A last Shetland sunrise Its flaring red, pink, lilac and blue skyscape performs to remind the boys and I of perfect untainted natural beauty.
I smile I walk out to greet the glow Sky, wind, cold envelope me. Sheltering from the Baltic wind in a steadfast porch that faces east, I watch To etch the view forever. A basin of ice cold sea wraps the surface of a world below a rippled dancing sky. Alfie by my feet on the age old stones. The red sky does not fade, it glows, it sings, it morphs
It shouts to me “Goodbye, do not forget me, For I am in your soul”
In September 2020, I moved to a croft house in Levenwick and began, more or less immediately, to research the people that had lived here before me. Through conversations with local people, the return of photographs and pottery and 8 sessions in Shetland Museum Archives, I found that the Halcrow family had lived here from the mid 1800’s until 1960. I became particularly interested in researching a woman called Susan (Cissie) b1876 – d1960 who lived in my croft house for 83 years – and after her parents and brother died, from 1916, she was alone. She made the fire in the hearth, grew things, opened the old latch door and looked out to sea every day, as I now do, also as a single woman. Susan was the last of three generations of the Halcrow family to live in this house and she lived through some of the most recorded changeable times in Shetland history.
Through this new frame of mine, I began to write a story of two women living in the same house over a century apart. I began to write and research through my own lived experiences, diarised in a daily practice of writing. I researched a story of Susan, this house and Shetland, juxtaposed with my own lived experiences in the same house and out of that story, I knitted a pattern for Susan. When I look at Susan’s face in any of the photographs that I have been given, she looks calm, serene and has a real beauty about her. The glint in her eye was there to the end.
I was awarded a VACMA award. (Visual Arts Craft MakersAward) to write the story of Susan and myself living in this house over a century apart and to design a knitted piece dedicated to Susan Halcrow. I have made a neat little pullover dedicated to her, with her in mind. The jumper hopes to embody the natural elements of Shetland and how serene and calm Susan looked – always smart, usually wearing a brooch or collar when photographed outside the house. The body of the jumper is inspired by the colours of the Shetland seas of turquoise, aqua, greens and all the blues you could ever imagine and I wanted the yoke to be jewel-like. It is a knitting recipe of light, wind, the sea, yarn, Shetland life and a woman called Susan as well as my own creative practice. My creative practice is a way of expressing my life through the art of storytelling and technology of knitting and through the use of expressive colour.
I would like to thank Shetland Arts and Creative Scotland for supporting this project – for me, it is a thing of great beauty – not only the design but the 15 page story of Susan and I. The writing of this work has been a research and a personal journey written in letters to Susan. If you are interested in the knitting pattern, it is available on ravelry (with the story too).
Big love from Shetland in these long summer days. Tracey.
Today is one of those rare perfect days – it is still, calm, bright, sunny and clear. The Ewes are still lambing, the air is filled with the sound of birds and it’s a rare opportunity for me to get out on the bike. The regular winds make cycling difficult here. I used to bike about 8 miles a day in Sheffield, every day, in all weathers, up the hills with all the shopping in the panniers and a back pack on. Here, my bike has been in the outbuilding for about 5 months.
Today, I oiled it, brushed the dead bugs out of the paniers, loaded it up and set off for St Ninian’s and Bigton hall for soup and cake lunch for £5. Along the side of the road Sea Pinks and wild primroses grow. The deep blue sea is always to my right going to St Ninian’s and to my left returning. When cycling, you see all the things missed by being in a car and I felt grateful – really grateful to be alive and grateful to live in this beautiful place – so extreme that the weather governs emotions. St Ninian’s is 3 miles around the corner from here. Seeing it has never ceased to make me happy, whatever the weather, time of day or how ever I am feeling. Just seeing the natural tombola makes my heart sing.
Back home, Tiggy sits beside me now on the South side of the house. We both soak in the sun’s warmth. His fur warms up. His eyes run from the winds. My shoulders loosen.
At the back of my house is an old barn and a small byre. I dug the byre out and sieved every bit of soil that now rests in two builder’s bags. One is full of growing potatoes (they’re too close – let’s see what happens) and the other has carrots, onions, beetroot and strawberries in it. They may never grow, never ripen, the weather in chilly. Until last night, I covered the potato bag because of the chill. It is still really cold at night – but last night was still, calm and clear. I captured the early moon and at 1am, it was still light. On some occasions, it makes me laugh – just to be here, to see this incredible world so far north, to try to grow things, get the bike out, paint things and make tidy the untidy. When I sat at the small café at Sumburgh yesterday, I looked at the edge of the earth, the horizon, Fair Isle 24 miles away, and I watched the birds rise up and fly.
During the week, I am working now, 3 days a week and I also volunteer another day. I do this to meet people, be part of the community, give back to others and to pay my bills. The work is full on, with few pauses and it’s extremely detailed. I also teach online knitting workshops and manage the online process and am currently writing a booklet about Susan Halcrow and I, living in the same house over a century apart. So, understandably, there is little time and today, I have decided to put out a call for a strong person who is able to help me with the back yard, lift the stones, lay flags, remove some soil, rebuild a low garden wall and help with painting the outside of the house because I am short and getting on a bit. If you are interested in 2 – 3 weeks staying here in Shetland, in my guest room with full board in exchange for helping me with all the stones at the back of the house and to paint the front and week the endless dandelions out, then contact me. If I don’t know you, I will have to ask for a reference. But, Just contact me if you are interested because I am interested in getting this work done and sharing the opportunity of staying in this amazing location with another person.
As a reader of my blogs, you’ll know that in September 2020, I moved to a croft house in Levenwick, Shetland. It has been a busy 7 months, buying a car, driving a car again after 12 years of not doing so, restoring the south bedroom to its original floor and fireplace and to a more relaxed palette, applying for work, getting project co-ordinator jobs, developing, devising and presenting successful online knitting workshops, digging out a byre, sieving soil, learning how to get furniture to an island parallel to Norway, that although is technically in the UK, it is miles away from London and finding that deliveries do not easily arrive on this island.
As well as living here, I have been researching Susan Halcrow and her parents and paternal grandparents who lived in this house for 3 generations from the early 1800’s. I’m particularly interested in researching Susan (Cissie) b1876, d1960 who was born in this house and lived here alone after her parents died early 1908 and 1914 and then her brother died in the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
I, as Susan did, make the fire in the hearth, grow things, open the latch door and look out to sea every day. We both live and lived here as single women.
Through this new frame of mine, my Shetland practice became entirely local (Shetland) based and I began to want to develop a digital written piece with an online knitted design created through my own (phenomenological) lived experiences of living in the same house that Susan had. I diarised my life in small chapters related to the morning or light, or sun rises or moon and frequently of the wind. Through a daily practice of experiential writing, I began to wonder about Susan and her life by researching photographs of her and working on a small colour blending knitting design. That pattern became, Good Wishes for the New Year and it was exactly that – all about Susan.
But, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding underpinned by archival researching of her and her family to write my story of Susan, this house and Shetland, juxtaposed with my own lived experiences in the same house and to share it internationally. This can never be The story because I cannot talk with her but it will be a story to honour a woman who lived a long life within this house.
At the end of January, I read about The Visual Artist and Craft Makers Awards (VACMA) which is a programme of small grants schemes with a range of local authorities and art agencies across Scotland to support Scotland-based visual artists and craft makers in their creative and professional development. I had become really interested in the idea of writing a booklet about Susan and I living in the same house about 140 years apart. And to write part of the story through the experience of developing a knitting design with Susan in mind.
So, I applied for a Visual Arts and Craft Maker Award (VACMA) 2 days before the closing date, and submitted by the skin of my teeth on 2nd February. The application flowed because this is real for me. I don’t have to make this up, it is my life, my home, seen alongside a very real woman who lived here – I just have to find the right way to write it.
I hope to creatively experiment through an auto ethnographic practice (personal experience in order to understand cultural experience) to enable me produce a 16-page digital booklet about the real life of 2 single women in different times living in the same house (140 years apart).
I will be experimenting with written word, photography and knitted design to tell our linked stories and I will also include a pattern design in the booklet. The project will bring together my previous 5 year’s skills and experiences, my Masters, Artist Residencies and my move to Shetland in an ongoing commitment to my creative practice.
Within time, I received an email from Shetland Arts to say that my VACMA application was successful, which I was over the moon about. To enable me to dedicate time to the project, I stopped all online teaching colour blending workshops until the end of May to give me time to knit the sample, research the family in the Archives at the Museum and to design the pattern and to write this work as beautifully as possible.
Though, from next week, my part time job has increased hours and I also volunteer at Women’s Aid too so I’m finding life very busy and full on but still, without fail, this booklet, the writing, research, design and knitting has been on my mind every day since February. I’ve been to the archives 4 times, I write when I can, I have, tonight, just finished the sample knit which has two different sleeve finishes and uses two types of yarn – as a sample, I am happy. The pullover will develop into another piece. I have a wonderful test knitter, Cait, from Cream City Yarn, a wonderful yarn shop and creative knitting space in a one-room schoolhouse located in the suburbs of Milwaukee.
Maybe the booklet doesn’t need a knitting pattern design in it, but a recipe of life in this house, and of knitting and two women.
This project is supported by VACMA from Creative Scotland, Shetland Arts and Shetland Islands Council
Red gloss makes me look away. It’s the first inherited colour that I paint over. Red, raises stress, draws the gaze, takes over the place especially when on the focal point of a room like a fire place. Layers and layers of gloss over an old iron fire place makes my heart ache. The iron cannot breathe through paint. Here, I had so many other things to do that the red paint was far from the first thing in this room that was removed. I have been spending hours sanding, painting, oiling floors, nitromorsing and brushing iron, stripping wallpaper, painting ceilings, walls and stone. Slowly, the south bedroom of my small house, with an unbroken view of the sea has grown subtle, more natural, in keeping with the elements. Yesterday, as I was leaving, I stepped back to look at my house with the disbelief that I actually live within it. I actually looked at the house and thought, ‘Man, I did it’. It has taken me 6 months and one serendipitous moment to stand back and admire my home as an achievement. Within the first few days of moving in, the house became a love of my life – not the – because I have Jess and Patti but this house sure is a love of mine. I shared this view with a woman from the village who trod on my joy by saying, ‘you never would have guessed’ she said she was being sarcastic. After that, I began to hide my love, my joy and retreat to the sound of the old wooden latch, the view, the light, the tangible history within the house, which have all become a deep evolving love of living here.
To get things done, I have been compartmentalising my life by working an admin job, teaching online knitting workshops, writing a business plan, designing knitting patterns, buying a car, writing online pieces and I have been working on my guest room in order to prepare it for guests. Everything in the house has been shifted around to make space for this room to be restored, lovingly. I find things to dress the mantle, to converse with the room, view and light. Shetland sea urchins, I found in Brindister, the old wheelbarrow wheel from my barn, a bird’s nest from Martin’s lambing shed and one from Sumburgh farm, a bird’s wing from St Nininan’s beach – tiny shells and large shells all found within 3 miles of here build a story of local nature, Shetland life.
I yearn for an old iron and brass bed for the guest room – much like my own. I have sourced one but it is in London and I cannot get it here. There are no deliveries off the mainland. I will wait to get the right bed. I hear the Oceanic sank just off Foula in 1914 and there were 3 days things were removed from the liner and afterwards, when it sank, many things were washed up on the West Coast. The Oceanic was the sister of the Titanic and it carried many ornate iron and brass beds now on the sea bed.
I’ve restored many homes but this room has been a pretty big job – I have shed blood, sweat and tears – at one point, I knocked myself off a chair when the belt sander chewed up my trousers when I lowered my arms whilst trying to sand the ceiling (yes, really) and that was really scary. I did the risk assessment, I knew the biting of the sander but it still happened. Finally, the sander has stopped. The screw and plate had worked lose. I spent an hour trying to fix it but could not – so I finished the floor sanding by hand. The guy at the paint shop is on first name terms with me because I’m a weekly customer. The paint is the best I could buy. It’s inspired by a sample of wallpaper that I’m completely flattered that Emma has agreed to print. When the paper goes on the walls, if Emma agrees, I will share its story – because event the wallpaper has a story.
I’ve just closed the bedroom door and realised that it is only 60% stripped. I forgot about that. But when it is finished, this room will be an unassuming, living, breathing room to gently connect to Shetland in more ways than one.
Saturday, Sitting in this old house, with the doors open for this fine Shetland sunrise, listening to the sparrows and starlings mutter and chatter over the breakfast seeds on the wall, the red light pours sharply in to the house as a shard of light, hitting the back wall at an angle in the corner – a different place from even two weeks ago where light hit the middle of the sofa. I am learning a cycle of annual shifting light.
Light, so commonly taken for granted, is a big thing here. Its appearance is being squashed into a smaller opening by the darkness of Winter speeding in to borrow light’s hours. The night darkness is squeezing out the daylight day by day but sunrise is putting up a spectacular morning fight.
For a brief half hour, I listen, wait and watch to see the magnificence of a new day writing its signature across my walls, through my windows and refracted through the old lead chandelier prism crystals that now become brokers in this arrangement between sunrise and light. The crystals throw rainbows of light across the walls and ceiling. The moment is enchanting. Why not be enchanted? – if only briefly.
I have always noted shifting light, where it hits the walls of my homes, how it affects me, how it shifts around the room at different times of year, how I wait for it to appear at certain times of year and how it slips away. I have rejoiced in it for years. But here, here it is more powerful because being so northerly, the light is extra precious during winter. I have yet to learn of its daily power during living here through a summer where the light fights back to take over the hours of darkness.
This morning, all my world stopped to be in this November moment. Grateful at being able to see the pure light and to feel its powerful healing properties.
Pure Moon light.
A moon beam paints its light in the whole shape of the window across my bedroom floor. Unbeknown to me, light is also painted across the floor in the room downstairs.
Outside, the moon world is brought together by a party of present and missing elemental guests. The sharp light is here because wind and rain are missing. The moon is the main guest of honour. A moon so bright and full that it creates a pool of light in the basin of the wide and deep sea. The fold of the earth, visible through the window, as horizon line between earth and sea, marks a line between moon light and night darkness as if drawn by a spirit level.
After the storm, after the Orcas, the moon paints the sea silver and my bedroom floor with a faint but clearly defined light in the shape of a window resting on the old wooden floor boards.
How can I turn away from this natural visual world that is lit by a full moon guest? To sleep is to miss it. I cannot sleep, or read and although knitting beckons me, the moon light pulls my gaze and I see nothing but tones of grey, silver, slate, graphite, black, white. A boat sails on the horizon trailing its own white light.
To be alive at this moment, here, now, with all the elements in perfect harmony is priceless. Except for the personal cost of noticing, taking time, being aware, being in the moment – given freely.
I write in the pure darkness, not seeing the pen or the words. The white page is faintly highlighted by the painting moon light.
Suddenly, rain arrives at the party, accompanied by blowing wind and bringing cloud. Other natural elements join the party, breaking up moon’s isolated glow. Rain, wind and cloud cover moon – he leaves the moonlit party, taking with him light.
Black ness returns accompanied by rain on the roof and wind down the chimney.
If you would like to receive a monthly newsletter on living in Shetland, I have started a Patreon site for unpublished stories – which will only be available to Patreon supporters. If you would like to receive monthly newsletters, stories, updates on research on this old house and Susan Halcrow, discounts on my knitting patterns and information on Shetland, please consider supporting me through Patreon at £3 per month or £6 per month. The link is here. https://www.patreon.com/TraceyDoxey
This story is the first one and it is free. After that, my Patreon supporters will receive exclusive stories and I will dedicate time to my writing on that page.
If you are interested in staying at Smola in Shetland, the link to Air B&B is here
I pack the bike paniers for the beach – a place that I know is today in a wind storm. Laying the blanket upon the fine sand, making ready to start knitting the gloves with my online Ravelry Knit group is wonderful moment. It is THE perfect location to sit and knit, think, feel – the sea rolling and heaving in front of me, the bike tyres being quickly buried under small sand drifts behind me. I dig into the bank of the crescent beach and unpack a speckled banana and Christmas biscuits in an old tin, my 5 year old Thermos from Japan, my note book, pen, yarn and chart.
I sit as if a child on a picnic for no one and watch the weight of water lift the surface of the sea in front of me. Waves break and reach the shore line as if they move along the keys of a piano – right to left along the entire long beach.
Sand grains settle on the surface of my tea as if in a grain huddle, in the base of the open biscuit tin, on the blanket in the shape of the base of my shoe, in the threads in the ball of yarn, on the canvas yarn bag that travelled a thousand miles, in my hair, on the scarf.
I scan the sea for whales – the whales that came in to the bay last Weds when I was at St Ninian’s. The weight of the sea water, rising and sinking, ebbing and flowing – covering secrets below its surface in the cold, cold depths of ancient sea sounds.
Today is the first day of my online Ravelry Knit Along where you can join me until 12th October in a group to knit the Smola gloves – named after my home in Shetland. You can ask questions, add photos, let me see your projects. THANK you to all those who have bought the pattern for the gloves already.
Happy knitting, happy sea and beach thoughts – If you’d like to join me on the beach next year, I will be offering Air B&B for single lady crafters, artists and explorers. Message me if you are interested in staying in my 200 year old house by the sea.
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.
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.
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.