So I had a very interesting day yesterday at the Shetland Museum as mentioned in my last post. The day was all about Authenticity in Culturally Based knitting, obviously in relation to Shetland and mostly throughout the day it was in relation to Shetland Lace. There were a number of talks by lots of different women – Lynn Abrams, Carol Christianson, Roslyn Chapman, Rhoda Hughson, Frances Lennard, Helen Robertson and Kathy Coull. It was attended as far as I could see by Women (and one cameraman) Lynn Abrams mentioned in her opening talk about how Shetland had a ‘female network’ and I think today this is still true, knitting of course like everything has come on leaps and bounds and knitting isn’t seen any more as ‘womens work’ but here the skills and knowledge is still held onto in the main by women. A very inspiring group of women I have to say.
Carol Christianson’s talk was about 19th century pattern books and the use of the word ‘Shetland’ within them, she talked about how it is very hard to date Shetland lace without some kind of provenance. There are a number of pattern books which contain ‘Shetland shawls’ and since there has been not much evidence of Shetlanders using pattern books at this time it is unknown whether these writers saw shawls from Shetland and copied them or had there own idea of what a Shetland shawl was. One of these writers was Jane Gaugain who had a shop in Edinburgh and would have had easy access to shawls directly from here and as an expert knitter she could have acquired handspun yarn from Shetland, a shawl knit by her could be extremely hard to differentiate between a shawl knit in Shetland. Would that be classed as authentic?
This was one of the things mentioned in Roslyn Chapman’s talk and I think one of the key points of the day to me, as someone still working in the much smaller but still extremely important Shetland Wool industry it is something that resonates with me. She found during her PHD research into the Shetland Lace Industry a huge amount of newspaper information about various branches of ‘Shetland Lace’ industries, including one in Nottingham which even had its own Shetland Shawl Trade Union. These branches all over the UK led to shawls and hosiery having to be described as ‘Real Shetland’ – knitwear actually from here and ‘Imitation Shetland’ – Shetland patterns knit by people outwith Shetland. She had an example of the then Duchess of Kent purchasing an ‘Imitation Shetland Shawl’ and knowing it was such, this was interesting as she had previously been gifted a shawl by the Sutherlands, a knitting family dynasty hailing from Unst. This shows that these industry’s were seen as separate and themselves skilful although technically being imitations.
These ‘Real Shetland’ shawls costed considerably more than ‘Imitation Shetland’ and a great deal more than the machine made versions which were also available. The wording seems to have been quite important in these advertisements and it was noted that Shetlands ‘identity was used as a marketing strategy’ something which of course still happens.
Rhoda Hughson from the Unst Heritage Centre also spoke about how in Unst they are trying to retain the skills and traditions but also how to grow with the changing nature of Shetland. The example above on the left was found in the Uyeasound Shop and you can see from how damaged it was that they had to do a lot of work to store it correctly. The ladies on the right were actually Aunts of someone in the audience and she told us that they used to work on things together – one knitting the centre, the other the border and both the edging. I know from work there are still a huge amount of people out there who want to knit traditional Shetland Lace but it is very tricky for them at the Heritage Centre to know how to stock their shop – which helps fund the small museum. An example she gave was the cockleshell scarf, traditionally they are quite wide but also short so if they make ones which are a bit thinner but longer to fit in with how scarves are worn now are they as authentic?
Helen Robertson is a local jewellery designer known for her work of knitting Shetland lace in wire, she i also a member of the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers and her talk was about the publication of A Legacy of Shetland Lace, I was working at J&S when this book came out and I knew immediately it was something special, a collection of lace patterns – by Shetlanders. This was a first, there is of course other books on Shetland lace, Sarah Don’s and Gladys Amedro’s to name a few but both were written long hand and this book has each pattern charted. She mentioned how she found Sharon Miller’s book ‘Heirloom Knitting’ for her a ‘game changer’ previous to the publication of Millers book, even Shetlanders could struggle to easily access Shetland Lace patterns. I understood totally when Helen spoke about how some of us struggle to share this information, Shetlanders see it to be ‘wir treasure’ This is our past, our culture. But things have changed, every family doesn’t have its own pattern book, passed down member to member. I have often mentioned that I am one of those and I couldn’t have learned many of the things I have without some of these books.
I wish I could say I came away from the day with a new clear feeling as to how I feel but I’m afraid I don’t. I came away with my head spinning with words, imagery and mostly a proudness (is that a word?) I feel proud of the women who came before me and had to knit, maybe they didn’t want to? I do want to and I am lucky that it makes no odd’s, I have a job, thankfully connected to this industry and if I chose not to knit and create when I got home I don’t have to. I feel that if you are knitting something in a Shetland pattern and doing what YOU can to be as authentic as possible you are authentic. I don’t think you have to be a Shetlander, knitting in Shetland with Shetland wool to be being true. Its the people who deliberately use Shetland’s name, skills and heritage to just make money or get attention that are doing a disservice.
The main thing is to be aware, be aware of the people who’s culture this is, who’s heritage is wrapped up (literally) in wool and patterns passed down through generations. I maybe didn’t come back to knitting through my family but when I did come back to it I felt the passion ignited by being here and this heritage I realise fully how lucky I am to have.
Speak soon :) xxxx
PS, they are hoping to put up videos from the day on Youtube, if they do I will come back and post the links, I’m sorry I didn’t get around to speaking about each talk but we would have been here all day..
Roslyn Chapman’s interesting article in 60North Magazine can be seen here
Kate Davies article about Jane Gaugain, see here
You can buy a Legacy of Shetland Lace from the Shetland Times here
More information about the Unst Heritage Centre can be found on their website