Stitches in time as knitwear goes back 200 years

The exhibition of Shetland’s quintessential product, knitwear, delighted Hamefarers at Shetland Museum and Archives on Wednesday, with examples of the craft dating back nearly 200 years.

Some 19th century jumpers and hats from Fair Isle show the characteristic horizontal pattern for which the isle, and Shetland in general, is famous. Bright colours thanks to dyes of madder and lichen are used in these garments, whereas Shetland Mainland knitters favoured natural colours.

Mainland knitters also knitted plain undergarments at this time and were involved in the Truck System – a barter system in which knitted goods were exchanged with the merchants for essentials such as tea and paraffin and which kept the knitters permanently in debt. These undergarments were in demand from the middle classes in the big UK cities.

The upper classes, however, favoured fine lace knitting. This came into vogue through the endorsement of Queen Victoria, who had been sent a pair of stockings by a Shetland knitter and asked for more. The one-ply (or sometimes two-ply) wool was whitened over smoking sulphur and the best knitters excused from heavy work because they had to keep their hands soft.

Later, in the 1920s, the Prince of Wales popularised V-neck Fair Isle jumpers and patterns began to be written down. The 1930s saw experiements with various necklines and fabrics – a slip-over in rayon is on display – and during the Second World War a Norwegian influence comes to the fore with vertical patterns.

The Voe firm of T M Adie was prominent at this time and sold its tweed fabric all over the world.

By 1960s knitting machines were in many households, with the men making the body of the garment and the women “finishing” by adding collars and cuffs.

Hamefarer and knitter Colleen Hannan from Napier, New Zealand, is the great-great-granddaughter of knitter Williamina Sinclair from North Dale, Unst, whose name features in the Unst Heritage Centre as “knitter of worsted”.

Mrs Hannan said Williamina, her husband and five children emigrated to Napier at the time of the clearances. They were locked into the barter system and an emigration agent from Napier suggested the move. The family sailed in the 1850s, with another baby, Michael Clarence, being born on the ship (which bore the name Clarence).

Mrs Hannan said: “It was the women who pushed for a better life.”


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