Craft, Designers, Inspirational things to do, Kiss House Team, Perfect places, Scotland, Shetland Islands | 23 May 2020
The Shetland Islands — knitting capital of the UK.
Emma Bradbury shares her life long obsession with Shetland.
As a child we had a Shetland Sheep Dog (Shetlie) and I used to love to imagine where he’d come from. Shetland is at the most northern tip of the UK and I wanted to know what it looked like. I knew the ponies from there were short and stocky (like our dog) and I wondered why the animals were so short? Was it the wild and windy weather, keeping their bodies close to the ground so that they wouldn’t blow into the North Sea?
It was twenty-two years later with my obsession for Shetland at fever pitch when I finally got to visit. I had just completed my Masters in Knitted Textiles at The Royal College of Art, having studied Knitted Textiles at Winchester School of Art before that, and having been an avid knitter all my life, when I was selected to speak at a knitting conference at the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. I was beside myself with excitement. Not only to fulfil the dreams of my childhood imagination but also because Shetland is the knitting capital of the UK.
“Shetland is seriously proud of its knitting heritage and rightly so.”
Shetland wool is a world-class natural fibre, highly regarded and sought after globally. Shetland is also known for its unique, fine lace and Fairisle knitted patterns and knitwear. The knitting and textile industry, and rural croft farming communities are alive and kicking in Shetland — from yarn spinning mills and world-renowned yarn shops to independent designer makers.
Shetland hosts “Wool Week” each year in celebration of the vibrant textile industry. It features talks, demonstrations, exhibitions and workshops by internationally acclaimed knitters, designers, spinners and dyers and for someone like me is a dream event. Shetland is seriously proud of its knitting heritage and rightly so, as it’s home to generations of hard-working knitters and crofters producing some of the finest lace and Fairisle anywhere in the world. It is incredible to me that somewhere so small can exert such influence, and this is done to the exceptional quality of what it produces.
“I was lucky enough to stay with locals who were able to show me around, tell me stories of the island’s hidden Viking treasures and include me in community life.”
I saw my visits to Shetland as a chance to fully immerse myself in the culture and learn new skills. I’ve been lucky enough to return twice since the conference and I even spent a month living and working there whilst I taught Knitted Textiles at Shetland College in 2011. I felt so privileged to be welcomed by Shetland’s creative community. On these visits, I was lucky enough to stay with locals who were able to show me around, tell me stories of the island’s hidden Viking treasures and include me in community life.
I was taken to several afternoon teas held in community halls which were a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon enjoying tea and cake whilst perusing tables of beautiful things made by local craftspeople. I saw the most intricate and delicate Shetland lace knitting and admired the wonderful and joyously colourful, hand knitted Fairisle. I loved talking to the makers about their work. We visited Jamieson’s of Shetland knitting factory in Sandness and during a tour of the factory saw weaving looms in action, creating woven blankets from Shetland wool. I loved watching how they dyed the wool and blended the colours together to spin it to make skeins of Shetland wool for hand knitting.
All my visits to Shetland have been in the autumn or deep winter so I have yet to experience Shetland’s “Simmer Dim” the longest day of the year. The sun barely sets and creates a magical mid-summer twilight which must be glorious. I did however very much enjoy my winter days in Shetland.
We were snowed in for a few days and as a southerner who lives in a town, I had never experienced this sort of isolation before. We were too far away to walk to the nearest town living in a house at the bottom of a hill that was covered in snow. I relished the time I had snuggling up inside with a glorious fire and my knitting, dreaming up my next knitting projects. Later my landlady and I would go for wild walks in the snow to see the huge wind turbines and take in the breathtaking views across the North Sea. There was also the promise of the Northern lights but sadly I didn’t get to see them.
“I was very lucky to have some of my own knitwear, inspired by my Scottish trips, included in the shop at the Bonhoga Gallery at Weisdale Mill. ”
My stint at Shetland College allowed me to spend time with the knitting technicians and see their Sheima Sheiki knitting machine in action. Local designers work with the college to have their orders knitted in bulk by the technicians on these machines. It was great for me as a designer to see this element of the production chain and see get to understand the process from idea to finished garment. I was very lucky to have some of my own knitwear, inspired by my Scottish trips, included in the shop at the Bonhoga Gallery at Weisdale Mill.
“The magic and wonder that captured my imagination as a child is still as strong as ever.”
I remain besotted by Shetland’s wild landscapes, inky blue lochs, white sandy beaches and russet brown peat fields. With the weather and wind so wild and dramatic that it blows away the cobwebs. I am also in love with the very cute, short and stocky Shetland sheep (there is definitely a theme with Shetland animals).
I can feel Shetland calling me again. I dream of returning one day to introduce my young family to all that Shetland has to offer. We will watch the Orcas from Muckle Roe, otters and seals on Bressay, and see puffins and guillemots at Sumburgh Head. The magic and wonder that captured my imagination as a child is still as strong as ever; I want my own children to experience the same enchantment I’ve always felt.
Shetland has a very special place in my heart because of its beauty, vibrant creative community and for the memories created there during an important time in my career as a new graduate and designer. I could certainly imagine living there — if I could take all my friends and loved ones with me. I can see how a Kiss House would be a perfect haven on Shetland and could imagine myself looking across an inky blue loch, watching wildlife and wild weather from the comfort and warmth of my new home.
I have listed useful resources highlighting the Shetland Islands’ heritage and culture that will help you plan a trip after lockdown.
Shetland Wool Week — everything you need to know about Shetland Wool Week, the annual 9 day festival celebrates Shetland’s textile heritage.
Shetland Museum — fascinating insights into Shetland’s heritage, tracing the island’s geological origins through to the oil era of the 1970’s.
Shetland Arts — discover Shetland Unlocked, a creative community led festival due to take place 6 weeks after restrictions are lifted for public gatherings.
Some of my favourite Instagram accounts.
@campaignforwool — not for profit promoting the natural benefits of wool.
@shetlandpeeriemakkers — gorgeous photos from the craft community of The Shetland Islands promoting a knitting culture for the future.
@thewoolbrokers — organisers of Wool Week and a Shetland institution.
@jamiesonsofshetland — family run business specialising in 100% Pure Shetland Wool in over 300 shades, hand knitting yarn, Fairisle knitwear️ and Shetland Tweed.
@shetlandwooladventures — plan a knitting tour on your next trip to the Shetlands Islands.
Designer-makers I love.
@ellagordondesigns — taking inspiration from the surrounding culture and history.
@nielanell — combining artistic inspiration with inventive knit to create distinctive designs.
@drummiebee — nature inspired machine knitted products made by Sophie at her home in Lerwick.
@ninianshetland — extraordinary Shetland knitwear designed to last a lifetime.
@Juliewdesigns — creating designs with stories and memories to share.
Places to visit.
Thank you for reading.
I hope I’ve inspired you to visit one day.