Sunday, September 3, 2017

Heirloom Knitting - Sharon Miller

One of the great joys of blogging (and life generally, I cannot over sell how exciting this is) is that occasionally a highly coveted book will fall through your letterbox completely unexpectedly. Sharon Miller’s updated and enlarged new edition of ‘Heirloom Knitting A Shetland Lace and Pattern Workbook’ delivered that moment in spades.

It was even more exciting because I didn't even know it was being reprinted, and had become resigned to never seeing this seminal work. I first heard about it watching back the 'Authenticity in Culturally-Based Knitting' conference held at the Shetland Museum early last year (and if that sounds dry, it really wasn't - if it's still available to watch it's time well spent). It was the tremendously talented jeweller, Helen Robertson  saying what a game changer this book was that got my interest, but at the time it was out of print, and second hand copies were prohibitively expensive.

My interest in Knitting, especially Shetland knitting, is partly driven by its links to women's history and creativity (though it was by no means an exclusively female occupation, there are documented cases of men who were unable to earn money in any other way also turning to knitting to contribute to household finances). In many ways it's an undertold story, but the more I read and discover the more interesting it becomes.

Long story short, the best, most accomplished, Shetland lace is stunning stuff, and as a knitter I find there's something addictive about the process of creating even the most basic openwork pieces. And the reason I can create these basic pieces at all is largely thanks to the work that Sharon Miller did. Before Miller if traditional lace patterns were recorded at all it would have been in a string of barely comprehensible abbreviations (which may have been particular to individual knitters, and would have assumed a fairly advanced degree of proficiency). Women taught to knit by mothers and grandmothers from their earliest years rarely needed to write this stuff down.

What Miller did was come along, study the archive collection in Shetland, and then chart it. The basic techniques of increases via yarn overs, and decreases by knitting stitches together are not difficult (the refinements on the basics are another matter), and in chart form they're relatively easy to follow. It meant that knitters everywhere could have a go at this, including a generation of Shetland knitters who hadn't been taught how as a matter of course. More than that the documenting of fragile garments, or even recreating them from photographs is just generally a valuable exercise in preserving a record of the creativity of the original knitters.

That on its own would be more than enough, but this book does more than that. It records where the designs came from, who they're associated with, covers every aspect of how to knit them, how to dress them, how to preserve them, how to put motifs together, how to adapt and refine patterns . There's a collection of projects for every skill level and so much more.

Finally, one detail I really like is that all the illustrations of the individual stitch patterns are black and white, and look like they've been knitted in single ply Shetland cobweb yarn -


  1. Great review and thanks for the mention! xx

  2. It's an excellent book, the best one I've seen for illustrations of garments too, so I really feel like my understanding of Shetland lace has increased. I'm still thinking over the topics from the culturally based knitwear conference too, and looking at this book after hearing those talks is great. Who would have thought there was do much politics in Knitting!