Imagine a giant cobweb and you are probably picturing nature's version of one of the beautiful, handspun Unst shawls. In this, the most northerly of Britain's isles, the women spun and knitted delicate lace and have become world famous for the quality of their work.
Although as an industry this died out during the First World War, when knitters turned their hands to producing gravets and body belts for the troops, it is continued today as a craft on a small scale, more for interest than profit. Mary Jane Peterson of Muness is the only remaining spinner of the very fine lace yarn and she has won many prizes for her work. A shawl knitted in her own spun yarn has recently been purchased by the Scottish Development Agency for inclusion in its Scottish Crafts Collection.
In former days most crofts had a spinning wheel; on this 'swara', the rough wool used to knit socks and workclothes for the family, was spun. The spinners of the fine lace yarn had a second wheel kept solely for the purpose of spinning lace weight wool. Generally the fine yarn was spun in the south of Unst and the lace knitting done in the north. The expression 'going to the shore' describes the walk to Uyeasound, in the south, to purchase yarn from the merchant who built his shop near the shore, since boats were the most common form of transport. The spinners sold their yarn to the shop and knitters purchased it from the merchant at prices varying from 3d per 100 threads for coarser lace, to 6d for very fine wool. Considering earnings at this time the fine yarn cost a great deal. Since all the yarn was not produced by one spinner knitters had to spend time comparing thickness and qualities before work commenced.
Apart from lace stoles, scarves and shawls the women knitted veils and triangular head scarves. Silk triangular veils, knitted with the eyelid pattern, were worn over the face and wrapped around a hat, and veils in fine black, white and moorit spun yarn could be folded and fitted into a matchbox. In the 1800s very fine silk thread was rolled in flour to help knitters see their work.
In recent years several brides have worn fine shawls as wedding veils, but on enquiring if this was an Unst fashion folk could only remember one bride veiled this way. Past trends show brides dressed in blue or white, and it was customary to wear your wedding dress at future weddings to bring luck. The best maid, however, wore a new outfit. We saw a fine stole in 2 ply handspun lace, knitted for a bride by her mother, and worn on her wedding day in March 1932 when the wedding procession walked from the kirk to the reception. The same lady showed us a shawl measuring l3A yards square weighing a mere 2>Vz ounces and a stole 72 inches by 26 inches weighing IV2 ounces. The fineness of this work enables even large shawls to be pulled through a wedding ring.
Today T. M. Hunter of Brora spin a fine 1 ply lace wool, but this is more similar in appearance and texture to fine cotton. The handspun yarn was delicate and soft, often finer than a strand of hair. Some folk recalled a commercial spinner, perhaps Munro, producing a very fine 2 ply yarn.
In the late fifties and early sixties classes in fine spinning were taught by a lady then in her seventies. Local women supplied their own wheels. The teacher received a letter from H. M. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, thanking her for keeping alive this traditional craft. At the age of 80 this same lady was still knitting and spinning work of a quality to again interest the Royal Family, when Princess Margaret purchased a scarf at the Royal Highland Show in Aberdeen.
A set of three lace doillies knitted in crochet cotton, as a wedding gift in 1920, and a tray cloth, made from No. 10 cotton, which the present owner had starched with cornflour, were part of a collection of lace that Barry Spence of Millburn had assembled for an exhibition of lace. She also had a beautiful nightdress bag which was unlined so the colour of the nightgown peeped through the lace holes. This was knitted in the e'ed lace. Many lace patterns appeared in variations and one knitter is said to have six different versions of the print and the wave, but the one that intrigued me most was 'the puzzle'. Merino yarn from Australia, was knitted into a stole by an old lady from Pediser and this too was in Barry's collection. It was much fluffier than Shetland lace wool.
In 1933 or '34 Mrs Ann Johnston of Seaview, Baltasound, won first prize in a Daily Mail competition. Her entry was an evening purse and shawl. Seven natural colours, from white through fawns to moorit, were knitted into the border and the branch or madeira patterns were used. The matching purse was lined with silk.
Another unusual shawl was called a spotted hap. Unfortunately at the time it was incomplete, the knitter making it from memory to sell at the local sale of work. These haps were originally knitted in grey or moorit with white. The spotted effect used in the centre of the hap was also knitted in children's socks, nightcaps and gloves. This was the first time I had seen this design.
Crochet, in the fine lace yarn, does not seem to have been popular. One schoolteacher, however, taught the girls in her class to make 'peerie bits o' lace to trim their unmentionables'.
Spun silk had at one time been knitted into stockings and we were told of a French lady who ordered lace jabots, which she fastened with a brooch at the neck of her costume. This was the second reference to French ladies, the other being the wife of a knitwear merchant in Lerwick at the turn of the century; one wonders if French style ever influenced the Shetland knitwear trade.
Spinning classes are still taught during the winter months. Local women, interested in the old skills, not only spin but many knit up the fine yarn into scarves and stoles. A Professor Drever of St Andrews collected musk wool off the craigs during a visit to the Arctic region of Canada and had it spun in Unst. The wool was similar in colour to 'shaella', a pinkish fawn. The same spinner also spun dog hair, of a mauvish shade, and the resulting yarn was made into a rug and presented to a university.
Although the fine lace work gave way to Fair Isle as the most common form of knitting, women continued to make lace scarves. During the Second World War, when the pension was only 10s, knitters could sell as many scarves as they could produce for the princely sum of 10s.
The older knitters said that Fair Isle knitting arrived in Unst around the time of the First World War, and a Mr Erland Sandison, who had tearooms at Baltasound, was spoken of by many as being in the forefront of this trade. A woman recalled her sister knitting the first Fair Isle garment for Mr Sandison, copying a sample and improving on it. It was a long sleeved V-neck allover, extra long in the body and patterned all over with red, gold, blue and wheat on a moorit background. He paid 12s for the garment and supplied the wool. He sold one-off designs as well, and most of his jumpers had bands of patterns, large and small designs alternating. His business lasted until the early 1940s.
In 1924 the first prize for the county was given to Edie, one of the Sutherland sisters, for a panelled Fair Isle jumper in white with blues and golds, which was purchased by Professor Jamieson of Edinburgh. This was one of the first panelled jumpers to be seen. A photo of Edie as a young girl shows her wearing a scoop neck jersey made on Fair Isle with a matching knee-length skirt, knitted in the kiltie-pleat — a stylish outfit in its day. Much mention was made of knitted skirts. Some were ribbed, others, especially childrens' ones, were knitted in the kiltie-pleat and a more recent design was a 3 ply skirt with shaped panels, one plain and the next in diagonal rib. This skirt had a jacket to match. Suits are always fashionable, and little girls wore skirts in one colour with a
Old allover and close up.
contrasting top trimmed in Fair Isle to match the skirt. Little boys, too, had knitted outfits. One lad, photographed around 1926, posed in knitted trousers and a Fair Isle border jersey. This small Fair Isle trim was referred to by his grandmother as a 'poverty strip'.
In the 1920s long plain jumpers with large sailor collars in brown or moorit edged in white were knitted and sold to a William Mouat. Yet another style, known as frocks, were made from two heads of jumpers yarn. They had a rib skirt, low waist, plain body and a V-neck. The waist and cuffs had a Fair Isle band as decoration. Mr Humphries of Uyeasound paid 15s a piece for these frocks. At this time scarves were very long and about 14 or 15 inches wide. Old photographs show ladies and gentlemen of the day fashionably attired thus on the golf course or on country weekends.
By the time the Second World War came fashions had changed, nevertheless the forces, stationed in the isles, bought a little, and demand always outweighed supply. A spencer normally cost 7s 6d, but a RAF man, stationed at Skaw, was paying 16s for them. Patterned spencers, with the print and wave over the breast and a shell edging were knitted on the island and sold to the more genteel clothing stores in London.
A Glasgow lady, who had best remain nameless, and who for her own reasons, — perhaps tax avoidance or something more intriguing — resided at ever-changing addresses, kept the Unst women busy knitting Fair Isle berets. She paid 7s 6d each and one lady supposedly knitted four berets a day, but I think she must have burned the midnight oil from time to time. Still this was good extra cash during the war years.
Hats in the past eighty years have changed with the whims of fashion. Knitted hats such as berets, pillboxes, skull caps, beanies, toories, bonnets and Sumburgh bonnets a great fashion of the early sixties similar to a Fair Isle baseball cap and worn by golfers and sportswomen have been made by the women of Shetland. Theodora Coutts of Lerwick, who was a well known knitwear designer produced a version of a deerstalker with Fair Isle patterns. Unst women talked of a style of hat, similar to a nightcap fastened at the side with a tassle which was worn by them to school in their youth. They also knitted large Fair Isle Tam o' Shanters with long tassles. Gladys Gjerde, one of the best knitters I have met, deserves a mention, especially for the crowns on her hats which are unique. Where most Shetland hats have a large star on the crown to incorporate the very intricate intaking that shapes the hat, she has diamonds and trees and twists — all beautifully blended to match the patterns used in the hat. Her tips on shading colours were to keep the background dark or medium dark and change colours where the pattern broadens out. On a seventeen row pattern colours used would be 3,3,2,1,2,3,3, with a centre row picked out in a sharp or contrasting colour like the stamen of a flower.
In 1963, with the twin aims of providing a better price for the knitter and a more interesting garment for the customer, June Owers, niece of the aforementioned Mr Sandison, set up her 'knittery' which ran successfully for the next seventeen years. She started Skerry Knitwear with one girl who had completed a knitting machine training course at Keith. Most of the garments were knitted in pieces and linked together.
Fully fashioned knitwear is not usually the norm in Shetland and only latterly did this firm produce seamfree garments. Most designs were based on yoked garments. Three depths of yokes were produced from 3 inch to a deep yoke of 9 inches. V-neck cardigans and fisher-ribs were also knitted with yoked designs. The Norwegian Star pattern was knitted on a bleached white background with no background shading, tones of the body colour were used instead of a contrasting shade in the star. A pattern, known as the pagoda, was often used in place of the trees which is the traditional pattern used to intake and shape the yoke between the stars. Occasionally a complex chain or an anchor pattern is used for this purpose. Another design had a panel of Fair Isle down the front of the jumper, often the Cunningsburgh pattern, or two small panels either side of the buttons on a mandarin collar lumber jacket. These panels should be knitted at a tighter tension so the knitting does not sag. The knitters were very involved in this business and each year new designs
were tried out and colour combinations changed, then added to an evergrowing repertoire of styles. Often ideas had to be rejected as too difficult or time-consuming, or because Shetland wool will not hold the shape of too complex a style.
Allover Fair Isle socks, to be worn with knickerbockers, were produced. The patterned cuff turned over a band of ribbing and the leg and top of the foot were also knitted in Fair Isle, the sole being 1X1 rib. Ribbed stockings with a Fair Isle cuff were knitted for the less flamboyant gent. Socks, knitted around Whiteness and Weisdale, in rather more feminine shades were worn by sporting ladies in the twenties and two pairs I own and a couple of pairs I have seen were knitted flat and sewn up on the inside. Socks with Fair Isle patterns were still knitted recently by an Unst lady and sold for skiing.
Various parts of Shetland had their own patterns, but today with the ease of travel, most patterns are knitted in most areas. A design known as the Whalsay pattern was used on a sweater for Sir Winston Churchill
and henceforth became known as the Churchill pattern.
A former fashion, perhaps due for revival, was a twinset with a Fair Isle trimmed cardigan worn over a short sleeved allover, the borders being a repeat of one of the patterns on the allover.
We were shown no silk knitwear with Fair Isle designs on Unst. This is one fashion of which there are few remaining garments. I saw a photograph of a 1920s flapper dress in silk with a Fair Isle bodice, and
a waistcoat knitted in wool with silk patterns on it. This garment was knitted for a Whalsay man and is still worn by his daughter.
Children, as elsewhere on the islands, were taught to knit at an early age. One lady recalled knitting her own stockings to hang up for Santa Claus at Old Christmas. Auld Yule which falls on the 6th of January and the Auld New Year a week later are still celebrated in parts of Shetland, indeed both old and new are celebrated in some places.
At Baltasound School in 1922 or '23 the teacher, a Mrs Hunter, had her pupils printing pattern books of Fair Isle designs, which were then sold. The blunt end of a matchstick was dipped in red, blue, green and black ink and dotted onto graph paper. These sound similar to the books produced by Mr Williamson of Lerwick.
White wool today can be bought bleached or unbleached and 'Superwhite' or some similar product is often used to brighten up a garment that has yellowed with age or too much sunlight. Until the early sixties, however, people still used brimstone to whiten garments and yarn. The item was first washed twice and rinsed, then a smoking barrel was prepared. An iron pot or crock was used and a red hot peat coal was placed in the bottom. Two clean sticks were placed across the top and the garment hung over them. This was covered with a clean sheet or towel and topped by a thick coat or blanket. Rock sulphur was added and the barrel closed. After four hours the garment was taken out, shaken, and the process repeated. One rinse in lukewarm water was given and a little 'blue' and small amount of starch, depending on the weight of the garment, was added. Shawls would be strung up beforehand so that they could be stretched out straight away to dry on a frame. When stretchers were not available the shawl would be pinned out over a clean white sheet on the grass to dry. Stretching or 'dressing' a garment is most important and special boards are used to dry berets, scarves, jumpers, socks, spencers, gloves and mitts. Berets are dried on dinner plates and hats shaped over pudding basins. The stretching of lace is very important as this gives the knitting the gossamer appearance.
What else do these enterprising knitters of the north make? We saw borders of ducks, silhouetted swallows and even a yoke of roses. The most unusual lace item we saw was definitely a pair of lace curtains — and large curtains at that — knitted in 'Oh So Silky' yarn to a pattern that had appeared in a woman's magazine.
At the 1949 exhibition at Alexandra Palace, London, Unst women demonstrated fine lace spinning and knitting, both Fair Isle and lace. Women from Shetland go all over the world demonstrating their craft at trade shows and in store promotions. Let us hope that for many more years they have a craft left to represent.
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