Thursday, July 20, 2017

Whalsay Fair Isle Knitting Through The Decades - The Book

I've spent a lovely day off with my yarn (all sorted and catalogued, now just waiting to become things). It should go into draws or boxes for the duration, but I'm unwilling to take it off the floor at the moment, partly because I like the unexpected colour combinations I find moving it around.

That's sort of relevant because the great thing about the Whalsay Fair Isle exhibition was the unexpected colours. It's hard to describe just how unexpected it was, especially for the older garments, but handily there is now a book (currently the only place I've found it for sale online is here  on Jamieson and Smith's website). It's a short booklet, only 56 pages, and doesn't contain everything in the exhibition (or have any patterns in it) but it's well worth the £12 it costs.

In her comment on yesterday's post Ginny Jones (very helpfully) put up the link to Kate Davies post about this exhibition (Here) which is worth reading because it's excellent, and as a bonus has pictures of some garments that I don't think were in this years show (though I could be wrong about that, it's surprising how different textiles can look on camera compared to life). It all reinforces my excitement about what I saw on Whalsay.

'Fair Isle' has become something of a catch all term, and though I've heard there are people on Fair Isle itself who find it a bit annoying and hold that only Fairisles from Fair Isle are the real deal, it's never much bothered me before. After Whalsay it does, because my understanding of Shetland knitting has changed. Until now I was familiar with what I suppose are best described as stereotypical garments in either natural sheep shades, or in the reds, blues, and yellows produced by natural dyes. There are several very beautiful examples in the museum collection. They're combinations that remain popular and are familiar from dozens of period dramas.

In my innocence I thought that this was more or less representative of the work being produced across Shetland both for sale, and to wear, especially in the 1920's and 30's, even though theoretically I knew about the range of chemical dyes available, that Wool by this time generally went south to be processed before coming back as yarn, and that women were buying yarn rather than spinning it themselves as a matter of course. I hadn't thought about interlocking patterns at all, associating them more with Scandinavian design and assuming that they appeared later - I was wrong. Whalsay clearly had its own style distinct from 'Fair Isle', it deserves its own fame. The next question is how many other distinct reagional variations are there?

There are a couple of things I'm taking from this, the first being that there needs to be a much bigger, dedicated, exhibition space in Shetland that really tells the story of the islands knitwear, and that explores local differences (or schools of patterns, motifs, and colours). The existing museums do an excellent job with the space they have available but it's nowhere near enough. There's some terrifically exciting stuff here that arguably functions as art (as well as craft and fashion) and it deserves to be properly assessed and celebrated.

Secondly there desperately needs to be an accesable catalogue, either digital or in a book, that comprehensively records not just the official museum collection, but also the pieces held by various local heritage centres, and in private hands - if people can be persuaded to share. There's a tremendous history of creativity here - something that's really great about the 'Whalsay' book is that the knitters and often the wearers of these garments are known - and it should be shouted from the rooftops.

Meanwhile this is the book we have, and it's not to be sniffed at. Page 53, showing a collection of contemporary yoke jumpers knitted by girls as young as 10 (they're amazing) shows that this incredible tradition of creativity is alive and well.


  1. How interesting. Maybe you should contact the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have a dept of costume. They may be able to hold an exhibition which gives this folk art the gravitas it deserves, and which should be collated whilst there are still many examples around.

  2. thats an interesting thought. The history of textiles in Shetland is an interesting one, not least because the nature of the objects means they're so likely to be lost with time (worn out, moth eaten, discarded) so theirs relatively little known about the origins of certain styles - such as Fair Isle. Latterly it's also the depressingly under told story of women and their domestic lives. I really want to see any serious exhibition in it's home context and really celebrating the makers as much as the things they made.