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Shetland lace knitting

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Shetland lace knitting

 

The making of very fine hand-knitted lace using garter stitch. 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.

 

Status Endangered
Group or community to which this craft is culturally important e.g. geographical, religious community, cultural identity, cultural practice, traditional industry or occupation Shetland Islands and Shetland diaspora communities.

Shetland lace is particularly associated with the Island of Unst.

Group or community where this craft is currently practised
Unst, Shetland and within diaspora communities.
Origin in the UK The Shetland Lace industry was at its height in the 19th Century.
Current no. of professionals (main income) 0
Current number of makers and/or people who hold the knowledge of this craft within the community 21-30 knitters working traditional Shetland Lace within the Shetland Islands
Current number of trainees and/or people who are learning the craft Not known, however there is a growing interest in lace in Shetland and a number of small groups and classes where people will learn.
Other makers
5000 +

Shetland lace knitting is only being passed on to a small extent within Shetland.

However, a version of it continues due to the general worldwide burgeoning popularity of knitting. Knitters are mostly looking to Ravelry and published patterns from popular authors to create and interpret decorative ‘lacy’ patterns, to include in their knitting

 

History

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.

 

Techniques

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.

 

Local forms

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.

 

Sub-crafts

  • 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

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

Individual craftspeople:

 

Training providers

  • Peerie Makkers – these groups are offered as an optional, usually lunchtime knitting tuition group, taught by volunteers in Primary Schools. These are usually led by experienced Shetland knitters, sometimes fine lace knitters. For example, Kathleen Anderson is the leader for Peerie Makkers at Skeld Primary School on the Westside. It is only able to offer basic level skills because of the time available, half an hour a week in term time in Skeld and the age of the children. However, the children progress from no knowledge of knitting, through garter stitch to basic lace stitches and or Fair Isle. Knitting belts are used or offered and Fair Isle is taught using a total of three needles, which is the usual way in Shetland.
  • Elizabeth Williamson – provides short courses

 

Other information

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 6,000 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.

 

References