21st November 2018
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Arts & crafts: On the trail

Jordan Ogg introduces the Shetland Craft Trail, a new venture bringing together artists and craftspeople from across the isles.

In the present age of lumpen mass consumerism an alternative market is growing popular with people who want something a bit different from the mainstream. These customers care about provenance – they want to know where a product has come from, what has gone into it and why it is how it is. They are also willing to pay more for something with a value they can measure against the work and materials that went into its production. Craft goods – those produced by skilled manual labour – are synonymous with this trade, and if they’re made locally then all the better.

The Shetland Craft Trail offers a new route into this market by mapping the range of traditional and contemporary arts and crafts currently being produced here in the isles. Its reach is wide, stretching from Unst to Fair Isle, and brings together 40 of Shetland’s most skilled craftspeople and artists.

Makers of ceramics, textiles, leatherwork and knitwear are just some of those included, alongside painters, sculptors and photographers, with each willing to open their doors and let people see the spaces, materials and processes that go into their work. Each has also been quality assessed by the Shetland Arts and Crafts Association, so prospective buyers can be confident that what they are getting is not only good, but has been produced with care.

The trail is presented in a neat fold-away pamphlet, produced by the association with assistance from Promote Shetland. A large map of Shetland forms the focal point, identifying each location on the trail, along with associated shops and outlets. On the reverse is a table where each participant is given space to entice intrepid trailers.

Sandness-based Journeyman Leather, for example, tempts visitors to experience “age old saddlery and bridlework skills in our traditional leather workshop”; Sandwick’s Nielanell Knitwear invites the more adventurous wool fan to indulge in a studio where “vibrant colours and scrumptious textiles” abound; and in Scalloway the workshop of Paparwark Furniture awaits, where Cecil Tait and his team construct bespoke furniture “designed and inspired from Shetland’s culture and environment”.

In addition to hand-made craft items, fine art is represented by members from local art collection Veer North, who the association invited to take part in the trail. They include James B Thomason of Levenwick, whose figurative paintings recall aspects of Shetland history, and Ruth Brownlee, an award winning landscape painter based in Sandwick.

The trail pamphlet is a practical thing, pocket sized and well appointed with information on how to contact producers and, rather handily for a place where cash machines are thin on the ground, payment details on how to buy direct from the makers. The layout makes it easy to plan a whole day of trailing or, if time is limited, to fit in the odd visit here and there. What’s more is the prospect of being able to buy into an experience that goes beyond the standard confines of a shop. Instead, you can interact with the makers and their products in their own environment, and ask questions that you don’t get to in a regular retail space.

That’s not to say that some shops don’t have a place on the trail. The North Rock Gallery in Lerwick is featured as an independent art space and seller of several Shetland designers’ work. So too is Jamieson and Smith, whose wool store on the North Road stocks the raw materials necessary for experienced and budding makers to craft their own range of knitted goods.

Many of the studios are located in the craftmakers’ homes, which gives people the added opportunity to sample something of the life behind the designers and their products. So, on a visit to the home studio of South Nesting-based textile artist and itinerant barista Hilary Seatter, the lady behind Consulate Designs, you can enjoy the delights of her aviary along with an expertly prepared cup of Italian coffee. After that, you could head west to the uber-modernist home of Burra Bears, where creator Wendy Inkster’s two friendly dogs will meet you at the door before she guides you into the wooly world of the patterned bears and their chums. There you can hear the stories behind each bear and, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of Wendy’s current bears in progress.

As secretary of the Shetland Arts and Crafts Association, Wendy has been instrumental in getting the trail off the ground. Following a fact finding trip partly funded by Shetland Arts to the well-established Orkney Craft Trail in 2009, she and her colleagues concluded that Shetland was ripe for a similar venture. Three years on and it seems they were right. Since launching in May, the Shetland trail has been a hit with local craft fans and visitors from as far afield as Norway, France, Holland and Australia.

The Shetland Craft Trail pamphlets can be downloaded from the association website (www.shetlandartsandcrafts.co.uk) or found throughout the isles at museums, galleries, cafés, shops and tourist offices. Also look out for trail signs showing the association logo at participating studios and workshops.