Fair Isle straw back chair making
The making of Fair Isle chairs with a wooden base and a straw back, similar to the Orkney chair but with distinctly different frame construction and a unique technique of straw work created through knotting rather than stitching rows of straw (see also chair making, Orkney chair making and straw working).
|Craft category||Wood, straw|
|Historic area of significance||Fair Isle, Shetland|
|Area currently practised||Fair Isle, Shetland|
|Origin in the UK||Probably mid 19th century, although this is difficult to verify.|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||0|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
There was a strong tradition of chair making (all types) in Fair Isle throughout the 1800s, continuing in to the early 20th century and probably extending from much earlier, though it is hard to date examples. For a period, chair making on the island was done for commercial as well as creative purposes and was potentially as important an industry for the men of the isle as knitting was for the women, although there is little proof of commercial production other than oral history.
The chair bases were made of a jointed and pinned timber frame of a variety of timber types. No locally-grown timber was available and all timber construction on the island was from wood salvaged from the sea – either as parts of ships or as cargoes lost overboard or during a wreck.
The straw backs were then formed on the chair bases from lengths of cleaned straw or ‘gloy’. This was historically the bi-product of the oat crop and was used for all manner of day to day items including thatched roofs, ropes and baskets. The straw in Fair Isle straw backs is secured by tightly knotting (rather than stitching) cotton fishing line, which was more readily available than sisal or bent grass since the island’s primary income at that time was through fishing. This knotting technique is unusual in straw work of the Northern Isles and has not been identified in other straw backed chairs in the area.
There are some very clear features that can identify a Fair Isle made chair from those produced in neighbouring areas of Orkney and Shetland. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the straw backed chairs, which differ significantly from Orkney chairs; not only by a very different method of construction in their timber frame but also in a very different straw working technique – using a knotting system, rather than stitching. There are also very clear identifying details in the typical arm chairs and side chairs. There is one furniture maker in Shetland who produces replica Shetland-style armchairs as part of his repertoire, but it is not a common craft, and there is no one who replicates the traditional Fair Isle styles.
There was a strong tradition of chair making (all types) in Fair Isle throughout the 1800s, continuing in to the early 20th century and probably extending from much earlier, though it is hard to date examples. The predecessors of the straw backed chairs were the simple side chairs and grander armchairs – both of which boast unique details which clearly differentiate them from their neighbours in Orkney and Shetland.
There are some amateur makers and one professional maker of Shetland chairs, but none whom make the Fair Isle styles, In Orkney, the chair makers are focused entirely on the popular straw backed style and do not recreate the other styles today.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Currently the sole practitioner is in his 70s and suffering from poor health.
- Falling population on the island means there are limited potential makers available to learn the craft.
- There is currently no one who is taking up the craft as a business.
- The physical isolation of Fair Isle and poor internet provision provide particular challenges to craft business in terms of sales, marketing and transport of raw materials and finished product.
- Shetland black oats for straw backs is becoming exceptionally hard to come by as so few people grow it due to the challenging growing climate.
Craftspeople currently known
- Stewart Thomson – it is well known on the island that only one maker has practised this craft since the 1990s – Stewart Thomson. Stewart now only makes chairs as a hobby and for special commissions.
In the early 1990s one craftsman, Stewart Thomson (junior), revived the straw backed chair making tradition on the Isle and has made around 80 straw backed chairs in this time. Stewart based his chairs on an example made by his grandfather and later adapted the timber frame to his own design, while still using the traditional knotted straw technique in the backs. He also grows and hand harvests his own Shetland black oats for the straw backs. Now in his 70s, Stewart suffers from severe arthritis and other medical conditions, which have severely limited the number of chairs he is producing – he has made one in the past year.
Stewart is working with Eve Eunson on Fair Isle as part of her research into the chairs. Another islander is also learning. However, there is scope for a professional craft practice on the island should there be interest in doing so.
Eve Eunson is currently researching and recording ALL existing examples of chairs made on Fair Isle, with some limited financial support through the Shetland Amenity Trust. This information is likely to be published in due course and her research notes will be made available at the Shetland Museum and Archives.