Monday, July 17, 2017

Whalsay for Fair Isle knitting

I was cross with myself when I came back from Shetland last year for missing what everyone said was a brilliant exhibition on the island of Whalsay documenting Fair Isle Knitting through the decades In the heritage centre. Luckily it was so popular that the heritage centre decided to extend it for another year, and publish a small book about it.

I'd never been to Whalsay before, so there was all the fun of working out where the ferry went from, when the heritage centre would be open (4 afternoons a week for 3 hours) and then making sense of the ferry timetable. Whalsay also has a restored Hanseatic böd (the poet Hugh MacDiarmid lived on the island for a while too) on the shore not far from where the ferry docks, or the heritage centre - convenient.

Our first stop was the Böd. I knew the Hansa had been active in Shetland, but I'd never really appreciated how active - a road behind Pier house was known as Bremen Strasse for many years - or how influential they must have been. I didn't know there had been so much piracy in and around the islands either, so it was all thoroughly exciting.

I was so excited by the actual knitwear that I forgot to check if the heritage centre is run by volenteers (I think it is) or to ask how they came by their collection. I have the feeling that many pieces might only have been lent. All of them had family histories attached.

My interest in traditional Shetland knitting has been growing for years, not because the style is particularly unique - photographs from Eastonia showing very similar designs, and the appropriation of Norwegian stars into post war designs alone show that ideas and motifs have been exchanged and refined for a very long time. To me these kind of international links are one of the things that make it so interesting. What is unique are the design decisions made by individual knitters, and the more of these pieces I see, the clearer it is that this is art as well as craft.

The great thing about the Whalsay exhibition is that it's full of things that were knitted for family members rather than for sale. They're made from the yarn that was available to buy, so most of the jumpers from the 1920's and 1930's here are actually knitted in Rayon (they're quite slinky, and all for men who must have looked utterly splendid in them) which is probably one reason they've survived as well as they have (do moths like rayon as much as they like Wool?). They don't look anything like the golfing jumpers the Prince of Wales made so popular, but they are stunning.

These patterns often weren't written down, although later on girls definatley collected motifs from their friends, and the complexity of them is something to behold, as is the constant evolution of style in line with changing fashions. I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough to anyone who will be in Shetland this summer. There's so much information to take in, the ladies in the heritage centre are brilliant with so much knowledge to share, and it's beautiful knitwear.


  1. What GORGEOUS sweaters and vests! You mention a brochure -- did you purchase one? Can you suggest how I might obtain one?

    Rayon is actually made from wood (I think) and I thought that it got popular during WWII -- will have to do some research. I would think that moths would wolf it down -- on the other hand why does a fleece on the sheep not get eaten by moths? I'll have to puzzle that all out!.

    Thanks -- the sweaters are spectacular.

  2. I'm not sure that fleece in sheep doesn't get eaten by moths, or at least the bits of fleece that come off sheep and hang around on fences or bits of heather. It's just that you only notice them when they're eating something in your home (my home certainly, I have a moth problem, god knows where they came from but they're a bloody nuisance).

  3. Rayon is cellulose, from plants, trees and grasses. I doubt that the Carpet Moth would enjoy trying to survive on it.

    Those rayon pieces look gorgeous, the drape, in particular.

  4. They were spectacular, and this men would have looked super slinky in them.