Exactly to the minute of one week since arriving at this tiny house.
I am utterly grateful for this opportunity to live in this life changing place by the sea. It wasn’t an easy journey but I am finally here.
Every moment, I feel connected to the earth and I’m mindful of the days through the ever present wind, the break through of the sun and the pure blue skies, the wetness moving in over the hill – the weight of water moving in a line of cloudy fog, hail crashing onto the skylight at the top of the stairs so that the cats and I run around thinking we were under siege – new sounds, the weather making my face raw and ruddy and my hair in sea spray straw and above it all, this tiny house that is becoming the love of my life.
The kindness of friends and neighbours helping me arrive and settle in: B – meeting me at the ferry then driving me to the house, flowers and veg from C and H, BD – bringing me peats and coal for my first hearth fire, D brought me a Sunday dinner and E, brought me home grown flowers and shiny wholesome home grown veg last night.
Post cards from well wishers from all over the world begin to fill the wall.
I hear the geese fly over the house, knowing that they fly in their perfect V formation. I step outside to watch how they change position and take turns to fly at the point of the V facing into the wind, the rest in the slip stream. I am learning every moment, every day. Old stones surround my house. Standing on hand hewn stones is grounding.
I have 3 doors – a front door that is mostly open, a small white glazed porch door and an interior door with a very old square wooden latch opener. It’s wonderful. How many people have turned the wooden latch-block before me to open the wooden latch inside? The inside latch clicks and hits the wooden housing and on that recognisable sound I hear the thud of the cats jumping off the bed in the bedroom above to come to greet me.
They have settled so well – now I put them out in the middle of the night if they are talking too much. They roam the area and roll in the sunshine outside the house on the road. They squint into the wind and rain and change their minds about going out. They are becoming island cats.
I am painting the visible wood in the window frames outside before the Winter sets in, I need to order coals, oil for the heating and any number of things. I still need to learn how to read the oil tank but I have managed to get the oven clock working so now I the oven works.
I am learning new things every time I turn around – looking at the hedgerow flowers growing with their faces away from the wind, the beach changes by the day, I search for heart shaped stones, I peel slugs the size of snakes from my porch floor, I move plants into a place of shelter, I wake and look out of the window towards the East for the sunrise every day – from the ship that is my bed sailing in a tiny house built into a bank for shelter. My TV doesn’t work but my environment is my TV.
This place will, at times, challenge me but I feel that there is nothing I cannot overcome. I’m beyond grateful for this time to live properly, feel deeply, touch the earth with integrity.
It is exactly one week to the minute that I stepped off the overnight ferry from Lerwick, arriving in Aberdeen at 7am on the morning of 14th August after a ten hour visit to Shetland to see the little house with a view of the sea. A long arduous journey back to Sheffield was ahead of me with so many thoughts within me.
The three hour bus journey from Aberdeen to Edinburgh gave me ample time to self sabotage with whys, hows, and what ifs about my decisions to move a thousand miles. Parallel to the broken disjointed eight hour journey down the east coast of England to Sheffield, my thoughts shifted, opened, slipped and dispersed across my lap in front of me. The beauty of the landscape blurred by to my left, without being seen, both on bus and train – I never looked outward – only in. Of course, I was beyond tired having travelled non stop for three days whilst dealing with life changing decisions of buying a tiny house without any idea of future plans.
Now, exactly one week to the hour and minute of docking in Aberdeen, I’m able to reflect whilst beside me, within the folds of the deep quilt on the bed, my loving cat lies sleeping unaware of what is going to happen in a few weeks for the long return journey north. During the last week, so many physical, emotional and sensory things have happened since that whistle stop ten hour visit to Shetland with 24 hours travel on either side, which also entailed major disruptions from a tragic derailment, a heart-breaking loss of life from that train ahead of me, journey decisions on the hoof and scary heart stopping moments of trying to make a ferry leaving the country whilst stranded four hours away form the point of catching it. There were times during journey that I really thought I would not make that ferry for Lerwick which was leaving from Aberdeen – a city on lockdown where I had no place to stay or go.
Here is an extract from my urgent, cathartic scribblings on 12th August.
At Newcastle, I’m told there are no trains from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, due to major landslides and floods on the track. Initially, I feel sick but also naively hopeful – as if it will all clear up and get working for when I arrive – either this is a princess talking to herself about being above all this or more pragmatically and closer to the truth; me burying my head. After conversations with the lady at information in Newcastle station – who assures me that Scotrail have a duty to get me to Aberdeen – (looking back I now think why would the make sure I would make my ferry?) and that there will be buses provided. Beside her, I stand on the platform and urgently call the ferry company – I have until 5pm to cancel but really, I’m being pushed further up the country with no idea of what will happen and no way to get back with a massive back pack, old lady shopping trolly full of precious china from China, a front day pack with laptop and a bag with water. Add Corona to that with masks, social distancing, hand sanitiser, no toilets on some trains, no tickets, lockdown in Aberdeen, no place to stay and I’m already thinking of turning back. I call Patti and mention that maybe this is a sign. She said it’s not a sign. There’s maybe no chance of going forward, chance of being stuck and not getting back yet I naively still think there is a way. The information lady gets me on an earlier train out of Newcastle to arrive in Edinburgh 20 minutes ahead of my planned time. I sit in first class waiting to be moved by the conductor who knows I am there and talks with passengers and leaves me be.
This whole incident is teaching me to not give up – keep trying.
Little did I know in Newcastle, the terrible tragic severity of the mentioned landslides and floods. Little did they know. Near Stonehaven, the train had changed route after halting due to flooding on the line, then hitting another flood or a landslide, it had rolled down a steep embankment and caught fire – the driver, conductor and one passenger were dead, six were injured. The crash had not been noted for some time because it was in an isolated place. I cannot think how terrifying it must have been for those passengers and how shocking the outcome is for everyone.
Between Newcastle and Aberdeen, a friend messaged me and I relayed all the problems of travel and that I was heading for Edinburgh and there had been flooding and I was hoping it would be cleared up by the time I got there but if it wasn’t – I had no idea. She suggested Megabus out of Edinburgh and sent me the times of the two buses to get me to the ferry in time (just) for the overnight crossing to Lerwick and my 9am meeting of the house I am buying the next day. She mentioned a regular bus service could also be an option if there were no buses provided for stranded passengers. But I knew that booking had to be way in advance because of corona and social distancing, everything was stacking up against not making the ferry. In my head, catching a bus was not an option I had thought about or considered or could do. It seemed unthinkable to go the last 130 miles by an unplanned bus. She screen shot two photos of mega bus times.
Five hours into my journey, my sinking thoughts were that if I couldn’t make the journey to Aberdeen through cancellation of services, then was this the right move to an island and was this was the calm before the storm. At that point, I could not hear self-sabotage starting. She encouraged me, she wrote,
‘how many people would have continued once Covid happened? Here you are now, one more push, you are the one still standing. If you do everything you can and it doesn’t work, then there will be just accepting it but if you have not tried, there will always be the what if in your mind’.
This message from a woman who had gone through her own deep searching journey on an island was not to be dismissed and gratefully received.
However, Edinburgh Waverly Station was in turmoil. Of the many Scotrail staff in the station, none were able to help me with advice, they pushed me from one to another staff member then on to LNER to see if I could get a bus from them to Aberdeen – at which point I was turned away and back to Scotrail. Scotrail provided no back up transport on Weds. Not once did Sctorail staff suggest to go to the bus station, not once did they offer any suggestion to meet the ferry at Aberdeen and I was stranded, way up north, in between destinations so I ran, dragged the bags and made it to the bus station in search of Megabus. I asked for the ticket office. All closed due to Covid and then I saw it, the Megabus itself. A glorious shining blue double decker to Aberdeen to arrive in time for the ferry. I asked the driver, he said get on and at that moment, I could have kissed him. Lockdown or not, virus or not, he was my ticket to the ferry. Backpack unceremoniously thrown in to the hold and a discussion over the wheeled shopping trolly carrying precious china that in the long run, meant nothing – my water and I boarded the megabus and I became instantly hungry. How do you eat when your hands have touched many rails, handles, tables, bags, trains, doors, buses in a virus where there is no water to wash your hands? You use hand sanitizer and hope.
Later, when I caught my breath, I wrote: As the bus crosses the bridge towards Dundee, over the Firth of Tay, I feel it – a small but discernible hint of excitement.
As the bus pulled in to Aberdeen, I felt as if I had crossed the line of resilience and built an experience through friendship that stands the test of time. It’s not easy for me to accept help having built a wall around my independence and feelings over many years – I noted – We need to look out for each other, hang on in there and keep trying. I learned a lot from today. No wo/man is an island, we work better with friends.
And I have Mati to thank for getting me on that Megabus to make the last call for the ferry.
In the morning, I dressed on the ferry to meet my house, as if for an interview – would the house like me – you never get a second chance to make a first impression – I already liked it without ever having met or seen or been inside or touched or smelled it. I knew I more than liked it. Maybe I was a little overdressed to meet the house. Silk blouse, navy trousers, packed for another season another place in mind. I looked slightly neat but knew the back pack, front pack and bags would sort that appearance into a more well-worn dishevelled look. It was the first time I had worn socks and trainers since March. My sun marked feet pushed into trainers.
If you would like to follow this journey of moving to Shetland, please sign up to receive updates below
At times, I am an artist who has, on occasion, created small, site-specific worlds in abandoned croft houses across Shetland as a response to the researched details in the realities of stories which I seek, hear, see and experience. My art is a respectful conversation with the women who used to live in those beautiful places. I have an instinctive autoethnographic response in writing, site-specific films and photographs by using textiles, hand block prints and words. If I make art, this is currently my artistic practice, evolved from years of embedding myself within other cultures and places including Shetland and China.
When, as a mature student at art school, a wise man who lived a stone’s throw from my house (once a Provost of Derby Cathedral then a retiring Vicar on the Chatsworth Estate), said to me, ‘I read widely, if somewhat cursorily,’1 I was reading Winterson and he, Dostoevsky. On that comment, we swapped books, I went home and looked up the word cursorily in the dictionary and began my love of existential works – he read a modern ground-breaking 90’s book on sexual Identity and love; this was some time in 1996, he in his 80’s, me just turned 30.
Exuding wisdom, not always in what he said, but how he thought and mostly his ever open, learning mind was a turning point in my life and our conversations became somewhat magnetic for me.
Every now and again, this man, now long dead, returns to me either in the form of a found note, the gift of a book, a photograph, or lead chandelier crystals. As he handed over the large prism crystals and cut nuggets that were once part of something larger but now lingering in an old shoe box in his shed, he said, ‘Tracey, never sell these, I had them during my grandiose period.’2 I, who don’t even remember what I did on Saturday, remember these words and both moments as if he had just spoken whilst sitting next to me on this bench in Sheffield. Words that have shaped every year of my life since spoken.
But he didn’t speak to me here, his memory does. I have hung those crystals in windows of every place I have ever lived in the 25 years since the he said that line, including in the old hutongs of Beijing and Suzhou. He is not my story – I can tell you another.
In 2008, after 3 months of living in China, I found out that my partner was cheating on me whilst I was working full-time. At first, I fell down, felt my heart damaged, tightened and fractured but after telling my Chinese friend, a Buddhist barber who lived in a one roomed house in the old hutongs of Suzhou for 50 years, he sat down and in front of me, wrote me a note in full Mandarin which I had translated at work. He wrote, ‘There’s an old saying in China and Buddhists say it too. Falling down is not terrible. The terrible thing is that you don’t stand up in time. You should stand up and brush off the dust and go on walking proudly as you used to do’.3 He also told me to let it go.
5 years after this conversation, I travelled over 3,000 miles to meet him on an ancient bridge in the old hutong lanes of Suzhou. He didn’t know that I was revisiting China, there was no way of contacting him, he hadn’t seen me in 5 years, he was walking with his head down, he raised his head, raised his arm in greeting and his eyes spoke.
Now, I think of the strange impossibility of both men meeting and talking together. I don’t know if they would meet in the heat of China or the well-heeled sitting room of a Chatsworth vicarage but what deeply moving stories they would have recalled for each other. Wise, Christian, Mr Beddoes, beady hawk-eyes twinkling at the sheer marvelousness of the opportunity to speak with the ever deeply calm Cai Gen Lin, his Buddhist chanting songs playing in the background of his one roomed house, 24 hours a day – both religious men responding to the other with great respect, without speaking each other’s spoken language but speaking through their understanding, eyes, hands, gestures and intrinsic visible knowledge. Their stories flowing – neither could ever imagine – such worlds, religions, lifestyles and cultures so far apart both in distance and lifestyles from their own – that only words could bring them close enough to feel those distant worlds. Imagine THAT story – I am their link. I suppose, in a way, I am their story.
Yet, I have sat in silence with Cai Gen Lin and felt and known his worlds in China as I sat with Mr Beddoes in the scullery drinking warmed up old coffee on the stove hiding from people knocking at the door.
And then there are the stories of Shetland from my repeated visits between 2015/19 to listen to the oral histories of the old knitters and found that they mostly did not want to share their stories because they thought that I would steal them and their knitting patterns which, during my R&D trip in 2018, raised the question of, ‘Who owns words once they are said?’
I have so many stories inside of me – so many seen and understood lives.
I want to create the daughter of Hope and Memory – Art- but this may now be through words and not images.
The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
Cai Gen Lin, The Old lane by the bridge off Ping Jiang Lu, Suzhou, China, March 30th 2009 b. 1945, the 2nd child of 9, when China was still in Civil War.
Things, objects – why do we keep things? Things that we don’t touch, or wear, or read or look at or even eat anymore. (go look in my fridge at the jars and see what I mean)
I am packing to leave on an unspecified date and in an, as yet, un arranged manner and it is dawning on me the magnitude of all of this. Initially, packing is quite exciting – interesting even. I open the kitchen cupboards, empty things out that have not seen the light of day in the 3 years that I have lived here, dutifully wash, dry, wrap and pack them in boxes that I have been collecting at a rate of two a day from the corner petrol station. I pack in a fine order to be opened up at the other end in an organised fashion. The boxes grow like interior walls and building blocks under other things – like tables and the bed and I begin to drown.
Reality of the movement of all of these neatly packed things is brought to a very sharp head when the removal company from Shetland call to say that I have too much stuff for one van and I will need two. The weight is too much and the size is too much – they want to see a video of all the stuff. A whatsapp video call is dutifully planned and I look around. It is dawning on me that it might be an idea to burn it all – all this stuff and be free. The boxes that are packed have things that I might need – a solid frying pan for that camp fire I might have, beautiful embroidered sheets for that guest I might have, my four vases for the flowers I might pick – it goes on and on for things that may never happen and it dawns on me that I am moving things, at great expense, to another place that is tiny where I want to be free. There is an internal argument for keeping these things because replacing them is expensive, they have a history with me, they are good quality – the argument goes on and on but comes to a wonderful crescendo whilst washing a tiny cut glass trinket thing with a battered silver lid with ancient patina going back to Victorian times. It’s washed, placed onto the drainer but slips gracefully and almost in full technicolour slow motion on to the Portuguese tiled floor and smashes into shards and chunks. Immediately, it’s rendered useless. It’s neither aesthetically pleasing nor valuable. It’s gone. And with that simple result I feel nothing and it is let go. This thing goes in to the bin.
I’ve left previous lives with a few bags and boxes. I’ve travelled to China with a back pack and bag with wheels on. Always, I was starting again and it always felt liberating – cathartic even.
So, when I get time, I will unpack and remove things. Because none of this can come back from that island and no one will want it which brings to mind all of the derelict abandoned croft houses I have been in across Shetland – some containing household objects of the previous occupants; china cabinets with their tea sets all toppled over in dust. They couldn’t take it with them – wherever they went and no one else took it.
And, in my case, why would I cover a Shetland life with an English one?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
This quote, for me, is not only empowering during my trying to sell my home in Sheffield and move to a tiny house in Shetland, without seeing or feeling it, but it sums up my story.
I feel that there are critics of what I am trying to do. I feel there are non supporters, and worse, I feel there are people who say they want to help but really don’t BUT and more IMPORTANTLY, above all that, I have such love and support from friends who listen, ask how it’s going, check in on me because, as with most great risks I have taken, I am doing this alone. I am grateful for that support of those people
In the meantime, I am trying to get to this dream of a new life in Shetland – a life built on over 6 years of returning and building experiences. It is not easy selling a property in lock down, recession, fear, job losses and a pandemic but I am trying with everything to make this happen.Here is a link to the original post
I sure know that I am in the Arena and if I fail, I will have dared greatly.
Around the 18th March, I began to receive multiple messages from friends on different platforms with a link to a tiny house in Shetland. On that day, I should have already been in Lerwick, but I wasn’t because the hostel had finally closed on 16th and the interview on 19th that I was going for, was finally agreed to be a skype call because of the Virus which we are all now well familiar with. I’d been looking for a little house in Shetland for some time, having looked at one myself, in the old lanes in Lerwick, in November. Then, a friend, went to look at another for me in January. But March, the little house in the sunshine-flooded image didn’t just speak to me, it shouted my name which appeared to be written all over it.
I called the agent who had a viewing day of Smola, on Saturday 21st, the last of all viewings of properties before lock down. As I couldn’t attend, I was sent the house report and two small videos – one of inside the property and one of the byre. Although the tiny house is basic, it is perfectly formed and without question, it seemed ideal for me and the dreams I have of living in Shetland, but on the Monday 23rd , one of the Saturday viewers had put an offer in on the tiny house and I lost hope and duly whined about it on FB on 25th March. This was not just a house to me, it had become a dream filled with ideas of sharing it, offering artist exchanges to exchange and share skills with each other artists and the wider community, artist retreats, workshops, air B&B to friends and people who have connected with me on Instagram, but most importantly, it would be a home where my (art) work / and life would become without borders – indistinguishable.
I was screaming inside, it should have been me because during the preceding developing 7 days, I had been booked to be in Shetland and could have been there, seen it, felt it, put the offer in but instead, I was in my tiny flat in Sheffield forced in to lockdown feeling helpless.
Then, Beate, a friend of mine, messaged and said, just put an offer in. It was the most practical and real advice I had been given, so I spoke to Emma, who put me in touch with Barbara, who in turn, put me in touch with Chris, who had rented the little house for 3 years and he told me about it. So, the house was more known to me and some questions were answered. And, in any case, I had already fallen in love with Levenwick last August
Are you still reading? After all the chronological dates and lost hope? Here’s Levenwick when I was there last August
That weekend, I thought about nothing other than the tiny house and artist exchanges and workshops on knitting and design whilst all the time mentally composing a letter in parts to the owners of Smola, in order to compete with the offer on the table already. Without seeing, smelling or touching the house, the letter flowed. I was honest, direct, clear and shot from the hip on the financial offer. On Monday 30th, I emailed it to the agents with the letter and offer, then promptly let it go. I went to work at Ryegate Children’s hospital where I’ve been a temp medical secretary since early Feb. Just because of a pandemic, the children don’t stop being ill with severe neurological issues, so I didn’t stop going to answer calls from worried parents, arrange medication and type consultant letters from clinics. I got on with my week. The pandemic gathered steam and I started knitting. Below are some of my recent designs.
On Thursday, 2nd April, I got a call from the agent. I assumed it would just be a rejection call. But it wasn’t. The sellers had accepted my offer on the proviso of a non refundable deposit to take it off the market and that they would wait for me to sell my flat. Since 2nd April until 17th May, two Shetland solicitors have been involved in writing the agreement for this non-refundable deposit, which I signed, in a wood in Sheffield on 8th May, honoured by my friend Deborah witnessing and co signing the document, and Lola the jug waiting as patiently as she could tied to a branch.
So there you have it, just over 8 weeks after seeing an image, both moving and still of a little house in Levenwick, I have signed a document to say that I will pay the non refundable deposit, deductible from the cost of the house, if I finalise the Scottish missives and all the papers to purchase within 3 months – an IMPOSSIBLE task. After the initial 3 months, I have a further 3 months agreement with the same terms but the first non refundable deposit isn’t carried over – that becomes lost. I was asked by a friend, – ‘what do I get for my non refundable deposit?’ and I said TIME but my wise friend Deb added, security . So, I have 6 months to turn everything around, still in lock down, during a pandemic and a recession to sell my flat and to purchase my dream.
I have 6 months to make this dream come true.
A dream to truly live a life fully in Smola, without borders between creative thought process and daily life, with my 2 cats, to go swimming with Barbara D and the Selkie swimming group in the sea, to write the book with Shetland knitters – of their mothers and mothers’ mothers and their knitting patterns and the homes they lived in, to make site-specific art, to offer air b&b to friends and artist whom I have come to know over the years through my artistic practice.
I can imagine the artistic exchanges that I hope to offer twice a year to share skills and art with other practitioners including and open call to hand block printers, wallpaper printers, basket makers, knitters, painters, writers and I can see it all happening in that tiny house. I am keen to be part of the village of Levenwick, keen to give and not take by being a supportive member of the local community and I want to make art, knit, share Smola with other artists, create exchanges and opportunities for others to come and work in and draw creativity from the fine little unassuming place.
This is my dream.
If you are interested in supporting this idea, please contact me.
If you are interested in future residencies or exchanges, please sign up to this blog so that you will see further progress on my move to Shetland because if it does not happen with Smola, then it will be another place.
If you are interested in coming to share skills, stay in the tiny house with me as an air B&B, also please let me know by contacting me through this website then I can see how many people would like to share of this dream.
If I do not make the exchange within the time – I will realign my dream.
In the meantime, if you would like to support me, you can do this by buying one of my knitting patterns here.
I am also looking to create a website for Smola and the creative business I will carry out there and I am looking to buy a new camera to capture the beauty of this place and to capture the offer to others.
I also have started a new Instagram page for Smola, which is here and where you can follow progress.
I’m hoping to share this dream with many people. When we are allowed to take visitors, I will be offering Air B&B for single travelling women – I’ll also be offering residencies and looking to create artist exchanges. If you are interested in any of these ideas, please email me on the contact form.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this new move
If you would like to keep up with my move to Shetland, please sign up to the blog here.
Dear lover of Yarn Stories and of the tactile art of knitting,
Making marks at the border of two paint colours.
I have designed a hat which harks back to my wanderings across Shetland. This hat didn’t just happen. It has a story, as have all the knitted articles still in Shetland. I wasn’t born in Shetland but my heart resides there. I can say that my hat was ‘inspired by’ but that feels too shallow. The hat was made like a recipe, gathering the ingredients by sight, sound and touch. This hat recipe has painted flowers in it, abandoned crofts, tussock grass, boggy land, a home without a roof, a lean-to kitchen and women and their creativity in it.
Painted by a woman, I think, by a woman with cold hands and an eye for detail. She will have looked at that wall and maybe, whilst knitting or walking or crofting or cutting peats, or caring for the children or family, she might have thought how she would like to make the walls pretty. Stencils seem visible in some homes. Where did the stencils come from to arrive at such remote, isolated homes? This unassuming row of flowers is deeply moving in its simplicity. Far away from neighbours, with a view of the sea, between the window and the sink is a row of 8 pointed flowers. The point where the energy of present and past meet are at the end of my touching finger and the disintegrating row of flowers. In some parts they have been painted over, but they are clear and proud. I ache at the beauty of the most simple stamped design carefully placed in groups of four V shapes to make an 8 pointed flower.
When did she think this pattern up? How did she do it? As I step back, I feel the same sense of pride that she must have when stepping back to see her row of flowers in her newly fitted kitchen in the lean to. A sink, a tap inside, cupboards and a border of flowers. I can see it now. The cups and plates and pans, with a view of the sea. This moment of really seeing takes my breath away. I stay for only a few minutes. Long enough to touch the woman that lived here long ago through her creativity and eye for detail and the end of my right forefinger.
Since September 2015, when I first visited Shetland for Wool Week, I’ve revisited the Islands many times. Over the years, I’ve stayed for weeks and months at a time, including stays with Barbara in her beautiful house built by a Sea Captain overlooking the sea in Lerwick, an R&D trip to Unst, a 4-week artist residency in Scalloway, 7 weeks with Mati Ventrillon on Fair Isle and 2 weeks in Brindister with endless stays in between. Returning to Shetland has always been about knitting. During these visits I began to build a strong love for finding the derelict, abandoned croft houses that are visible across Shetland, to see the interiors to in some way connect with the women who once lived in them. I’ve looked at censuses to find out who lived in certain homes and looked at their professions, I’ve looked at photographs of women in books ploughing the Fair Isle land who are looking straight into the camera lens, then I have gone to the walled old grave yard by the sea at the South End of Fair Isle and sought out those women by their names on the stones. I’ve worn old original Fair Isle cardigans, sat in the Lerwick library for hours and hours pouring over the Shetland knitting books and crossed the seas to touch and feel knitwear created by absolute artists of their time. All of the knitted pieces that are still in Shetland today, tell a story – a story of the woman who made those knitted pieces – the work bears a story that is woven into every stitch.
On my walks across Shetland, I found and looked at many derelict croft houses which were the homes of knitters, crofters, mothers, fishers, daughters and ‘spinsters’. The more I looked at, and went inside the homes, I felt more of a connection to the women who had lived there through visible signs of the past. My most favourite croft houses, which I visit each time I return, bear the marks of flowers, and leaves painted onto the walls. Each design is carefully and beautifully made by the families who used to live in those homes. I can imagine a woman carefully stencilling or stamping the flowers in a border around the wall of the lean-to kitchen. Some wall painted decorations particularly move me because they are so deeply powerful in their simplicity. I gently touch the patterns to feel through history to a time when a woman painted them long ago in a past that I long to know about.
As I walk away, always, the lasting memory is of the painted walls and it is these that I am honouring within this pattern. This hat pattern is inspired by the disintegrating flowers and leaves that I have found painted on croft house walls and the hat is made as a testament to the gendered craft of knitting, home, and to the beautiful women of Shetland, who knitted all of their lives and made homes a welcoming place.
here, you may find the Shetland Wall Flowers pattern.
Knitting has always been at the base of my creative practice. After spending over 2 months in Shetland, I have just developed a pattern, design sheet, story for any knitter to make. But the design goes back at lease five years to when I first started making this hat. Here’s a new hat and a new story.
Dear lover of yarn and of the tactile act of knitting,
This hat design has been long in the making. I’m producing it as a design sheet because the pattern can be followed to the stitch and colour, or you can use it as a springboard to develop your own ideas by choosing your colours and even a different tree and star motif to the one I have chosen to incorporate into your hat pattern – you can make it your design too.
Over the years, I’ve made this hat using varying yarns and colours. I’ve blocked it in to a shape that resembled a slouching hat or a kind of beret. I still have two of these hats from 2015, and I’ve worn them in all weathers and in many countries. I’ve left one and lost it in places but I have always retraced my steps and gratefully been reunited with the hat that now is part of me every winter.
Seeing the photos of this early hat, I see a different shape entirely to the one that has morphed and shaped to my head through being soaked in gale force rains, being stuffed in pockets and in bags and left for months in a drawer. In November 2019, I was living in Brindister, West Burrafirth, Shetland and wore my old hat every day whilst walking around the voe. By now, its shape had morphed into a basin shape and I felt lost without it if I ever forgot it any winter day – especially in the piercing winds.
In Brindister, when walking around the voe, I started to find sea urchin shells which had been discarded by the seagulls. Finding the first one was like finding the first four-leafed clover when I was a kid. For years, around the ages of 9 – 13, it became a solitary past time of mine to go in search of four-leafed clovers from near where I lived and then I’d press them in books. For years, when opening a book (there weren’t many in our house) dried 4,5,6 and 7 leafed clovers fluttered to the ground. Finding sea urchin shells at Brindister, became my new four-leaf clover hunt and I became obsessed to find a perfect, un-smashed, complete one. I gathered too many to carry in my hands and used my hat to get them back to the croft house and this is when I saw similarities both the shape of hat and crown design and the 5 segmented pattern on the urchin shells.
Over the last four weeks, I have made a new pattern / design sheet. It tells the story of the updated design and opens up the opportunity for the knitter to use the pattern as a springboard to create their own hat design. Without knitting, I would not be the maker, designer, creator of art that I am today. Knitting is the very foundation of my creativity.
The light in the croft house dims sooner than at Mati’s house. The croft’s windows dictate the change in the amount of light within. Two – feet deep walls hold the place up. The deep walls narrow into the windows – each of which look out to every corner of the globe on this island which is only three miles long. I look out south-facing to the light house and gauge the weather by the grass waving or whipping in the wind and by the waves crashing or ebbing on the sea.
The intention is to leave no rubbish after my 9 day stay here. Everything has been bought at the one and only shop at great expense. Everything has come a long way and been handled by much transport – even from Lerwick, either by the local plane or boat from Grutness. I hand picked all the vegetables and packed them in brown bags. All of the peelings will be saved for the pigs at Mati’s, which are owned by four people and brushed by Saskia. I’m learning about animal behaviour from those pigs. They have grown from shy piglets arriving in a cage to grunting and squealing with anticipation at their one and only priority – food. One even bites the other.
Even after 3 weeks, Fair Isle is now so deep in my soul that
I already miss it and yet I am still here – how can that be? I miss the island when I am deep in the
moment of it. It’s like I don’t want to
lose it or I can’t lose it for to do so, would be to give up on a life less
I’m here with Mati as a knitting intern, (maybe the oldest intern in the West at age 56) I’m learning a lot, not only about knitting but island life, the sea, the wind, the land, grass, animal behaviour, the sun rise and whether the plane will come. Where can ‘A Body’ see an unbroken horizon at every window without hesitation. At every lift of the head, a huge deep basin of silver sea greets you. Seeing the sea, hearing it, tasting it makes it seep into your soul. The nights are so pitch dark that my heart quickens at the deepness of the darkness, when I open the door. Nothing can be seen when ther is no moon, except the light house light but even so, it adds to the eeriness of being able to cut darkness with a knife.
There is a book full of old images of Fair Isle islanders
here. I look at the women’s expressions
and how they stand unquestionably, stoically face on. They are all working hard with oxen, ploughs,
knitting, or peats. Maggie Stout of
Shirva is the woman that interests me the most. I cannot stop looking at her
looking at me. I can almost feel the middle
parting of her black hair with my finger – it is so pronounced. This place I am living has a long history. You
can find it easily. It is written across the stones in the grave yard. On a wet
Sunday afternoon, I look for Maggie on the stones. It’s beautiful. The names are listed on the stones, where
they lived and who they married. Women appear to bear their maiden names even
though they are married. History is
tangible here, as across all of Shetland.
How many women moved a curtain aside to look out to sea and wonder about
their men out there, wondering about their safety and return. The weather
changes at a pinch. The stones bear many stories of death at sea.
In this place are larger than life ship wrecked items of great beauty – two identical figurines and two mismatched simple chairs which add character and richness to this small croft house that I am staying for 9 nights.
On the second day, Marie and I cut tussock grass, which is growing just below the chapel, with house scissors. We bag it. I want to knit it and make a lace curtain from its yarn. I’ve long since loved Shetland grass which grows at great length untouched, untrodden on and forms in dune-like shapes carved by the wind. We cut it without knowing its possibilities or strength. I spend 3 days and evenings plaiting the grass into a long length and a ball of grass yarn. The grass is strewn across 3 floors and stuck to everything. When knitting and unknitting, because I am dissatisfied with the results, the grass yarn bears the memory of the stitch.
I am using the resources of the island to create something to connect both with the island and with the age old practice of knitting in order to make site specific / site responsive work back in the Shetland landscape. It will be about the women knitters and a skilled craft that when placed within the landscape, will create a personally constructed context or narrative. My work is created around the theme of gendered women’s creative knitted work that is often undervalued and underpaid. I work within a place to learn the skills embedded within that area and I position my work back into the landscape to connect place, time, history, women’s craft and that pure moment in the present. If it works, for me, there is a distillation of experiences.
As I am working with the materials to hand – grass – and the thought of the women who lived in the croft houses here and how they knitted to subsidise the crofting income and how they dressed and looked in haps – I will choose to knit a hap lace edge and find the right window to place the lace knitted grass. It will be a window that women will have looked out of many times, over many generations whilst working on a croft in Shetland.
It’s strange and deeply moving, how a small, sea-facing
house that I briefly occupy on a tiny remote island which is firmly planted in
the North Sea, is so far removed from a home that I once occupied deep in the
Chinese ancient hutongs of Suzhou, but that it can so vividly and completely
remind me of that other place in another country, in another continent so
powerfully that it is as if I am back in the middle of the dusty, noisy hutongs
themselves. How can this be? This small
house on Fair Isle does not have any of the same look, smells or sounds from as
that place in Suzhou but as I am unceremoniously dropped off and left alone
here, I turn around and instantly feel China, India, the old Vicarage at Chatsworth
from 20 years ago and an old house in the hutongs of Suzhou. All at once past places and people surge back
and I am hit in the chest by the power of a sensory connection that I haven’t
felt in years. How can I feel that I am
in China or an old library in an old vicarage when I am in a tiny area in the
middle of a tiny house on Fair Isle?
Initially, there is nothing immediate about the place this
is fundamentally Chinese, though these things appear later. It is not about a brush or Chinese paper or
mark or anything tangible. It is the scent
of it all, its essence.
When I arrived here, quite tired and late, I cared not about eating nor for food and certainly not for unpacking, because I had to just sit and take in my new surroundings.
One week there, one week there and now one week here. Three weeks
on this island and three very different places to sleep – all creative in their
own way but this tiny place has something other than creativity.
Stepping into this place is an intense, pure moment where nothing else really matters. To someone else, it would appear totally differently but to me, everything here is placed precisely to create a space entirely conducive to creative thought and drawing. I can see the sea, hear the wind and the clock ticking but mostly and above all, I feel intensely and acutely aware of my surroundings – so much so that I am winded. So much detail, so much accumulated stuff. There is not one pen but over a hundred, there is not one sharpened, labelled, categorised pencil but over two hundred. There is not one book of antiquity but countless and the same with paint brushes, ink pens, nibs and tools, glue, tape, light bulbs, bags. A sea of multiples. Everything is used and reused and used again and mended. Most things here bear the scars of being broken and mended or of having a long journey and life – this being pans, pots, cups, plates and all manner of utensils. This tiny place in an ocean of stuff bearing the memory of past lives and other countries. Every single thing in this home has a visible memory. It is a simple place with an intoxicating, hugely complex interior.
No place has made me feel so deeply and powerfully inside my
chest and belly since living in China. but this is not China, it is a small,
tiny house on a small tiny island in the North sea.
How many years did this place take to evolve? It has the same enchantment as Lao Wang’s one
roomed home in Suzhou. The walls are closing in from the towering collections
of brushes, pens, pencils all in neat rows in jugs, pots, tins, jars. Everything is magnified through sheer volume and
a scent of far, far away. There is no internet connection. I am so disconnected that I can only become
connected. I decide that I shall live in a very small way here.
Tools, oil paint, inks, books and more books, Indian textiles, Chinese ink stamps and brushes, old tins, new tins, tea boxes, old rugs covering bare boards – so little floor space – the walls encroaching in. there is no space for any of the doors to the rooms – these now being used as shelving above the bed to store artwork. The single bed is encased beneath the doors, beside bookshelves and pillars of 4×4 to hold the doors, next to a small table and sofa.
In truth, I am a little cold. I will have to wear my feather coat the whole
time, as I did in china. I care about
nothing practical. I care not that I am
cold and will get colder, not that my finger is sticky nor about the wind
gathering momentum and speed outside, nor do I care that there is not one comfortable
chair because I feel that all the world is here. The freezer whines. I open a flask of tea that I made 11 hours ago
and feel at home with a tepid drink. I’ve
been left with instructions not to touch any of his things. His things, not being his personal space or
intimate space – bed, nor even his books.
I know instantly what his most precious things are – its his tools to
create art, though this was never mentioned. The tools that support his practice are the
things I cannot touch. I respect that but
am drawn to his drawing desk. This point
of clear sharp focus will focus me. Amidst
a million small things, I decide to stick to 4 physical places within this sea
of things only because a fear of putting things down in any other place, that I
will certainly not find it again. I allow myself to use the single bed, the
small sofa bed for bags and clothes, a square foot on the kitchen works surface
to prepare food and one square foot on the desk to write. I am getting to know
the man through his things before I have ever really spoken to him.
After sitting for some time, on a garden chair by the desk, I finally understand the power of this place – there is a combined memory of three wise men that I have known before who rise among the books and brushes here.
Mr Beddoes and his worldly library of first editions at Chatsworth, Lao Wang in his old Chinese one roomed house with walls lined with hooks for bird cages and old fur skins and with an old Chinese bed surrounded by a sheet with small boxes pinned to the inside containing a pen and his glasses and other small important things, and then there is also Cai Gen Lin – the wisest man of all who owns no material objects and who lives a simple life as a devout Buddhist and cuts the hair of the locals for 8 kuai. The qualities of those three men are tangible but not visible in this tiny house decades and thousands of miles apart. It is a special place lived in by a man I do not know at all, on a tiny island 3 miles long, in the North sea.