While visiting Shetland, we were lucky enough to get a tour of the Shetland Museum and Archives textile collection with the curator, Carol Christiansen. The Shetland Museum and Archives has a beautiful and informative collection on display of Shetland knitwear including fair isle, lace, and spencers. We had a tour of the public displays and then Carol let us see and touch (after thoroughly washing our hands!) more pieces from the archives that are not on display to the public.
Shetland has a long history of knitting. Like most Nordic locations, it is a cold, wet and windy climate that makes wool the ideal fabric for warmth and weather protection. The native Shetland sheep were brought to the island by Vikings and quickly adapted to Shetland's unique climate.
Shetland's most famous knitting legacy is that of Fair-Isle colorwork. Stranded colorwork was a way to make garments even warmer (with the multiple strands carried in the back) and to produce interesting patterns. This was made popular in the 1920's by the Prince of Wales. There are countless jumpers and vests on display in the museum.
Shetland also has a long history of lace knitting. In the 1800's the Shetland Hap shawl - a square lace shawl that is quite large - was popularized. Women of Shetland were able to supplement income by knitting and selling these gorgeous shawls to buyers around Europe. These were knit usually using white, un-dyed Shetland yarn. Since these were made before spinning mills were in use, they used handspun yarn. The yarn was spun so fine it is unbelievable! It is rumored that these shawls are so fine, one can pass through a wedding ring. This rumor is unsubstantiated, but it does convey the amazingness of the Shetland lace hap shawl.
Spencers are simple knit undergarments that were knit in garter stitch and made for both men and women. The craftsmanship on these was amazing and they were never seen as they were worn under clothing for warmth - almost always out of the plain, undyed white Shetland wool.
In addition to knitting, we also learned about my new obsession, Taatit rugs. Taatit rugs are traditional bed covers of Shetland (think a heavy shag rug for your bed). These were made by looping wool yarn into a woven cloth and then cutting it to pile. They had designs on them using naturally dyed colors and were made out of coarse wool that was too harsh for handknitting. These would have been perfect to keep Shetlanders warm on long, chilly winter nights! The rugs are stunning. There is just one on display, but more in the archives. I hope to see and hear more about these inspiring textiles one day. There are some great photos and an interview with Carol about Taatit rugs here.
We were able to examine the right and wrong side of pieces as well as ask questions about possible methods of construction. Some pieces had holes or compromised parts that made them extremely delicate. Carol Christiansen was a wealth of knowledge and it was such a treat to have her talk to us about the collection.