Researching a book can be more exciting than writing it. The people, cups of tea and home-bakes, and the very special pieces of knitting I was shown helped in this task. Descriptions and photographs will never recreate the charm of seeing and handling a rare shawl or allover and hearing first-hand of its creation and the special details that make it totally unique.
Much of the old knitwear has left the isles, for the folk had to sell their work. The smart allovers seen today show the affluence of the islanders, who in former times sold their 'makkin' or more often exchanged it for food at the local merchants.
At the turn of the century the upper classes could well afford Shetland's products and this market was catered for by John White and Company's Shetland House situated at 30 Frederick Street, Edinburgh. Their mail order catalogue of 1908 was lent to me by an Unst lady. This old book fascinated me and I hope by describing its contents you too will be amazed at the wondrous array of garments worn by our forebears.
The cover shows a sketch of a Shetland 'wife' dressed in a striped 'cot' (skirt) with a 'hap' (shawl) over her head, busily knitting on her three 'wires' as she carries a 'kishie of peats' from the peatbank to the stack at her croft. Time was too precious to allow for idle hands.
The catalogue's fifty pages contain not only photographs and descriptions of the goods for sale but details of Shetland life and traditions. There are two colour plates and Willie's engraving, 1755, of the painting La Devideuse by Gerard Douw, which refers to the Shetland spinners who still used a wooden winder of the same shape for dividing wool into skeins. Even the chapter endings had small detailed engravings showing spinning wheels, kishies, and colly lamps made from conch shells.
Although the garments knitted today differ in style from those illustrated, the lace patterns are often the same — the puzzle, the spider's web, the shell, cat's paw and the print o' the wave. With improved building techniques and central heating we do not wear as many layers of clothing and certainly no one of my acquaintance has recently bought a cholera belt.
Shetland wool is described as soft, light and warm, and comes from the native sheep, a hardy breed, peculiar to the isles. They subsist on the sparse vegetation and seaweed. The fine wool is 'rooed' from the sheep, then cleaned, carded and spun. By 1908 most wool was spun on power looms at mills on the Scottish Mainland, although the very fine lace yarn was still spun by hand.
The natural colours — still the most popular — are a creamy white, dark brown known as Shetland black, shaela a greyish brown and, rarest of all, murat (moorit) a soft donkey brown. Shetland grey was a blend of brown and white.
Shetland spinner. Winding hanks.
Shetland spinner. Winding hanks.
Shawls, so delicate and gossamer-like that they could be drawn through a wedding ring, were sold as evening wear, while haps, a warmer and thicker variation were used as baby shawls or for bedroom wear. Famous sanitoria used Shetland shawls as bedcovers because of their lightness and warmth. Knitters' styles, patterns and qualities varied and so did prices, with a one yard square shawl costing between 3s 6d and 7s 6d, and a two and a half yard square shawl costing from 35s to 50s. Black shawls, for fashion or mourning, cost an extra 2s. Thicker haps, often with a shaded, wavy shell border, cost from 28s to 38s for a two and a half yard square. Today similar shawls in Edinburgh cost upwards of £35. A lace headsquare 20" by 36", cost 3s 6d to 10s and the finest lace shawls, weighing a mere two ounces were priced from £3 to £20.
Crepe shawls, marvellous specimens of knitting, in the same quality of wool as the very fine lace shawls but in a plain knit pattern, were also on offer. Their very plainness tested the knitter, since each fine stitch had to be correct to achieve overall evenness of texture. Motoring scarves and neckties cost 8s to 40s, the lacier the dearer. Clouds, long scarves knitted in garter stitch and gathered and tassled at either end, were yet another fashion. Circular and square veils were also sold in this department, although the illustration is of a semi-circular veil knitted in the bird's eye pattern.
Precise measurements were requested by the underwear department, but, should this not be possible, details of the wearer's height and whether they be stout or slender are requested. Vests, socks, drawers, gloves, belts and spencers in summer and winter weights were available for babies, children, men and women. There was a large choice in each category.
Waistcoats, machine knitted in double thread, were offered as a motoring speciality. Even knee-cap warmers came in two styles. Vests and undervests, special caps to be worn beneath more fashionable bonnets were all sold to keep winter's chill at bay.
Children could be wrapped in abdominal and cholera belts and overalls, which were long drawers and booties in one.
Spencers came with high or low necks, with or without sleeves, waisted or not. This garment was worn over a waistcoat or for evening wear as an undervest. Being light, usually four to nine ounces, its small space made it specially useful under uniforms. The porous and elastic qualities of Shetland wool helps garments adapt to the shape of the wearer. In the late 1970s coloured spencers in jumper yarn were sold by Shetland firms as fashion garments.
Fair Isle goods received a special chapter. Caps, cowls, cravats, socks and gloves, priced from 3s in 'quaint moorish patterns which were brought out in dark Indian red, buttercup yellow, blue indigo and seal brown with very rich effects'. Mention is made of the flagship of the Spanish Armada which, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was driven
ashore on Fair Isle in 1588. The Spanish seamen were said to have taught the islanders the art of natural dying using local plants.
Scotch woollen goods were also on offer and one could purchase a Greenlander or Icelander cap, a Tarn o' Shanter and even rabbit wool gloves.
Various styles of socks and stockings, special gout stockings and footless stockings — leggings worn with knickerbockers — were offered to the fashionable gent. At a charge of 9d extra, double toes and heels could be added. Gloves, too, came in many guises. Wrist warmers, gauntlets and bag gloves, with separated thumbs suitable for shooting. A special hole for the trigger finger to pop out could be made at no extra charge.
A man is pictured in a cowl and cravat, illustrating the adaptable knitted sausage that could be wrapped round your neck or pulled onto your head to make a snug cap.
I shall pass over the chapters on tweed or claith, blankets and rugs. Interesting as they are they have little bearing on the main purpose of this book.
The Edwardian patrons of this establishment were requested to order by letter or telegram, and orders over 10s were sent post free in Britain and Ireland. When returning goods, however, there was a request that a separate letter be sent in advance. Customer files were kept detailing
Footless stockings. Cowl and crauat.
Footless stockings. Cowl and crauat.
previous orders and noting temporary or summer addresses. New customers had to send cash with order.
Scotch and Shetland spinning wheels were available for £3 and 36s respectively, while a Shetland spinney cost only 30s. Reels, winders, carding combs as well as old wheels and a repair service were available.
Once the carded wool, at 7s 6d a pound, was spun it could be knitted on steel wires at Id for four or Vulcanite needles at 6d a pair. Steel wires are still preferred by many Shetland women and adverts appear in local shop windows and the local paper announcing their arrival. Knitting patterns were sent post free or you could delve into a book by Patons of Knitting and Crochet Receipts by Mrs Scrivenor, with over a hundred illustrations at a cost of Is.
Savings could be made by ordering from the cheap goods department.
Good customer relations must have been a priority, for a large setion on washing and aftercare of garments comes at the end of the catalogue. Underclothing should be washed in two or three ounces of good, plain yellow soap boiled down in a little water. In areas of hard water washing soda may be added. Several rinses and no rubbing is recommended, and garments should be dried flat, preferably weighted on top. To finish off, the garment should be ironed under a sheet of calico and finally aired in front of a slow fire, as too fierce a heat could mean shrinkage.
Customers were begged, in capital letters, to send fine lace work to the experts. The cleaning and dressing department guaranteed no shrinkage and quick service. Wednesday was washing day, so no garment took longer than eight days to be returned. This service was fairly cheap with V/2d for a pair of socks to 2s for a shawl. Ten days was all it took for last year's white shawl to be dyed wine, black or scarlet and at only 2s 6d this seems a bargain. White garments were treated with sulphur fumes to whiten and disinfect them. Many knitters and shops in Shetland today still wash and repair shawls and allovers for customers.
Would that today's mail order catalogues were half as interesting. Many folk must have had pleasure and comfort from their purchases. Until recently a similar establishment stood only a street away from this original store.
Spencers, shawls and lace are still knitted and sold but today's knitwear is represented more by patterned garments. Fair Isle is used to describe most of this work but such patterns are knitted throughout the Shetland Isles. The following chapters describe and illustrate the rich history of knitwear and traditions of the knitters of Shetland.
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