In his essay 'Random Memories — The Coast of Fife' Robert Louis Stevenson describes Fair Isle thus: "Halfway between Orkney and Shetland, there lies a certain isle, on one hand the Atlantic, on the other the North Sea bombard its pillard cliffs; sore-eyed, short-living, inbred fishers and their families herd in few huts; in the graveyard pieces of wreckwood stand for monuments; there is nowhere a more inhospitable spot. Belle-isle-en-Mer — Fair Isle at Sea — that is a name that always runs in my mind's ear like music, but the only fair isle on which I ever set foot, was this unhomely rugged turret top of submarine sierras.'
He goes on to tell of the El Gran Griffin, flagship of the Spanish Armada, whose sailors were harboured for long months by the islanders. He notes that the folk of the northern isles are all 'great artificers of knitting', but only the Fair Islanders dye their fabric in the Spanish manner. Mention was also made that decorated, knitted gloves and night caps were sold on Fair Isle in the catechist's house.
Today we cannot better Stevenson's somewhat dramatic description on the geography of Fair Isle, but perhaps 'the island of sheep' from the Norse describes more accurately this isolated isle. The folk are busy, prosperous and kindly. It is remote but one could not describe the life as dull, — perhaps a bit idyllic, although that may also be its attraction. Of the inhabitants, few are Shetlanders far less true Fair Islanders. The mixture seems to work, incomers bringing skills and talents to help the island's economy.
An air service tempts visitors to this bird-watcher's paradise and offers the locals an alternative to the ferry boat, at present the Good Shepherd IV, which crosses the Roost in all weathers taking cargo, livestock and passengers to the Shetland Mainland.
For over 400 years the islanders have knitted, and travellers tell of knitted gloves and stockings in variegated colours being sold to visitors or used for barter.
In the last twenty years of the 1800s the women started to knit allover patterned jerseys and trade was good until after World War I when fashions changed. To help the declining industry the Shetland Wool Board asked the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) to wear a Fair Isle jumper and this he did. It should be stressed, however, that his garment was knitted on the Shetland Mainland and not in Fair Isle, but nevertheless a fashion trend was established.
Hand-spinning died out during the first world war, and after 1920 more jumpers were knitted in natural colours with patterns spaced farther apart. Between the wars most work was sent to shops in Lerwick or Orkney and there exchanged for goods. The truck system, abolished in the last century, was still practised in the islands and, if money was requested, only 8d or 9d in the shilling was offered. The Second World
War brought orders from the forces for small items, but demand outweighed supply.
Genuine Fair Isle knitwear carried a special trade mark. Knitters, aged 17 or over, could present work to a committee of three isleswomen who judged the quality of the garment. If suitable, a woven label was sewn onto the garment by machine. This point is curious; to qualify for the trademark every part of the garment had to be handknitted, yet the row of obvious white machine stitching at the back neck of the jersey did mislook it. This trade mark no longer exists, although the Shetland Island's Council have recently introduced a trademark to indentify genuine Shetland knitwear.
Natural dying is a complicated and sometimes unpredictable business. Books have been written about the various plants and techniques used to achieve the soft, yet intense colours quite different to those given by manufactured dyes. In late summer and early autumn the islanders gathered the ripened plants and prepared to dye the year's wool supply. Hanks of unbleached white wool were used with alum as a mordant (colour fixative). The local plants and mosses give various shades of yellow, brown and orange; indigo was bought to give blue and madder for red. Green yarn required to be dyed first yellow, possibly using a local plant called blocks (marsh marigold) and then dyed blue.
Shetland trade mark.
Old 9°rl awvwy
Because of the extra work involved green was not commonly used. Today, like spinning, natural dying is practised for interest but it is many years since naturally dyed garments were sold commercially. More information on Shetland dying recipes is available in Ursula Venables' 'Life in Shetland' and in 'A Shetland Dye Book' by Jenni Simmons.
The Fair Isle Bird Observatory has a small display of old Fair Isle knitwear and, pinned to the beams of the dining-room are long two colour samplers of Fair Isle and Shetland patterns knitted by Perry Barnes in the 1960s.
Anne Sinclair of Busta showed me three pieces of old Fair Isle knitwear. A child's scarf, bought in Orkney, possibly at Rendall's Shop, about 60 years ago, was knitted in hap weight wool using a very tight tension — 25V2 loops (stitches) and 23 rows to two inches. Wires used were size 124 and the wool was home dyed on a white background. Both ends of the scarf were open with short thin tassles knotted all around.
The second piece was a man's dark fawn V-neck allover. The V-neck on this sweater and also on a more recent sleeveless slipover by Agnes Stout were unlike any I have seen elsewhere.
The final piece, a hat around 100 years old known as a 'haaf cap', and similar in shape to a nightcap was worn by fishermen. In the Lerwick Museum there is a double thickness reversible haaf cap, the fancy pattern being worn ashore and the simpler side worn at sea. Anne, a folk singer, tells that fishermen were identified by the haaf caps on the bodies washed ashore after a fishing disaster.
The wool used for the old knitwear was much thinner than is used
today. Most Shetland jumpers, hats and gloves are knitted in two ply Shetland wool which is similar in weight to four ply wool from general wool shops. Shetland three ply is similar to double knitting and lace yarn is like a normal two ply. Machine spun one ply wool, which only comes in white is about the thickness of sewing cotton.
On the Mainland I was told that the traditional patterns and their position on a garment were symbolic; but the islanders shook their heads at yet another myth. Some patterns had names — Ram's Horns, Creepy Legs (a creepy is a small stool), Armada Closs — but many have several common names, and others are referred to by the name of the knitter who passed it on — 'Mrs Robertson's Star' for example. The older handknitters still keep many patterns 'in their heads' but graph books of patterns are kept for reference. Border patterns are referred to as 'grunds' and larger patterns as 'flo'ers'. A fivey flo'er is pattern set on fives. No one knows the origins of the patterns and they are accepted as traditional, but anyone with an eye for design must note the similarity with patterns from Turkey and the East. The gift of a kaleidoscope, at the turn of the century, again added variations. All genuine Fair Isle patterns are banded around garments whereas elsewhere in Shetland vertical panels or a continuous overall design are knitted.
An Unst minister, visiting Fair Isle in the early part of the century, bought patterned jumpers to take back for the women of Unst to copy. Patterns went to the Ness (south Mainland) in the same way, and thus the patterns moved round Shetland.
Today handknitters on Fair Isle are few, but April 7th, 1980 saw
Old piece of knitwear as memory aid.
Old piece of knitwear as memory aid.
the birth of Fair Isle Crafts — a knitting co-operative — backed by both the Shetland Islands Council and the Highlands and Islands Development Board. There are 12 members including two husband and wife teams, and most are aged 25-40 with young families. All the work is carried out in the member's homes using Knitmaster punch card machines capable of two colour knitting. Some members knit, others hand finish the garments, dress and dispatch them, or attend to the paper work. The co-operative aims to encourage knitters to express individuality in their work, new ideas and colour schemes are welcomed and although the range is limited it covers jumpers, slipovers, hats, scarves, legwarmers and samplers. Summer visitors can attend a weekly workshop where a knitter and finisher demonstrate and answer questions. Finished work and sample swatches are on display and orders taken. Handknitters may be visited at home where unusual and attractive souvenirs, such as tea-cosies with Fair Isle knitted into them or egg-cosies decorated with 'peerie patterns', can be bought reasonably cheaply.
Prince Phillip and the late King Olaf of Norway were presented with handknitted allovers made by Annie Thomson of the Post Office during their visit to Shetland in May 1981.
Ann Prior who was cooking for the summer season at the Bird Observatory when I stayed there, had spun thick yarn from local fleeces, and knitted this, using the bolder Fair Isle patterns, into unusual chunky sweaters. Most local knitters were keen to try out new ideas and we saw several fine landscape sweaters depicting local views.
The National Trust for Scotland own Fair Isle and have reproduced the patterns on a range of tin ware. The islanders produce stoneware mugs with Fair Isle transfers and the Shetland Workshop Gallery in Lerwick published cards depicting Fair Isle patterns. Other commercial firms use the motifs on various goods and perhaps the ideas could be expanded by non-knitting craftsmen on Fair Isle.
A Fair Isle jumper, like an Arran sweater or a Guernsey, is a classic, and the part-time knitters of the island have a limited production so there will never be a glut of genuine Fair Isle jumpers. The mass-produced copies, by the Scottish mills and the imported Fair Isles from Taiwan, although cheap, will never appeal to the purist who not only purchases a sweater but the tradition and history of many years.
An"e Prior s 'hick knit.
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