A Shetlanders Fair Isle Graph Book

One of the things I love best about doing a #knitsonikmittsalong is seeing how other comrades plan and chart motifs.

I personally enjoy casting on for the ribbing of the mitts in any colour and thinking ahead to what I’ll do next while I churn out the ribbed cuff. Once the ribbing’s done, I chart a bit, then knit what I’ve charted, then review the success of the shades and patterns, and figure out the next part. For the last two #knitsonikmittsalongs, I have then used the second mitt as an opportunity to refine or improve whatever I did in the first mitt. I like to approach it in a very modular way and I think you can see that in the way the motifs are stacked in segments in my finished mitts:

Previous #knitsonikmittsalong mitts: Magnolias and Silchester
Previous #knitsonikmittsalong mitts: Magnolias and Silchester

For my process I generally work in whatever pen or pencil I have to hand.

A working KNITSONIK chart!
A working KNITSONIK chart!

Once I’ve got a design roughly sketched out, I write the yarn shade names beside each row in two different columns; one for the pattern shade and one for the background shade. It doesn’t matter if the actual pattern shade is light and the background shade is dark because my monochrome charts have nothing to do with shading or colours… they just tell me, in my motifs, which stitches relate to the pattern, and which relate to the background.

Messy KNITSONIK drawings for speedy swatching!
Messy KNITSONIK drawings for speedy swatching!
KNITSONIK swatch developed from the messy charts shown above
KNITSONIK swatch developed from the messy charts shown above

I like to get my shapes down on paper ASAP so that I can get on with the joy of actually knitting them, and black and white charts give me the speed and flexibility I need. I can work one round of my design, look at it and, if I don’t like it, write a new shade name beside the next row of the chart and swap it into my knitting for the next round. As a result of this gung-ho approach, all my notebooks and #knitsonikmittsalong charts look a bit like this, and I confess that I feel a deep affection for my working drawings and all the happy knitting they enable.

A chart developed from looking at a Huntley & Palmer's Biscuit Tin...
A chart developed from looking at a Huntley & Palmer’s Biscuit Tin…

However, though I most often generate monochrome charts for speed and efficiency, I also find coloured pencils DEEPLY PLEASING – a sentiment in which I am clearly not alone!!! It seems that for many people (including me) organising coloured pencils is an essential part of gearing up for a good #knitsonikmittsalong.

Having quite the best day 😊 #knitsonik #knitsonikmittsalong #colouredpencils

A photo posted by Vivienne (@gandt71) on

Although no amount of colouring in charts with pencils will tell you precisely how your yarn shades will behave once knitted, exploring how colours work together before you begin knitting can be really helpful for planning shading sequences.

Useful illustrations in Alice Starmore's book of Fair Isle Knitting show how a design is transformed by being worked in different shades
Useful illustrations in Alice Starmore’s book of Fair Isle Knitting show how a design is transformed by being worked in different shades

Too, there is pleasure and joy in looking at coloured charts. Though they can be a bit less flexible to knit from in terms of swapping yarn shades in and out, a good coloured chart has a glorious suggestive power, and serves many other important and inspirational functions. Coloured charts show the whole look and feel of a design; they convey a sense of what a finished garment might look like; they speak to the colours and palettes of specific regions and cultures and – perhaps most importantly of all – they excite and inspire your own innate, knitterly sense of colour.

The coloured charts in Estonian Knitting 1 give an immediate impression of regional palettes
The coloured charts in Estonian Knitting 1 give an immediate impression of regional palettes

In a stunning book recently published by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, the role of coloured charts is expanded even further; A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book contains pages reproduced from two notebooks dating primarily from the 1930s and 1940s. These pages detail many possible Fair Isle patterns and colour combinations, and the notebooks from which they’ve been taken were once held in the possession of William (Bill) Henry. Here, coloured charts are not only a useful reference for your own stranded colourwork, but an amazing insight into, and record of, a particular moment in the history of Shetland knitting.

Glorious colours from the notebooks belonging to Bill Henry!
Glorious colours from the notebooks belonging to Bill Henry!

Bill Henry was born in North Yell and, by the mid-20th century, was in charge of the Hosiery Department at one of the largest and oldest woollen businesses in Shetland – at Anderson & Co. It isn’t clear whether the drawings in the notebooks are all his, or whether they have been compiled by a range of different, knitterly hands. we can however say with certainty that looking at these stunning drawings reveals an enormous amount of information about colour and pattern in Fair Isle Knitwear at this point in history.

I love the occasional notes on colours included with the charts
I love the occasional notes on colours included with the charts

In a fascinating introductory essay, Dr Carol Christiansen gives a rich background to the charts, speaking about Anderson & Co., the knitters who supplied the hosiery trade, and the ways in which the patterns found in Bill Henry’s notebooks relate to the broader historical context of their time. We learn that the swastika – an ancient symbol sometimes used in early examples of Fair Isle Knitting, prior to the rise of Nazism – is not recorded in Shetland knitwear made after 1934; and that Bill Henry had a son called Colin Noel, who seems connected, in some way, to ‘The Colin N Henry “Salad” Pattern’ that appears in the book.

The Colin N Henry Salad Pattern
The Colin N Henry Salad Pattern

Carol also writes about the Norwegian influence on Shetland knitting, pointing to the Norwegian motifs labelled as such and appearing in the reproductions from the second of the notebooks; and about how industrial developments and the increasing availability of machine-spun and commercially dyed yarns expanded the availability of materials and colours for the knitters of Shetland supplying the hosiery trade. She also intriguingly describes the differences between the notebooks reproduced in this book and another book produced by Ethel Henry, knitwear designer and knitter. Ethel was married to Bill’s older brother, and her book – unlike Bill Henry’s notebooks – has all the patterns ordered according to how many rows there are in each motif. She also doesn’t present her designs as completed colourways. In her books charts are shown with a white background, a yellow background beneath the centre of a motif, and motifs in dots of red, blue or green. The changing shades in her designs are there to guide the knitter as to when to change shades in pattern and background but are not prescriptive in showing the exact shade of every stitch involved. I have not seen Ethel Henry’s charts but from Carol’s description I am reminded of the charts of Robert Williamson featured in Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor; the green and red dots show where, in your particular shading scheme, you should change the colour of the working yarns.

Robert Williamson's charts, reproduced in Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor
Robert Williamson’s charts, reproduced in Fair Isle Knitting Patterns by Mary Macgregor

These differences are intriguing; both the organisation and the presentation of charts in Ethel’s book sound imminently practicable; organising them mathematically helps the knitter to plan a garment, and colouring them as described allows the knitter to adapt them to any given colourway. However as Carol suggests, Bill Henry’s book – in which the individual colour of every stitch in a motif is recorded – suggests that they were copied from knitwear itself. As such they sing of a vibrant moment in Shetland’s knitwear design history that was alive with richly patterned knitwear in glorious bright colours.

Glorious patterns!
Glorious patterns!
Who was Bert Parker?
Who was Bert Parker?

I really love that the physical quality of the notebooks has been preserved in this reproduction, and that we can glimpse the notebook pages as material objects with a tangible connection to the knitwear trade in Shetland. There is an argument that they may be easier to knit from if cleaned up, tidied into black and white charts and ordered more mathematically. However to do this would lose all the information about colours in knitwear during this period of history, and it would also strip the patterns of their important chronological order, and of the way that over a decade or so, they document shifts in trends and ideas. The little incidental notes – the names of people and of patterns – are details that tie these magnificent charts to history and people who are also remembered in the book’s beautiful dedication:

This book is dedicated to the many women and girls who knitted at all hours of the day and night, in all conditions, to keep the knitwear industry supplied with quality, hand-crafted garments.

The book, however, while celebrating the particular and intriguing history of these notebooks, is also firmly focused on the future. In the spirit of generosity and warmth that everyone who has ever been to a Shetland Guild Sunday Teas will instantly recognise, the opening page of the book invites you, the reader, to be inspired by the patterns and “to try them for yourselves in your own knitting.”

The temptation to do so is very great indeed! The prospect of knitting from these wonderful old notebooks is made all the richer for the book’s tangible connections to Shetland’s industrial past, and to real Fair Isle garments and knitters from history. Turning each page I feel you can sense the labour of the person colouring in the squares, and the presence of knitwear so exciting that you instantly want to recreate it for yourself.

You can buy this amazing book from the Shetland Times Book Shop, and I also have a copy to give away! To be in with a chance of winning a copy of this fantastic book, leave a comment about charting. Tell us about your favourite way to chart, charts you especially like, how you chart – it can be anything at all as long as it relates to charting! A name will be drawn at random from the list some time next week and I shall arrange postage of the book to you.

I hope you have enjoyed this evening’s discussion of charts, and a glimpse inside the beauteous pages of A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book in Colour. Many thanks to the amazing Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers for publishing this wonderful book; it is a gift to the knitting world and to anyone who is interested in tracing the history of Fair Isle knitwear!

THOSE COLOURS!
THOSE COLOURS!

YOURS IN CHARTS,
FX

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