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 exactly one week to the minute that I stepped off the overnight ferry from Lerwick, arriving in Aberdeen at 7am on the morning of 14th August after a ten hour visit to Shetland to see the little house with a view of the sea. A long arduous journey back to Sheffield was ahead of me with so many thoughts within me.
The three hour bus journey from Aberdeen to Edinburgh gave me ample time to self sabotage with whys, hows, and what ifs about my decisions to move a thousand miles. Parallel to the broken disjointed eight hour journey down the east coast of England to Sheffield, my thoughts shifted, opened, slipped and dispersed across my lap in front of me. The beauty of the landscape blurred by to my left, without being seen, both on bus and train – I never looked outward – only in. Of course, I was beyond tired having travelled non stop for three days whilst dealing with life changing decisions of buying a tiny house without any idea of future plans.
Now, exactly one week to the hour and minute of docking in Aberdeen, I’m able to reflect whilst beside me, within the folds of the deep quilt on the bed, my loving cat lies sleeping unaware of what is going to happen in a few weeks for the long return journey north. During the last week, so many physical, emotional and sensory things have happened since that whistle stop ten hour visit to Shetland with 24 hours travel on either side, which also entailed major disruptions from a tragic derailment, a heart-breaking loss of life from that train ahead of me, journey decisions on the hoof and scary heart stopping moments of trying to make a ferry leaving the country whilst stranded four hours away form the point of catching it. There were times during journey that I really thought I would not make that ferry for Lerwick which was leaving from Aberdeen – a city on lockdown where I had no place to stay or go.
Here is an extract from my urgent, cathartic scribblings on 12th August.
At Newcastle, I’m told there are no trains from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, due to major landslides and floods on the track. Initially, I feel sick but also naively hopeful – as if it will all clear up and get working for when I arrive – either this is a princess talking to herself about being above all this or more pragmatically and closer to the truth; me burying my head. After conversations with the lady at information in Newcastle station – who assures me that Scotrail have a duty to get me to Aberdeen – (looking back I now think why would the make sure I would make my ferry?) and that there will be buses provided. Beside her, I stand on the platform and urgently call the ferry company – I have until 5pm to cancel but really, I’m being pushed further up the country with no idea of what will happen and no way to get back with a massive back pack, old lady shopping trolly full of precious china from China, a front day pack with laptop and a bag with water. Add Corona to that with masks, social distancing, hand sanitiser, no toilets on some trains, no tickets, lockdown in Aberdeen, no place to stay and I’m already thinking of turning back. I call Patti and mention that maybe this is a sign. She said it’s not a sign. There’s maybe no chance of going forward, chance of being stuck and not getting back yet I naively still think there is a way. The information lady gets me on an earlier train out of Newcastle to arrive in Edinburgh 20 minutes ahead of my planned time. I sit in first class waiting to be moved by the conductor who knows I am there and talks with passengers and leaves me be.
This whole incident is teaching me to not give up – keep trying.
Little did I know in Newcastle, the terrible tragic severity of the mentioned landslides and floods. Little did they know. Near Stonehaven, the train had changed route after halting due to flooding on the line, then hitting another flood or a landslide, it had rolled down a steep embankment and caught fire – the driver, conductor and one passenger were dead, six were injured. The crash had not been noted for some time because it was in an isolated place. I cannot think how terrifying it must have been for those passengers and how shocking the outcome is for everyone.
Between Newcastle and Aberdeen, a friend messaged me and I relayed all the problems of travel and that I was heading for Edinburgh and there had been flooding and I was hoping it would be cleared up by the time I got there but if it wasn’t – I had no idea. She suggested Megabus out of Edinburgh and sent me the times of the two buses to get me to the ferry in time (just) for the overnight crossing to Lerwick and my 9am meeting of the house I am buying the next day. She mentioned a regular bus service could also be an option if there were no buses provided for stranded passengers. But I knew that booking had to be way in advance because of corona and social distancing, everything was stacking up against not making the ferry. In my head, catching a bus was not an option I had thought about or considered or could do. It seemed unthinkable to go the last 130 miles by an unplanned bus. She screen shot two photos of mega bus times.
Five hours into my journey, my sinking thoughts were that if I couldn’t make the journey to Aberdeen through cancellation of services, then was this the right move to an island and was this was the calm before the storm. At that point, I could not hear self-sabotage starting. She encouraged me, she wrote,
‘how many people would have continued once Covid happened? Here you are now, one more push, you are the one still standing. If you do everything you can and it doesn’t work, then there will be just accepting it but if you have not tried, there will always be the what if in your mind’.
This message from a woman who had gone through her own deep searching journey on an island was not to be dismissed and gratefully received.
However, Edinburgh Waverly Station was in turmoil. Of the many Scotrail staff in the station, none were able to help me with advice, they pushed me from one to another staff member then on to LNER to see if I could get a bus from them to Aberdeen – at which point I was turned away and back to Scotrail. Scotrail provided no back up transport on Weds. Not once did Sctorail staff suggest to go to the bus station, not once did they offer any suggestion to meet the ferry at Aberdeen and I was stranded, way up north, in between destinations so I ran, dragged the bags and made it to the bus station in search of Megabus. I asked for the ticket office. All closed due to Covid and then I saw it, the Megabus itself. A glorious shining blue double decker to Aberdeen to arrive in time for the ferry. I asked the driver, he said get on and at that moment, I could have kissed him. Lockdown or not, virus or not, he was my ticket to the ferry. Backpack unceremoniously thrown in to the hold and a discussion over the wheeled shopping trolly carrying precious china that in the long run, meant nothing – my water and I boarded the megabus and I became instantly hungry. How do you eat when your hands have touched many rails, handles, tables, bags, trains, doors, buses in a virus where there is no water to wash your hands? You use hand sanitizer and hope.
Later, when I caught my breath, I wrote: As the bus crosses the bridge towards Dundee, over the Firth of Tay, I feel it – a small but discernible hint of excitement.
As the bus pulled in to Aberdeen, I felt as if I had crossed the line of resilience and built an experience through friendship that stands the test of time. It’s not easy for me to accept help having built a wall around my independence and feelings over many years – I noted – We need to look out for each other, hang on in there and keep trying. I learned a lot from today. No wo/man is an island, we work better with friends.
And I have Mati to thank for getting me on that Megabus to make the last call for the ferry.
In the morning, I dressed on the ferry to meet my house, as if for an interview – would the house like me – you never get a second chance to make a first impression – I already liked it without ever having met or seen or been inside or touched or smelled it. I knew I more than liked it. Maybe I was a little overdressed to meet the house. Silk blouse, navy trousers, packed for another season another place in mind. I looked slightly neat but knew the back pack, front pack and bags would sort that appearance into a more well-worn dishevelled look. It was the first time I had worn socks and trainers since March. My sun marked feet pushed into trainers.
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“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.
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.
It’s strange and deeply moving, how a small, sea-facing
house that I briefly occupy on a tiny remote island which is firmly planted in
the North Sea, is so far removed from a home that I once occupied deep in the
Chinese ancient hutongs of Suzhou, but that it can so vividly and completely
remind me of that other place in another country, in another continent so
powerfully that it is as if I am back in the middle of the dusty, noisy hutongs
themselves. How can this be? This small
house on Fair Isle does not have any of the same look, smells or sounds from as
that place in Suzhou but as I am unceremoniously dropped off and left alone
here, I turn around and instantly feel China, India, the old Vicarage at Chatsworth
from 20 years ago and an old house in the hutongs of Suzhou. All at once past places and people surge back
and I am hit in the chest by the power of a sensory connection that I haven’t
felt in years. How can I feel that I am
in China or an old library in an old vicarage when I am in a tiny area in the
middle of a tiny house on Fair Isle?
Initially, there is nothing immediate about the place this
is fundamentally Chinese, though these things appear later. It is not about a brush or Chinese paper or
mark or anything tangible. It is the scent
of it all, its essence.
When I arrived here, quite tired and late, I cared not about eating nor for food and certainly not for unpacking, because I had to just sit and take in my new surroundings.
One week there, one week there and now one week here. Three weeks
on this island and three very different places to sleep – all creative in their
own way but this tiny place has something other than creativity.
Stepping into this place is an intense, pure moment where nothing else really matters. To someone else, it would appear totally differently but to me, everything here is placed precisely to create a space entirely conducive to creative thought and drawing. I can see the sea, hear the wind and the clock ticking but mostly and above all, I feel intensely and acutely aware of my surroundings – so much so that I am winded. So much detail, so much accumulated stuff. There is not one pen but over a hundred, there is not one sharpened, labelled, categorised pencil but over two hundred. There is not one book of antiquity but countless and the same with paint brushes, ink pens, nibs and tools, glue, tape, light bulbs, bags. A sea of multiples. Everything is used and reused and used again and mended. Most things here bear the scars of being broken and mended or of having a long journey and life – this being pans, pots, cups, plates and all manner of utensils. This tiny place in an ocean of stuff bearing the memory of past lives and other countries. Every single thing in this home has a visible memory. It is a simple place with an intoxicating, hugely complex interior.
No place has made me feel so deeply and powerfully inside my
chest and belly since living in China. but this is not China, it is a small,
tiny house on a small tiny island in the North sea.
How many years did this place take to evolve? It has the same enchantment as Lao Wang’s one
roomed home in Suzhou. The walls are closing in from the towering collections
of brushes, pens, pencils all in neat rows in jugs, pots, tins, jars. Everything is magnified through sheer volume and
a scent of far, far away. There is no internet connection. I am so disconnected that I can only become
connected. I decide that I shall live in a very small way here.
Tools, oil paint, inks, books and more books, Indian textiles, Chinese ink stamps and brushes, old tins, new tins, tea boxes, old rugs covering bare boards – so little floor space – the walls encroaching in. there is no space for any of the doors to the rooms – these now being used as shelving above the bed to store artwork. The single bed is encased beneath the doors, beside bookshelves and pillars of 4×4 to hold the doors, next to a small table and sofa.
In truth, I am a little cold. I will have to wear my feather coat the whole
time, as I did in china. I care about
nothing practical. I care not that I am
cold and will get colder, not that my finger is sticky nor about the wind
gathering momentum and speed outside, nor do I care that there is not one comfortable
chair because I feel that all the world is here. The freezer whines. I open a flask of tea that I made 11 hours ago
and feel at home with a tepid drink. I’ve
been left with instructions not to touch any of his things. His things, not being his personal space or
intimate space – bed, nor even his books.
I know instantly what his most precious things are – its his tools to
create art, though this was never mentioned. The tools that support his practice are the
things I cannot touch. I respect that but
am drawn to his drawing desk. This point
of clear sharp focus will focus me. Amidst
a million small things, I decide to stick to 4 physical places within this sea
of things only because a fear of putting things down in any other place, that I
will certainly not find it again. I allow myself to use the single bed, the
small sofa bed for bags and clothes, a square foot on the kitchen works surface
to prepare food and one square foot on the desk to write. I am getting to know
the man through his things before I have ever really spoken to him.
After sitting for some time, on a garden chair by the desk, I finally understand the power of this place – there is a combined memory of three wise men that I have known before who rise among the books and brushes here.
Mr Beddoes and his worldly library of first editions at Chatsworth, Lao Wang in his old Chinese one roomed house with walls lined with hooks for bird cages and old fur skins and with an old Chinese bed surrounded by a sheet with small boxes pinned to the inside containing a pen and his glasses and other small important things, and then there is also Cai Gen Lin – the wisest man of all who owns no material objects and who lives a simple life as a devout Buddhist and cuts the hair of the locals for 8 kuai. The qualities of those three men are tangible but not visible in this tiny house decades and thousands of miles apart. It is a special place lived in by a man I do not know at all, on a tiny island 3 miles long, in the North sea.
At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always
take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where
I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections
The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015. The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone. The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children. It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.
Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the
walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of
For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation
for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block
printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace
design. This wallpaper has been a couple
of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to
create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design. Material process and practice led research has
always been the core of the development of my art practice. I have long questioned – is it craft or art
and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing
families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic
craft of knitting and narratives of those women.
The world is speedily changing and what can we say through
art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and
Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house. As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit. I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was. It felt like meeting an old friend. Returning to make work here is not a safe option. It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’. I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person. I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.
On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper,
paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I
had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to
place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own
personal journey to this point.
I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process. A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see. My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.
After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.
Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together
of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal. What is this work – is it Art? Textile art?
Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories? I’m trying to understand it in a way in which
textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific
art in order to tell a story.
What happens on an R&D trip to ‘record oral histories’ is:
For weeks running up to leaving – there are endless thoughts and ideas and planning
2 days before leaving for the trip, there’s overwhelming excitement
1 day before leaving for the trip, I become subdued
2 days of traveling, to the very end of the furthest island of our country
On arrival, I feel an urgency to get things done. Then a slow realisation that time moves differently, so I roam the locality – getting a ‘feel’ of the place.
2 days into the trip and I get the chance to meet the person I have been contacting who is my ‘hope’.
The meeting is tagged onto the end of a visiting tour group talk – it’s practical to do so – after all, it is 10 miles from home to the Heritage Centre. I have zero idea of how anything will go at this initial meeting – if we’ll get on, if I’ll be able to ask questions and – exactly what questions, for that matter?
We meet. Formalities are covered – ethics forms – respect and conduct from both parties.
I have to cover so much ground in so little time which encompasses: meeting someone new (for us both), judging the way the conversation is going – not steering or guiding it but by being natural and building trust.
Then, the whole day turns out to be a gift – a joy, because we become instant friends and trust / respect is the base – born out of two years of learning, researching in practice and theory to get to this place and person.
We nip to the tea room for lunch ‘The’ wedding is on the TV which is propped on top of a chair on the counter – The most northerly tea shop in the UK is heaving with people watching it – broadcast from sunny London. She walks around the tea room greeting most people – everyone knows everyone here, or they soon will.
I am invited to her home, the local area, she freely drives us around, offers tea and parkin and shows me Ham Beach, a place of great beauty surrounded by derelict crofts and an old fishing station house. We talk about endless topics and 6 hours flies by. She is incredibly generous of spirit and I hope to match that. There’s the offer of another meeting, a dictaphone recording and, I don’t entirely recognise the significance of it all but I am aware of understanding context and being here and a good woman willing to talk to me about her ancestors and I’m grateful.
I go back to the hostel and listen to the recordings of her over and over again. The recordings lead to ideas. There are snippets which already develop my understanding of this place and what it was to be a knitter here in the early 1900’s.
I tried not to talk when she was talking but the conversation would have stopped. It is not about what I have to say but about what she says and, on my part, listening. Really listening.
I dip at the magnitude of all of this that I have set out to do. Technical skills development on the road with a camera that isn’t mine and a Dictaphone I can’t switch on. The tripod is heavy and I don’t know the equipment well enough for it not to be a noticeable part of the conversation.
I dip because I want to record, film, write, make site specific work, FIND the right place, the right location to set up my work, to research its history, to feel the life that was, I need time to find the right ‘knitters ’ that live here now, read the censuses of knitters past, film everything with a camera that is neither mine nor I’m used to, record sound without the ever present wind, get from A – B in long distances on a bike, get people to trust me and all in 10 days – 2 already gone, I am dipping fast at the daunting prospect of it all. Will there be enough time, will I capture what I hope, will I achieve what I set to do in the R&D application. Critically evaluating before I have even started isn’t a good way forward.
On the third morning, I learn the Dictaphone whilst walking along the road down to Norwick beach. I record myself until I understand the stages of the recording facility – Record, talk, listen, delete over and over until I get it. I hear the background noises through the headphones and more ideas for recording come to me. Ambient sounds. Sheep, lambs bleating, sea gulls, the sea, other birds I don’t know, lapping water at a mill, the wind, always the wind.
On returning, I discuss the hideous bike booking system with the hostel manager – 3 hours later, I get a bike. On a Sunday afternoon, the sun comes out – my life changes again.
I bike towards Burrafirth but there are no signs to show when I’ve arrived. There’s just a spectacular beach in an inaccessible cove, a 3-mast ship sitting on the surface of the crystal sea and a croft house, visible from the road, with initially what seems to be some of the plus points that make it work for my site-specific work.
What I know works for site specific art
1. roofless croft house (good light)
2. 2 rooms, a barn and a byre
3. Windows and door still in the structure
4. Sea view
5. Remnants of a past life are like jewels
• Fire place / wood around a window
• Door intact / paint on anything -this
disappears over time
The derelict croft house on the hill is instantly perfect, two windows without glass, an open porch, a doorway, the most magnificent view and as I walk up the hill, it has ‘a crowning glory’. Sitting like a rusty jewel in the roofless porch is a dulled pea green enamelled, rusted and stoic looking little ‘prairie’ stove. It’s perfect because it has a visible history and I can work in it and place lace or laser cuts at the windows – not for decoration but as a testament to and a celebration of the generations of knitters who once lived in this tiny two roomed place, miles from anywhere. I initially fail to recognise that this is Stack houll, – a croft house that I had earmarked two days earlier in the heritage centre when reading the censuses. There was a drawing and a photo of it from the 80’s -its porch standing proudly along with lists of knitters ‘by occupation’ living there since the mid 1800’s.
I take photos, feel the core of the place, the stove, the view, the nails in the wall, the low barn doorway. The wind wildly flapping anything flappable, fabric lace snags on every nail, stone, splinter and I make a good start. I pack up knowing that I will return. As I’m leaving this isolated place, a car pulls up onto the grass verge by the road. In all the moments, in all the day, in all the places possible and not possible – by chance, it is Rhoda. I meet her at the roadside and we return to Stack houll together. She’s come for the very first time herself. I follow her around with the dictaphone – hardly daring to speak – in the hope of capturing her joy of meeting this amazing place. She talks of her mother getting ‘the watter in’ her croft house when she was first married. No one had water in the house until the 50’s here. Then Rhoda, like me, stood at the door and wondered how many women had stood there before us looking out to sea to see if they could see the men returning from deep sea fishing.