Friday, November 5, 2021

A Shetland Pattern Book - Mary Smith and Maggie Twatt

The nicest thing by far that's happened this week was when someone called Elizabeth emailed me to say she was having a clear-out and had found a copy of 'A Shetland Pattern Book' she didn't want and would I like it. Would I! I've wanted a copy of this for an age now and I'm so grateful to Elizabeth for sending it, it even turned up on Fair Isle Friday to make it extra special. 

If I could choose one book for the Shetland Times - or indeed anybody else who can manage it, to bring back into print this would be it. There are other pattern books that offer more patterns, colour combinations, knitting know-how, all sorts of things but this one does a couple of things particularly well. 

Mary Smith comes from a Shetland family, was bought up in Ayrshire and returned to Shetland with her husband where they ran a knitwear business (I'm judging a bit from the dates of initial publication, but probably in the 1960s, 70s and beyond). Maggie came from Caithness graduated from Edinburgh College of Art with a tapestry degree and married a Shetland man who was an art teacher. It's a good background for putting together a pattern book.

One of the things they mention in the introduction is the ubiquity of a personal pattern book in every house where women knitted - they were squared school graph books, and I had one at primary school for knitting classes (lost and regretted now). When I started knitting again I searched for something similar with a total lack of success - I have a swanky Moleskine version (although now the elastic has given up it's rather less swanky) with a slightly too large 5mm square, and could find 1mm graph paper, but the ideal is something between 2 and 3mm. Small enough to get plenty of design on a page, big enough to see easily.

The pages here are 2mm, my partner printed me 3mm sheets. The whole book is much the size and shape of the old exercise books and I'm wondering now how many of these survive. There's the obviously brilliant example of 'A Shetlander's Fair Isle Graph Book' that goes back to the 1930s that the guild of Spinner, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers published, and I've seen a decent collection of patterns loose in binders in the Whalsey Heritage Centre, but it would be great to see more. They would form an excellent and invaluable record of changing fashions in Fair Isle knitting, personal preferences, and a way to see how knitters communicated with each other or borrowed designs and motifs.

The other thing this book does really well is give the patterns space, so although the selection is relatively limited it's much easier to pick out what you want from it than some other books. This might seem like a small thing, but it makes a really big difference. 

I'm absolutely delighted to finally have my own copy and so grateful to Elizabeth for her kindness in sending this to me - it's really going to be appreciated.


  1. Very interesting post. As a 'wordy' person Maggie's surname literally means 'thatch' as in cottages. Thought you might like to know. is going down very well

    toodles, Marky.

    1. Hi Mark, thank you for that. Twatt is a common place name in Orkney and Shetland, perhaps linked to places good for growing the straw that would be used for thatch?