I love starting new projects, particularly new knitting projects. I quite like finishing them too, but I’m not so great at the middle part of it, hence why I usually have about 5 things on the go at any given time. I digress. I’m about to embark on a new knitting project, one that I’ve been planning for a while now. As many of you will know I spent a fair chunk of time towards the end of last year at the knitting reference library. The resource is split between Winchester School of Art (books, patterns, and printed materials) and the University of Southampton’s special collections and archives (objects, tools, ephemera, correspondence). It’s a huge assemblage which has been built from the extensive collections of knitter and designer Montse Stanley, the ‘knitting bishop’ Richard Rutt, and knitwear designer Jane Waller. All three were avid collectors of anything to do with knitting, meaning there is now the most fantastic resource available for the researching of social history spread over these two sites.
I had been briefed that the collection was large so worked to narrow down my interests a little before arriving. Having recently returned from Shetland (Aug 2013), I thought that Shetland knitting, specifically lace work, might provide me with a good starting point. I wasn’t disappointed! Across the two sites I found books, leaflets, exhibition catalogues, research papers, and the most stunning items of knitwear I have ever had the privilege to see and handle. Sadly copyright protection in the archives means I can’t share my photographs with you here, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that the lace work there dating from 1820 was absolutely exquisite in its craftsmanship and had survived the years remarkably unscathed considering how delicate it was to handle. On several occasions I found myself audibly gasping at the things I unearthed, finding it impossible to conceive that something so beautifully detailed had been lovingly crafted by hand over one hundred years ago.
It didn’t take long for lace knitting to completely take over my brain. I’m fascinated by the delicate, yet amazingly strong structure it creates, with patterns so intricate it becomes almost impossible to see how they’re fashioned without a good deal of intensive examination. I can’t get over how something so fine can provide such warmth, or how people had the imagination to come up with countless motifs to adorn their latest shawl. The amount of time some of the must have taken to make is completely mind-boggling.
Several hours of sitting (and, of course, knitting) on the train between Bristol and Southampton got me thinking about the possibility of resurrecting an old pattern from these wonderful archives. Now tradition dictates that no true Shetland pattern ‘exists’, for each item is made using motifs and pattern repeats which come straight from the knitters’ head rather than a written pattern. But with the growth in popularity of both Shetland shawls as a fashion accessory and knitting as a pastime in Victorian England came the occasional written pattern. Whether or not these were ‘authentic’ Shetland patterns is debatable, but can be found published in book such as’ Mrs Gaugain’s minature knitting netting and crochet book’ (1843), ‘Mee’s companion to the work-table: containing selections in knitting, netting & crochet work’ (1844), and Miss Lambert’s (1985) ‘My Knitting Book’.
As I’ve already mentioned, copyright in the archives is somewhat tricky, but luckily for me Southampton have started the process of digitising some of their oldest texts. And they’re available here! A quick scour through revealed that the text I wanted – The Abergeldie winter book (1867) – was on the digital archive, including page 24 which sports the pattern for a ‘round Shetland veil’. It’s not as complex as many of shawls I’ve seen in the archives or in Shetland museums, nor is it the more common square-shape. However, the main body of the work is made up of birds-eye lace, a common attribute of Shetland lace work. Unusually for books of the time the pattern is also illustrated!
I’ve decided to take the plunge and embark on my first piece of historical knitting by attempting to make this shawl. I really hope I can do it justice. In keeping with tradition I’ve ordered (and received) some beautiful Jamieson and Smith 1 ply heritage yarn direct from Shetland. I’ve done a bit of lace knitting before, but never with 1 ply yarn. The prospect is a little scary! If anyone has any advice, it would certainly be appreciated! Hopefully I’ll get a chance to swatch later this week and give the yarn a try. As and when I do, I’ll post a little update. In the meantime if anyone fancies joining me on a Shetland-inspired-Victorian KAL you’d be more than welcome! In fact, I’d love the company!