As you will know by now, one of my favourite activities involves translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork using The KNITSONIK System. I love this process because I find that it’s easier to develop amazing stranded colourwork patterns with the help of a friendly inspiration source, and because the process of looking and exploring can really deepen appreciation for a special place or object.
For much of my teaching at Shetland Wool Week this year, I decided to apply The KNITSONIK System to the special context of Shetland. I thought it would be really lovely to explore places and objects from these isles through the medium of knitting. In my classes for Jamieson & Smith (of which more in a later post) I curated palettes based on photos taken in special places in Shetland. However with the help and support of Dr Carol Christiansen, Shetland Museum and Archives Textile Curator, I was also able to put on a class in the Shetland Museum in which we used old knitting sheaths as inspiration for designing stranded colourwork.
Knitting sheaths were used in Shetland before knitting belts and probably also before steel knitting needles became widely available. They were stuffed into a belt at the knitter’s side to anchor a needle there as she knitted. There is only one photo of a sheath in use in the Shetland Museum Archives which can be seen here.
I spent a happy day researching for this class. I unwrapped and examined the sheaths held in the store rooms of The Shetland Museum and Archives and learnt about these knitting tools from Carol*. Two years ago when I was working on my project Listening to Shetland Wool I was struck by the close intersections between fishing and knitting in the history of the isles. Often when listening to sheep grazing you can also hear seabirds, and most crofts were sustained on a dual income from fishing and the sale of knitted goods. This is why my song about Shetland Wool includes the line “stories of fishing and knitwear entwined…”. The knitting sheaths are further evidence of this intertwining of fishing and knitting. They were created by tying the quills of many feathers together that were then wrapped tightly together with a woven exterior. The feathers could easily have been found anywhere where there were seabirds, and many of the woven exteriors include the types of knots used by sailors. Some of the sheaths also have a kind of coating which has rendered the knotted/woven exterior both waterproof and stiff.
I find these sheaths very moving. They contain evidence of shared labour; that of their maker and of the knitters who used them. Some of them are lighter in places, either from being weathered or from rubbing against the clothes of their wearer. Studying the sheaths brings these details to notice…
…I love things and how expressive they can be of the lives in which they were employed. As well as containing many references to sailing and knitting, in one of the sheaths all the quills are split. This could either be from overuse, or from the knitter using steel needles. (One of the reasons the sheaths are thought to have been used before the widespread availability of steel needles is that steel needles were a bit too rough to be held securely by the feather quills.) But any of those outcomes describe the heavy work to which a knitting sheath was once put to use in Shetland and make descriptions of the labour involved in the Shetland hosiery trade visible, tangible.
Another sheath looks knitted but is in fact woven; the yarns of which it is comprised have faded to very soft shades in the main part of the sheath-covering, but an unravelled section at the base not yet bleached by light and time reveals the lurid shades of the yarn originally used. This yarn was mill-spun and according to Carol the garish colours are classically Victorian. If I was listening correctly, Carol also said that mill-spun yarn wasn’t really available on Shetland until years after the sheaths fell out of use, so this yarn was probably found on a sailor’s travels before being intricately turned into a knitting sheath.
This particular sheath was the object of much admiration in my KNITSONIK class! The wavy lines and knitterly composition of the maker’s design really seemed to appeal to many of the knitters, who created zig zags and colour sequences based on this evocative object.
Carol came to talk to us about the knitting sheaths and to answer questions and it was really a privilege to see creative and factual explorations of the past coming together. We spoke about the materials available to the Shetlanders who made these sheaths, and how they might have been used. We talked about the effects of time, weather and work.
We also spoke about how you would use yarn to describe these things… how one might sequence blues and reds to replicate the structure of worn, woven leather… and of the close correlation between shade FC43 in the J&S range and the creamy parts of the feather quills.
The faded effects of time on reds and blacks was the focus for some really beautiful and subtle knitterly interpretation; these shading schemes grew from turning the sheaths around and holding balls of yarn against them to match the colours.
We appreciated a brightly coloured tassel and its corresponding matches within currently available yarn ranges.
And I learnt about the shades and colours of these wonderful objects through picking an appropriate palette.
I really love working with Museum collections and am particularly interested in how creative processes can be used to explore the objects held in such collections. Creative investigation can reveal objects in new and exciting lights and can make you see precious things like the knitting sheaths in a totally different way. It felt particularly fitting to celebrate knitting sheaths using the very craft in which they were originally made and employed.
It was really inspiring and a huge privilege to be able to work with the Shetland Museum & Archives to develop this class and I hope that everyone who came enjoyed discovering the knitting sheaths as much as I did. Thank you very much to Dr Carol Christiansen, The Shetland Museum and Archives and Jamieson & Smith for making it possible for us to knit from Shetland’s textile past!
I would be so interested to find any other information about knitting sheaths in Shetland – if you have details or memories of these objects and their use (or in how they were made) please do get in touch!
*You can read Carol’s article about knitting sheaths in edition no. 23 of Unkans – the newsletter produced by the Shetland Museum and Archives: PDF download link here.