Sumburgh Artists Blend Old And New Skills

by Alastair Hamilton -

During July, the artists in residence at Sumburgh Lighthouse were Carla Meijsen and her husband, Jan van Alphen, from the Netherlands. Carla is an internationally-known knitter and textile designer and owner of a company, The Dutch Knitters, which offers workshops and classes around Europe. Jan specialises in painting icons, work which requires great attention to detail and fine brush skills. Jan and Carla met in the 1980s when they were both at a teacher training college, following the same course in drawing and textiles.

Carla first became interested in knitting as a child. She recalls that her mother had been very supportive in developing her creative talents. “She made it possible for me to do anything I liked. If I wanted to knit, she bought wool, if I wanted to make baskets, she always got me the materials”.

On graduating from courses in drawing and painting and in textile arts and crafts, Carla found that there was no work in those fields, so her career took a different direction. “I went into IT, right away, and for IT you also need creative people who can think out of the box”. She worked in IT for twelve years, creating websites and teaching the building of networks for big companies.

"...for IT you also need creative people who can think out of the box..."

However, the lure of textiles was strong and she continued to practise her skills. About seven years ago, she established The Dutch Knitters: motto, “knitting is chocolate for the mind”. Through it, she carries out research and teaches textile skills, often in Belgium but also in France, Latvia, Estonia and Scotland. Carla also writes books; in October 2011, she published Warm Hands – Estonian Mittens and Wrist Warmers and that was followed in 2014 by So Warm! - Twined Knitting.

"...knitting is chocolate for the mind..."

Carla is fascinated by patterns and by the processes by which they’re created. In an interesting example of what can happen when two very different disciplines meet – and stimulated by examples found in Latvia, based on ancient Chinese and Indian mathematical principles – she has recently used her IT skills to create a what she calls a ‘magic square’ using Microsoft Excel. It consists of many cells, each of which contains a multiplication formula. When a stream of numbers, or a word such as ‘puffin’ or ‘Sumburgh’, is typed into the program, the formulae in the cells produce a completely original pattern.

"...an interesting example of what can happen when two very different disciplines meet..."

Minor changes to the numbers or words will produce variations, and, as she explains, the technique allows infinite experimentation. The designs can be transferred very easily to knitting machines, too. The technique can be used to generate patterns in all sorts of fields, for example fabrics for interior design. The program is only six weeks old but she’s very excited about it: “It is so fresh and new to me!”

"...the technique allows infinite experimentation..."

This was Carla’s third visit to Shetland. She attended Shetland Wool Week in 2014 and “had such a good time!” She took to Shetland right away and is a great admirer of the islands’ knitting tradition, as is very clear from the blog posts she’s been writing. “The Shetland knitting is of very high quality; the patterns are very nice and Fair Isle knitting makes it special. They use a lot of colours, creative colours. In the Baltic states, they have fewer colours and they do terrific things, but in Shetland you have these patterns that change colour row by row, and a lot of Shetland knitters have a very good feel for colour.”

"...Shetland knitting is of very high quality..."

Jan’s aim, when he was young, was to become an artist, but – like Carla – he became involved in IT and still works in it. These days, he also chairs a telecommunications branch organisation and is a board member of INTUG, an international IT group.

“But,” he says, “I still like to paint, especially icons.” He particularly enjoys painting icons in the Greek tradition, which is based on solid layers of paint. He also likes the Russian style and, in future, he may do more Russian work. Russian icons are, he says, “more serious, more dramatic”, than the Greek ones, which he feels are friendlier and more colourful. “It’s quite a long process to learn the skill, because it’s very detailed work”, he says. It’s essential to follow the traditional rules.

"...I still like to paint, especially icons..."

Jan paints purely for pleasure and, although he does hold exhibitions from time to time, he doesn’t sell his work, preferring to give it away or lend items to friends. While at Sumburgh, Jan painted an icon incorporating an image of his late mother, in a Shetland setting, complete with puffins.

Carla and Jan really enjoyed their stay at Sumburgh Lighthouse in what they praise as “a great apartment, well renovated”. Carla is very much looking forward to returning to Shetland in Spring 2017, leading a small group of friends. They’ll be doing lots of knitting-related things, including museum visits and, of course, meeting local knitters all over the islands; and Carla will, no doubt, be introducing many more knitters to her “magic square”.

"...Carla is very much looking forward to returning to Shetland..."

Posted in: Creative Scene