Shetland lace knitting
The making of very fine hand-knitted lace. Shetland fine lace is an extremely delicate knitted fabric made with soft Shetland wool spun into very fine yarn and knitted into intricate patterns. It is traditionally knitted by hand on wires using a knitting belt.
|Historic area of significance||Unst, Shetland|
|Area currently practised||Shetland|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||0|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
||Estimated at 5-10
There is 1 professional maker that we know of, Sheila Fowlie, and some others that may take occasional commissions.
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
||Estimated at 11-20.
These are people who have the skills but, of these, it is unlikely that they would consider doing it for money.
|Current total no. of leisure makers
||Not known, see ‘other information’|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Shetland lace was the mainstay of the Shetland knitwear industry during the nineteenth century. Arthur Anderson, one of the founders of P&O Shipping Company, introduced Shetland shawls to Queen Victoria and from there it became fashionable for ladies to wear Shetland shawls and stockings. The knitters of Unst were renowned for their fine spun yarn and intricate lace items, a number of which can be seen at Unst Heritage Centre.
Lace knitting was not a full time occupation for many people and would have mostly been a secondary income for crofters and fishing families.
Traditionally the unwashed wool from Shetland sheep (the finest being around the neck) was carded or combed and worsted spun for strength on a Shetland spinnie (small upright spinning wheel) into an extremely fine thread, which even though twined into two ply could produce a shawl fine enough to be pulled through a wedding ring. In the twenty-first century a one ply commercial equivalent is available.
The complex every row patterns such as fern, cockle shell, eyelid, Madeira diamond, basket o’ flowers, puzzle and many others including distinct lace edges, are more suited to garter stitch items such as fine lace scarves, stoles and shawls, however can also be knitted into delicate tops. Small and repeating alternate row lace patterns such as razor shell, old shell, horseshoe and print o’ the wave can also be knitted in stocking stitch for garments such as jumpers and cardigans, and then it is called openwork.
True Shetland lace is traditionally knitted on fine double pointed needles (wires) using a leather knitting belt. This would have allowed the craftspeople to knit faster and when they were walking around.
There are many people knitting lace using the more contemporary techniques of circular needles, and referencing Shetland lace in their work. There are also other lace traditions in countries such as Estonia where very fine knitted lace is still made commercially.
However, the tradition of knitting on wires as it would have been traditionally done in Shetland, is becoming increasingly rare.
Spinning lace yarn
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- It is very difficult to make a viable income from knitting Shetland lace due to the huge amount of time and labour that goes into knitting each piece.
- Shetland lace has become less popular as a garment although the people who own them do often consider them to be highly prized possessions and the pinnacle of a knitter’s skill.
- The traditional methods of knitting on wires has been largely replaced with modern techniques such as using circular needles
- Shetland cobweb lace yarn is only available from a limited number of suppliers
Unst Heritage Centre
Shetland Museum and Archive
- Shetland Textile Museum
Craftspeople currently known
- Anne Eunson – lace knitter who famously knitted a Shetland Lace fence
- Kathleen Anderson
- Hazel Tindall
- Mary Kay
- Hazel Laurenson
- Sheila Fowlie
There are a high number of amateur makers all over the world who are lace knitting enthusiasts and they are often working at a highly skilled level. One facebook group has over 6000 members. However, there are very few people who knit commercially or professionally.
There are some knitters in Shetland that may take commissions but most will knit shawls as family heirlooms and as gifts.
Unst Heritage Lace: Recreating Vintage Shetland Lace – publication produced by Unst Heritage Centre
Textile collection at Shetland Museum and Archive
A Stitch In Time – Unst’s Fine Lace Knitting – publication available from Unst Heritage Centre
Chapman, R, (2015) The history of the fine lace knitting industry in nineteenth and early twentieth century Shetland, PhD thesis (University of Glasgow).