There are many special places in Shetland, but one of my favourites is the road to Heoghland. This single-track road winds its way north from East Burra, hugging the peatlands and the hills, through a wide open landscape dotted with bog-cotton, sphagnum moss and sheep. This is where my friend Caroline walks every single day – come rain or shine – with her beloved canine buddy, Jubi. My terrible attempts at properly pronouncing it – DA HEE-YO-LAND RRRRRRODDD – have been the source of much amusement in conversations where we’ve traded words and expressions from Croydon in southeast London (where I grew up) and words and expressions from Burra in southwest Shetland (where Caroline did).
Back in 2019 when I came to Shetland for Wool Week, I had booked us into a sock-blank painting workshop with Niela Kalra at the Hoswick Visitor Centre. Earlier that day we took a walk up Da Heoghland Rodd with Jubi and shared all our news. It was a fine day; the light was amazing; and I remember feeling incredibly excited about being in Burra with all the sea and sky around me. In high spirits and full of all the green and blue of our walk, we set off to Hoswick for our class.
If you’ve ever attended one of Niela’s workshops or talks, or seen the beautiful and distinctive garments she produces under her Nielanell label, you’ll know that Niela is an awesome creative force. I have never forgotten how she spoke at the opening ceremony for Wool Week in 2015 about the amazing costumes she had designed for Hjaltibonhoga, intended to dance and glimmer when they played their fiddles – just like The Mirrie Dancers (The Northern Lights). I was so excited for her workshop and, in a joyous spirit of fun, generosity and permission, she led us through the process of dyeing a sock-blank. We spent several happy hours with Niela, mixing colours, painting them onto yarn, and having lovely informal workshop conversations about creative process and inspiration.
A glittering table of dreams held all the dyestuffs, jam-jars, newspaper and brushes we could ever need for painting our sock-blanks. These were ingenious lengths of machine-knit fabric, in which two strands of plain white Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight yarn had been knit double. The idea, Niela explained, was that we could paint this knitted fabric and then unravel the two balls in order to knit up two identical socks.
We could have been really strategic about stripe/colour-change placement etc. and meticulously planned out some sort of clever, self-patterning sock design but full of the walk we’d had and a shared sense of adventure, Caroline and I decided instead to make sock-blanks inspired by Da Heoghland Rodd. We planned to each swap one of our balls later, and to then create two non-identical pairs of striped socks. I was thinking about sphagnum moss dotted with tiny pink and yellow flowers, while Caroline was thinking about the night skies, The Mirrie Dancers, and the dramatic evening light in winter and walking Jubi up Da Heoghland Rodd after work. With much splashing, laughter, mess-making and encouragement from Niela, we made these.
Throughout Shetland Wool Week 2019, the project only grew more fun. The blanks were ceremoniously unravelled and re-balled one memorable evening at Donna’s house amongst friends and wool work, and we searched excitedly for the ideal pattern – eventually settling on the superb Ragrug pattern from Mia Dehmer (VickeVira) on Ravelry. The plan grew: we would knit the socks and then WEAR THEM TOGETHER FOR A WALK ON DA HEOGHLAND RODD WHEN NEXT I RETURNED TO SHETLAND! In the weeks that followed Caroline knit her socks. I was all set to start mine, and then the pandemic happened and we weren’t sure about many things at all – including when it might be possible to walk again together on Da Heoghland Rodd.
When my parents revealed that they were coming to Shetland, I thought of the socks and, on the ferry on the way to Shetland this July, finally cast them on.
From the beginning of this knit I just loved the unpredictable ways in which our spontaneous, fun and unplanned sock yarns danced together. JUST ONE MORE STRIPE, I found myself thinking. I knit JUST ONE MORE STRIPE on the ferry after dinner, at breakfast, sitting in the car waiting for the inter-island-ferries on the journey up to Unst, in my bed while recovering from the evil side-effects of my arthritis-meds injections and, finally, in the same spot at Donna’s house where the balls were wound one night three years ago.
The socks were momentously completed on the last day of my stay, with just enough time for us to wear them on a walk up Da Heoghland Rodd.
We did slightly different things with heels and ankles – for which a single shade is called in this particular pattern. I went for one sock with heel, toe and cuff in Caroline’s purple yarn and one sock with heel, toe and cuff in my green one; I think Caroline made both her heels purple and both her toes green. I love our same but different pairs of mismatched socks and how they – like us – are friends.
Many of the colours in our yarns can be found in the landscape. Others are now a part of its memory through our walking and our making.
Even though I am almost certain I will wear the toes and heels out in no time at all, and though I’m sure they will need millions of darns, these are my favourite socks. It will be a pleasure to mend them when they wear through, as I will only ever wear these socks on this road, with Caroline and Jubi, and all the holes will be the product of joyful time well spent.
I can’t wait to go back.
YOURS IN WHEN KNITTING IS SO MUCH MORE THAN KNITTING,
Until soon, Fx