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.
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
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 email@example.com
This weekend has been all about a northern Winter, blue light, snowfall, walking to the top of the hill, and scraping the ceiling.
Two of us have had an attempt at sanding paint off the ceiling now. I bought a fairly expensive belt sander and duly plugged it in and hit the ceiling with it. Holding 3kg up above your head whilst wearing goggles and a face mask, standing on a chair, is testing to say the least. It didn’t work. So I started scraping the paint with a ‘magic scraper’ but it wasn’t magic at all, then Nitromorsing, then I paid a man to have a go at sanding and in one hour the entire room was filled with paint flakes and dust but there was nothing in the dust bag and some areas were sanded but more paint was still left on the ceiling and it was all looking very intact with 50 years of rippled paint beaming down at me. He said it couldn’t be done and to go over it with another ceiling. I thought about it. I poked and wiped a little area clean on the glass in the window so that I could see out, heart slightly sinking at the magnitude of it all – then shut the door for two days.
Saturday, I returned to the ceiling with fresh vigour, armed with new paint stripper and optimistic hope. Somehow, I had forgotten the midweek sinking feeling. Two hours later, there is little effect on the paint from the paint stripper and scraping so I pick up the sander again. Whilst sanding above my head, I can feel my stomach muscles tightening to hold the weight of it all and to balance – maybe this hideous act of restoration can be exercise too. Saturday tea time, I close the bedroom door and shower off the dust.
Sunday, I wake to more fresh snow and decide to ignore the bedroom ceiling until I have walked to the top of the hill which overlooks both Levenwick on the East and St Ninian’s Isle on the West side of Shetland. On passing Jimmy’s, I catch him feeding the birds and mention that I’m walking to the top of the hill and the abandoned mast – just in case I never return and I’m either in a blizzard or lost or slipped or dead – I’m on the hill, right? I’ll call in on the way home to let him know I survived. Living alone risk assessment – it’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going when it’s remote and there’s bad weather. In my bag I packed a little back up 1. a newly recharged domed torch that sticks to the fridge and can flash. I figure this is a good idea in cases I need to flag down a helicopter. 2. a foil blanket in case I get caught out and need to hide under something. 3. a flask of tea. No money and no chocolate.
I’ve not left the village before the first blizzard of sharp harsh hailstones, bigger than pepper corns, lashes across the land from the West. I take shelter against a wall in an old, roofless shearing shed.
Even I think it’s a stupid idea and I know Jimmy will be looking out of his window wondering where I am. After ten minutes, there’s a seasonal change from harsh winter blizzard with hail to calmness and a speck of blue sky so I set off again. The blue light is reflected on the new snowfall, which reflects back a whiteness. Pink edged, dark grey filled clouds begin to surround me, there is a faint sound of wind but it is positively calm compared to 5 minutes ago. Out to sea, a snow storm rages. I can see it pouring, sieve like in vertical strands connecting cloud to sea. I’ve begun to watch the shape and colour of the cloud formation indicating the weather in that particular spot.
Only two sets of foot prints have been before me – one of human and the other of a large dog. The pink frills edging the clouds become peach then fiery gold – the sun, suspended in the moment, is hiding somewhere behind the snow clouds colouring the cloud edges burning them into a golden light. Whilst writing, the paper page turns pink from the reflection of the clouds many, many miles away.
I am the only living human on this great hill – I know this for sure because there are no other footprints. Sheep follow alongside. Abandoned snow topped peat banks to my right marking what would have once been a busy place. To the north, the sky is one sheet of orange/ grey, as if fire smoke and to the South, dark rolling fog coming towards me. It is magical to see the earth’s weather system for miles in both directions – doing different things. The southern weather becomes quite frightening to watch – as if a harsh storm is rolling uncontrollably covering everything in its path. On the hill, I’m hoping for a view of St. Ninian’s Isle but the likelihood is becoming slim. I now begin to look for possible shelter – not even a building but a wall.
The ice on the road is frozen like the waves of a sea. Frozen ripples with small snow drifts at either side. The light is blue – not the sky, but the light itself. The ice is too slippery so I walk in the snow alongside.
Slowly, slowly, not entirely walking but meandering, Bowie on a loop in my head, I reach my goal of the abandoned telegraph masts at the top of the hill with 360 degree view at exactly the same time new hail as sharp as nail points stab my face. The wind howls and whistles around the masts. Briefly, I look over the edge of the cliff to St, Ninian’s way down below – a perfect natural tombolo beach visible from above.
I turn, to face away from the instant hail storm then start the return journey. It’s easier going back downhill.
Bleak blue light
Coldness on my back from the chasing wind. The sea, way below, ahead of me is now a deep Navy Blue. The storm sky has coloured it. At ground level, snow falls gently, sheltered by the hill and for now, the wind has subsided.
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.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
This quote, for me, is not only empowering during my trying to sell my home in Sheffield and move to a tiny house in Shetland, without seeing or feeling it, but it sums up my story.
I feel that there are critics of what I am trying to do. I feel there are non supporters, and worse, I feel there are people who say they want to help but really don’t BUT and more IMPORTANTLY, above all that, I have such love and support from friends who listen, ask how it’s going, check in on me because, as with most great risks I have taken, I am doing this alone. I am grateful for that support of those people
In the meantime, I am trying to get to this dream of a new life in Shetland – a life built on over 6 years of returning and building experiences. It is not easy selling a property in lock down, recession, fear, job losses and a pandemic but I am trying with everything to make this happen.Here is a link to the original post
I sure know that I am in the Arena and if I fail, I will have dared greatly.
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.
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.