The Shetland Islands are located northeast of the Scottish coast.
The archipelago, with a very jagged coastline , has around a hundred islands, sixteen of which are inhabited. It has a total area of 1,468 km 2 1 . The main island of the archipelago is Mainland , it is the 3 rd largest of the islands of Scotland 2 and 5 th of the British Isles .
The main settlement and administrative center of Shetland is Lerwick .
The culture of the archipelago is marked by its heritages both Scandinavian and Scottish, the Viking heritage having remained important in the cultural life of the archipelago. The archipelago is known for its Up Helly Aa festival , and has an important musical tradition, notably with its traditional fiddle style . Shetland has also produced many writers in both prose and verse, who sometimes used the local dialect, Shetlandic .
The territory of Shetland is very indented, so all points of the archipelago are less than five kilometers from the sea, with a coastline of a total length of 2,702 km 1 .
The population counts 21,940 inhabitants 3 , called Shetlanders. The population density is 15 inhabitants/km 2 . For comparison, the population density in Montreal is 4,662 inhabitants/km 2
From Scotland, the shortest ferry crossing is 12.5 hours. But, there is also an airport.
With the exception of a few trees in the central part of Mainland and central Lerwick, the ground is devoid of tree vegetation. As a result, the landscapes are quite original for these latitudes. This is the consequence of the massive deforestation carried out by ancient inhabitants of the islands (probably more than 2000 years ago, thus forcing them to master stone construction). The soil is most often made up of peat , still in use as heating fuel in the countryside where there are about two thousand farms called crofts.
In the second half of the 20th century , oil reserves were discovered both east and west of Shetland, and this activity became one of the main resources of the archipelago. In 1978, the Sullom Voe oil terminal was opened. The oil basin east of Shetland is one of the largest in Europe. The oil windfall strengthened the cultural link with Norway and temporarily allowed the development of a small movement calling for independence 93 .
Today, the archipelago's main sources of income are the oil industry, agriculture, aquaculture, fishing, renewable resources, crafts and tourism. Three-quarters of the active population is employed in the tertiary sector.
Portrait of a female economy
The northernmost island: Unst was the main one for knitted items and Shetland lace. It was also the cradle of the finest wool. This has been attributed to the isolated nature of the island and its climatic conditions.
In the 19th century, the economy of the Shetland Islands revolved around 3 activities: fishing (the most profitable), trade and agriculture. These incomes are often variable, modest and need to be supplemented by as many sources as possible.
Fishing is the most profitable activity on the Shetland Islands. This profession is the exclusive domain of men. Maintenance of the house as well as work on the farm is largely the responsibility of women.
They are recognized for their industrious and energetic character. From evening to morning, they are as active in small tasks as harvesting potatoes, making hay, grinding flour as in harder tasks such as transporting seaweed for manure, digging the ground and sowing seeds.
When their time is not used in one or other of these operations, then they are busy… knitting! Knitting everyday accessories (stockings, hats, gloves and sweaters) became a reliable and vital source of income, perhaps as early as the 15th century. This practice was common in most European countries.
Indeed, knitting is an activity which, from the fleece to the finished product, can be done by a single person. Moreover, it is an important means of producing warm clothes and has been for centuries.
The portable aspect of knitting was a significant advantage, the equipment was simply "Wires" needles and yarn.
If necessary, the knit was rolled up and secured to a belt or put in a pocket. The knitter's waistband was often fitted with a perforated pad where a needle could stick. This freed up the right hand and thus greatly improved the speed of knitting.
In the islands it became a source of pride that patterns learned on mother's knees or deduced from a sample were memorized perfectly. Young girls began to learn the patterns by knitting the purl rows of their mother's knitting.
In addition to the knitting of everyday garments, 2 distinct traditions developed, the oldest being jacquard, what is now called "Fair Isle" and, more recently, delicate lace, usually knitted in a single color.
In the 16th century there was a thriving industry in the Shetland Islands for knitted accessories: stockings, hats and gloves. These sold especially well to fishermen from German and Hanseatic ships (towns in northern Europe that joined the medieval league of Hanse merchants).
The softness and fineness of the local wool was highly prized.
Around 1700, Unst's knitted stockings were much more expensive than others (up to 72 times more!) It's uncertain, but the price could reflect the meticulous lacework.
Throughout the 18th century, knitted stockings became one of the main items of Shetland trade. But this trade suffered greatly from the Napoleonic wars. At the same time, the appearance of machine knitting brought competition to local markets with much cheaper knitwear.
To compound the problem, a long period of disastrous weather, crop failures and fisheries were experienced between 1800 and 1840. This caused farmers to wonder how to sustain their economy.
Even if there are debates on when and who, there is no doubt that directing the production of knitwear towards lace was launched by tourists and merchants around the 1830s. This was relayed on the spot by women whose names have gone down in history: Miss Jessie Ogilvy, Miss Eliza Edmondston (a local writer who promoted Shetland culture) and Jessie Saxby (Eliza's daughter).
At that time, knitting became very fashionable. The publication of the first knitting manuals sponsored by the Queen, helped this phenomenon. As well as the appearance of the first commercially spun wools… Merchants saw delicate Shetland lace as a business opportunity and promoted it in London and at major fairs.
During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), Shetland knitted lace was at its zenith. The most requested was that of Unst, the northernmost island where the wool was particularly fine due to the isolation of the island and the climate.
The development of steam shipping from Lerwick in 1836 and the postal network accompanied the growing popularity of Shetland lace.
This enthusiasm was fueled by two important factors.
The first was the publicity around the gifts of lace knitted accessories and shawls that were given to the young Victoria, which brought regular orders from both the Royal Family and the aristocracy. Queen Victoria, a knitter herself, knew how to appreciate the work put into knitting lace.
The second factor was the promotion of these items at competitions and trade fairs, promotion organized by merchants.
For nearly fifty years, fashion gave pride of place to Shetland lace. It was even considered fashionable for a Christian woman to wear these laces. Indeed, by buying the creations of these country women, they “saved” them from a precarious life that could have plunged them into vice.
Shawls, veils, scarves and ties, etc. were exported to the continent regularly. This had a significant economic impact on the local population. Many farms, in times of scarcity, relied almost exclusively on the trade in knitted lace, and endeavored to sell the knitwear directly to visitors so as not to pay the commissions taken by the agents.
Today, a “ring shawl” spun and then knitted by hand can sell for up to $4,400, having taken around 600 hours of work (so $7.33/hour) to knit and even more to spin the wool! But, it is certain that Shetland knitters were not paid for the height and quality of their work, even at the time.
The history of the mechanization of knitting repeated itself as for stockings. In 1847 new knitting machines were invented capable of making what was called Nottingham Shetland Shawls, and many of these quick and inexpensive imitations of Shetland lace were quite good. Good enough anyway and in large enough quantities to stifle the market for Shetland lace shawls, except for the most delicate pieces which remained coveted luxury pieces.
Descriptions of Shetland knitters by Eliza Edmonston - 1856
You will never see a 19th century Shetland woman without a knit in her hands! Whether she is carrying a load of peat on her back (see photo above), whether she is sitting on a small pony with which she will often travel several miles to bring back fodder for the animals or fish from the coast or even if she is talking to you or paying a visit, during all these moments, her hands are activated.
The youngest women, whose sight is still good and whose fingers are flexible, always have 2 projects in progress:
- A project that does not require special attention and accompanies all day: brown wool stockings.
- A shawl project for long evenings or holidays that the girls in the family take turns enjoying.
On the other hand, socks intended for the household or for sale are always the work of older women.
Without manufacturing or professional opportunities, Shetland women have invested the art of knitting with passion.
To the point of having brought it to a certain perfection and thus ensuring regular demand. The softness and fineness of the native wool also plays a big role in the interest in their creations.
The 1851 census reported a Shetland population missing 1/3 of its men. This was largely down to the absence of sailors, which consequently made entire households of women and children quite common. Thus, it could be calculated that ¾ of the income of the islands (except Lerwick) was earned by women! Knitting was a resource sheltered from the whims of Providence. Indeed, when illness strikes the crops, when the weather spoils a fishing season, entire families are saved from want thanks to the sale of knitwear.
The Shetland Sheep is considered a “Primitive” breed because its ancestors can be traced back to the British Isles for several centuries. They were imported to North America in the late 1980s. There was recently a population of 20 sheep per man across the Shetland Islands. It goes without saying that they successfully colonized this territory!
Shetland sheep are smaller than most other breeds in North America. The ewes weigh about 75 pounds (34 kilos) and the ram 90 pounds (41 kilos). Those which makes them particularly easy to handle even for women and children. Rams have spiral horns and sheep have no horns. They are born with a small tail which removes the need to trim it.
Shetland sheep are exceptionally hardy, having adapted to the harsh climate of the North Atlantic, on islands devoid of trees, and therefore of protection.
They adapt well to most climates and conditions. Their maternal instinct is very developed and the ewes give birth easily and without assistance, moreover, it is rare that they reject their offspring. Lambs are generally strong and can feed within minutes of birth.
The Shetland breed's temperament is one of its most endearing characteristics. They are calmer and more docile than most primitive sheep breeds and respond well to human interaction, often wagging their tails when petted and even appearing to seek human attention.
Shetland sheep are especially prized for the magnificent wool they produce. Their fleece is appreciated throughout the world for its softness but also its resistance, two qualities which therefore make it ideal for both spinning and knitting.
A fleece weighs approximately 2 to 4 pounds and the length of the fibers can vary from 2 to 4 ½ inches. The fibers can reach 15 microns in fineness around the neck but are generally around 20 microns. (To compare, cashmere varies between 14 and 30 microns).
Sheep fleeces come in many natural colors, ranging from the purest white, through the range of grays, browns and finally, black.
Traditionally, the knitter took care of her sheep from birth. Around June, she dragged her half-wild sheep into a pen where she collected the wool by hand. It was behind the ears and around the neck that the silkiest and softest wool was harvested. This method of collection took longer than shearing, but ensured that the maximum length of fiber was retained because the loops were removed directly from the skin, and not cut short.
It was a summer activity, when the fleece came off naturally. So the process was apparently painless but time consuming.
A tourist said at the end of the 1930s that he had seen the spinners removing fleeces from twigs and various dirt. Then, the fleeces were lightly sprayed with seal oil (from the 1950s, this oil was replaced by olive oil) in front of a large fire. In this hot atmosphere, the wool and oil were mixed before spinning could take place. To prepare the wool for lace or worsted yarn, the wool was brushed with the carder to separate the fiber into a fluffy, light roving. .For ultra-fine yarns (cobwebs), the selected wool was processed loop by loop and brushed with fingers or an ordinary comb so that the longest fibers were placed in a parallel manner before being rolled by hand into small rolls, ready to be spun. Once two spools of yarn had been spun, they were spun together to form an extra fine 2 or 3 ply yarn which, like all yarns, was then rolled into skeins. Once the skein was made, and only then, the oil was washed off or, if intended for fine lace, the oil was preserved because it gave essential strength to this style of knitting. This work was reserved for experts Spinners, often but not necessarily, good eyesight and deft fingers were required. These were often the expertise of older women who had been spinning since infancy. But, as author Eliza Edmonston wrote in 1856, only a few spinners were able to spin a 9000 yds (8229 m) at 28 grams. This extremely thin single ply was folded into 3 plies until obtaining a 2645 m / 25 gr. This is approximately 7 times finer than a machine-spun Shetland Cobweb yarn.
Unfortunately, this much-prized finesse had a downside: these almost airy shawls disintegrated over time or with inadequate care. Consequently, few have reached us.
But what is Shetland lace?
Shetland lace is hand knitted lace using traditional patterns and Shetland wool. The development of Shetland lace was dependent on the wool of Shetland sheep. In fact, the strength of the wool made it possible to spin it into an extremely fine thread.
The actions in this lace are simple: cast on and cast off the stitches, increase, decrease... Unlike Estonian lace, nupps are not used because of the fineness of the thread which would not do them justice.
Often the background of the knitting will be garter stitch. This does not detract from knitting, on the contrary, it gives a hold to the lace which could otherwise roll or stretch too much because of the fineness of the wool.
On the other hand, if you are using a wool larger than cobweb, it would be advisable to use a stockinette stitch background rather than garter stitch.
The construction of a shawl is characterized by 3 main elements: The center, the outline and the borders.
Because of the numerous cultural exchanges across Europe, one could say that there are in fact only a few truly "Shetlandian" lace patterns, that most of the patterns that are knitted are found in other countries such as Russia, the Azores and Spain. According to Sharon Miller, author of "A shetland lace pattern & workbook", the main characteristic of this lace is its high degree of geometry and the arrangements between the different patterns to compose a shawl. And of course, the unique wool that is used.