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Shetland knitwear: Old foundations, new directions

by Alastair Hamilton -

All over the world, Shetland is associated with knitwear, and of course the tiny island of Fair Isle also has its own distinctive place in the minds of anyone with an interest in textiles, past and present.

But where did the knitting tradition come from? How has it evolved over the years? And what does the future hold?

Knitting seems to have originated in the Middle East or North Africa. The oldest surviving knitwear, at least in terms of skills that today’s knitters would recognise, originates from 11th century Egypt. It may have developed from an earlier form of needlecraft known as nålbinding, which used a single needle; there is early evidence of that technique from Syria.

In mediaeval Europe, knitting was commonplace, as paintings of the period confirm. For example, a Madonna is seen knitting in the painting above, from around 1400, by Master Bertram.

The skill of knitting had probably spread to Shetland by the early 1500s, as it was known by then in Scandinavia and was practised in Scotland during the 16th century. People would no doubt have knitted clothing for their family, offering an alternative to woven cloth, but expert knitters would have begun to trade their work, too. Hand-knitting had the obvious advantage over weaving that it didn’t require a loom, just needles, so it could be pursued at any convenient time and place

Shetland knitters sold their goods to Hanseatic traders and Dutch fishermen who visited the islands, who bought stockings and gloves. By the 1840s, lace knitting was becoming established, too; extraordinarily fine shawls (haps) could be pulled through a wedding ring.

Queen Victoria was a prominent admirer of Shetland lace, having been presented with some by a Shetland businessman and philanthropist, Arthur Anderson, co-founder of the P&O shipping line. Knitting, and the export of knitted goods, was firmly established as part of the Shetland economy.

extraordinarily fine shawls could be pulled through a wedding ring

It's not clear exactly when Fair Isle patterns came into use. Various theories have been put forward but in fact Fair Isle is just one of the many traditions involving stranded, colourful patterns that exist around Europe. Shetland and Fair Isle were exposed over several centuries to fishermen and traders from Scandinavian and other northern European countries, so it’s no surprise that the islands should have developed their own, distinctive tradition.

By the middle of the 19th century, knitwear had become one of the pillars of the Truck System, a trading arrangement which involved payment in kind. Barter, in various forms, had often been employed in Shetland, for example in the fish trade. For knitters, truck meant they paid for goods at the local shop in cardigans, stockings or shawls, rather than receiving cash for those items. The “exchange rate” didn’t favour the knitter.

Government commissions enquired into the system but it seems that many merchants ignored new laws aimed at curbing it. Truck didn’t completely collapse until the Second World War, when the many troops stationed in the islands paid in cash, and a new Shetland Hand Knitters’ Association – a cooperative – helped transform the knitting economy.

The popularity of Shetland knitwear, and Fair Isle in particular, had meantime been given a considerable boost in the 1920s, when a painting of the Prince of Wales by John St Helier Lander featured his Fair Isle allover jumper. He was also photographed wearing Fair Isle when golfing.

In the 1960s, Fair Isle patterns once again became very popular and models and celebrities such as Twiggy and Paul and Linda McCartney were seen in Fair Isle styles.

However, the fact that a garment was labelled “Shetland” or “Fair Isle” didn’t mean that it was produced in either of those places; both names had long since become general descriptors. So that knitters could demonstrate the authenticity of their work, they adopted trade marks or guarantees of origin. They continued to produce beautiful garments, using traditional patterns and colours, as in the 1970s example above from Hilary Salmond.

In fact, the 1970s proved to be a turning point. One factor was the arrival of the oil industry. It had a significant impact on the trade in knitwear, because the rates of pay that became available, even for unskilled work, were well in excess of anything that a knitter could earn. For many, knitting, as traditionally practised, ceased to be an important part of household income.

But there were other important developments during the 1970s. New influences began to diversify and strengthen – and in some ways redefine – Shetland knitwear. Interestingly, two of the people who have left their mark on the Shetland scene were primarily designers, not knitters, and both had their roots in the south-east of England.

The late Patricia Johnston established a company called The Shetland Trader, which her daughter Gudrun – now based in the USA – continues to run. Patricia explored new directions and colourways: as Kate Davies put it in The Book of Haps (2016), she “defied received categories of Shetland knitting, combining openwork with Fair Isle…and experimenting with contemporary shapes and shaping, such as smocks and maxi dresses.” There was a new dynamism about her take on Shetland tradition and it proved highly successful.

she defied received categories of Shetland knitting

Victoria Gibson took a different approach; responding to the tastes of fashionable 1980s London, her striped jumpers became classics for the Clothkits generation; indeed, the Clothkits company was among her customers. The stripes, though, weren’t inspired by Fair Isle styles; as she told me in an interview for the 2017 Shetland Wool Week Annual. It was simply that stripes were “on trend” in London, featuring in styles offered by shops such as Biba.

Within a broad framework, Victoria gave her knitters free rein with design and colour; for example, the stripes weren’t necessarily symmetrical from arm to arm. Later, her designs moved away from well-defined stripes to subtly graduated colour and strong textures. Both approaches can be seen in the image above.

It was simply that stripes were “on trend” in London

In understanding where Shetland knitwear stands today, it’s hard to overstate the importance of these two pioneers’ emphasis on design, innovation and market knowledge.

Pricing that reflected the quality and authenticity of the product was another important milestone established by Patricia and Victoria. At that time, many knitters still priced their work at a level that didn’t remotely reflect the skill and labour involved.

So, what of the present and the future?

Whether produced in Fair Isle itself or on the Shetland mainland, Fair Isle patterns have continued to win admirers. One designer whose eye for colour is widely admired – including by Victoria Gibson – is Wilma Malcolmson. Whilst very much respecting the Fair Isle tradition, her vibrant colour combinations – simultaneously subtle yet vibrant – give her jumpers, one of which is seen above, a contemporary feel that nudges the tradition into new territory.

Wilma was recently named as Patron of the 2020 Shetland Wool Week, an annual event, the success of which is testament to the worldwide interest in the islands’ textiles. The coronavirus pandemic subsequently led to cancellation of the 2020 event, but she will remain Patron for 2021.

There’s much else that is positive. For example, there was growing concern about the possible loss of Fair Isle hand-knitting skills. That anxiety only grew when the Shetland Islands Council, under financial pressure, withdrew knitting classes from Shetland schools. In response, a local charitable trust established a project called ShetlandPeerieMakkers* and, thanks to a public appeal and commercial sponsorship, hand-knitting classes are once again offered to youngsters across much of Shetland.

Another important development has been the establishment of a very well-regarded contemporary textiles course at Shetland College in Lerwick, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. The course, and the availability of high-quality equipment at the college, have contributed to a veritable renaissance of textiles in Shetland.

Many designers, whether graduates of the college course or not, have built up successful businesses. Some are clearly rooted in the Fair Isle tradition. Others such as Marcia Galvin, one of whose pieces is shown above, are more radical and have developed entirely new approaches, experimenting with non-traditional materials and highly original designs.

Indeed, the list of designers active in Shetland these days is a long and growing one. They range from Joan Fraser’s extraordinarily fine Fair Isle scarves and wraps to the bold colours in Joanna Hunter’s designs, or the patterns created by Ella Gordon, Donna Smith or the world’s fastest knitter, Hazel Tindall.

Then there’s Niela Nell Kalra, with her ingenious use of Fair Isle motifs in highly original ways, or Mati Ventrillon in Fair Isle, who recently tackled the longstanding problem of distant design houses ‘borrowing’ Shetland designers’ work, and her island neighbour, Kathy Coull, who offers tuition as well as original pieces.

Margaret Hamilton is another innovator, producing remarkable colour combinations and striking textures. There are many more, as an internet search will reveal.

The knitting and lace traditions have stimulated other artistic and craft endeavours. For example, Susan Pearson has exhibited cement-dipped lace sculpture. But beautiful lace is still being produced, for example by Sheila Fowlie.

Former architect, now jewellery designer Mike Finnie, has adopted Fair Isle motifs in beautiful silver pendants, earrings and other items; and no account of Shetland knitwear today would be complete without a mention of Burra Bears, which have delighted recipients all over the world.

Knitting and knitters have moved online, too. Most Shetland designers have their own online presence and many websites provide platforms for the exchange of ideas and innovations.

Not all makers work exclusively in wool; a wide range of other yarns is used these days. Equally, not all Shetland wool finds its way into knitwear; for example, Jamieson and Smith (Shetland Wool Brokers Ltd) use some for blankets and carpets. Some wool is spun in Shetland, sometimes by individual makers but mostly by Jamieson’s Spinning (Shetland) Ltd, whose mill is pictured above. Both these firms have outlets in Lerwick and a visit to either or both of them is pretty much mandatory for any visiting knitters, as well as locals, but they do mail order, too.

a visit to either or both of them is pretty much mandatory for any visiting knitters, as well as locals

Shetland and Fair Isle knitting has evolved. There was always pride in the tradition, but the shift to a perception of knitting as something to be done as much, or more, for creative pleasure, rather than as an economic duty, has been fundamental. The Fair Isle tradition is still respected, of course, but – more than ever before – knitters explore innovative approaches, be that in pattern, colour, material, technique or form.

There’s also a keen awareness of fashion trends and, for those in the commercial sector, of the value that customers place on provenance, originality and quality. Dynamic, often young, entrepreneurs have used that freedom and to develop their own styles and promote them through their own websites or other craft platforms. Several producers are members of Shetland Arts and Crafts and feature in the Shetland Craft Trail.

Whilst this article has focused on knitwear, there are many other Shetland textile products. In particular, there’s a strong and growing community of weavers. The Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers brings together practitioners in all the textile skills. And of course, there are, behind all these efforts, the hundreds of crofters and farmers who produce the wool on which Shetland’s reputation was built.

There are many twists and turns on the road that Shetland and Fair Isle knitting has travelled, and those are embedded in the islands’ culture and heritage. For now, and notwithstanding the present pandemic difficulties, the future looks bright.

*Full disclosure: the author is a trustee of the Brough Lodge Trust, which operates ShetlandPeerieMakkers, and of the Shetland Amenity Trust, which runs Shetland Wool Week..

Posted in: Creative Scene

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