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 1660. 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. And living here as a single woman can be tough at times.
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. In the archives, I read Susan’s will. She mentioned the Small Holders (Scotland) Acts 1886 and 1931 and the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1954.’ This highlights the importance of Tenants rights here in Shetland and pinpoints some of the most notable, recorded social changes in Shetland’s history – dating from the Napier Commission – right through to the personal will of a woman whose parents and grandparents fought for their rights.
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 would like to read the story, it is in full on my Patreon site. If you are interested in the knitting pattern, it is available on ravelry (with the story too). Links to both are below.
Big love from Shetland in these long summer days. Tracey.
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.
If you would like to know more about my research on Susan and the Halcrow family, I will be writing a monthly piece on my Patreon site here.
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.
For some time now, I have been thinking of doing online Colour Blending Workshops with Fair Isle knitting. Colour seems to be my thing in knitting. I’ll never be as good a knitter as the Shetland ladies but I do have a sense of freedom with colour ideas and I think that is because I come from down south and have never been taught traditional ways. I see in colour from the place I live, the sky, the sea, the reflection in the windows, the beaches, the soil. I incorporate these colours into my designs which are always inspired by Shetland.
I was approached by one of my lovely Patreon supporters to see if I would be able to zoom a meeting with her and her friends on colour blending. One of the good things that has come out of COVID is that we are all now becoming more familiar with online meetings. I often video meet with friends from Sheffield and Fair Isle on WhatsApp or FB messenger. My son also messages, my daughter is more in hiding from me – sometimes I can corner her. The connection gives real time conversations and a chance to catch up – especially when you live alone – you feel less alone. Verity and I make tea at the same time – Mati and I sometimes knit, my son usually looks online whilst talking with me. I love this – a natural conversation whilst sometimes doing other things. I’m mostly eating.
I had been thinking of Zoom workshops but knew I had to subscribe to carry out workshops of over 40 minutes – today, I subscribed. It feels a big leap. It feels good. I feel ready.
On Saturday 23rd Jan, I will be carrying out a workshop with the lovely ladies from Canada and on Sunday 24th, I’ll be zooming with UK ladies – so now there will be no stopping me.
Here are some of the workshops that I am thinking of
Swatch Book Saturday
Shetland Saturday catch up – show me what you got.
Yoke sampling (that’s not an egg yolk) it’s for cardis.
Norwegian Star cushion making
If you would like a 1:1 workshop – I’m set up. If you would like to have a specific workshop with your knitting group or guild – let me know, I’m ready.
If you are an individual and would like to join one of my workshops with other lovely participants – then you’re welcome. Just contact me through this site or email me at the email at the end of this post 😊
The workshops will be interactive BYOY –(Bring your own yarn), informative, skills based and time for fun and questions. In the workshops, we won’t be ‘knitting’ but looking at colour and how to blend. I used to teach English in China and here in the UK, I have devised my first workshop session for Colour Blending – here is the core of it –
This is a design workshop where you will learn the skills and gain experience to enable you to blend colours and design your own samples of Shetland traditional tree and star yoke patterns. It’s a fun creative session to experiment with colour in Fair Isle knitting to take forward to create your own swatches for future projects. You’ll be able to throw yourselves into the many colours of yarn on offer to us and you will look at your stash of yarn with a different eye. We will look at a traditional Shetland tree and star pattern, used on Shetland cardigans and jumpers, and at examples of Fair Isle knitting including Yokes, flat knitting and knitting in the round. I will show you real examples of Shetland and Fair Isle knitting and design pattern books and explain how I blend colours.
This workshop will aim to work towards you making a hat using your colour ideas. I will show you how to work on your own idea and choose a tree and star pattern and colours for colour blending so that you can make your own colour combinations that work really work well for you.
At this online workshop, you will learn: –
How to see colour / tone / contrast
How to blend colours in your knitting to create a harmonious pattern.
How to get excited about colour and not frightened
How I take inspiration from my Shetland surroundings to design using colour as a base starting point.
If you love colour and textiles, you will enjoy the opportunity for experimentation
I am looking to carryout February Online Colour Blending workshops on
6th, 7th, 2oth and 21st Feb – 10am – 12noon for UK participants or 3pm Shetland time 10am Canadian time and anywhere in between. If you have a group, we can figure out the time.
If you are interested, please contact me using the contact form or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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?