Monday, 11 June 2012

The Shetland Islands

Every couple of months I write a piece for the Rowan International newsletter and over the last few years I have written about many things all of which relate in some way to knitting or crochet. This month – in preparation for the July edition of the publication - Rowan asked me to write about the technique of fairisle. I managed to get a fantastic book and did quite a lot of online research in order to write the piece. I learnt how women and children from the Shetland Islands knitted almost continuously while the men folk were at sea in order to supplement income. I found out how popular fairisle became in the early part of the 1900s and that the traditional fairisle jumpers were worn by both men and women as sports wear. I also found out a lot of background info about this wonderful technique of colour knitting which has always been one of my favorite things not only to do but to teach too.

So how lucky am I then that I was fortunate enough to be asked by Arena Travel to accompany and tutor a group of knitters to Shetland last week? It’s hard to believe sat here surrounded by this grey and miserable London weather (there are floods here this morning because there has been so much rain over night) that this time last week I was on my way to Shetland in the sun shine ready for what was going to turn out to be an amazing few days.

There were 12 participants in my group – including the talented and infamous Rowan designer Mr. Martin Storey - and we all met up at Edinburgh airport and jumped on a little plane to get to the islands. I have to admit to being a bit of a wuss when it comes to flying, but the little jet was really fun and a comfortable ride and we even got a complimentary biscuit and a cuppa so we all arrived at Sumburgh happy and eager to explore.

Seals on the beach -  if you look closely!
The first thing I noticed travelling through Shetland were the amazing land and seascapes, the views are amazing and awe inspiring, I wanted to take a photograph at every turn and indeed took at least 50 shots of the scenery. The second thing I noticed was the sheer number of sheep – they are everywhere, especially at the moment as the lambs are still young and bouncing about in the fields with their pals. The third thing I noticed (and this was completely unexpected) is the Norwegian influence on island architecture, with many of the houses built in the chalet style. I was expecting a small scale Edinburgh with dark stone buildings and imposing Victorian style, and whilst there is a bit of this in Lerwick, the majority of buildings pay homage to the Norwegian ancestry of the islands with chalets painted the traditional blue and red set beautifully against the green, brown and grey backgrounds of the moor like countryside.

After a short drive from the airport we were dropped at our hotel in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. Throughout the trip we were accompanied by a fantastic tour guide Lyn Cornish who was very good at organizing everything to make all the necessary processes as easy and stress free as possible so we were soon checked in and sorted! Rooms were comfortable and the hotel had the most amazing sea view looking over the bay. On closer inspection of the bay we realized that there was a group of seals slumbering on the rocks just outside the hotel and in sight of the dining room, so the view while we ate dinner could not have been better! 

Oliver showing us the fleeces
After a hearty breakfast our first full day was filled by a morning fairisle workshop, followed by a trip to Jamieson and Smith – a famous Shetland yarn company. Our guide Oliver Henry (who a few of the ladies later revealed they had a bit of a crush on) explained how the fleece arrives at the warehouse and is quality graded. Oliver told us about all the properties of Shetland wool – which is supposed to be the warmest and best wearing wool on the market. He showed us how the top layer of wool is removed before the fleeces are processed, he explained about which fleeces fetch the best rate and why and he gave us a brief and fascinating history of the company that has been processing almost 80% of the island’s wool for the past 100 years. 

Muckleberry Hat - Mary Jane Mucklestone

The tour culminated in a visit to the dedicated Jamieson and Smith shop that was stacked from floor to ceiling with beautiful Shetland wool. The group was, of course, like kids in a candy shop and all of us left the shop with a bag of lovely goodies. I bought a selection of shades in 4ply to knit the Muckleberry hat from the dedicated ‘Knit Real Shetland’ book which includes designs from Jared Flood, Jean Moss and Gudrun Johnson to name but a few. I knitted the hat over the course of the week and completed the last bit once I was home again as the shaping towards the top needed a concentration level that was not attainable within the surroundings of a busy airport departure lounge!

Fine Lace Baby Socks
After lunch we visited the Shetland Textile Museum and met some of the knitters and spinners from the island. The women we met were amazing and more than happy to show us their techniques and tell us more about the heritage of knitting and spinning on the islands. We met a lady who had to be one of the world’s fastest knitters and she explained to us how Shetlanders knit on long double pointed needles using a belt worn at the waist to secure the right one in place leaving hands free to work the knitted stitches. The technique was mesmerizing to watch and so fast you could hardly see the knitters hands moving!

Exclusive Project
On Thursday we spent the morning doing a lace knitting workshop and whilst the intricacies of my lace design did not even begin to compare to that of the traditional Shetland lace, I did have a few tips and techniques (such as the imperative use of life lines) to pass on to the group who had been given an exclusive fair isle and lace scarf project to work on over the course of the trip. Our workshop was followed by an afternoon visit to some of the craft people on the main island. We visited Emma at Aamos designs who specializes in contemporary weave design followed by a visit to 3 other yarn and knitwear stores. We all came away laden with bags and goodies and heads full of inspiration.

On Friday morning we had to start our journeys home, but thankfully there was time for a quick puffin-spotting trip that did not disappoint! The puffins were busy on the cliff tops close to the airport and seeing them flying around and feeding was the perfect conclusion to our fantastic 5 day trip and whilst I was sad to be getting on the little plane to come home I felt that the trip had inspired me to such an extent that there was little room left within my poor brain for any more excitement! As participants on the tour we had all been given a wealth of experiences crammed into a small amount of time, which will hopefully stay with us all for the rest of our lives.
1950's Fairisle

Any one who has an interest in knitting – even if it is not the all-consuming passion that many of us have – cannot have failed to understand the significance of the Shetland Islands to the craft. To knitters the Shetland Islands are like the Mecca to Muslims and a pilgrimage here is something that many of us hope to experience at some point in our lives. I can say that without a doubt this trip exceeded all my expectations and reignited my passion, not only for the act of knitting, but for the yarn and the heritage of this amazing craft. I was REALLY sad to have to leave there on Friday and return to grey old London and I want to thank not only Arena travel for offering me the chance to tutor and accompany this fantastic tour, but also to thank the group who made the week such a treasure - thanks guys you were fab!

Arena Tours have already confirmed dates for the Shetland Island Trips 2013 – you can find more information here