NB: This story was published in 2018, and some details have changed.
Joanna Hunter-Coe is, in some ways, the personification of the knitwear she makes and sells on Lerwick’s main street. She’s lively, sparky, but still very Shetland, with a thick brogue that’s survived time living in London. When we meet, she’s just back from a trip with her English husband and two young kids to New Zealand, Bali and Japan. In Tokyo, she became obsessed with the city’s ornate manhole covers, and is thinking of incorporating them into a new range of accessories.
Her brand began life in 1999. She’d studied textiles in Shetland, at the University of the Highlands and Islands, immersing herself in the long textiles tradition of Shetland and particularly Fair Isle, the little island between Shetland and Orkney. She came out with the core skills handed down through generations of Shetland knitters, but also a simple idea: “to make knitwear fun, and actually wearable for younger women.”
“A bit like every child in Shetland in the 1980s, I was forced to wear jumpers knitted by family members,” she says. “They were thick, itchy and used pretty boring colours. I kind of wanted to use funky, bright, clashing colours to take it away from what was very traditional.”
Joanna Hunter Knitwear was born in a spare room in her parents’ house, and in 2003 she opened Ninian on Lerwick’s Commercial Street to sell her knitwear, jewellery, cushions and other bits and bobs. Today, the bright shop is packed with Fair Isle ponchos in colours like Empire and Crocus, or Oatmeal and Vegas. You’ll find chic cross-over cardigans, and snoods and wrist warmers, as well as more classic Fair Isle tank tops and jumpers. The range of jewellery includes silver pendants and brooches of Fair Isle jumpers. The designs all feel very Shetland, but also modern; like the woman behind it, none of it is in any way fussy or twee.