A Love Letter to Shetland
Mary Jane Mucklestone will never forget the first time she arrived in Shetland. After nothing but water for as far as the eye could see, the tiny aeroplane finally landed on a short landing strip bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea.
“When coming to Shetland, you’re fully surrounded by the sea up until the very last moment. It makes you realise how far from everything Shetland really is — it would be easier to miss it than hit it,” says Mary Jane.
As for Gudrun Johnston, every time she returns to Shetland, it brings her the same sense of calm. The feeling stems from the wide open landscape, which seems to go on forever.
“I take a deep breath of air, and it helps me let go of everything. Then I feel that I can think clearly again.”
Mary Jane and Gudrun are friends and knitwear designers who have been inspired by Shetland and its handcraft traditions, particularly Shetland lace and the Fair Isle variety of colourwork knitting. This autumn, Laine Publishing releases their book, Grand Shetland Adventure Knits, a sort of love letter to Shetland.
The two found their way to Shetland via different routes. Mary Jane, an American, got to know of the far-away islands thanks to colourwork knitting. Mary Jane has always been interested in the history of knitting, and as the years went by, she became famous for her Fair Isle designs and books.
Gudrun’s relationship with Shetland, on the other hand, is very personal. Her father’s family comes from there, and her mother, Patricia Johnston, was a designer who in the 1970s founded a knitwear company called The Shetland Trader. Gudrun was born in Shetland, but when she was five, the family moved to mainland Scotland and she lost her connection with the islands.
When her parents retired, they moved back to Shetland, and at about the same time, Gudrun started knitting. She mainly lived in the US with her American husband, but while visiting her parents, she explored Shetland’s knitting traditions.
“Knitting gave me the chance to get to know my roots in a new way.”
Wind, light and colours
Most knitters are probably familiar with Shetland wool and Fair Isle knitting but in the end, how many know where the archipelago is on the world map?
Perhaps it’s time, then, for a brief geography lesson. The islands of Shetland lie north of Great Britain, between the Faroe Islands and Norway, about 170 kilometres from mainland Scotland. Even though Shetland is officially part of Scotland, it is very much its own entity. Because the islands used to belong to Norway, you can still see plenty of Norse influences in the local dialect, place names and way of life. The islands are home to slightly more than 20,000 people, about a third of whom live in Lerwick, the capital. The archipelago consists of one larger island (Mainland) and dozens of smaller ones. Only 16 of them are inhabited. One of those is farflung Fair Isle, a tiny place with about 60 residents.
In Shetland, the horizon is shaped by gentle green hills. There aren’t very many trees, so the islands are always windy. The shoreline is often rugged and rocky, and you’re never far from the sea.
“Perhaps the thing that strikes you most about Shetland is the light. In summer, the nights are long, and even in winter, when the sun is low and there’s not much daylight, the light has a very beautiful quality,” says Gudrun.
Mary Jane is fascinated by the local mentality of persevering. For centuries, the islanders have had to make the best of the resources at hand. Knitters have also come up with ways to make the most of the time and materials available. For instance, there’s often a single central row between the mirrored halves of a Fair Isle motif, ideal for using up the tiniest amounts of scrap yarn and resulting in some surprising colour combinations.
A long knitting tradition
Historically speaking, knitting, in Shetland, was a way to make money. For centuries, local knitters sold their products to traders and fishermen who had come to the islands from Northern Europe.
“When you talk to older knitters in particular, you still find that in Shetland, knitting was something you simply had to do, rather than a pastime,” Gudrun says.
In the 1840s, Shetland became known for its lace, whose most ardent admirers included Queen Victoria herself. Fair Isle knitting was also given a royal boost when in the 1920s the then Prince of Wales posed for a portrait in a Fair Isle sweater and also went golfing wearing them. In the 1960s, Fair Isle sweaters were worn by celebrities such as Paul and Linda McCartney and Twiggy.
In the fashion industry, Shetland traditions have at times been exploited without scruples. Some brands have used the words Fair Isle while marketing knits that have had nothing to do with Shetland or Fair Isle knitting.
In the 1970s, the whole art of knitting momentarily became endangered in Shetland. Oil was found in the North Sea, which suddenly provided local people with new, well-paid jobs. Wool prices were low, craft companies were shut down. During the past few decades, however, a newfound appreciation for knitting and Shetland wool has emerged. A local college offers studies in textiles, a new generation of designers uses Shetland wool to create contemporary knitwear, and the annual Shetland Wool Week festival has grown into a huge event.
Despite its small size, Shetland has had a large influence on the world of knitting. Fair Isle, for example, is sometimes used as a general term to refer to all kinds of stranded colourwork knitting. Strictly speaking, however, it is only one variety of colourwork, with its own particular set of rules. For example, traditional Fair Isle patterns never use more than two colors in a single row.
In their work, both Mary Jane and Gudrun combine Shetland traditions with modern techniques, interpreting them in their own way.
“I find it important to honour traditions and remember where they fit in history. But at the same time, you have to be ready to explore what else you could do with them. That way the traditions stay alive,” Gudrun reflects.
Mary Jane is particularly fascinated by the way Fair Isle knitting makes different colours interact. She wants to encourage knitters to be bold and use even the kinds of shades they find shocking or ugly. Even if your first impression of a given yarn is “Grandma’s pantyhose”, it may work wonderfully when combined with other yarns.
“You often have to push your favourite colours in order for them to work on the project. Something a bit brighter here, something neutral here,” Mary Jane says.
For Gudrun, the Shetland lace tradition has been a major source of inspiration. One classic garment she has been inspired by is the so-called Shetland hap, a type of shawl. Haps feature lace, too, but they are thicker and more practical than the light lace shawls.
“Shetlanders have used haps as outerwear and given them as gifts to newborn babies,” Gudrun says.
Knits for a Shetland trip
Mary Jane and Gudrun got to know each other fifteen years ago, first online and then in person. In 2014, they began organising knitting retreats in Shetland, wanting to share their love of the islands with others. The events turned out to be so popular that they set up a one-time-only limit for individuals participating. They have given up organising them now, but the retreats have inspired something else — a book that Mary Jane and Gudrun call their swan song to those trips.
Grand Shetland Adventure Knits is a reflection on their time in Shetland, with seven patterns from each of the authors. They are the kind of practical garments that they would pack for a trip to Shetland: socks for cosying up by the stove, a pullover suitable for hiking, or a hat that will keep your hair in place if it’s windy.
“With our book, we wanted to honour Shetland and how the time we’ve spent there has influenced us as designers,” Gudrun explains.
The book also showcases some of their most cherished places in Shetland, with brief essays of the days they have spent there. Mary Jane says that the leading idea of the book — which is relevant wherever you are in the world — is this: “Make your own adventure!”
“Everyone can apply this premise to a place that they hold dear. A place where they can go back to again and again, seeing it with new eyes each time. This is our grand Shetland adventure, but you can experience your own adventure wherever you like.”
Text: Maija Kangasluoma
Photos: Sini Kramer
Sources: Shetland.org, Wikipedia.
The full-length version of this feature was published in Laine issue 18.