In the seventies if you had a Shetland gansie it was either allover Fair Isle or a Fair Isle yoke.
There were of course pattern and colour variations within but that was basically your two choices. The jumpers were usually tight fitting with high crew necks and tight fitted cuffs. I can remember however, some of the bairns at the school appearing in different gansies, stripy, asymmetric and joyously rainbow coloured. Looking back I realise that these were all Victoria Gibson’s bairns. What I didn’t know then was that this was a small part of a growing, global brand.
The Shetland Textile Museum’s feature exhibition this year is a retrospective of the work of Victoria. Curated by Lizzie Simmons in collaboration with Victoria and Emma Gibson it traces the designer’s journey from its early beginnings to the present.
Victoria’s move to Shetland in 1968, though she probably didn’t realise it at the time, gave her access to one of the world’s most skilled communities of hand and machine knitters.
She started by designing and machine knitting ribbed polo neck children’s wool jumpers for Clothkits. It was the perfect garment for that audience.
The machine knitters liked knitting them but didn’t enjoy sewing them up and grafting. The Clothkits customers were delighted to pay for the privilege of sewing up (or “finishing”) the jumpers. This gave Victoria the experience of handling large bulk orders and created connections for her within Shetland.
The vertical textured stripes were soon joined by horizontal coloured stripes in stocking stitch. Being based in the West Side of Shetland, using Jamieson’s of Shetland yarn from Sandness made sense and meant the items were made with Shetland wool, inspired by Shetland and made by Shetland knitters, thus giving the garments a precious brand identity, the value of which is only just becoming apparent and appreciated within the Shetland knitting community.
Victoria’s designs are both hand and machine knit. The hand knit ones especially being instantly recognisable.
Locally known as a “Peerie Shop gansie” it’s a special item, simultaneously a jumper and a hug, like being wrapped in a Shetland rug. They are jumpers to wear when you need a bosie.
The colours are graduated and are either muted and heathery or bold and bright. Made by combining three strands of mostly Shetland yarn but with a signature zing of bright mohair, they are funky, their rigidity hides a plethora of bodily sins, are a bit hippy and very, very cosy. In the depths of winter I sleep with mine on.
The exhibition highlight for me was the completed handknit jumper displayed simply with all the balls of yarn used in its construction laid out below it. This was informed by a folder of hand painted illustrations given to the knitters to show options when making the jumper.
With such a skilled workforce of highly proficient hand and machine knitters and designers (with a small “d”) confident in sizing garments up and down, expert in gauge, tension, finishing casting on and off, the instructions for each garment could be vague.
The actual instructions given to the knitters are on show here too and show how a rough drawing of the item with size guides for width and length was enough for the knitters who would take the simple drawings and turn them into a finished garment, indicating the level of trust between Victoria and the knitter.
Lizzie Simmons’ research has gathered together the names of some of the knitters and tellingly, there were so many from Papa Stour she listed them as “The Residents of Papa Stour”. That shows how Victoria’s business was able to sustain living in areas of low unemployment during the past 40-50 years.
Recognisable within the garments are macro motifs extracted from Fair Isle knitting like chevrons, chequered parts and diamonds. These are also reflected in the wallpaper backdrops that Victoria has designed and hand printed for the exhibition.
In a stroke of genius, Lizzie has enabled the transformation of a tiny cupboard in the display room into a snapshot of Victoria’s studio.
There is nothing as fascinating as a glimpse inside an artist’s studio offering a possible peep into their mind and that is what is on offer here. It looks completely natural, showing the ordered chaos needed to bring about such fabulous designs.
Inspiration is present in the form of books featuring Islamic patterns, Guernsey patterns and Matisse, photos, wirsit and knitted swatches.
It’s great seeing part of the Victoria Gibson story researched, gathered together and so ably displayed.
The combination of Victoria’s artistic skill and business savvy and her ability to communicate, trust and connect with the skilled knitting workforce in Shetland has ensured the longevity of Victoria Gibson’s designs. The threat to the company now though is a bitter sweet one.
Better wages and conditions for women have led to a smaller pool of hand knitters. Maybe the next step could be a return to the Clothkits model but taking it a further, thus moving the story full circle. I for one would happily buy a kit to make my own Victoria Gibson jumper and it could ensure the popular design’s future.
It takes a quality exhibition like this to show the value and reach of the Shetland textile industry.
The exhibition is on at The Shetland Textile Museum and is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 12-5pm with late night opening on Thursdays till 7pm. It runs until 7th October giving anyone visiting after Shetland Wool Week a chance to see it. It’s well worth a visit.