thoughts on authenticity

some of the words associated with Shetland’s knitting culture

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.

photos: shetland museum

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?

handwritten note of unknown date found at the bottom of a typed letter by A.I Tulloch in relation to Shetland knitting
handwritten note of unknown date found at the bottom of a typed letter by A.I Tulloch in relation to Shetland knitting

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.

a few of the famous photos of the sutherland women, photo: shetland museum
a few of the famous well known photos of the sutherland women, photo: shetland museum

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.

unst lace and ladies, photo's: unst heritage centre and shetland museum
unst lace and ladies, photo’s: unst heritage centre and shetland museum

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?

a legacy of shetland lace and Zena Thomsons zig zag scarf from the book
a legacy of shetland lace and Zena Thomsons zig zag scarf from the book

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.

knitters, photo's: shetland museum
knitters, photo’s: shetland museum

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..

Further Reading:

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 

22 thoughts on “thoughts on authenticity

  1. It was thanks to your blog post that I got details about this broadcast so I was able to watch many of the talks yesterday. It was fascinating and thought provoking. I am an American transplant to Scotland (living here for about a decade) so I don’t have the personal connection that you have. However, I think it is a topic that strikes a chord with many people, maybe especially those who don’t come from a place with a very strong distinct local identity. How then does one express authenticity? What does it mean to be authentic to your roots when you’ve lived in three different countries and your ancestors came from all over? So many places need to market and define their local culture for income and tourism for their livelihoods, how do they do that authentically?

    I really liked Carol Christianson’s point that the stories behind the objects are what she is most drawn to. Each object has a history and when that is presented honestly I think it increases confidence and authenticity. For me I do my best to buy locally, learn about local breeds of sheep and the provenance of the fibers I use. I love to knit and spin and in that act express my own story. I love to learn about the history of the patterns I use and the stories of the knitters and spinners who came before. Maybe it is crazy but I feel a bond with them across centuries and boundaries. Human stories have value and making something by hand calls to something in us. But my work is not commercial so that makes it a lot less complicated for me. Those like you, who work in the industry, who talk about their thought processes and struggles, really inspire me. Nobody had any hard and fast answers yesterday, just a lot of questions to keep exploring. Maybe just asking the questions is more important than any one answer.

  2. I am really looking forward to watching this broadcast when it appears on Youtube. The more people who are exposed to presentations like this that make them think, the fewer incidences of appropriation of the Shetland arts and crafts, like recently with Chanel, will occur to damage the Shetland brand. Mostly it is ignorance, not intention, that is the problem. Shetland can teach the outside world great lessons. Thanks for covering this subject, Ella.

  3. Very good to read this Ella. I joined in the whole day online from Norfolk. I found it a very thought provoking day and like you I think I had more questions about authenticity at the end of the day then I (naively) did at the beginning! I really do appreciate that it was available online, it did feel like being there apart from not even seeing the cake! I thought a lot about my Skaw hat that I made to wear 2014 Wool week. Fleece chosen by me , with you I think in J and S, spun by me, then some yarn naturally dyed to match seaweed from Skaw beach and the fingerless mitts were even knitted by me in Shetland. ‘Authentic’ doesn’t seem right for them to me… I think because I am not a Shetlander!!! ( They are described on my blog if you want to see more… ). The other great thing was to see some of you again ‘in person’ and hoping to actually be there again in Sept!
    Just read Betty40s post and like her I like to tell a story in my textile work – hence the Skaw hat . That is so important and good to hear Carol talk about it.

  4. Thank you Ella for this post and the references and eagerly await the youtube videos. Thank you, thank you!

  5. This was such an interesting post, Ella. One of the things that struck me is how similar some of the issues are to those faced by West Coast Natives who knit Cowichan sweaters. There are no easy, black and white answers. But one word comes to mind in both instances, which is respect. We need to respect the origins of a knitting style, which includes the history, methods, and originators of that style. Please do link to the YouTube videos when they become available. I’m looking forward to watching them.

  6. I was waiting for your post, Ella, and it was as interesting and useful as I hoped it would be. The references are precious to me, because I love to learn about people and all that is behind their garments, being mittens in Latvia, Idrija’s bobbin lace in Slovenia or haps in Shetland. And I do agree with you when you talk about knitting the Shetland way. I , obviously, am not a native Shetlander, but when I was knitting my first hap, after reading the Miller’s book (I still cherish her signed copy), I was absorbed by the whole story in the background… the wind, the hard, maybe even painful work of women who had to knit, while for me it was a pleasure, something that helps me washing away the daily stress of my job. I was conscious about that. We are talking of Shetland knitting, but we are talking of history, society and industry too. And about when and why labour became an art. It is not just a skein of wool, a pattern and what you knit out of this. It’s also about respect.

  7. The thing about cultural appropriation that bother me is not whether it is authentic (what does that even mean), but whether or not the culture being appropriated is being robbed or done a disservice. Mostly bigger businesses latch onto a name and the associations that have taken generations to build up and simply gut it for profit.

  8. Wow! I didn’t know about this whole ‘back story’.I thought you just loved your knitting, loved Shetland— shame about the weather — and Shetland history and your place in it. I love reading about the lovely things you create and the fun you have now. The woman of the past would be really proud that you carry on the tradition , just because you want to.

  9. From a knitter in Melbourne, I feel like I have been privileged to see something quite remarkable in this livestreamed workshop and reviews of the day by you and Donna Smith. It is truly extraordinary that knitters can come together in this kind of way to be curious and reflexive about really tricky, intellectual concepts but ones that go to the very heart of our practice as knitters. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and making it so easy for so many folks to consider these issues. Happy International Women’s Day Ella.

  10. Thanks, Ella, for your article and sharing your thoughts about heritage. I’ve been thinking for a long time about my knitting heritage here in Ohio. The historic circumstances are quite different from those of Shetland, but I wonder if there is enough here in the Midwest to warrant further research? That said, i truly love reading about yours. Thanks for the time and effort. Carry on.

    1. I would be fascinated to read about the historic and cultural influences on Mid West knitting. You should definitely explore and share.

  11. A very interesting and thought provoking post. Many congratulations on being elected as guest patron of the 7th Shetland Wool Week. With your enthusiasm for all things Shetland I know you will do a fantastic job.

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