Fair Isle grass knitting

Fair Isle grass – a knitting resource to hand.

The light in the croft house dims sooner than at Mati’s house.  The croft’s windows dictate the change in the amount of light within.  Two – feet deep walls hold the place up. The deep walls narrow into the windows – each of which look out to every corner of the globe on this island which is only three miles long.  I look out south-facing to the light house and gauge the weather by the grass waving or whipping in the wind and by the waves crashing or ebbing on the sea.

home for a while – Fair Isle

The intention is to leave no rubbish after my 9 day stay here.  Everything has been bought at the one and only shop at great expense.  Everything has come a long way and been handled by much transport – even from Lerwick, either by the local plane or boat from Grutness. I hand picked all the vegetables and packed them in brown bags.  All of the peelings will be saved for the pigs at Mati’s, which are owned by four people and brushed by Saskia.  I’m learning about animal behaviour from those pigs.  They have grown from shy piglets arriving in a cage to grunting and squealing with anticipation at their one and only priority – food.  One even bites the other.

Even after 3 weeks, Fair Isle is now so deep in my soul that I already miss it and yet I am still here – how can that be?  I miss the island when I am deep in the moment of it.  It’s like I don’t want to lose it or I can’t lose it for to do so, would be to give up on a life less ordinary.

I’m here with Mati as a knitting intern, (maybe the oldest intern in the West at age 56) I’m learning a lot, not only about knitting but island life, the sea, the wind, the land, grass, animal behaviour, the sun rise and whether the plane will come. Where can ‘A Body’ see an unbroken horizon at every window without hesitation.  At every lift of the head, a huge deep basin of silver sea greets you.  Seeing the sea, hearing it, tasting it makes it seep into your soul.  The nights are so pitch dark that my heart quickens at the deepness of the darkness, when I open the door. Nothing can be seen when ther is no moon, except the light house light but even so, it adds to the eeriness of being able to cut darkness with a knife.

There is a book full of old images of Fair Isle islanders here.  I look at the women’s expressions and how they stand unquestionably, stoically face on.  They are all working hard with oxen, ploughs, knitting, or peats.  Maggie Stout of Shirva is the woman that interests me the most. I cannot stop looking at her looking at me.  I can almost feel the middle parting of her black hair with my finger – it is so pronounced.  This place I am living has a long history. You can find it easily. It is written across the stones in the grave yard. On a wet Sunday afternoon, I look for Maggie on the stones.  It’s beautiful.  The names are listed on the stones, where they lived and who they married. Women appear to bear their maiden names even though they are married.  History is tangible here, as across all of Shetland.  How many women moved a curtain aside to look out to sea and wonder about their men out there, wondering about their safety and return. The weather changes at a pinch. The stones bear many stories of death at sea.

In this place are larger than life ship wrecked items of great beauty –  two identical figurines and two mismatched simple chairs which add character and richness to this small croft house that I am staying for 9 nights. 

On the second day, Marie and I cut tussock grass, which is growing just below the chapel, with house scissors.  We bag it.   I want to knit it and make a lace curtain from its yarn. I’ve long since loved Shetland grass which grows at great length untouched, untrodden on and forms in dune-like shapes carved by the wind. We cut it without knowing its possibilities or strength.  I spend 3 days and evenings plaiting the grass into a long length and a ball of grass yarn. The grass is strewn across 3 floors and stuck to everything.  When knitting and unknitting, because I am dissatisfied with the results, the grass yarn bears the memory of the stitch.

I am using the resources of the island to create something to connect both with the island and with the age old practice of knitting in order to make site specific / site responsive work back in the Shetland landscape.  It will be about the women knitters and a skilled craft  that when placed within the landscape, will create a personally constructed context or narrative. My work is created around the theme of gendered women’s creative knitted work that is often undervalued and underpaid. I work within a place to learn the skills embedded within that area and I position my work back into the landscape to connect place, time, history, women’s craft and that pure moment in the present. If it works, for me, there is a distillation of experiences.

As I am working with the materials to hand – grass – and the thought of the women who lived in the croft houses here and how they knitted to subsidise the crofting income and how they dressed and looked in haps –  I will choose to knit a hap lace edge and find the right window to place the lace knitted grass. It will be a window that women will have looked out of many times, over many generations whilst working on a croft in Shetland.

Fair Isle

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.

Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

At every visit to Shetland over the past 4 years, I always take time to return to an isolated, derelict, lonely croft house on Bressay where I respectfully and quietly develop a creative practice that speaks to me of connections and belonging. 

The deterioration of this 2 roomed croft house has been logged since I first saw hand stencilled flowers painted across the walls at waist height in 2015.  The last family who lived in this small home painted those flowers but now they are gone.  The croft house may be small in size but I have spoken to a woman who was born there, as were her brothers and sisters and her mother and her own children.  It was her grandmother’s house and I heard of three generations of women who went home to give birth to their children there.

march 2017

Because I know this, I hear the sounds in the plaster on the walls that is now, year by year, disappearing away down to the stone fabric of the build. 

For weeks before returning this time, I had made preparation for my reunion with the shell of a house, by making it a gift of hand-block printed wallpaper with a Shetland Bird’s eye and a Brother / Sister lace design.  This wallpaper has been a couple of years in the making from learning CAD knit to using the stitch pattern to create a laser etched rubber stamp to print the design.   Material process and practice led research has always been the core of the development of my art practice.  I have long questioned – is it craft or art and is it relevant today a Contemporary Art arena in a time of changing families, fragmented families, home life, belonging, gendered women’s domestic craft of knitting and narratives of those women.  

The world is speedily changing and what can we say through art that will make a difference to someone for a moment to stop and think and feel.

Last week, on my first day back on Shetland, I nipped to see the derelict croft house.  As I was rounding the corner on the hill, my pace and heart quickened at what sight may greet me as it had been 15 months and a cycle of 7 raw weather seasons each taking its toll on the exposed walls since my last visit.   I hoped the house would be standing proudly as before which it was.   It felt like meeting an old friend.  Returning to make work here is not a safe option.  It feels as if I am breaking and entering, although the house has no roof and takes the label of ‘barn’.   I know it was a loving family home that just happens to be falling down on farm land which is owned by another person.  I visit it like an old relative. I look forward to first sight of out and in. Each year, I notice change.

On Tuesday, I returned again. This time, I carried the wallpaper, paste, brushes and measure to wallpaper around a window that I know so well. I had a hope of making creative work that spoke of belonging and connection to place and women’s domestic craft of knitting, maybe something of my own personal journey to this point.  

I measured, sized the walls, and hung the strips of paper on crumbling plaster in the hope of creating something that touched on the embedded experiences I had during the making process.   A connection of past and present. I’m interested what other people see.  My critical eye firstly noted that the water based ink ran when touched by water based glue, and that the design would have probably looked better with one style of lace pattern and at best it could be described as imperfect and at its worst – well, you can only say but actually, on a practice led research level, the piece did work because in the right place, with the right print, I know I can create a piece of work that does speak of belonging.

After I stepped back from it, I recorded my initial responses and photographed the work then I pulled the paper off the wall, folded it and took it away for the bin back in Lerwick and Left No Trace.

leave no trace

Leave no trace, only record the moment of a coming together of a conceptual and expressive property which remains personal.  What is this work – is it Art? Textile art? Ethnography? Materiality? Am I telling stories? Am I making stories?  I’m trying to understand it in a way in which textile materials and techniques are expressed in contemporary site-specific art in order to tell a story.