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.

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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.

R&D part two – Burrafirth, Unst, Shetland

Day 2 and 3

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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.

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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.

Day Two

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.

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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.

Burrafirth

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.

Some, never returned.

making-ways

‘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.

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