Fair Isle grass knitting

Fair Isle grass – a knitting resource to hand.

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.

home for a while – Fair Isle

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 ordinary.

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.

Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

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 and belonging. 

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.

march 2017

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 the build. 

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 feel.

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

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.

‘Vod’ an unoccupied, empty place.

I am a Contemporary artist who works with textiles and photography.  I am also a knitter – sometimes a pretty good one.  And, I suppose I’m a designer of contemporary lace knit.

Recently, I took my knitting, which is fine lace knit,  back to the place of original inspiration, which, for my current project is Shetland.  I take the lace back to a found derelict croft – a home where knitting certainly would have taken place and lace could have also once been knitted there. The project is called ‘Vod’ which is a Shetland word for Unoccupied / Empty place.

Shetland has many derelict crofts, sometimes quite plain and simple, sometimes with a yard and gate, some with modifications such as a lean-to toilet room but always, they are deeply moving. There’s something powerful in the traces that can be seen of what  once was, their remoteness and their outlook. They all have a soul.  It’s compelling to stand and look out of a derelict croft house window.

It is mostly in the window that I place my work. Sometimes across a door

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The more crofts that I found in Bressay and Burra and worked in, the more I looked out of the windows and wondered how many women had looked out of that same window, waiting for husbands to return or for kids to come home and that was when I began to really get interested in the social history of the places and the women who had once knitted there.  Below are some of the archive images of women knitting by crofts, which are from Shetland Museum.

My practice began to explore particular social and political narratives of place and values of material production embedded in place/s.  Once I found the crofts, I began to research how the women were paid for their knitting and came to learn about the truck and barter system.  I long to hear Shetland women tell stories of their ancestors’ home life and history and this is why I want to go to Unst – the most northerly isle in the British Isles – parallel to Norway and below Iceland on the map. It is the home of Shetland lace knitting.  I’ll spend time in the Unst Heritage Centre and cycle around the small Island, taking in the surroundings. 

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Almost two years ago, when I started my part time MA at NTU, I was firstly inspired by Shetland knitted lace and my research was initially about the textiles only – how the lace was knitted and the motifs in it.  Over the last two years and over five subsequent visits to Shetland,  I have become more interested in the women who made the fine Shetland lace and how and where they lived, often in remote and extreme conditions. Learning this, and finding these places, developed a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of lace knitting in Shetland. To express my respect for and love of Shetland lace and the homes once lived in and the knitters themselves, I respond to place and its associated narrative histories – in particular woman’s material and conceptual histories of creative practice.

There is a sublime energy in the derelict crofts coupled with the energy of a my contemporary take on lace knitting placed back into a abandoned building which creates a third energy – the site specific work itself.  I hope that my latest Site specific work has integrity, authenticity and soul.  The symbiotic relationship between my lace knit or lace engravings coupled with placing the work into derelict crofts,  is an act which produces contemporary art that speaks of place, time, culture, textiles, struggle, hardship and past lives.

I’m lucky enough to be returning to Shetland to finish ‘Vod’ and I hope to interview and record the oral histories of knitting and crofting from the women at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst. These women keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive. I want to respond to their stories by making a textile and photographic site-specific work around their stories and creative practice on Unst. I have not been able to reach Unst on my previous visits to Shetland due to Winter, ferry crossing availability or non-availability of space to cross the sea between the islands, availability of day light (5 in the Winter) and the closure of the Heritage Centre between October and the beginning of May.  I have not previously recorded oral histories and this is the only place where the lace stories originate.  Unst is 60 degrees North and I learned from my son today, who will be filming in the most Northern part of Norway in March, that there are only 90 degrees, then you are at the Arctic.

The reason that I can return to Shetland is that I have been awarded an R&D grant to research the stories of the knitters, their lives and to look at the knitting itself and to work in derelict crofts, this time, with the permission of the owners to hopefully arrange a pop up  installation in a derelict croft, around the Bank holiday weekend at the end of May. I will invite local artists, knitters and crofters for tea and cake and to look at the  work that has grown out of this body of this project  that has taken me a year and a half in the making

The Research and Development work in Shetland, is called ‘Vod’ – an unoccupied, empty place.

Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield  for supporting this R&D trip and for supporting the development of my creative practice.

making-ways