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Traditional Fair Isle Knitting
By Sheila McGregor
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1981 Sheila McGregor
All rights reserved.
The Background to the Fair Isle Patterns
The Shetland Islands lie far north of the Scottish mainland, so far north that on most maps they occupy a small box in an otherwise empty corner. Air travel has made communications much easier in recent years but in earlier times, when sea travel was safer and quicker than any other method, their isolation was less marked compared with many other places. Indeed, in a seagoing context, many routes converge on Shetland, from the Baltic, Scandinavia, and the North Sea. The Faeroe Islands are a short sail north again, as is Iceland. The Shetland Islands have always been easy to get to from the south, by way of Orkney and Fair Isle from mainland Scotland or the Hebrides. This is how most settlers have reached them, from the earliest pioneers some 5,000 years ago, who settled there with their sheep and cattle.
They were followed by other immigrants from the south during the Celtic period which lasted until the coming of the Vikings in about AD 700. From 876 to 1379 Shetland was administered from Norway, though from about 1200 onwards the link became increasingly tenuous and Scottish influence replaced that of Norway. In 1468 a transaction took place which has caused great indignation among Norse-minded people ever since–the mortgaging of Orkney and Shetland to provide the balance of the dowry of Margaret of Denmark on her marriage to King James III of Scotland. In fact this recognised the fact that by then the islands were far more Scottish than Norwegian.
The following period was not altogether a happy one, with the introduction of the feudal system under the Stewart Earls and consequent exploitation. Mainland Scotland is still regarded as a foreign place by Shetlanders, a source of 'dear meal and bad ministers'. Nevertheless, a visitor to Shetland from Scotland will not find the islands foreign. The scenery is hilly, with rough pasture almost to sea level; the sea is never far away and the dialect, at least on the largest island, Mainland, sounds reassuringly Scottish.
Shetland today presents great contrasts. Lerwick, the capital, main port and only town of any size, is a busy centre of oil-related service industries. Its harbour has tripled in size, and oil rigs are regularly parked in the bay south of the town. And yet the crofter in the next township, out to feed his hens or move the tethered lamb to a new spot, will barely give them a glance. Shetland has seen many previous surges of activity and survived both the attendant prosperity and the inevitable depressions which have followed.
Fair Isle lies to the south of Shetland, midway between the southern tip of Mainland and Orkney. It has always been regarded as part of Shetland, geographically and culturally. Its two main claims to fame are the shipwreck on the island of the Armada flagship, El Gran Griffon, and the brightly patterned knitwear that has become familiar all over the world. Like Shetland, Fair Isle was relatively less isolated in days of sail and indeed lay across a busy sea route to North America. The island also acts as a convenient landfall for small boats sailing between Orkney and Shetland, the high cliffs at the north end being visible from a great distance at sea.
Knitting probably reached Shetland from mainland Scotland around AD 1500. Its immediate popularity and lasting importance in those northerly islands have much to do with the Shetland climate and the excellent fine wool produced by the native breed of sheep. While Shetland seldom experiences much snow or frost, it has more than its share of gales, fog and general pervading dampness. Few garments are better suited to resist this type of weather than those knitted of Shetland wool.
In common with most other parts of Scotland where there was a supply of suitable wool, hand knitting rapidly developed into a major cottage industry in the sixteenth and later centuries. The main articles produced for trade were coarse stockings in enormous numbers, together with such other small items as nightcaps, waistcoats (i.e. knitted underwear) and gloves.
This hosiery trade flourished throughout Scotland until Victorian times, when it dwindled and died in most places as machine-knitted stockings replaced the hand-knitted ones. Shetland is unique in still having a hand knitting industry. The patterns which form the subject of this book have played no small part in the survival of this cottage industry. With an entrepreneur in virtually every second cottage it has always been difficult to estimate its importance, but proceeds from hand knitting, while not reflecting either the time or the craftsmanship involved, still make a useful contribution to many island budgets.
The bright and unusual patterns worked into the traditional knitting of Fair Isle first attracted attention in 1856, when they were described by Miss Eliza Edmondston, a member of a distinguished Shetland family, in her book Sketches and Tales of the Shetland Islands. She follows an excellent and obviously first-hand description of their complexity and layout with a purely speculative and quite unsupported suggestion that there was a connection between these extraordinary patterns and the wrecking on the island in 1588 of the Spanish Armada flagship El Gran Griffon, mentioned previously. This romantic myth achieved instant success, which it still enjoys in many quarters, despite its total improbability. More modern theories tend to favour a Scandinavian influence. There appears to be equally little truth in this and the subject of the origin of these patterns will be dealt with in detail in the next chapter.
These 'outlandish' patterns had limited appeal to Victorians, though Fair Isle knitwear did travel to the Antarctic with the Scotia expedition of 1902, which was financed by the Paisley firm of J. & P. Coats Limited. James Coats was a regular visitor to Fair Isle and took a paternalistic interest in the well-being of the islanders. At this time Mainland Shetland was still engrossed in the knitting of lace shawls and veils, though this was a declining trade, and smaller articles such as gloves and underwear. There was some tradition of stranded knitting in two colours, but it was restricted to small pattern bands on stockings, purses and gloves and the traditional fishermen's bag-caps or stocking caps, striped, it was said, like signal flags.
Stranded knitting became increasingly popular all over Shetland after about 1910. The old patterns of Fair Isle were copied, among many others, and memories are still alive of these patterns being passed from croft to croft on scraps of paper. In many places there seems to have been little idea of how best to apply them to actual garments and some unusual designs have resulted. One such unusual scarf is illustrated. It is knitted mainly in the fine, soft 'moorit' (russet) wool preferred by Mainland knitters for scarves, but instead of being in openwork, as normal, it is in plain knitting with decorated ends. The patterns are those of Fair Isle but the colours, two shades of green and one of orange, are not. They were probably home-dyed with Fairy Dyes or shop-bought to conform to some verbal instruction about the need to use bright colours.
Throughout the 1920s, Mainland knitters and Fair Isle knitters continued to experiment with patterns and colour. A great many new patterns were added to the repertoire at about this time. In general it was a period of great innovation in knitting. One major innovation was the adoption and adaptation of the fisherman's working garment, the jersey or gansie (Guernsey), as leisure wear for all classes. It is difficult today to imagine life without the comfort and convenience of jerseys, cardigans and all the other knitwear we take for granted, but they are a very modern fashion. The knitters of Shetland were not slow to take it up and began to knit 'allover' jerseys and pullovers. The very earliest, from Fair Isle, date from about 1910. They are fragile things, knitted with homespun, home-dyed wool in indigo blue, madder red, gold and natural white. Commercial jersey knitting had to wait for the availability of more suitable yarn, machine-spun and mill-dyed, both to save time which could more profitably be spent knitting than spinning, and to provide the necessary quantities of thicker yarn of uniform quality and colour.
This new fashion gained the Royal seal of approval in 1921 when the Prince of Wales wore a jersey presented by a firm of Lerwick drapers to play golf at St Andrews.
Today hand knitting is still important in Shetland, both as a cottage industry and as a craft. The former is declining in the face of machine knitting and oil-related employment, but the gansie knitting of the fishing communities is still very active, both to provide working gansies for the menfolk and to fill orders from Mainland Shetland and the south.CHAPTER 2
The Origins of the Patterns
It is easy to jump to conclusions when looking for the origins of the numerous and varied patterns used in Shetland knitting today. For one thing, many knitted patterns from very different traditions in different countries have much in common. To a large extent, this is a result of the technique which they share—certain patterns are by definition easier to knit and will therefore be more popular wherever stranded knitting is done.
To trace direct influence it is important to be quite familiar with the Shetland patterns. They have several common features. Most are fairly small and simple, as textile patterns go. Almost all are symmetrical; indeed most are very strongly symmetrical, with eight similar parts. As a result, most are geometric rather than representational. There is a preference for diagonal lines over strong vertical lines, and by far the larger number have an odd number of rows. The reasons for this are basic to the craft of knitting, particularly when patterns are not printed and are copied from small samples or knitted from memory.
Unlike embroidery workers, knitters do not have the benefit of a marked canvas on which they can count threads and place stitches. They are creating their own fabric as they work along the rows, knitting into space. Symmetrical patterns make this easier. Once a pattern has been 'set', each row grows in regular fashion from the preceding, and the second half of every pattern can be copied from the first. Most Shetland patterns can be knitted vertically or across with identical results. Strong vertical lines tend to be avoided as they can easily pull together and tighten at the back of the work. Diagonal lines make for more elastic knitting.
Most patterns avoid long stretches in one colour. This again depends on the technique of stranded knitting. Both colours of wool must be kept moving to avoid long loops on the reverse of the work.
Any experimentation with patterns of this kind will quickly show why they tend to have an odd number of rows. From the design point of view, those with an even number are almost always more clumsy and less symmetrical. Moreover, Shetland knitters like to have a centre row and often knit it in bright colours for emphasis.
One last feature, less easy to define but easy enough to recognise, distinguishes patterns popular in Shetland with those of many neighbouring countries such as Norway. It is the liking for little motifs and for a pattern to be 'finished'. Lines, in Shetland patterns, usually link up in a satisfying space-enclosing way with other lines, and the spaces so enclosed are usually decorated with one or several of the little motifs in the Shetland repertoire. Repeated diagonals, probably copied from weaving and popular in Norwegian knitting traditions, have been edited out in favour of more concrete designs.
The liking for symmetrical, geometric, diagonal shapes is shared with many other textile techniques such as kelim and twill weaving, several simple types of embroidery and lacework, and so on. There is a shared need to keep threads moving diagonally and to memorise patterns. One result of this is that some patterns have a very wide distribution indeed. For example, one of the large stars is embroidered in Greece, worked in beads by Plains Indians and in barkcloth in Fiji. It is familiar in the Thai Highlands, and in Norway, where it is as likely to be embroidered as knitted. In Shetland it would certainly be knitted and probably thought of as a Norwegian snowflake.
In the Pattern Notebook the patterns used today in stranded knitting in Shetland have been arranged according to size. This divides them usefully into groups of broadly similar origins.
Firstly there are the Peerie Patterns, 'peerie' being the Shetland vernacular for 'small'. Most occupy 5 or 7 rows and are knitted in horizontal bands as part of a more complex pattern. Many are also used in vertical arrangements.
Patterns filling 9 to 13 rows can best be described as Border Patterns, though they also are knitted in bands, alternating with larger or smaller patterns as part of a complex repeat. Many have larger and smaller versions.
Traditional Fair Isle patterns from the old pieces known to have been knitted on that island generally fill 15 or 17 rows in the original versions. They consist of six- or eight-sided lozenges containing a motif or some other decoration and linked along the row by elaborate crosses. These are the so-called OXO patterns. The crosses must be understood as joining devices rather than as separate decorative elements.
Then there are the Large Stars. Most take up 21, 25 or 31 rows. While much larger versions exist and can certainly be knitted, they are less flexible in an allover design and become difficult to memorise or copy easily.
Lastly, there are allover patterns in great variety. Most are decorated diagonal frameworks or variations on the star-and-diamond theme. There are also many diced patterns and a few older patterns made up of small crosses repeated in rows.
It will probably surprise many readers to learn that these patterns were not used in Shetland before the early years of this century, although many have longer histories in other places. The exceptions are the large and elaborate OXO patterns of Fair Isle described above, and certain of the peerie patterns (shown here) which were used together with the OXO patterns in early pieces from Fair Isle. Similar small patterns are found in other places around the North Sea and may well have been knitted for hundreds of years. There is little evidence for this apart from some very small patterns on old socks and a purse in the Shetland Museum, and nineteenth century descriptions of patterns on fishermen's traditional caps.
The origin of the large OXO patterns has aroused much speculation, as has already been mentioned. An early suggestion already mentioned linked them to the Spanish soldiers shipwrecked on Fair Isle almost 300 years before the patterns were first recorded. There is however little in common between Spanish textile patterns of the time and the Fair Isle patterns. Moreover, a look at any early account of the well-documented shipwreck of El Gran Griffon on Fair Isle in late September 1588 will make the tale of comfortable collaboration seem very unlikely. It is possible that some of the more extreme details were added by later writers, but the tale is not one that needs much added colour. For six weeks, from September to November, almost 300 men were stranded on a very small island which at that time supported only 50 people (17 families). Many of the Spaniards died of starvation. Several are said to have been thrown over the cliffs by the islanders, themselves faced with starvation in the face of winter. Not until 1856 was any connection suggested between this remote and unhappy episode and the colourful and unusual patterns then being knitted on the island.
In spite of the total lack of evidence or even historical probability, this romantic fiction was immediately popular with the Victorian public. As early as 1870 the islanders were denying vigorously, if vainly, that they had learned anything about knitting from the Spaniards, 'though it had become the fashion to say so'.
Excerpted from Traditional Fair Isle Knitting by Sheila McGregor. Copyright © 1981 Sheila McGregor. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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