Textile inspiration: Nielanell

by Alastair Hamilton -

Over recent decades, Shetland has become known not only for the traditional Fair Isle and lace knitting on which the islands’ international reputation rests, but also for innovation in design and technique. One of those innovators is Niela Kalra, whose business, Nielanell, is now firmly established at the leading edge of Shetland textile design.

Born in Canada, she’s the daughter of an Indian professor and a Scottish nurse; her mother was also a weaver and opened The Westmount Weavery. “I would have been about five or six, my brother younger, and we used to spend a lot of time there as children, and as we grew up. I spent a lot of time holding hanks of yarn and helping mum warp the looms. I suppose we were just brought up in that kind of atmosphere.”

Both Niela’s grandmothers were also keen knitters . “I have a lovely photograph of my grandmother in India, sitting in a beautiful white sari, in a rocking chair, knitting. I still have some of the last things that she ever knitted. So, I was surrounded by woollen textiles. And, though I didn’t understand it at the time, my mother wasn’t just a maker, she thought quite out of the box. Although that was quite normal for me then, I realise, looking back, that it was this way that she expressed that in her textiles. That’s obviously been a deep influence.”

Niela came over to Scotland for school, “an adventure, nothing else”, boarding during the week and staying with her uncle at weekends. Then it was back to university in Canada, studying business and accounting.

But, during her time in Scotland, a seed had been sown. She’d spent time on a school placement with a law firm in Aberdeen, and went back to the firm in the summer holidays. “I was a messenger, a great job! I earned fifty pounds a week, I’ve never been so wealthy!” It wasn’t long before she was back in Scotland to study law, after which she took a postgraduate course in London. “I ended up working in the north of Scotland, as a criminal defence lawyer, and it was great. I worked there for many, many years.”

While working in Elgin, Niela – and her mother, by then into her seventies – took a part-time A-level course in art and textiles at Moray College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands. When the course ended, Niela accompanied the lecturer on a visit to Shetland, to look at the textile facilities at Shetland College, which offers a highly-regarded course in contemporary textiles. “I looked at the knit room, as we would call it, where all the knitting machines were, and I just knew that was it: I was doomed!”

I just knew that was it: I was doomed!

She left her job and enrolled on the degree course, initially renting a home in Lerwick’s lanes. “It was great. I was in the Lounge [the legendary pub-cum-music venue] every teatime!” But it wasn’t long before the opportunity arose to buy a house in the village of Hoswick, part of the lively community of Sandwick. “All I wanted was a place that I could walk the dog and I saw that the village was perfect. I could go down to the beach.”

Her studio-shop followed: “it was my neighbour, who lives across the road, who told me, one day, ‘open those doors and put up a ‘Knitwear For Sale’ sign.’ It was amazing. Why would I choose to live in a place like this? Maybe words can’t describe it, but you try and analyse that through your work, and this village, particularly, has enabled me to do it.”

Niela attributes that positive reaction to the fact that Shetland is not only “a seafaring community, an outward-looking community, that is not scared of anywhere else” but also a diverse community, both occupationally and generationally. “The generations live together. You feel in your bones that everyone has an equally valid place.”

You feel in your bones that everyone has an equally valid place

It wasn’t only her forebears’ immersion in knitting that Niela inherited: thinking outside the box also comes naturally. Her design process begins with consideration of some kind of issue or observation, and the questions that arise from it. It might reflect her earlier role, something that involves unfairness, or is against the rule of law, or it might be the idea of ‘home’, and what ‘home’ is. She contrasts her own freedom of movement with that of others less fortunate.

“I was thinking, obviously, about the situation of displacement and being forced to move from your home, as opposed to moving voluntarily to the next place, like I did here. Many people don’t have that good fortune to be able to have that freedom of movement or that choice. My parents, for instance, were both immigrants in Canada and in my class at school there was only one girl that had two Canadian-born parents. Such diversity was very natural for me – we never thought anything of the fact that our parents were all immigrants from so many different cultures. This is why I struggle so much given the current political climate - why are we going backwards?"

“So, I was working through ideas of home. What is our home? Is it in our hearts? Is it in our future? Is it physically where we are? Is it a memory? Is it our origins – the countries our parents lived in? What exactly is home, and do I have the right to call this place home because I wasn’t born and brought up in it?”

That curiosity about ‘home’ finds expression in her latest collection, named ‘Rani’, which means ‘queen’ in Hindi. She has derived patterns from old photographs that feature herself as a child, her father and the family’s first dog, named Rani. “I don’t always need imagery in my knitting, but you always have to find ways to translate your ideas into something that is visible, and that is often the first step – finding an image or an object that describes or represents what you’re thinking of.”

The use of photographs also drew her into working with half-tones. “A lot of my knitting is reverse jacquard; it’s just two colours, so I thought that half-tones are obviously the way forward. Then I realised how many different ways you could make half-tones – I’d been making half-tones for screen print. I realised that the software programs that we were using to generate the imagery at the college were generating the half-tones in their own way, so we had no control over that. She began to work with images in Photoshop and found that she could make adjustments, depending on the gauge of the knitting, that produced an entirely different visual result when the image was translated into knit.

The use of images from her childhood was one allusion to ‘home’ but the concept infuses the Rani designs in another way, for they’re executed using elements from Fair Isle and Shetland lace. Of course, when the knitwear is actually worn, you can't see any of these images. Photographing the knitwear catches a fleeting moment and makes the 'hidden' imagery very distinctive and recognisable; when worn, one only sees random, abstract patterns.

She observes that there’s a parallel here with social media, on which it’s often the case that “in the distance you have ‘friends’, but close up you wouldn’t recognise them.”

In the Rani design, she overlays Shetland lace, the pattern greatly enlarged, on the underlying, Fair Isle knit, imagery. She thus brings Fair Isle and Shetland lace together.

For Niela, that answers the question of why she’s here, in this space, and at this time: “It’s because of the knitting. It’s the knitting that is stronger than anything else, the making, and the connection that that has to its environment, time and place. That’s where all the lines have crossed. They’ve crossed here, in this village.”

Migration, and the borders through which migrants have to pass, emerges as an influence in another recent collection, Ebb-Stanes. Thinking about boundaries in a Shetland context, someone unfamiliar with the islands might see the coastal cliffs as very hard, distinct and unwelcoming.

But “I thought no, that’s not the case; it’s actually bounded by the sea, and the sea is tidal. So, I was thinking about the moveable, natural boundary. That tide, as a boundary, is not fixed; it is not impermeable, it is in fact very, very permeable. So, for instance, islanders invite and welcome people to come into the islands, warmly and genuinely.”

In the same way, islanders encourage younger folk to leave Shetland for education or work, hoping of course that they’ll come back. The tide comes in over the ebb-stanes, and they represent that “open, permeable boundary.”

islanders invite and welcome people to come into the islands, warmly and genuinely

This focus on borders flows naturally from Niela’s own experience and that of her father’s side of the family, which includes the partition of British India, creating Pakistan, and the end of Crown rule. She recalls that, in 1947, when her father was living in Lahore, “a man was asked to come in and draw a boundary. Immediately, on both sides of this boundary, millions and millions of people were made instant immigrants in their own country.”

Thus, “in this collection, what I was trying to do was look at and consider how I could resolve my idea of looking at an open, transparent, moveable boundary – the ebb-stanes – and resolve that with the hard, man-made line – which as you can see I’ve drawn in here, in red – and see how, I suppose, they play off each other."

Niela points out that the choice we have about where we live is precious. “Therefore, what I’m making is very much about the relationship that we have with place. Knitwear is a second skin. I see it as enabling us to be more safe and secure, and protecting us from our environment; but also, it is the connection between ourselves and the environment.

"And sometimes, we need our textiles, or what we’re wearing, to help readjust if we find ourselves in an uncomfortable spot, either in our mind, or physically.”

Her interest in migration has meanwhile had another practical outcome, as she and another artist have raised money to sponsor a month-long residency for a migrant artist in Berlin.

what I’m making is very much about the relationship that we have with place

Niela’s creativity extends well beyond textiles. She has a strong interest in print-making and has recently been exploring the concept of ‘deep time’, introduced during a meeting with archaeologists in Orkney. They had been discussing early peoples who had none of today’s tools, but simply worked with stone. That idea is currently leading her to produce “all sorts of imagery with the idea of stone on stone.”

She is also an artist in glass, casting it and printing on it. She’s been involved in a project close to her heart that involves commemorating the victory of Hoswick crofters in what is known as the Hoswick whale case. It resolved a dispute over the laird’s claim to a share of the whales that, in those days, were driven ashore to provide food.

The case “changed the nature of the relationship between the lairds and the crofters, it changed the balance of a lot of things; and it was because of their bravery, their tenacity, their faith, that it brought the community together both locally, in Shetland, and abroad, as people rallied round; modern-day crowd-funding, really.” If the project goes ahead, it’s hoped that it can act as a pilot for other communities, making local heritage a source of strength in securing the future.

If all of that were not enough, there are other strands in Niela’s busy life. She’s been asked to participate as a creative practitioner in a UK-China textile exchange programme, which she says is “mind-blowingly exciting”. She’s also helping two creative couples, who plan to move to Shetland, in their house-hunting.

Niela is very positive about Shetland as a base for creative people. “There is an infrastructure that can support this here, in Shetland, and if you’re willing to work hard, you can live a life making things. If you’re talking about the creative industries, all the support is here.”

Given her success in establishing Nielanell and creating such beautiful, innovative and adaptable pieces, Niela is surely proof of that.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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