Wool week launches in Fair Isle style

A sea of hats at the opening ceremony at Mareel. Photo: Dave Donaldson
A sea of hats at the opening ceremony at Mareel. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Shetland Wool Week has expanded – so much so that it now takes place over nine days rather than seven.

It even started before Sunday’s official opening, with workshops on felted jewellery, Fair Isle knitting and making traditional wristlets on Saturday.

The opening to the fifth Shetland Wool Week was a bigger and better affair than in previous years, with wine and music in Mareel – the venue having been changed to accommodate the visitor numbers, most sporting Fair Isle attire.

Shetland Amenity Trust chairman Brian Gregson dons a Fair Isle toorie to officially open Shetland Wool Week. Photo: Dave Donaldson
Shetland Amenity Trust chairman Brian Gregson dons a Fair Isle toorie to officially open Shetland Wool Week. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Guests were welcomed by Lizzie Simmons, of organisers Shetland Amenity Trust, and its chairman Brian Gregson, both in Fair Isle hats. Committee member Olive Henry of Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers spoke about his work, with Shetland Museum, of reviving Shetland lace knitting, and stressed the importance of wool week, which, he said, brings together producers and makers and is appreciated by even the “most dour” crofters.

The world’s fastest knitter and wool week patron Hazel Tindall, designer of many of the hats worn by the audience, enthused about the “energy” generated by the week, but warned that many of the knitters are “on their bus passes”.

But she was delighted to see so many of the audience wearing “her” hats. She has branched out into designing, and said: “Knitting is a pleasure and pattern-writing is a challenge, but very satisfying when it works out.”

However knitting is alive and well in Whalsay, according to resident Ina Irvine, who said that many parents and bairns in the isle go to classes, with Fair Isle being taught from the age of eight or nine. Mrs Irvine’s stall at Mareel showed a full range of Shetland knitting, from one-ply shawls to a child’s Fair Isle cape, and even a doll with a knitted shawl which had been featured in a German craft book.

Wool from Foula also featured at the Mareel event. Resident Magnus Holbourn last year started a business, which is going well, of sorting and grading wool from his own sheep and that of other islanders. The wool, in natural colours from cream to moorit, is sent away to be spun and comes back to be sold in a kit to go with a pattern.

Mr Holbourn said the natural colours almost suggest their own designs, and added: “We sell the kit, the designers sell the patterns. It’s a very good way to work with people in the community and customers, and nice to be able to give the people of Foula some positive feedback.”

Whalsay-based designer and knitter Angela Irvine had a lot of interest in her stall, featuring designs, many of Shetland sunsets, printed onto organic fabric mini-skirts (which featured poetry by her daughter Chloe) and trimmed with lace knitted tops and pockets. One sleeve, she said, took 60 hours, but, she said: “I get lost in the drawing and knitting, it’s very therapeutic.”

Having no website – this winter she wants to create one for her innovative work – means that wool week is a valuable opportunity to reach customers.

This was endorsed by Carol Christiansen of Shetland Museum, who said: “People see things here they wouldn’t see in shops, they can talk to the makers, the people who work at a kitchen table and don’t have a place to sell.” The makers can learn from the customers too: “It’s a two-way street.”

The hundreds of visitors were clearly enthusiasts. Cumbria beef and sheep farmers Michael Baxter and Sally Antill were wearing the special hats – his in a striking emerald green – and Ms Antill was working with a drop spindle. She said: “We wanted to see Shetland sheep in their natural environment.”

One of the furthest travelled visitors was Jean McKie, also kitted out in a Fair Isle hat, from Cape Town, South Africa, which she described as a “big merino and mohair producing place”. Ms McKie plans to visit relatives in the UK, but, she said: “Even if I didn’t have anyone here I still would have come. I love lace knitting and I’ve just completed a Fair Isle waistcoat.”

And Pauline Thomson from Canada said: “It’s so exciting to see the young designers’ work, it’s quite inspiring, I’m tempted to go back to school.”


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