Postcard from Shetland Museum shop (similar to these items) feat. knitwear photographed by Didier Piquer
It is over two years since Kate sent me this gorgeous postcard from the Shetland Museum, featuring beautiful knitwear and a fantastically enthusiastic, ALL-CAPS eulogy to Shetland opening with “FELIX!! THIS IS TRULY THE SPIRITUAL HOME OF KNITTING, THERE IS WOOL EVERYWHERE!” and ending with (underlined) “I AM COMING BACK AND YOU MUST COME TOO!”
The fruits of Kate’s own explorations of Shetland are incredibly inspiring. Even without the characteristically warm encouragement and delight in her postcard, the incredible things she has designed, written and knitted through her contact with this place and its rich textile heritage have blown my mind and made me long to travel there myself. I am sure many of you can relate to this.
Following in Kate’s footsteps to Shetland to act as this year’s Wool Week Patron and to work on creative projects involving wool, writing, blogging, textiles and sound feels like stepping into some awfully big shoes, but I am really excited to continue working on the themes and ideas I have been exploring in Cumbria and Estonia in the unique context of Shetland. In particular I hope my work with the sounds of Shetland Wool can inspire non-knitting audiences as well as knitters, and make waves within the (generally) un-knitterly realms of SOUNDART, connecting site-specific-sonic praxis with site-specific-textiles. Many people working with textiles already know at least a little of the richness and anthropological significance that can be found in exploring the meaning, provenance and history of distinct, regional textiles, but there are always new audiences to reach, and I am hopeful that my work with sounds can be useful here. My motivation for doing this work is largely based on an enduring personal passion for wool, and a conviction that different places possess unique sonic textures as well as producing unique sorts of textiles.
Thus I have packed my bags with knitted samples and my customary mix of microphones and yarn, and am Northward bound! I cannot wait to meet all the people whom I have come to know a little through working with Tom and Kate on the Wovember blog, through reading Kate’s blog, and through the research and phonecalls I’ve been making in order to organise this field recording trip. Many afternoons this year have been spent listening to oral histories from Shetland via the AMAZING Tobar an Dualchais archives, and I am excited to hear with my own ears the places I’ve heard described in this way, by Shetlanders.
One side effect of trawling through books about Shetland knitting, though, is that I have become OBSESSED with the palettes associated with historic knitted pieces such as the cap recently donated to the Shetland Museum and believed to be one of the oldest examples of Fair Isle knitting in the collection. The madder reds, indigo blues, miscellaneous plant-based yellows plus the wide range of colours provided by the Shetland sheep in all its own variety remind me of some of the textiles I saw in Estonia while I was there. To my eyes this palette speaks of a particular era when sea travel bought Indigo and Madder to different communities of knitters and weavers around the world, who found different ways to put these natural shades to good use as accents amidst the wide variety of shades available from coloured sheep.
Estonian belt. (Sorry, was in a rush this morning and didn’t have a chance to translate and get all relevant references for this image but will amend this on my return!)
This woven belt from Estonia reminds me faintly of the OXO patterns so skillfully organised into large, beguiling sweaters by Shetland knitters of the past, in its graphic zigzags and glowing reds. I was reminded of it when I read on Jen Arnall-Culliford’s blog about how this amazing sweater kit was developed between Jamieson & Smith and the Shetland Museum. I remembered again when I re-read Alice Starmore’s fantastic essay on the origins of Fair Isle knitting in her book on the subject, as she describes very well the connections between knitting in the Baltics and Shetland, there.
I knew that I wanted to start playing with this palette, and a major attraction for me lies in the geographical associations with plants and animals embedded in the very colours themselves, in the particularities of what is grown and where.
These distinctions are for me part of the way that textiles are rooted in particular landscapes, and may be joyously exploited for sonic experimentation and discovery!
This swatch uses double knit yarn spun at The Natural Fibre Company for Blacker Yarns. The white – a sturdy, solid cream – is actually Southdown, while the mid brown is Shetland Moorit. The dark brown is also Shetland Wool. The pinkish red was dyed with Madder root in the afternoon workshop I co-ran with Patrick McGinley in Hawick, while the blue yarn was dyed with Indigo. The yellow comes from onion skins saved in my kitchen across the past year. All the dyed yarns use a base of classic Blacker Yarn – a blend of Lleyn and Bluefaced Leicester. I am not sure where all the different yarns used in the swatch were originally grown, ditto the dyestuffs. I do grow madder, but this red yarn was dyed with Madder root ordered online, from the same place that supplied me with Indigo. The onion skins were left over from our dinners and mostly came from the British farmers who supply Morrisons! So I can in no way claim to have created an authentic Fair Isle swatch with direct connections to the landscape of Shetland by creating this little bit of knitting, inspired by photos of Fair Isle knitting espied online and in books.
What I have made instead is a homage to the palette associated with some older examples of Fair Isle knitting; a bit of knitting which explores the notion of site-specific-textiles in our contemporary, global information age.
The acts of dyeing yarn myself, visiting the Natural Fibre Company to see it being spun, and recording the associated processes along the way are not an attempt to accurately recreate textiles of the past, but rather to echo and learn from them. I am interested in how these stories come together; in what we can discover about historic textiles today through making them, and also what we can learn through listening to the people, animals, places and processes which comprise today’s woollen industries.
Thanks to Patrick McGinley, I have some photos showing what this making/listening approach looked like in Hawick in June!
Listening inside a Madder vat with hydrophones;
Madder roots steaming and making tiny crackles once strained out of the dyebath;
There are more but I am being limited here by the limits of trying to blog on the train to Aberdeen!
The Hawick workshop was a lovely time, working to explore recording technology and dyeing technology simultaneously, and I gleefully await the sounds workshop participants recorded during the dyeing workshop.
I am not sure yet exactly what sonic/textile connections I will make in Shetland, but I hope to come back from THE SPIRITUAL HOME OF KNITTING with some of the inspiration, sense of place and woollen joy that Kate evidently found there. I can’t tell you how happy I am or lucky I feel that the words on that prescient postcard are coming true for me tomorrow. I will bring back the best of Shetland Wool that my microphones can handle, and as much knitted inspiration as time and needles will permit.
Yours in WOOL, Fx