Saturday, July 2, 2016

Shetland Textiles 800 BC To The Present - edited by Sarah Laurenson

I may be back in Leicester but I'm still immersed in Shetland textiles, it's a fascinating subject not least because textiles tell us so much about social history, and to get a good overview of both the actual textiles as well as that history there's no better place to start than 'Shetland Textiles 800 BC To The Present'.

It's a chunk of time to cover, especially in only 200 (lavishly illustrated) pages, so there are a few omissions - or more specifically one omission I'd like to have seen covered - but what's really remarkable is how much is covered, and how thoroughly.

The early chapters deal with the development of the Shetland sheep (with a handy identification chart of the colours and markings (there are 63 examples given), early weaving methods, and the beginnings of a documented textile trade in Shetland. They also underline the point that thanks to being a useful stop off point for trade around the North Sea and the Atlantic, Shetland has never been as isolated as its position on a map of Britain might suggest. Trade with the Dutch, the Germans, Norway - all (and more) have been significant, and have left their mark.

Trade and the truck system are arguably what's defined Shetland knitwear - the most famous textiles from the islands. Knitting was an economic necessity for many families, and something that children could do to contribute to the household finances as well. Knitting wasn't a leisure pursuit, and as such the demands of the market have made their mark. The truck system is more problematic, and thoroughly explored here.

In short it was the practice of merchants to pay women with goods rather than money. Unfortunately the goods exchanged on this credit often seem to have been priced at a higher rate than they would have been for cash, and just as often limited to fancy goods or things like tea or sweets, but not oil for lamps or flour for bread. The most shameful thing about this practice; that although long since banned it took the Second World War to finally irradicate it.

I find myself wondering what effect the memory of truck has had on a generation of Shetland knitters. Even when the system had finally died a death and knitters were paid cash for their work it wasn't necessarily well paid work, and this is the bit I feel is missing from the story. There's something of a gap between the 1950's and the present day. What might fill that gap would also fill another book (one I hope somebody will write) the positive part of the story is a handful of interesting and innovative designers working in Shetland, often incomers, who succesfully mixed new ideas with old. The other half of the story is why a generation of women seemed to have turned their backs on knitting.

Meanwhile I've not even mentioned the tweed industry and weaving yet. A once thriving trade is now reduced to a single mill (which produces some glorious fabric). It's probably enough to say that I share the hope expressed here that it makes more of a comeback...

There are also taatit rugs, I bought back another book devoted to the taatit rug so there will be more about these to come, but briefly they're something that may well be unique to Shetland. Originally warm and durable bed covers they often seem to have been wedding gifts and unlike the patterns and motifs in Fair Isle knitwear the patterns on the early rugs have definite meaning. They're relatively humble objects which give a very particular insight into the lives of those who owned them.

Which leaves the present day; there are so many people doing exciting textile based things in Shetland that again it would be possible to fill a much longer book than this with them, its an ongoing story and one that I find endlessly interesting.

As I work through the collection of (heavy) books I hauled back in my suitcase I hope I manage to organise my thoughts properly on this, on exactly why it seems so important as well exciting (it's partly because so much of it is a story of female creativity) but for now my iPad is protesting at the length of this post so I suppose I should wrap it up.


  1. Haha, 'wrap it up' - I see what you did there!

    This is an interesting post, I was unaware of those practises in Shetland - it sounds similar to the company shops in my Welsh mining areas.

    I look forward to your posts on the rugs, they sound very interesting. I Googled taatit rug and found the blog of Donna Smith, so there will be a lot more reading for me, thank you for that.

  2. Donna Smiths's blog is great and Ella Gordon is interesting too. I imagine a lot of communities suffered under similar systems, and whilst I'm sure there were many decent merchants who treated people fairly (or so I hope) there were clearly some total crooks too. What's depressing is that it took the Second World War to really end the system.