The bairn’s knitted top caught my eye straight away – its natural colour, the simple patterns and the fringe around the bottom. I imagined how good it would look as adult wear and I’d been studying it in the exhibition for a while before its creator arrived and was prompted to tell me the story of the jumper.
Helen Robertson had based the patterns on those the Gunnister Man was wearing when he was dug from a peat bog over half a century ago. She explained that she’d knitted the fringing to suggest cut peats. Helen had originally made it for her peerie bairn whose great-grandfather was one of the men who unearthed the remains of the person who has since become known as The Gunnister Man.
This garment was one of several exciting original pieces of knitwear and tweed which had been collected together for Shetland Wool Week in a display at Vaila Fine Art. It showed how many attractive things have been made in recent years using organic Shetland wool.
I found out about Wool Week after picking up a programme at the Shetland Museum. I hadn’t really planned to do anything about it till someone told me that the students from the contemporary textiles degree course at the Shetland College were going to talk about their projects at a lecture during the week. My lugs perked up because I always like to hear folk speaking about what they’re doing. I’m curious and love stories.
Off I went for what turned out to be a really fascinating night. To begin with about a dozen students gave short presentations about what they’re doing – most of them starting off with tradition before putting their own stamp on it. One student’s design journey took her from fine lace for wearing to using its patterns to enhance lighting while another gave us an insight into the wool itself, illustrating the quality that means the oo can be roo’d by hand from the Shetland sheep’s back. Another that really appealed to me was recording the sound of the knitting machines. Every speaker demonstrated a real commitment to the heritage and to the potential of the material they were using.
They were followed by Elizabeth Johnston whose informative history of knitting really ought to be an essential part of the Shetland school curriculum. During her lecture she passed round examples of knitting down the centuries. She also had some of her own family heirlooms from the 20th century as well as samples of what she herself dyes and knits to make a living today. Elizabeth was followed by Emma Bradbury who works as a designer for both the up-market DAKS and the seriously cool Orkney-based Tate and Style. Emma’s textile journey has also got her involved in a project in Northern India which has been helping communities there develop knitted goods as souvenirs of a suitable size for trekkers to buy and tuck into a rucksack.
Our evening had taken us not just back in time to the origins of knitting but also gave us the opportunity to learn about modern trends.
I’d been sitting beside Wilma Johnson during this talk and I was thinking of her when I made my way to the Textiles Museum at the Böd of Gremista which was also a venue for Wool Week events. One of the things they’d done there was a spot of “guerrilla knitting”, a new way for knitters to make their mark by getting knitting into public places by stealth. At Gremista, the large anchors that lie in the yard outside the Böd had been covered in knitting. It was a splendid bit of fun which seemed to have gone down well.
However it reminded me of the Knitted Croft project that Wilma and Roxane Permar had dreamed up back in the late 1980s. Not so long ago I found one of the postcards that was part of its promotion – a peerie model croft house, dressed in Fair Isle knitting, photographed outside in such a way that it appeared life-size. That had been the plan – to cover a real croft house in Fair Isle knitting. The proposal ran into a hail of fierce and furious public criticism so it never got any further. For those involved at the time, it was very disheartening but I wonder what the reaction might be now.
Times have changed; Shetland has changed; and the textiles industry with it.
That was brought home to me on the Friday night of Wool Week when I went along to an event at the Museum for the Real Shetland Stories competition. Jamieson and Smith Woolbrokers had combined forces with Shetland Amenity Trust for this one. They invited people with memories of all things “oo-y” to write down their stories and send them in to be judged and selected for inclusion in a book that will come out next year. I was keen to find out who’d won the top prize for which Vi- Spring had donated one of their luxury £11,000 king size beds. You may have spotted this bed, which uses Shetland wool, advertised in glossy magazines at the moment.
Drew Ratter’s affectionate story about his granny was a worthy winner, a tribute to a person but also to a way of life that’s long gone. As Drew reflects, we no longer need to “roo da crang”, pulling the raw material from dead sheep. There were 40 runners up, a varied mix of moving and often entertaining memories of people, of treasured knitted items like wedding veils and christening robes, woven in with a wealth of historical information. One tale that sticks in my mind was submitted by Hazel Tindall who used extracts from her mother’s diary written when her mam and dad were getting their knitting machine and learning how to use it.
I found Shetland Wool Week thought provoking and its breadth inspiring. I was only listening and looking but there were plenty of opportunities to “have a go” with tours, workshops and demonstrations. It had obviously attracted visitors fae aa da airts and could well be developed further to become one of those integral parts of the Shetland calendar like Fiddle Frenzy.
However, it made me wonder if, apart from the producers, designers and makers who’re directly involved in textiles, we do respect and value this indigenous industry which has been so much part of Shetland’s past, remains an important element of our current economy and culture and, with investment, could make a significant contribution to our future.