When Susan Crawford’s The Vintage Shetland Project (Susan Crawford Vintage) landed on my doorstep, it left a dent. This book is large. This book is heavy.
So much for the easy adjectives.
What kind of knitting book is this, anyway?
The Vintage Shetland Project is not a pattern book. Neither is it a history book. Nor is it a pretty book of pretty pictures of pretty people in pretty knitwear in a pretty landscape.
It includes all those things, yes: the patterns, the history, and the pretty. It includes them in great abundance, which is why it weighs so much.
Combined, these elements form a compelling record of one woman’s intense, multi-year study of handknitting from the archives of the Shetland Museum in Lerwick. That’s what this book is. And it’s quite unlike anything else on my shelves.
A Woman on a Mission
Susan Crawford’s passion for British knitting from the first half of the twentieth century is well known. Her two-volume series, A Stitch in Time, dusted off and served up stylish (often surprisingly so) patterns from the 1920s through the 1950s. The quality of the books was famously high, due in part to the author’s dogged pursuit of her vision. When, for example, she was unable to find any modern yarn truly suitable for some of the older patterns, she joined forces with one of the last worsted mills in the United Kingdom and started producing it herself.
In the wake of A Stitch in Time, the textile curator of the Shetland Museum offered Crawford the chance to study the collection’s knitwear. Crawford selected twenty-seven pieces (nineteen Fair Isle, six lace, one beaded knitting, and one combining Fair Isle with intarsia) from across a fifty-year span. All were made in Shetland, and most were made for use either by the knitter herself or for a relation or private client—not for export. This was, in other words, an assemblage of Shetland knitting primarily for Shetlanders.
Crawford’s original objective, she writes in the foreword, was to recreate each piece; and from there to derive patterns. In the end, though, the project became a great deal more complex than she intended. Isn’t that always the way?
Beating the Bushes
Scrutiny of the garments led to questions about who had made them, and why, and with what. Sometimes a knitter’s name was given, but little else; sometimes even less than that. Answering these questions led to more questions, and answering those questions led to the collection of historical essays that open the book.
This is not, Crawford cautions, a history of Shetland knitting; nor did she wish it to be. Instead, she presents fascinating accounts of discoveries that arose from looking closely at objects from the archive. A few of the bonbons:
- “The Missing Link,” in which she pins down the phantom figure of Mrs. Elizabeth Henry, the first outsider known to have recorded Shetland lace patterns.
- “What’s in a Name?” in which she hunts for the origin of the common (but hotly contested) name of a famous lace motif.
- Micro-histories of two Fair Isle jumpers knit for Shetland servicemen, including one that saw its owner through years in a prison camp.
- Essays on pattern appropriation vs. cultural assimilation, and the role of androgyny in the rise of Fair Isle sportswear to international popularity.
- Biographies of accomplished, but almost forgotten, Shetland designers Jean Jarmson and Ethel Henry.
- Historical sketches of rayon yarn, the evolution of the knitted spencer, and the connections between Norwegian and Shetland knitting designs in the first half of the twentieth century.
- The special computer code that Crawford’s husband, Gavin, developed to record stitch-by-stitch transcriptions of the entire study collection.
The topics may appear scattered, but upon reading it becomes clear that they are often linked in unexpected ways—one leading to another, all stops along the circuitous route any textile historian is bound to take as she beats the bushes for scanty evidence. Much of what Crawford presents is thrillingly unexpected. I gasped, frankly, at the contemporary accounts of local resistance to the rise of the commercial Fair Isle knitting. Far from being the immemorial expression of the local landscape—still a popular selling point—in the 1920 it was decried by many as radical and tasteless, and often blamed for the near-extinction of local lace production.
Battle of the Bands
And then, yes, there are the patterns.
I don’t know if you, dear reader, have ever tried to “grade” a pattern–that is, to rewrite it for multiple sizes. My colleagues often compare it to hour twelve of a twenty-six hour labor, to root canals gone wrong, to spending the evening at a sex party with one’s own parents. It is, in other words, no fun at all.
It’s difficult enough to do that with patterns that were written for publication; but the pieces in Crawford’s selection were intended mainly to be one-offs—made for a particular person or reason, and not repeated. That’s even more difficult.
They display an eye-popping range of constructions: knit flat, knit in the round with steeks, knit in pieces and seamed. There are clever and attractive takes on finishes and trims as well, from shoulders and button loops to tassels and welts.
That, Crawford says, is part of the point. Modern thinking often reduces Shetland knitting to “a method,” with all jumpers, tams, etcetera being obedient variations on established formulae, covered by a canon of acceptable “native” motifs. But members of a living tradition don’t often feel bound to follow formulas; they seldom think of their own “authenticity.” Where a variation is wanted, a variation occurs. And they’re all “real” Shetland.
So, If you have come to believe that “real” Fair Isle must alternate OXO and peerie patterns in bands, or must build a jumper from the bottom up in the round in a particular way—brace yourself.
Man’s Munro vest
Many of the patterns do sport the classic Shetland look—the “Munro” vest (unisex, like much early Fair Isle, and shown on both a woman and a man) and the “Margaret” cardigan, for example. Horizontal color work bands, frequent changes of color, and so forth.
Woman’s Munro vest
But then there are showpieces like “Suffragette”–a stylish twenties long-line sweater with most of its bands running vertically across a bed of creamy white. The original was worked flat, in a technique that combines stranded color knitting and intarsia with grand success.
“Highland,” a short-sleeved jumper, does present the customary horizontal bands from the neckline to the underarms. Below that, however, the bodice divides into very Art Deco triangular panels—some continuing the bands, some worked in alternating “salt and pepper” color work.
Even small accessories like the “Helen” tam show off a knitter taking an idea and bending it.
The four pattern bands of the tam are knit separately, and knit flat. They run askew in the finished piece from the brim almost to the crown, set apart by panels of plain stockinette. The construction is wildly original and the effect is gorgeous. I feel with fatal certainty that I’m going to knit one for myself, even though I know full well what I look in a slouchy tam. (A mushroom. I look like mushroom.)
The lace patterns are equally distinguished, and a nice point of entry for the knitter who isn’t into shawls. The “Ethel” camisole is delicate without making the wearer look like a cream puff; it’s lace you can wear to a big, serious meeting without thinking twice.
All in all, there isn’t one design that is ho-hum, expected, or obviously included just to fill out the book. The patterns, on their own, would be an outstanding contribution to knitting literature. So, on their own, would the historical essays.
Together, I don’t know … is The Vintage Shetland Project a book? It doesn’t feel like a book. It feels like a monument.
Kate Davies is not a designer in need of much introduction. If you haven’t got one of her books (Colours of Shetland, Yokes, The Book of Haps, Inspired by Islay), ask the knitter next to you if she has any books by Kate Davies. She will say yes.
Davies’s deep love for Shetland and its history has been a common thread in her works. Some, like Yokes and The Book of Haps, tempt knitters to look more closely at the history of a garment by mixing solid research with intriguing patterns. Inspired by Islay pondered life and nature in a single locale deeply and thoughtfully; and drew from it remarkably varied inspiration.
Also in the Davies catalogue, however, is a slim volume too often overlooked by knitters—possibly because it has no patterns in it.
Shetland Oo: Wool, Textiles, Work (Kate Davies Designs, 2016) is a collaboration with photographer Tom Barr. He provides the pictures, she the words. (“Oo,” by the way, is the Shetlandic word for wool, not an ejaculation indicating delighted surprise.)
There is, as one expects from a Kate Davies book, a historical grounding. It’s top notch. “A Brief History of Work with Wool,” the opening chapter, presents the story of Shetland wool from the Neolithic Period to the present in the space of five illustrated pages. That’s a lot of pasture to cover, but Davies’s writing is up to the task. Spare and crystalline, every detail tells. She has the academic’s love of solid facts, but the storyteller’s gift for conveying it memorably to a casual reader.
But the past isn’t the focus of Shetland Oo. At the heart of the book are 25 portraits in prose and photographs of those who now, in our time, lead lives wrapped up in Shetland wool. (All the photos in the gallery at the top of this post are by Tom Barr, from Shetland Oo.)
Some of the choices are expected and welcome. Equal time is given to both Jamieson’s of Shetland, and Jamieson & Smith, the most famous purveyors of Shetland wool yarns. And as a longtime Shetland fanboy, I instantly recognized a cohort of handknitting celebrities, including Donna Smith (she of the Baa-ble Hat), Ella Gordon (who also appears, as a model, in The Vintage Shetland Project), and Hazel Tindall.
The book makes a point, however, that there is more going on than knitting. The authors introduce us to sheep breeders and wool graders; the owner of a sheepskin tannery; handspinners and weavers; designers and producers of commercial knitwear; modern artists who use the wool as their medium; and organizations like the Shetland Livestock Marketing Group and GlobalYell, which aim to support and promote the farmers (the former) and artists (the latter). The final profile, fittingly, is of the Shetland PeerieMakkers, a volunteer group that has stepped in to help keep knitting (no longer a part of the formal curriculum) a part of life for Shetland’s schoolchildren.
Barr’s photography and Davies’s writing are well matched. Her verbal sketches are admiring, but never fawning or quaint; these are modern people, living modern lives. His photographs make something handsome, even elegant, out of a towering pile of wool bales or an industrial spinning machine; yet they never sugarcoat that working with wool is work—more often than not, very hard work.
Accounts of the islands often lean heavily towards presenting them as a misty, time-warped wonderland inhabited by elves. Slightly grumpy elves, perhaps; but still, on the whole, a picturesque people leading twinkly lives. There is none of that in Shetland Oo. Shetland is no fairy tale, say Barr and Davies; but it’s no less amazing for being real.
Real, and amazing (Photo by Tom Barr. Photographs in gallery at the top are ALSO by TOM BARR.)