spencer dress

Yesterday was the first day of Wovember, a month celebrating Wool, so it thought it would be appropriate to show you my new (to me) 100% wool dress.


i bought this dress at the local saleroom (auction) There were two versions of this dress up for sale, I missed out on the first one so i went for this one, the top is in the shape of a Shetland Spencer top, an undergarment people used to wear in the chilly old days, and the bottom is the Old Shell Lace pattern, a traditional Shetland Lace motif, often seen at the edges of Haps, that detail is also reflected in the cuffs.


The wool is Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight, handily i work there so i took the dress in and we were able to match up the shades, the main shade is 122, and considering it is about 30 years old unbelievably it matched the current dye lot.. perfectly! and fc12,1284 and a discontinued shade (128,129?) are the contrast colours.. in case you were interested..

I was sure I had seen this style of dress in one of my books, so I had a look when I got home and I found it in the Shetland Museum and Archives booklet about the Textile Collection. It was designed by Margaret Stuart who was a prolific knitwear designer in Shetland in the 1970’s and 80’s from what i can find out.


The dress was beautiful as it was but unfortunately I am pretty short so on me it was a bit of a Maxi-dress.. which is fine but i would never wear it like that. Luckily its all about who you know, and since Sandra that i work with at Jamieson & Smith is a knitting master (shes knit for royalty don’t ya know?) we decided to shorten it.. gulp. I felt bad but i knew at least another version was in the archives and what else was i going to do with it if i didn’t wear it? Sometimes with things like this, if you can make it fit.. you should!


so i watched as over one afternoon Sandra picked up stitches either side of the plain Spencer top and cut the excess off.. she then grafted the stitches together.. i had debated doing it myself the very day i bought it but i knew if i waited and had Sandra look at it with me then i could see how she did it and do it myself if i ever needed to again.



it is very cosy, you would think with all the holes in the lace it would be a bit draughty but its not. I wore it on Thursday and felt very extravagant, swishing around, haha

PicMonkey Collage


im sorry for so many pictures but its such an unusual dress that is so based on traditional Shetland knitting, in still very contemporary colours. i just love it.


75 thoughts on “spencer dress

  1. Wow!!!! Beautiful dress! Is it hand knitted? Is there a pattern in the archive? I love the brown shade that the top is knit from

    1. Hi Emma, yes it’s completly hand knitted. From what I know about it, is that it was made to sell and it was an older lady that knitted it and she was so quick at knitting them the two that were for sale were extras. 122 is a lovely shade, I have it on a cone and use it in my croft house cushions. Funny how things come around! Xx

  2. gorgeous, Ella, a very beautiful find indeed, and no need to apologise for all the wonderful photos, am sure everyone wanted to see as much detail as possible

  3. This dress is absolutely gorgeous and so beautifully made. How wonderful to own such a special garment!

  4. Just lovely! Brilliant find and it really suits you I work next to the sale room & always hear of great finds there. I will need to have a look myself

    1. Thanks Jules, being Shetland Wool it’s not that.. soft. Haha but it is very warm, the first day I bought it I wore it around the house to see if I could get used to the length and it was so cozy! Xx

  5. What a lovely post, which I have enjoyed reading and seeing all the great pictures.
    You have brought back fond memories of my own experiences of ‘spencer’s’. Where I grew up in Ollaberry during the 1970’s and early 1980’s we were next door to two older ladies who didn’t have any heating system apart from one stove called Victoress – not sure on spelling… I think if it hadn’t been for layering of lots of Shetland woollen underwear they’d have been really very cold. My mother tells me they even had long knitted pants to put on out over their cotton flannelette long drawers, to wear with the coldest weather. Their garments were plainer than the very pretty spencer dress you have bought from the show room. Theirs mainly being in light grey, dark grey, fawn, moorit and natural white.
    They knitted profusely all the time (apart from on Sunday) and much of their garments that they sold were spencer’s and haps which went mostly to mainland Scottish mainland. Their wool came in hanks and when I visited them they asked me to help them with winding the wool into balls – which I loved to help them with!
    My granny also made us bairns peerie white spencer vests to wear in the coldest days which we were not so keen on wearing unless we had something other to put on next to our skin – for the itch! They were always white and I think had something near the waist that a ribbon maybe went through so as we could tie this around our waist (maybe made it cosier).

    1. Emily, thank you for your lovely comment and some history about Spencer’s, luckily I never had to wear one.. But I know J&S had a type of wirsit that was just called Spencer, which I will ask Oliver about and try and find out more information. Xx

  6. Simply stunning. Do you think that the Museum or J&S could get the rights to issue a pattern for hand-knitters who would like to make this?

  7. Such a lovely find! I loved all the pictures as you described the dress through the process of shortening. It looked like it was made last week. Enjoy!

  8. Such a beautiful dress!! It looks so cozy and warm and will certainly bring you much joy.in all the coming cold seasons. You’re so fortunate to have a friend who can help you with the alterations.

  9. Wow. Amazing find and great alteration. I’d love a copy of that pattern – any ideas if it is available anywhere (apart from in the booklet)?

    1. Hi Michelle! thank you for your comment! I have actually spoken to Margaret today and she told me a bit more history about the dress which I hope to share sometime! it is her copyrighted design so I don’t think it will be available any time soon. Xx

      1. That’s a shame. If you speak to her again at any time maybe you could persuade her to re-release it (in conjunction with S&J of course). I can’t be the only one who would love to buy the pattern.

      2. Oh, I am sad to hear that – it is just beautiful, and something I would wear, for sure. Too bad you can’t release the pattern. Heck, I’d even pay for it. :-)

  10. Please don’t apologize for too many photos– I know I for one could look at photos of knitting like this all day! It’s just breathtaking. I love the inspiration from which it was drawn, too. I think your length modification is perfect. After all, it’s the difference of wearing and showing off something beautiful and with an interesting history, versus it staying in the closet unworn, unloved and unknown. :)

    1. Thank you Tasha, I have been reading your blog for years, such a treat to see a comment from you! It was quite scary to alter it but as you say it was the difference between it being worn and not. And I was lucky I had Sandra to do it! Xx

  11. What a wonderful treasure you found and, with your friends help, you have given it a new life. Thank-you for sharing this. I have enjoyed the story and the photos.

  12. I just found your great blog through Gudrun Johnston. OMG what an amazing dress!!! It looks so beautiful on you. I’m glad you were brave enough to make the modifications necessary to wear it. What a shame it would be if it just sat in a bag for the next 20 years.

  13. NOT too many photos……….I love that dress and the fact that you can now wear it! Yes, wouldn’t a pattern for it be a treat?

      1. Please, you must get Margaret to sell the dresses at your store, even if she won’t sell the pattern, too! Does she have more? She could make a fortune just from us here on the blog. Do tell her that we love her design & are pining to have one of our own.

  14. Splendid, Ella, and it looks fantastic on you–and undoubtedly even better in person. I’m so glad you have it! Jamieson & Smith jumperweight is a treasure of a yarn. I was swatching some this week and marveling yet again at the transformation that happens when the swatch is washed to finish it. Delightful: lightweight and soft but sturdy.

  15. Ella, and her friends- I am astonished and delighted that you all like my knitted dress so much ! Ella has brought it to life again –I am so pleased . For years I have wondered what to do with them no one was interested and I packed them away and forgot all about them ! I am looking for the original pattern which I will have filed away somewhere. The 70’s and 80’s were heady days to be a Shetland knitwear designer and producer- “Shetlands from Shetland” rainbow shawls for the wives of the Beatles – stoles for Elizabeth Taylor – Fairisle for West end productions and TV – (I have a “celeb” scrap book somewhere ) and our rainbow knitwear the first in Britain had its own TV show ——and my best friends – our hand knitters all over Shetland — it was such a privilage calling at their homes bags of wool and collecting finished garments the cups of tea and stories I was very lucky to have had such an amazing lifestyle.during those years . My grandfather was Charles Stout chemist Medical Hall Lerwick and my Mother Margaret Stout author of the Shetland Cookery Book -Cookery for Northern Wives – (available Shet Times shop and Shet Mus) My Shetland roots. I am rambling on ! Last 3 dresses in sale room Sat 23rd — 1 pale Rainbow ! until i find the pattern -which i will .Thank you Ella ! Margaret

    1. Thank you, Margaret, and Ella and Kate Davies. I live in a very warm state, Florida, nicknamed the Sunshine state, which means I have very little excuse for wool anything, but I am addicted to reading Kate’s blog and following an occasional trail, especially when I find a treasure like this at the end! I wish you luck on your hunt for the pattern! Fran

  16. The dress and the colours are stunning! It’s nice to read that Kate Davies also acquired one thanks to you.
    I just noticed that the skirt is done in Old Shell Lace pattern, which I was swatching just last night :) coincidence

  17. Your dress is gorgeous and has found a wonderful home. I am really pleased for Kate Davies too. Inspired by your blog, I found ” The Traditional Sweater Book ” by Madeleine Weston, published by Dorling Kindersley at least twenty years ago and available as a second hand web purchase for just a few pounds. It contains many lovely Margaret Stuart designs. It is a real treasure and feast for the eyes. I need a spencer and a shawl and an eyelet cardie!

  18. I came to this post back when Kate Davis first re-blogged it early Nov. Oh my …. how I have failed to find a pattern to copy something like it since then ! This dress is SUCH an object of desire I am even toying with the idea of starting from scratch. Uh oh ….. please tell me there’s a pattern out there somewhere before I put myself thru this torture, lol ;)

  19. I came to this blog through Kate Davies’ post today of her dress. Both hers and yours, Ella, are stunning. Although I too live in a hot state, Texas, unlike the lady from Florida, I wear sweaters all year long because it’s freezing in the air conditioning. I would love to knit one of these dresses. Oh my, yes!

  20. Just .. wow. If there was ever a pattern that was ready for a revival it is this one! Such an immediate visual impact. Really, really hoping we see this pattern soon.

  21. j’ai decouvert ces robes par l’intermédiaire du blog de Kate Davies. deux splendeurs magnifiques .
    si un jour on pouvait trouver le patron pour realiser ce chef d oeuvre.
    Merci d’avoir partager.

  22. I would love to knit this beautiful dress, would have to make it shorter for the smaller woman. Margaret, you are a genius, please publish the pattern!

  23. I’m very sad because my english is not good… I can only say : WHAOU !!! fantastic, both knitter and pattern !!! I hope we can buy the pattern one day…
    Have a nice day and thank you for sharing :-)

  24. I’ll add another plea for the pattern, or a kit even! I live in New England, and would be able to wear one much of the year! It is soo beautiful, and timeless. Pleeeease?

  25. I am absolutely captivated by this dress — in all of its manifestations. I do hope that the pattern is found and made available to those of us who just love it. Planning a trip to Scotland and the Shetlands next summer and am hoping to meet you!

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