KNIT A SONG OF SHETLAND

This is one of four pieces produced for workshops delivered for the Museum of English Rural Life – or the MERL for short – as part of their research project, “Making, Using and Enjoying”. The MERL commissioned writers, makers, artists and craftspeople to explore ways of engaging with museum collections through creativity and you can read more about it here.

I delivered four workshops at the MERL between March and April 2018 as part of this project. In each session, I was joined by local knitters and, together, we explored a different part of the Museum’s collection through knitting and sound.

This episode was created for the second session in the series: KNIT A SONG OF SHETLAND. The inspiration came from looking at a pair of hand-knitted ladies’ woollen gloves which are part of a larger collection held by the MERL.

The gloves were acquired from the British Council in 1960 for a touring exhibition representing craft products made in the British Isles. They were supplied to the exhibition by the Shetland Handknitters’ Association and are decorated with a characteristic Shetland star pattern. The knitter of these gloves employed a special technique to create a red line running around the edge of each of the fingers. Ordinarily, the side stitches on a pair of Fair Isle gloves would be worked in the same contrasting colour as the main pattern to produce this effect, but since there is no pattern on the fingers of these gloves, the red stitches outlining each one must have been added retrospectively after the main knitting was done, using duplicate stitch or a crochet hook. The gloves were knitted in 1945 or 1946 and what I was thinking about when I was studying them, is the continuity of the Shetland wool trade which has been alive since well before that date right up to the present day. The endurance and long history of Shetland knitting are part of what set it apart as a knitting destination. Having been lucky enough to visit Shetland several times in the past few years, I wanted to share some of the sounds from there with knitters in Reading, as we worked on a project based on these gloves. I wanted to celebrate, with fellow knitters, the special connections between the gloves held at the MERL and the people, labour, animals and places lying behind today’s thriving Shetland wool industry.

In KNIT A SONG OF SHETLAND, we knit pincushions using Jamieson & Smith 2 ply Jumper Weight Yarn in shades 34 and 93, which are very close to the shades used in the original gloves.

Jamieson & Smith began life in the 1930s and continue a flourishing trade today. Their beautiful yarns are hugely popular with contemporary designers and knitters alike but retain an immense sense of history and heritage. A member of the team there and an independent knitwear designer – Ella Gordon – provided some insights about how the gloves might have had the red line added after being knit. I incorporated the tutorial she shared into the construction of the pincushion and our discussion of technique continued in the workshop, as we worked on our pincushions and listened to the landscape where the gloves – and our wool – had come. You can buy the same wool we used in our workshop here.

This work was commissioned by the MERL for the project “Making, Using and Enjoying: The Museum of the Intangible”. The project is funded by the Arts Council England (ACE) Designation Development Fund.

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