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.
Site-oriented, site-determined, site-conscious, site-responsive or site-related
or just plain trespassing?
I’m devouring a book in order to understand more of my own creative practice and where it sits within a contemporary art dialogue.
I describe my practice in a way that can be at best defined as an autoethnographic and at worst a romanticised prose on the process of what it felt like for me to either create the piece or to reach the moment of a site specific-piece’s conception in the form of a photograph or written blog. I touch on both autoethnographic and romanticism. But, I do know that I am utterly driven to make this work. Out of this comes research on writing ethnography.
Every living day, I reside in a headspace of creative connection and now, the only thing I want to do is get back to a book in order to theoretically understand more about how to locate my creative practice (site-specific art / site-oriented art). It’s a way of life, of thinking and feeling.
Instead of just ‘doing’ the work, I’m decoding it in order to situate it within a contemporary art context, therefore, to give it and me meaning within the title of Site-specific art.
On any given day, I would answer the question, “What is my creative practice about?” in a different way. That is because I respond to and in the moment. My answer often depends on where I am within it. If I’m knitting, learning new technology to create that knit, listening to women tell their oral history of Shetland knit culture, laser cutting – actually digitally cutting them, walking the landscape, hand block printing, hand knitting lace, looking at the details of the details, using and learning InDesign or Illustrator, practice based research, journeying to an isolated place to reach that true deep point of my yearning that opens up stories that I either find or make and HERE lies the crux of it, it’s an interdisciplinary creative practice, the core of which is unchanging. The core of my work is what I am now theoretically locating within the context of Contemporary Visual Art.
On a base line physical making process, I feel an absolute connection to place, do not do any harm to the location, take nothing, damage nothing, in order to create something. I’ve created relationships between self and an inanimate derelict buildings so deeply embedded within my creative thought process, that I return again and again, as if to a friend. I begin to really know that place and it lets me in – opens up to me, as if a person. But now I critically ask, is being in this place to create art, a place whereby I am self-serving in order to unrightfully claim the authority to make up the stories by framing an image in a place that belongs to someone else, to address one of the issues that drives me (women’s domestic craft) under the banner of artist? Well? Am I?
years, have I earned entry to that place?
Today, I am able to say that my work is primarily about the intersection between cultural location (of a found place that I have connected to through revisiting, learning of the people who lived there, which has a cultural, historical, visible meaning and that I have, over time, fallen in love with it) and the materiality of my creative practice (sometimes knit, laser cut, print) which addresses the politics of women’s domestic craft of knitting. (skilled, undervalued, underpaid, gendered work to support an income)
The intersection is the very sharp piercing moment that I ‘feel’ viscerally connected, at an unscheduled moment, where my creative materiality becomes part of the site and to remove the work would be to destroy it – In one term – Site-specific Art – a distillation of time, place and experience.
Mostly, I record that moment, sometimes, I just feel it.
True, the moment of coming to that point is visceral (for me) and could be justified by a lengthy dialogue on how it felt and how I had made the work to get to that point and how I had built up a relationship with an inanimate derelict building, but to what real meaning does this end? Resonance?
I am understanding how do we give value to work – and questioning what is the currency of this value?
At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always
take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where
I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections
The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015. The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone. The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children. It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.
Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the
walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of
For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation
for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block
printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace
design. This wallpaper has been a couple
of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to
create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design. Material process and practice led research has
always been the core of the development of my art practice. I have long questioned – is it craft or art
and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing
families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic
craft of knitting and narratives of those women.
The world is speedily changing and what can we say through
art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and
Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house. As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit. I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was. It felt like meeting an old friend. Returning to make work here is not a safe option. It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’. I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person. I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.
On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper,
paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I
had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to
place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own
personal journey to this point.
I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process. A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see. My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.
After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.
Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together
of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal. What is this work – is it Art? Textile art?
Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories? I’m trying to understand it in a way in which
textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific
art in order to tell a story.
Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.
I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included. Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development. The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.
In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls. It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me – very focused. Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me. I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.
My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place. Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place. I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.
I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:
Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research
primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create
fine lace and of their ancestors.
Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst,
research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have
started to do)
Make site specific work using photography as a
platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women
knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer
installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner)
to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.
I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.
This was an ambitious aim in 10 days. I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst. 36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.
I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff, but Unst is a different land.
The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone. I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt. I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting, I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.
The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay. Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs. This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.
In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’. This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further.
After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts. This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways R&D grant in 2018.
Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and
Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s
still so much to learn and research and find out and make. I’m always just at the beginning of something
new but there is so much more.
These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.
your haste to pass from one place to another, you may have accidentally fallen
across this inessential corner and stopped for a moment, caught by the sight of
cut paper or printed ink.
place of scattered and fragmented light, which writes across the sill, is an
echo of everything that I have been in search of for some time now.
I have been here before, in a place of contemplation, only to wonder how many women have stood before me and looked out of this seaward facing window or leant against the door frame, waiting for their man to come home from the sea, knowing that he may not return. The ever-present harsh wind, a constant reminder, battering the window pane and whipping the grass into knee high tufts.
Then, everything was about surviving and longing and waiting. Now, if you look, you can trace this across the walls in abandoned Croft houses on Shetland, some of which bear traces of decoration lovingly painted by the families that have long since moved away.
The world reveals itself to those on foot and I’m
glad to have met you.
Tracey Doxey is a knitter, researcher, traveller, site-specific artist, writer and currently, an AA2A Artist in residence at Sheffield Institute of Arts until the end of September 2019.