Shetland Knitting–Echoes of Land and Color

While we are roaming the back roads of Morocco, we’ve asked Allison Korleski–ace knitter, textile traveler, and friend of Thrums Books–to share her recent travel adventures to the Shetland Islands. Thanks, Allison!

Shetland has long had a hold on me. Decades before I knit, and certainly eons before murder mysteries featuring Jimmy Perez were part of our popular culture, I longed to visit misty and remote places that stretched back to the Bronze Age. Keep in mind I was eight, I loved ponies and Vikings equally, and “Shetland” is a lot easier to spell than “Faeroe.”

Shetland Sea Stacks on Muckle Roe Island. Photo by Allison Korleski.

Forty years later this dream came true when a friend and I joined a tour led by Gudrun Johnston and Mary Jane Mucklestone. It promised access to things like spinning mills, working crofts, and lots and lots of Shetland wool and knitting. I confess I was mostly going for the landscape and the island itself. Ironically, I was never a fan of Fair Isle knitting before this trip. Alice Starmore’s artistry aside, I found the sweaters frumpy and bulky, with way too much brown and orange.

It seems I need to rethink my attitude.

The heathered yarns so emblematic of Fair Isle knitting perfectly reflect the heathered scenery of Shetland, a seemingly barren landscape that holds a hundred hues. A short walk on a sheep-nibbled path by the sea reveals blue mussels, purple urchins, lichen in golds and greens, seaweed both lurid and drab, orange-flecked crab, and the creamy white of bog-cotton. All are subtle and small against the 50 shades of gray and dun that are the predominant colors here, and all the more splendid because of that.

Shetland The Fair Isle Bousta Beanie–a pattern by Gudrun Johnston, knit by Allison.

Shetland wool comes in 11 distinct natural shades, from creamy white to reddish brown moorit to black. Early samples of Fair Isle knitting combined this undyed wool with wool colored with natural dyestuffs from trading—indigo blue, madder red—or a yellowish dye derived from native heather plants. It sounds frightfully gaudy, like the bag for a loaf of Wonder Bread, until you see the original pieces, which are balanced and lovely and push back against an often gray and dreary backdrop.

Today’s knitters have hundreds of shades available, thanks to the mills of Jamieson’s and Jamieson & Smith (which sound related but aren’t at all and I was really confused too).

Shetland Only some of the yarn Allison brought back from her trip–Jamieson’s & Smith yarns in various hues. Photo by Allison Korleski.

Shetland designers like Wilma Malcolmson make full use of this bounty: one of Wilma’s sweaters will have well over a dozen shades, but they are so balanced they act as a harmonious whole, rather than just a whole buncha colors all at once. Her tempered use of startling accent colors, artfully placed, hearkens back to the Shetland landscape. Bright hues make a quick appearance and are just as quickly absorbed back into the overall scenery.

What struck me over and over during my time is Shetland is how the land and weather are constantly changing from hour to hour and yet remain unchanged at the same time. A Shetland sweater reflects that same timelessness. Colors shift, spark, and blend again; motifs echo and fade into one another. The unified whole always remains, enduring, like the land itself.

–Allison Korleski

Allison Korleski is a video producer at Interweave and a avid knitter, currently re-thinking her attitude toward Fair Isle knitting.


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