Dubied Bobins Antique Knitting Machine

Many Yell folk have taken advantage of the regular ferry service to cross the Sound and work on the Mainland, especially at the oil port of Sullom Voe. Those that remain continue to work in much the same way as their forebears — crofting, fishing and knitting.

Much of the island is moorland, the soil poor, and in the past crofters often delled ten acres by hand. The first plough on the island, one man recalled, did not appear until 1917. The coastline is more interesting and of course the sea has always played a big part in the Shetlanders' life. Many men earned their living by going away to sea — fishing, in the merchant service, or to the whaling in South Georgia.

Leaving the island, even for the summer months, meant that money could be earned to help the family income through the long hard winter, and so, many of the young lasses went to the herring gutting in Lerwick.

Antique Knitting Patterns
Yell man in sweater.
Bobby Tulloch Shetland
Bobby Tulloch.

Work was hard and the hours long, but the camaraderie of the fisher lasses is well known and the women looked forward to meeting friends from former years and re-establishing contact with women from Britain's other coastal areas. Although the gutters bound their fingers with bandages they suffered from sore hands caused by cuts, fish poison and the constant stinging salt, so this and the long hours left little time for handwork apart from mending. Ideas, however, were exchanged and orders for garments to be knitted during the winter were placed. Only if work was slack did their 'sock' appear. Remembering the lack of communications at the time, it must have been stimulating for the isleswomen to hear of the fads and fasions that were popular in the south.

One woman, born in Yell but now resident on the Mainland, said that her mother was one of the first in Yell to knit Fair Isle. She remembered the jumper vividly, it had diamond and cross patterns knitted all over in rust, navy, yellow and red. I asked if she had any pieces of her mother's work but she said they could not afford to keep work and only 'knitted to sell'.

The 1930s style for long Fair Isle trimmed jerseys with crew or V-necks had a Fair Isle border on the neck, cuffs and above the basque. Some had a row of holes knitted above the Fair Isle at the waist and a tassled cord was drawn through this and tied. These garments, which took V/2 to 2 days to knit by hand fetched between 4s 6d and 7s. 'Mind you the pound was a different piece o' paper in those days'. If the body was machine made the time taken was considerably less, but the price paid remained the same. Several Lerwick merchants were producing jumpers thus, and at the same time buying in hand knitted goods. The Shetland Trade Mark was then a Norse Galley, and this was indiscriminately placed by the merchants on all garments. Since the merchants were doing so well at this a Yell man decided to follow suit and purchased a second-hand Dubied knitting machine from Oswald Donner of Kilmarnock for £40. 'A lot o' folk could have cut my throat for it'. He said that many folk were against the introduction of machines believing that they would kill the Shetland knitwear trade.

Coned wool, like we know today, was not available; so wool was run over a household candle to wax it and then wound round a wooden spool.

After the Second World War the 'spivs', as the locals referred to the customs officers began to take an interest in the knitwear trade. The post-war labour government taxed Fair Isle on knitwear as fancy goods at 120%. Ankle hose, in many colours and sizes, with a Fair Isle cuff was affected by this tax. (To get all the gory details we had to switch off the tape recorder). These socks were a good money spinner, as six pairs could be knitted from a head of wool and 24 pairs a day made on a sock machine. Local women were paid half-a-crown to knit on the Fair Isle cuff and, when complete, the hose fetched 10s a pair. Special boards, made from thick ply or cut from old tea chests were used to dress the various sizes of socks. Cash was paid and no records kept.

Crofters often knitted to 'eke oot a living' and they also fished, if not to sell, to feed the family. The description of the Shetlander as 'a fisherman with a croft' used to be given to school children to compare with the Orcadian — 'a farmer with a boat'. Imagine a cold, wet morning, not yet light and the men off to the haddock. When they reach the sea they dip their hands in the sea water and rub hard to prevent the skin from blistering. Then they wring out their woollen gloves or mittens so that the wet salt soaked gloves kept their hands warm. These soaked gloves should end up looking 'as felted as an ox's lug'. At the hand line for profit the men shot four lines of 400 hooks on a trip and in good weather they went off twice a day.

Knitting was not taught in school. Girls learnt at home and one child remembered knitting her first spencer before she went to school, the proceeds from its sale enabled her mother to purchase her first school boots. That same child was knitting Fair Isle jumpers before she was ten and is today still producing beautiful garments. The schoolteacher did, however, turn a 'blind eye' when the exams were over if the girls brought in their knitting to do in their leisure time. This enabled them to finish the work and have a little extra cash over Christmas.

Today's school bairns are taught to knit from the age of five and early on they are taught to make a spencer — properly. It is good to see that the spencer is still considered useful today. Special boards, with hinged centres and straight arms, are used to dress spencers. In Fetlar and Yell people spoke of half boards with only one arm used to stretch spencers. You sewed the spencer double and pulled it on like a sock.

Machine Knitwear
Copy of socks as sweater. Unusual trimmed V-neck.

Until recently country shops sold special cotton spencer buttons which were soft like liberty bodice buttons.

Some old, rather moth-eaten knitwear was found a few years ago at Park Hall in Mid Yell. Among this were two pairs of rather interesting socks, one, with shaded diamonds and patterns in naturals with green and pink, had Fair Isle heels and on the turn-down cuffs the words FROM SHETLAND knitted. The other pair had stripey toes and heels with traditional patterns and colours. A jumper copying these designs and colours were knitted by Maggie Anne Nicholson of Burravoe. The collection of jumpers at Maggie Anne's house was vast and I found many

Variation on star and tree yoke.
Machine Knitted Graph Patterns

new ideas and patterns. She is an inventive lady copying designs from glass doors and the back of biscuit tins. Her raglan sleeves on allovers were neat and became a part of the design of the garment, quite different to the traditional set in sleeves. Her neighbour, at the time of my visit, was Elaine Buchanan.

Although not a Shetlander, Elaine had become interested in knitting and collecting patterns. She had knitted copies of two very old allovers, and in order to get the exact same shade of mustard for one dyed the

Mountain Scenes Isle Knitted PatternsDubied Knitting Machine Repair

Man wearing allouer.

  • i•.♦H
  • P.+.4>11«►:♦.<»> c

Old allouer patterns. Old allouer patterns.

Man wearing allouer.

Machine Knitting Patterns


Knitted Landscape Jumper

yarn with peat soot. She has trimmed baby clothes with Fair Isle and even her daughter's teddy sported a Fair Isle jumper. On square yokes she had knitted landscapes, depicting Shetland scenes and these were like a delicate water colour painting in wool. If not as skilled or adventurous as Elaine you can work out a design first using graph paper and colour pencils.

I was told of fashions over the years and the Eton collar seems to have been popular for ladies and children. One well known man, connected with the knitwear trade, said to a Yell woman that he remembered her mother — 'she was the one that did the perfect Eton Collar'. The Yell expression for squint is 'skeve as a reel', referring to the T-shaped piece of wood that wool was wound around to form hanks. Wool that was handspun was sold in hanks of 100 threads. Other notions 'don't have a sock crawin o'er Christmas' and if a person comes in 'wi' a good fit' (purposefully) when you are starting a garment means it will be quickly finished; my favourite superstition was that if you made a mistake on a jumper being knitted for a member of the family and you have to unravel it to fix the mistake then the wearer would live to wear the garment out. It was remarkable that you only worried about the family's jumpers. After all why unpick unnecessarily if knitting for profit. How different from the carpet makers of the east, who purposefully make a mistake, the Muslims believing that only the works of Allah are made truly perfect. The sums of Is 6d as payment for a spencer was 'laid in me low', meaning placed in my hand. I liked all these quotes and superstitions and the lxl Fair Isle was described as mice's teeth. These details are what makes Shetland knitting personal and individual.

Not only the past was spoken of. The factories of today supply many outworkers in Yell with work. Most folk believe that what they are paid today is not on a level with other trades and many prefer to work with the private orders from south and abroad, or for small firms where the middle man does not make most of the money. I did pick up a very good machine knitting tip from Jimmy Spence of North-a-Voe. At the time he was 78 and still making away on his machine. We discussed the neck on a V-neck jumper and said how 1 felt that the V-necks on machine made sweaters were always poor. He said that single Vs "slag oot" and they should be knitted double. You cast on lxl rib on the machine and then decrease one stitch at either end until the neck is deep enough, then you increase one stitch at either end until the original number of stitches is reached. When folded in half and grafted onto the neck of the jumper there is no need to turn back any unwanted rib — 'man it's easier than trippin' in gutter'.

The women were keen to keep up with the fashions and the great standby of the Shetland household — the club book — was often consulted to find out what was in vogue. Mrs Barbara Burgess, a native of Yell, was in France demonstrating Shetland knitting and she said that the French were very keen on style rather than tradition. She was not beat and produced an outfit in grey and white which the lady displayed on a 'puppet'. The mannequin was brought and dressed in a grey knitted skirt and 2x2 rib polo neck in white, over which was worn a Fair Isle tabard in grey, white and black. Fine stockings in 2x2 rib and fashionable brogues were added to the ensemble and finally a pillbox hat and gloves completed the outfit. This combination of style and tradition caused many favourable comments from the French ladies.

Cut backs in the oil industry will no doubt affect Yell's economy. The new fashions being designed by Shetland's smaller knitwear producers may inspire some of those who, when 'needs must', return to the island to go ahead and try to earn a living with their needles in another, but not altogether different way, from their forebears.

Allouer patterns.
+1 0


  • aurelio
    Is a spencer the same as a liberty bodice?
    7 years ago
  • Kevin
    How to get patterns dubied knits?
    7 years ago

Post a comment