Sunday, September 19, 2010


I was catching up with my father earlier today and he gently hinted that I might like to do another Shetland post (okay, gave strict instructions to that effect) I guess all the books have got dull for him, but as it happens there’s a post I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while – books with a Shetland connection, or perhaps it’s Shetland with a book connection.

One of the many things that take me back time after time (apart from the promise of lobster and whisky) is the sheer amount of creativity that the islands seem to encourage. I get struck with a desire to paint – something which I entirely lack the discipline to do well (glossing over the need for talent, but never mind that), but which I enjoy immensely if I can find a sheltered spot in conjunction with a view. The view is the easy bit.

I also begin to regret that I’ve forgotten how to knit; it was a part of our education (I believe funding has just been cut for teaching knitting in schools and I can’t help but feel this is little short of criminal). My mother has a pair of Fair Isle mittens (prone to making her slightly misty eyed) to prove I wasn’t entirely inept, but I was left standing by girls for whom knitting was very much in the blood.

This sort of brings me in a very roundabout way to Mary Fraser–who knits, paints, cooks, and does the most incredible embroideries. (all my efforts to persuade my father and stepmother that as they have two they have one spare have been in vain) I don’t have a photo and can’t describe them in a way which could do them justice – but take my word for it, they’re incredible. She also does some pretty nifty Fair Isle bunting, binds books in the traditional medieval way – again in Fair Isle, but also in hand marbled paper (bookish connection number 1) and has illustrated two children’s books (bookish connection number 2), all in all an quite a list of talents – and one I suspect only scratches the surface of what she can turn her hand to.

Sadly It seems the children’s books are only available in Shetland, which is a shame – most the text is in dialect broad enough to possibly confound the untutored southerner (although the blonde had no trouble with it) but I like both the pictures and the story (by Valerie Watt) so my young godson will be getting copies when the time is ripe and I think he’ll love them too.

Of all things though it’s the Fair Isle bits and bobs I seem to have coveted and gathered the most of. George Mackay Brown wrote that ‘Mary is made for merriment’ when he met her on a Shetland visit (in ‘Northern Lights, a Poet’s sources’ no less – bookish connection number 3) it’s an apt description. Fair Isle is a potent symbol of Shetland (the museum uniforms include woolly jumpers) as an expat I feel a little moment of warmth whenever I see it, even when it’s the product of China. My woolly notebook contains whisky notes, which is probably an excess of Scottishness, even if it is something I take very seriously, but the bunting just makes me happy. I have a weak spot for bunting anyway but much as I like the floral chintzy versions they’re not really me. The knitted versions is just as whimsical but with a bit of muscle to it and I love the sense of humour behind it as well as the personal touch; this is a true cottage industry and makes me think I should have tried harder in knitting class (which my report card might have mentioned at the time...)

Mary Fraser - Shetland Bookbinders have a look here


  1. That bunting is seriously funky!

  2. The bunting is great, but only for inside use, doesn't bear thinking about it getting wet!!

    The book covers really are amazing.

    I love knitting, but haven't done any for ages, I used to be good with Aaron and Cable, but Fair Isle always defeated me. I think it's something you need to learn at your mother's knee.

    Was talking with someone who knits up carrier bags into purses and small bags. They really are amazing and very funky looking, they should get together!!

  3. The back of the bunting is all lovely multi coloured felt as well, but yes to inside use I think. I remember fair isle being quite easy with the help of an exceptionally talanted teacher... Not sure how it would be if I tried now, I have abiding memories of old ladies with these terrifying knitting belts - like big leather pincushions with holes in for sticking spare knitting needles whilst they worked.

    Verity, you would love the little heart shaped baby bunting - I'm waiting to see bookbinding in your domestic arts quest.

  4. I've read quite a bit about the history of Shetland knitting and it's quite incredible, both in terms of the designs and the ways in which knitting demand changed the island. It's such a shame that funding has been cut. I would have loved to learn knitting as a child.

  5. It's a terrible thing that funding has been cut, I can't begin to tell you how wrong I think it is! For me growing up in Shetland was an amazing experience, not least because you really felt like you belonged to the place and that it was something to be proud of. We were I think very aware of the islands history, culture, and general uniqueness. Learning to knit was encouraged, as was playing the fiddle (for children with some talent in that direction - not me!). If you take away those sort of things you risk losing a lot more than the ability to knit some slightly wonky mittens.

  6. I LOVE your fairisle bunting!!

  7. The bunting is amazing :)I love it too.