‘Hello Donna’ as New York fans mob visiting isles knitter

A knitter and designer from Burra Isle swapped the quiet life for that of a rock star when she visited New York for a textile and craft show.

Donna Smith knits on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Donna Smith knits on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.

Donna Smith, who is also well known as one of the singers in the isles group Shoormal, was in the USA for the Vogue Knitting Live event.

She was part of a team promoting the annual Shetland Wool Week festival, of which she was the 2015 patron.

Mrs Smith was joined on the trip by three others involved in Wool Week – Carol Christiansen of Shetland Museum and Kirsty Halcrow and Misa Hay from Promote Shetland – and they had a stall at the New York exhibition.

Mrs Smith was mobbed by passionate fans desperate for hints and tips on how to produce Fair isle knitwear. “It was all quite surreal,” she said.

She sat and knitted at the Wool Week stall, exciting watchers by her use of the traditional Shetland ‘makkin belt’, the leather ‘third hand’ worn around the waist and holding an extra needle.

Her design for a Fair isle bobble hat featuring sheep – the “Baa-ble” hat – has become a transatlantic sensation.

She said: “A lot of folk had knitted it and were wearing it at the exhibition, and even outside in Times Square. It’s amazing to think it’s so popular there on the other side of the [Atlantic].”

The Baa-ble was Mrs Smith’s official design to celebrate the 2015 Shetland Wool Week and has clearly captured American imaginations.

It was the most queued pattern on the craft textiles social network site Ravelry in 2015 and was one of the reasons the four-strong team from Promote Shetland decided to go to New York.

Shetland Wool Week representatives Misa Hay, Donna Smith, Carol Christiansen and Kirsty Halcrow.
Shetland Wool Week representatives Misa Hay, Donna Smith, Carol Christiansen and Kirsty Halcrow.

Mrs Hay said: “It was a risk, but we discovered that more and more Americans have been coming to Shetland Wool Week, and we sold over half of the Shetland Wool Week Annual’s print run to the USA.

“We took 2,000 copies of a leaflet about Wool Week which included the pattern for Donna’s now-legendary Baa-ble hat, and they were all handed out. We reckon to have spoken to about 2,500 folk over the two and a half days of the event.

“People were actually queuing up to get Donna to sign the pattern, and showing her pictures of projects they’d undertaken.

“Folk were sometimes five-deep around the stall trying to talk to the isles representatives. We could never have hoped for such an incredible response – we’re really pleased and proud.

“There’s a real buzz about Shetland knitting,” she said. “One American specialist is even making and selling, knitting belts. There’s an opportunity there for everyone.”

Perhaps the weather in New York during the festival contributed to the popularity of Shetland knitwear and indeed the Baa-ble hat – temperatures were as low as minus 11 degrees Celsius and the following weekend saw the worst blizzard to hit the city in decades.


Add Your Comment
  • Hazel Tindall

    • February 6th, 2016 18:02

    Great to see this report!
    I think the sentence ending “Shetland ‘makkin belt’, the leather ‘third hand’ worn around the waist and holding an extra needle” is a bit misleading.
    I don’t think that a ‘makkin belt’ equates to a ‘third hand’; nor is it essential to use a belt when knitting with more than two needles. A ‘makkin belt’ is useful when knitting with two needles. Not all Shetlanders use a belt – traditionally North Mavine knitters did not.

  • Doris Van Natta

    • February 7th, 2016 17:45

    My cousin Zillah used a makkin belt with great skill.
    When I was a child, visiting Shetland, watching her
    knit made me marvel that such beautifully intricate
    patterns could flow so easily even while she held
    conversations. Unforgettable.


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