulous island walks, beautiful photography (including a wee documentary tour around the Jamieson’s of Shetland mill) and some really thought-provoking and inspiring essays from contributors like Ronnie Eunson (Shetland sheep expert), Carol Christiansen (textile curator at the Shetland Museum) and Shetland artists Vivian Ross-Smith and Mike Finnie. Enjoy!