Shetland Wool Week: Through the eyes of an Island newbie
Siún Carden, the designer of the beautiful Libran Shawl from Issue 5 recently moved to Shetland, coincidentally, right in time for Shetland Wool Week. Her guest blog post explores are the wonderful goings-on at this fabulous festival. Her insights bring the festival to life and make us want to book for next year already.
I moved to Shetland in the summer and couldn’t wait for my first Shetland Wool Week. Now it’s over I can’t wait for the next one!
While some big knitting events can feel like frenzied retail opportunities (and nothing wrong with that) SWW is more than a shopping trip. No-one goes home empty-handed and yarn shop counters are piled with squishy parcels addressed all over the world, but there’s also loads to be learned and experienced that you can’t get anywhere else.
Whatever your particular interest in wool you can get up close to every stage of the process, among accessible archival resources, the unique landscape and the stars of the show, the Shetland sheep. I’m currently researching the value and meaning of Shetland hand knitting, so seeing how different strands of the knitting world meet in Shetland was fascinating as a researcher as well as a knitter.
One of the special things about SWW is how many of the teachers and speakers are local. Shetland is a small place with a huge knitting history and the range of expertise in these islands is staggering. This also attracts international designers, teachers and speakers.
I did a class on Fair Isle Yoke Tips taught by a mother and daughter team (Janette Budge and Jeannie Tulloch). Jeannie was one of many Shetland women who knitted Fair Isle jumper yokes for sale, alongside croft work, during the decades when hand knitting was a widespread commercial activity. She would never have taught a class alone as, typically, she doesn’t see herself as any kind of expert – knitting for sale was just what everyone did. In the process of talking her into a joint class, Janette learned more about her mother’s knitting history. As a conservative estimate she must have knitted 600 yokes, which I think makes her more than qualified to give us some tips!
As well as classes there are endless talks and demos. Louise Scollay (@knitbritish) gave an inspiring presentation about her experience running the Happalong, a Ravelry KAL that turned into a mass rediscovery of an everyday hero of a garment, the Shetland hap. Anne Sinclair put us straight on the history of Fair Isle knitting as it emerged on the island of Fair Isle (rather than as a generic two-colour technique). Carol Christiansen, the Shetland Museum’s textiles curator, updated us on research into Shetland lace knitting with Roslyn Chapman of the University of Glasgow’s Knitting in the Round project. Lots of designers shared their very different design processes, from Outi Kater’s folklore-inspired mitten patterns to Nielanell’s modern colourwork garments. It was good to see amazing things made by very young knitters through the Peerie Makkers (‘little knitters’) knitting groups.
Wherever you go, you see knitters spotting each other by their knitting. This year’s free Wool Week pattern, Ella Gordon’s Crofthoose Hat, was seen in every conceivable colour variation, and there were plenty of reunions of Donna Smith’s Baa-ble Hat from 2015. By the end of the week everyone’s glad to sit down for a Sunday Tea (a Shetland institution) run by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers.
Many classes sell out in a flash, so you need to keep an eye out and book early. That said, there are so many free or informal things to see and do that the in-between times can be the best bit. The absolute highlight of my Wool Week was a casual ‘makkin n yakkin’ session where 30 knitters aged between 11 and 92 relaxed over the ever-present ‘homebakes’ and exclaimed at each other’s creations. So much beautiful Fair Isle, some of it from such new knitters. We were also lucky enough to see phenomenal Shetland lace (by sisters Anne Eunson and Kathleen Anderson) being handled close up, which gave a totally different impression than photographs and static displays.
A world map in the Wool Week Hub showed the far-flung places visitors had travelled from. There were thick bunches of name tags dangling from all over north America and Europe, but surprisingly few from Ireland (north or south). It’s worth the trip. I’ll put the kettle on!
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