by Dr. Carol A. Christiansen
Islands of Gossamer Thread
Shetland is famous for its craggy coastline, its dramatic weather, its hardy ponies and sheep. How could such a wild and rugged place produce some of the world’s most delicate textiles? The answers lie in Shetland’s many contradictions: rough hillsides produce tough and resilient sheep but they also contribute to extremely fine wool. Also, despite geographical location and poor communication links, Shetlanders in the past often appreciated and copied the latest fashions. These factors combined to encourage Shetland knitters to develop the tradition of fine lace knitting, a craft which has continued for over 175 years.
Long Tradition of Knitting
By the time lace garments saw a resurgence of popularity in the early 19th century, Shetlanders had been knitting for several hundred years. We know knitting probably came to these shores around the year 1500, as knitting is documented in Faroe and Norway at that time. Knitting quickly caught on in Shetland: it was portable, required few tools, and garments could be readily sold to fishermen and merchants on passing ships. The craft was lucrative, helping to supplement the fragile local economy and the incomes of ordinary working people.
Height of Fashion
With the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837, it became fashionable for women to wear more dress accessories, especially lace mantles, stoles and shawls. Shetland knitters may have been introduced to the idea of knitting openwork patterns by prominent travellers to Shetland, who brought with them similar garments as gifts. Eliza Edmondston, wife of an Unst laird, is thought to have encouraged knitters on Shetland’s most northerly island to take up lace knitting following a slump in the trade for knitted stockings. Within a few months of Victoria’s coronation, Arthur Anderson, founder of P&O shipping and a native of Shetland, presented the Queen with examples of Shetland lace knitting. She immediately ordered 12 pairs of lace stockings, and within the decade, Shetland lace knitting could be bought in many London shops.
Shetland ‘lace’ is not true lace, but is called so because of the fineness of the thread with which it is made. Fine lace shawls are sometimes called ‘wedding ring’ shawls, because, although they can measure nearly 2 metres square, they can be passed through a wedding ring. What makes this feat even more remarkable is that the yarn is usually doubled. Shetland fine lace requires two different but complimentary skills: first the yarn must be spun very finely, then knitted into intricate patterns. Spinning is done on the traditional small spinning wheel using wool of the native sheep. Spinners traditionally gather wool from the throat of the animal, as this is considered the finest, and not contaminated with coarser fibres. The wool is brushed using ‘cairds’, a pair of wooden paddles covered on one side with small iron tines. The wool is not washed, as the natural lanolin acts as a lubricant to make the fine spinning easier. The gossamer thread is then doubled to make it stronger.
Early examples of Shetland’s fine lace tradition are held in several museums in the islands. The Shetland Museum and Archives has the largest collection, with a number of pieces, including several large shawls, on display in their new textiles gallery. Their earliest piece is a christening shawl, dating from 1837. The Heritage Centre in Unst, the island where fine lace spinning and knitting tradition was practiced widely, has an excellent collection of locally made garments.
In 1979, during building works at the old Westside shop in Uyeasound, Unst, a number of lace garments were found. It is believed they date to 1880, and that they were probably brought to the shop by local knitters, who traded them for goods. For some reason the garments were never sold on by the shop owner and remained hidden for a century. Their discovery and poor condition prompted the Unst Heritage Centre to develop a project which will see local knitters replicate the garments. The knitters have studied the complex patterns on garments ranging from shawls to child’s socks. Using a new lace-weight yarn developed by local wool brokers Jamieson and Smith, the Unst knitters have started to make copies of these fragile garments. Photographs of the originals are displayed behind the knitted replicas at Unst Heritage Centre in Haroldswick. Two of the child’s socks may be seen in a new display case highlighting the collections of Shetland’s community museums at the Sumburgh Airport passenger lounge.
The tradition continues
Despite changes in fashion, the crafts of lace spinning and knitting continue in Shetland. Christening shawls are still made and become family heirlooms. Special gifts of hand-spun, hand-knitted lace work are commissioned. The Queen of Norway and the Duchess of Rothesay both were presented with hand-made lace stoles when they opened the new Shetland Museum and Archives in May 2007. These commissions help to carry on the specialised skills required to make garments in the Shetland fine lace tradition.