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.
“The idea of the brand is to make something that lasts,” she says during our interview in the airy room at the back of the shop, surrounded by sewing machines, sketchbooks and colourful cones of yarn. “It’s not fast fashion — we’ve never shipped shoddy products out of Shetland. I get inspired by family heirlooms and old photos, and research vintage patterns, but I’m also looking at the catwalks and magazines for shapes, cuts and lengths. The idea is that it’s a piece you’ll wear your whole life.”
Even if Ninian isn’t about trends, Fair Isle knitwear is popular at the moment, and business has grown every year. Ninian ship products to Europe, America, Australia and more — and, while Joanna says there used to be quiet periods in the year, she now describes it as “pretty full-on, year-round.”
As for life in Shetland, the straight-talking Joanna does such a good job of selling it that she groans at the end of our interview: “Oh God, that was really cheesy, wasn’t it?”
She used to split her time between Shetland and London, where her helicopter pilot husband David comes from, and where they still have a house on the River Thames at Hampton. She had a stall at Covent Garden, and would spend over an hour jammed onto busy trains and Tubes getting to work. But when the couple had children, deciding where to live wasn’t that hard.
“Really, the freedom of Shetland, it was a no-brainer,” she says. “It’s absolutely magical for kids. You can just throw them outside. They’re safe, everyone’s always looking out for them, and the education here is exceptional. This was definitely the place to settle, and we love it.”
We see this in action on an afternoon at the family’s modern house on West Burra island, south-west of Lerwick, which Joanna and David had built three years ago. It’s an airy space, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the main living area, which looks out across the sound to the neighbouring island of East Burra. “We’ll just be sitting here, having dinner, and we’ll see herons or otters outside the window,” says Joanna. “The view still makes me go ‘wow’ every morning.”
When we arrive at the house, five-year-old Zander and seven-year-old Zoe are drawing in a designated creative corner of the living room. But they’re soon mucking around in the hammock in the living room, or racing around the house on their bikes. Zander shows us the “bug hotel” in the garden that he’s made using earthenware pots; Zoe shows us round the wooden tree hut in front of the house, with its rickety bridge and slide, with the hut filled with colouring-in books and Marimekko cushions.
Zoe has big blue eyes, and has been asked to do child modelling, an offer mum turned down on her behalf. While Zoe is good at posing and mugging off for our cameras, she’s notably lacking in excessive self-awareness. Joanna tells a story of how Zoe recently fell off the jetty down from the house, hitting the frigid Shetland water in her normal clothes, before swimming back to shore as if nothing had happened. When we have an impromptu little game of football, with Zander playing in goal, Zoe’s tackling has more than a hint of the Vinnie Jones about it.
Joanna says the family are outside all year, it’s just that the kids wear survival suits in the winter instead of the shorts they put on in the summer. Their recent hobby is paddle-boarding, with Joanna and David popping a kid on the front of each board as they paddle across the sound. During the school week, the level of activity sounds intense: football club, swimming club, after-school youth club. There are treasure hunts, lots of bike rides and runs across the hills. “They’re like feral kids,” says Joanna, before stopping herself: “Wait, can I say that?”
After moving to Shetland from London in 2010, David quickly became part of the community. “As soon as we moved in, people were knocking on the door, saying: come and join this committee, or come and help at this event,” says Joanna (David’s at work). “He got sucked in quite quickly. People here are very welcoming, and it’s easy to find a social circle.” The day after we meet, Joanna is due to take part in the Relay for Life, an all-night walk round the athletics track at the high school in Lerwick, for Cancer Research, which she’s also helped organise.
As well as community life, there’s also just the simple fact of being surrounded by so much pure, unadulterated nature. “The clarity of light in Shetland is amazing,” says Joanna. “I don’t think you get the same colours anywhere else. I have the camera out a lot, taking photos of flowers, the heather, the sea, the seaweed, the animals, and using that for colours in my designs. It’s really inspiring.”
Her work life, too, seems pretty relaxed and balanced. “I can’t be doing with stress or aggravation,” she says. “There has been the odd morning that I’ve been late to work because I’ve had to stop and watch an otter floating on its back, eating a fish, or stopped to see a pod of killer whales going past. Or you walk down to the shop, get in the studio and you can see the killer whales in the harbour. So you have to put a ‘back in five minutes’ sign on the door and all the staff go to have a look. There’s no stress, I think, in my career or life here. It’s brilliant.”
After forcing Joanna to don a survival suit for a paddleboard session in front of our cameras, we leave her at the doorway, enjoying a glass of Prosecco with a friend visiting from the Scottish Mainland. Zander and Zoe run after us to the car, with Zoe filling our pockets with straw and kicking our shins playfully. By the time we’re heading down the driveway, the kids are bouncing on their trampoline. All is as it should be in Burra.
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