This year, I had the amazing (somewhat last minute) opportunity to visit the Shetland Islands during Shetland Wool Week. This amazing wool festival celebrates knitting, spinning, and other fibre textiles as well as the truly fascinating community and history of Shetland. One of my dear friends moved to Shetland over the summer, and part of her research revolves around the knitting community so it just seemed a perfect excuse – I mean chance – to go visit.
Getting to Shetland may seem daunting, but actually, the ferry was quite luxurious. I flew to Aberdeen in the afternoon and boarded the ferry in plenty of time to set sail at 7pm.
One of the first things I saw when I set foot in Lerwick was all the rainbows! They were everywhere! Bottom right is a picture of the famous Clickimin Broch.
After a ‘peerie’ hot chocolate at the Peerie Shop Cafe, which showcases local artists as well as serves the best hot chocolate, my first stop was Jamieson and Smith’s Woolbrokers. It was like visiting a candy shop for knitters – the colours and choices were overwhelming! I also got a sneak peek at their sorting room, where they sort the fleeces for their wool and for export.
Then we hit up Jamieson’s on the street, the other Shetland wool shop! So much wool, so much colour! So little time!
Then we attended a knitting group in Scalloway and spent some time pottering about Scalloway Castle.
That evening we went to a lecture on Baltic Knitting at the Shetland Museum and Archives. The museum is amazing – I highly recommend it! There is also a dedicated Textile Museum. It might be smaller but it also offers an astounding array of photos, examples of lace and fair isle knitting samples, and a small gift shop.
One day we went to a spinning wheel demonstration in Hoswick, in the southern part of the island. We chatted to several of the folk there, saw the premises of textile artist Nielanell. We were shown a demo of how to comb and prepare Shetland sheep fleece. (I took my sample back to my friend Siún’s house and spun it up on her Lendrum!)
Everywhere you turned in Shetland, the views were breathtaking!
Another day I took a trip out to Whalsay, a tiny island in the east. The ferry took about 25 minutes, and then I found myself in the company of a lovely woman named Joan who showed me all around the island, introduced me to her family and her fellow Shetland Guild members, and showed me around the Heritage Centre. Its history is fascinating, and the small centre has an amazing collection of knitwear, WWII displays and detailed accounts of the fishing industry on Whalsay. Although most of the islanders work on mainland Shetland these days, it’s clear from the museum how important it used to be for everyone to pitch in at home. So while men fished, women took to textile crafts, selling their knitwear, taking orders, mending fishing nets, gutting and preparing fish for the markets, etc. The skill of the knitting, spinning, and lace making was truly incredible.
And then there was the Saturday Craft Market to attend, with local wares and handmades, and the famous Sunday Tea in Tingwall with more homebakes than you could possibly imagine (or eat! Although we did our best! And yes, they were all lovely!). The Shetland Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers also had a display, and their spinners were graciously giving a demo.
The top middle photo is one of Ina Irvine’s intricate lace haps, and top right is one of Kathleen Anderson’s. Both were knit with handspun Shetland fleece in a cobweb weight and double plied. Bottom left is Kathleen’s mini hap in progress, and bottom right is a snap of Ina Irvine’s superfine lace bobbin. The Guild were so friendly, and so knowledgeable, it was almost overwhelming to be in their awesome presence and witness such skill!
And a trip to Shetland wouldn’t be complete without witnessing the famous Flock Book, which is where they assess and grade different flocks and pedigrees of Shetland Sheep.
Shetland is one of those places that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. Not just because of its northernly location, but because the skies are enormous and the landscape lends itself to vast expanses of rolling hills and spectacular cloud formations. Bring your wellies, grab some provisions and it’s not long before you’re on your own in the blessed silence, with just the occasional bleat of nearby ever-present sheep. Just don’t forget your knitting!
Top left is Ella Gordon’s Crofthoose Hat pattern, the official pattern of Shetland Wool Week 2016.