As you may have gathered, I’m back from Shetland Wool Week 2017!
I thought this year’s event was particularly good and I had a truly amazing time. Today I want to reflect a bit on what makes Wool Week so special; every year I return invigorated, inspired and humbled by being in this beautiful place surrounded by so many wonderful people and I thought that those of you unable to attend would appreciate reading about it and seeing some pictures.
The success and popularity of Shetland Wool Week come down to exceptional people organising the event; a close-knit community with wool and knitting embedded deeply throughout; a loyal global fanbase for Shetland Wool and Shetland Knitting Traditions; and a focus on developing the Shetland Wool Week programme in ways that ensure that the benefits and exposure of Wool Week are felt throughout the Islands. Inclusive, culturally enriching, people-focused and life-affirming, Shetland Wool Week is a true community effort, the beating heart of which is a superbly talented and hard-working team. Thank you Misa, Emma, Carol and Victoria for all the work you do each year to make Wool Week amazing… and to all the other Shetland businesses and wool workers whose labour makes this event so wondrous (I’m looking at you particularly, Woolbroker buddies).
Wool Week has grown from strength to strength since it started eight years ago, and is more widely attended each year. There are people who return annually, but I saw many new faces this year too. Comrades come from all over the world to experience the rich programme of classes, exhibitions and events and there really is something for everyone.
One of the most successful traditions that has emerged out of the festival is the Wool Week hat – a trend started by Hazel Tindall in 2014, with her iconic Shwook design.
The premise is superb: the Wool Week patron for the year designs a hat. For the last couple of years this special design has launched at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival giving several months’ time for Shetland Wool Week buddies to make up the pattern. Many knitters go to Shetland wearing their hats, where they create a rich sense of knitterly camaraderie and collectivism amongst their wearers. For knitters unable to attend, knitting the official hat produces a feeling of vicarious participation.
I have knit all the designs so far – Shwook by Hazel Tindall (2014); Baa-ble hat by Donna Smith (2015); Crofthoose hat by Ella Gordon (2016) – and on the ferry to Shetland, I finally cast on my 2017 Bousta Beanie by Gudrun Johnston (it’s blocking as I type). The Bousta Beanie is brilliantly simple and addictive and I can see why many folks have knitted more than one.
The motif is suitable for anyone new to the technique of using two colours at a time and the palette is infinitely customisable. You can use the three shades called for in the pattern, or expand on the palette to use more shades. You can even incorporate the motif – as this lady did – into your own hybrid hat celebrating several patrons’ designs in a single hat.
The hats have not gone unnoticed by the non-knitters of Lerwick. I had to get some antibiotics while in Shetland and the Doctor I saw commented on how wonderful Wool Week “and the hats” are each year. The lovely friendly folk at the Isleburgh Community Centre where I teach many of my classes said something similar, and my Airbnb hosts also commented on the joyous annual influx of colourful, proudly hatted knitters. The hats make Wool Week visible to the town, and Wool Weekers visible to each other. Through the unique visions of each of the patrons, each hat designed so far has foregrounded an aspect of Shetland’s textile heritage – Fair Isle colour combinations in Hazel’s Shwook; Shetland sheep in Donna’s Baa-ble hat; the history of crofting in Ella’s Crofthoose hat; and the colours of the Shetland landscape (particularly Bousta in Sandness!) in Gudrun’s Bousta Beanie. Hurrah for the hats and everything they represent!
As well as spotting all the hats around town, I love walking down Commercial Street and seeing how local businesses have decorated their shop windows in honour of Wool Week.
This year I was delighted to discover that the local chocolatier – Mirrie Dancers – have produced chocolate bars on which Fair Isle designs are printed with edible ink. I love this and all the other ways in which the whole of Shetland seems to embrace Wool Week. The chocolate is a happy reminder of how deeply wool and knitting heritage are embedded in everyday life in Shetland, but it also demonstrates the economic opportunities presented by the continuing success of Wool Week. It was super this year to see so many home-grown Shetland products launching to coincide with Wool Week. Donna Smith’s Langsoond Yarn; Hazel Tindall and Elizabeth Johnston’s highly recommended instructional DVD; and Jamieson & Smith’s eponymous book of history and patterns, to name just a few. Last year the Shetland Times reported that Wool Week boosts the economy in Shetland to the tune of £500k which surely goes some way towards ensuring a vibrant future for wool in Shetland.
Shetland Wool Week attracts tutors and attendees from all over the world, yet maintains an innate and precious sense of place. This balance is down to the team who have a brilliant ability to think both globally and locally. Introducing visitors from outwith Shetland to the all the great things happening on a community level around the isles, they simultaneously find ways to recognise Shetland’s position as an International epicentre of cultural exchange. Last year the renowned Estonian designer Kristi Jõeste taught and spoke about Estonian knitting and contributed a beautiful Estonian glove design to the Annual and this year, Japanese designer Chihiro Sato launched her gorgeous book Enjoy Fair Isle Knitting at the Shetland Times Bookshop. These are just two examples from a much longer list but to me they demonstrate perfectly how Shetland manages a justified pride in its native textile traditions, whilst also warmly welcoming and embracing outside influences and celebrating the work of comrades (like Chihiro) who have taken those traditions in new directions.
As an outsider myself, Chihiro Sato’s words at the opening of her book really resonate and I’m sure if you are a visitor, they will resonate with you too.
The reason why I keep coming back to Shetland is not only that I love knitting but also that the nature and the people enchant me.
Wool Week is brilliant for highlighting what people in Shetland are doing with wool. On the night of the opening ceremony it was inspiring to hear from Caroline Simpson who runs the Maakin and Yaakin group at Anderson High School. Caroline explained how, throughout the week, young knitters at the school are discovering the joy of knitting in lunchtime breaks and after-school knitting sessions. Several of these comrades visited the Shetland Wool Week hub to knit and meet knitters from outwith Shetland and it was a joy to see what they are making, and to hear Caroline speak about how the Maakin and Yaakin group is popularising knitting amongst Shetland’s teenagers. Knitting was taught as part of a Shetland education up until the funding was cut in 2010. Since then, it is grassroots initiatives like Maakin and Yaakin and the Peerie Makkers that are keeping the craft alive amongst schoolgoers. For those of us like myself who returned to knitting in our twenties, it is beyond inspiring to see the complex and ambitious things being made by Shetland’s young knitters.
Also at the opening ceremony we saw a fantastic fashion show including work by recent graduates of the University of the Highlands and Islands. I failed to take any photos but was thrilled to see how the next generation of textile graduates are taking Shetland’s knitting traditions forward in unique ways. I was especially struck by the poetry of Kirsty Nicolson’s creations which, as this article puts it, incorporate “some thought-provoking political inspiration – among them an armoured knit representing an ‘assertion of power’ for women, and also a cardigan inspired by the coarse Scottish language used in recent protests against Donald Trump”. Drawing inspiration from the gansey (traditionally worn by fishermen), Nicolson had developed a beautiful bomber jacket for women to wear and I think the other garment to which the above quote refers is a cardigan with all kinds of words inscribed inside it. It was fantastic to see handknitting classics being appropriated and developed like this to speak to the current political moment and a privilege to see the work in person.
We also heard some very moving words from Jacqui Clark. Her poems about knitting, dementia and memory feature in the booklet Reflections Apo Hands beside John Coutts’ sensitive photographs of older knitters’ hands. The booklet was produced by Alzheimer Scotland and Shetland For Wirds and was launched at the opening ceremony.
Throughout the week, representatives from Alzheimer Scotland were at the hub, speaking with knitters about the role that knitting can play in the lives of older people living with Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It was really good and thought provoking to learn a bit about the real and important ways in which our craft can play a positive role here for people with dementia and their families.
Another highlight of Shetland Wool Week this year was seeing the launch of Donna Smith’s beautiful Langsoond Yarn. Spun from the fleeces of her own and her neighbours’ fleeces, this soft and characterful wool is imbued with the same sense of place and thoughtful beauty as Donna’s distinctive knitwear designs. One of my happiest memories from this year’s Wool Week is of helping to tie tags onto these precious skeins, and feeling lucky to be able to play a tiny role in the living wool industry that is, after all, the very point of Shetland Wool Week. Thanks for having us over, Donna! Such a jolly evening.
A gorgeous portrait of Donna with her yarn features in People Who Touch Wool – a superb exhibition of photographs of Shetland’s wool-workers, taken by photographer Alex Boak. I felt it was inspired to programme this exhibit to coincide with Wool Week. The hub this year was amazing – lamps and sofas and free tea and coffee in a large, well-lit space facilitated endless knitterly meetups and conversations. Every time I popped in it was packed! And because of the exhibition, we were surrounded by images reminding us of the many hands through which our wool has passed on its way to our needles. To me, the presence of Boak’s photos in the hub is emblematic of how Shetland Wool Week always foregrounds and emphasises connections between Shetland’s working landscape and our contemporary craft of knitting. I love the quiet dignity of Boak’s portraits which celebrate wool workers in a way I find reminiscent of Tom Barr’s portraits in the book, Shetland Oo.
Sheep have always had their place in Wool Week and this year a very jolly time was had at Gremista farm, meeting Shetland sheep, eating Shetland lamb and learning about what constitutes a good fleece.
Also on the theme of sheep, I confess I shed a tear at the magnificently sheepy exhibit displayed in the Shetland Museum and fittingly titled Ode to Sheep. Maja Siska’s woven, felted, embroidered works are an evocative meditation on the character and beauty of the Icelandic sheep with which she is surrounded in her home in Iceland. Again, it is just like Shetland Wool Week to programme a thoughtful, soulful, deeply sheepy exhibition to coincide with Wool Week; a reminder to all of us in attendance of the magical creatures on which our work is ultimately based.
In conclusion, what a wonderful week full of local and International woolly talent; world famous Shetland hospitality; ten million amazing Bousta Beanie hats; a tide of enthusiasm; an inclusive programme; and a celebration of wool that draws on the past but that is always looking forward to the future. Such an honour to be able to come and teach at this event, and so wonderful to be able to share wool on this level with so many buddies.
Thanks to everyone I met in Shetland… you too helped make Shetland Wool Week 2017 rich and memorable.
I’ll say more about my classes in another post but, for now,
YOURS IN MAXIMUM SHETLAND WOOL WEEK APPRECIATION,