Authenticity in Shetland Knitting: Discuss….


I spent yesterday at the Shetland Museum and Archives where they were holding a study day exploring the Authenticity in Culturally-Based Knitting.  This conference was the last in a series of workshops and study days run as part of the Knitting in the Round project run by Glasgow University.  The theme of the workshops have been in “Hand Knitted Textile and the Economies of Craft in Scotland”.

Knitting in the Round was established by Professor Lynn Abrams, author of Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World and Marina Moskowitz, and was funded by The Royal Society of Edinburgh to explore the link between past knitting practices and traditions and the business, fashion and other aspects of current work practices.

Yesterday’s conference looked mainly at the Shetland lace knitting industry.  There were talks by Lynn Abrams, Dr Carol Christiansen (Curator of Textiles at the Shetland Museum and Archives), Roslyn Chapman (who has just finished her PhD thesis on the History of the fine lace knitting industry in nineteenth and early twentieth century Shetland), Rhoda Hughson (Chair of the Unst Heritage Centre), Frances Lennard (Senior Lecturer in Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow), Helen Robertson (artist and knitter) and Kathy Coull (knitter, designer and yarn producer from Fair Isle).

The lectures explored the meaning of authenticity in relation to Shetland lace knitting: what makes something authentic?  Does it have to knitted in Shetland wool, by a Shetlander using traditional patterns (and then how do you define traditional?).  Does the wool have to be spun in Shetland? And other questions like this.

The main reason it is important is because of the use of the terms used when selling products and claims made by producers.  Calling something authentic, traditional, or real is a way of generating more income for a producer and in the end comes down to economics.  Using these terms is fine, as long as they are true.  Something that annoys me is when designers and producers claim that something is a traditional Shetland product or technique when clearly it’s not true, the claims are made only to increase the selling value.  I have often read things in books (often knitting books) that the garment uses traditional Shetland construction or patterns when no-one here has heard of it.

Carol Christiansen spoke about Authenticity in Lace Knitting: the 19th Century Pattern Books Project.  This explored the patterns that were labelled “Shetland” in books written by 19th century pattern writers. These patterns were written without charts and no pictures were provided, so in response to a call put out by the University of Glasgow, knitters from all over the world knitted swatches of these patterns.  In total an incredible 282 swatches were knit which were studied and archived.  The swatches were on display in the foyer of the museum and will be there for the next couple of weeks.





Some of the patterns in the collection of swatches claiming to be of Shetland origin show no examples in the Shetland museum archives. So where did the writers obtain these patterns?  One of the writers looked at was Jane Gaugin, she had a shop in Edinburgh where she bought and sold Shetland garments and so she would have had easily access to Shetland lace products.  Did she take the patterns from garments that came from Shetland or did she write patterns that resembled those that came from Shetland?

The most common difference in these patterns and examples that are found in the Shetland museum is that in the books the patterns are written with knit and purl rows, so they have a front and a back.  The museum samples have usually been knitted in all knit rows, this would have meant the knitter could keep their speed up, since they were selling their work and couldn’t afford to do the slower purl rows.

Concerns about articles being marketed as “Shetland” is not a new problem.  Roslyn Chapman presented a fascinating paper on the production of Shetland lace shawls in Nottinghamshire.  In the 1830s “imitation” lace shawls were produced on machines and know as Nottingham Shetland shawls.  She showed us a series of newspaper adverts advertising these shawls which were described as “ordinary” or “imitation”.  It is unknown whether these shawls used actual Shetland patterns or did they just resemble Shetland shawls.  In the early 1900s it became more common to see adverts using the terms “real” to describe the Shetland shawls.  We would assume from that there was a consumer base looking for authentic Shetland shawls, handmade in the islands.

The other talks were also fascinating as was the discussions, but really what was concluded was that there are no real answers.  Helen Robertson commented that she was wearing a cardigan that was made in Shetland wool, was knitted by a Shetlander but was an Aran pattern.  How do you define authenticity in that case?

We could speak about this subject for days! But it was agreed that we (Shetlanders) should try not to worry about it too much or we will get stuck in the past.  We need to develop new ideas and as fashion is always changing we need to continually look at new ways of doing things, otherwise our traditions and heritage will be lost. Traditions are constantly changing and new traditions are constantly being made.

I really enjoyed the day, I enjoyed thinking about knitting on a different more academic way.  It reminded me of being back at University as I sat and wrote my notes, I still can’t read some of them when I look back at them!  It was also a really good opportunity to get together with a group of like minded people (i.e. women!) and chat about a shared passion.  After all, that’s often how the best ideas are formed!

I have only merely scratched the surface of all of the topics covered, but this event was filmed will be available to view via YouTube, through a link at the Shetland Museum and Archives probably by the end of the week – I will let you know when it is available.

Ella Gordon has also written a blogpost about the event, you can read it here.  She also gives a list of useful references which are worth pursuing if you are interested in the subject.  Note the quote by AI Tulloch in Ella’s blog – for me this was also a main point in the whole conference, Ella was sitting in front of me, and we both started scribbling furiously in our notebooks at that point!

*Update: You can now listen to the lectures online by clicking on the links here*







12 thoughts on “Authenticity in Shetland Knitting: Discuss….

  1. I appreciated the fact that they made the live broadcast of the whole day (except the cakes!!) for those of us all over the world to enjoy. I didn’t mind at all being awake in the wee small hours in Sydney for the event. But I’ll be checking for the YouTube videos, so I can enjoy it all over again.


  2. Thanks to you and Ella for your diligent note taking and am really looking foreward to that you tube video! You tow are the bomb 🙂


  3. Yes, lovely that it was online and thank you Donna for this great post. I also made copious notes and at one point had to answer the door!!! It was simulating and good to really think about knitting in this way. I love Shetland, Shetland knitting ( whatever that might be!) and learnt to spin so I could produce the fine ‘Shetland’ yarn – from J and S fleece. So I started having lots of questions, I only knit for myself really. Now I am back to living in Norfolk it made me think deeper about ‘authenticity’ here – as we have a long textile past which is not much thought about. Looking forward to watching it all again… To fill in the gaps in my notes!


  4. What an interesting topic and presentation. I was very grateful to catch some of the discussion very late on Saturday night in Melbourne…I went to bed at the lunch break! I am very glad I will be able to see the presentation again soon.

    The conundrum of authenticity is fascinating. In defining the authentic, we risk constraining and limiting the very thing to be protected from developing and changing. I have admired the way in which a contemporary knitting culture has been created in Shetland that both responds to the past but engages in a very dynamic way with the present. Who could have predicted that the influence of Shetland knitting would continue to grow and thrive in the very environment that difuses information, images and intellectual property across the world in mere seconds. You are remarkable folks over there. The lesson I take away from the authenticity discussion as a non Shetlander, is the importance of respectful acknowledgement over commodified knowledge claims.


    1. Well said Rebecca! I am very lucky to have grown up in this culturally rich environment, although I do think sometime when you have grown up a place such as that it can sometimes be easy not to appreciate it how it should be. I am glad you managed to see the first half online, and hopefully it won’t be too long before it is online.


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