Two letters.

Yesterday, a witch wrote to me from Idaho.   What did she see in me that I do not yet see or acknowledge in myself.  She said that we would have been called witches – it was, and I took it as, a compliment.  My hair is becoming shaped and reshaped by the wind, knotted at the neck. Since being so far North, it has taken on a grass-like quality.  A little like a long cat’s tail with a curl at the end –  like a plait made of grass.

Tiggy purrs loudly beside me with watery eyes. His coat is wet from his night hunt in the rain – thankfully, he came back empty mouthed.

Today, 25th November, is the day I can open a letter I wrote to myself exactly one year ago to the day.  Also in the envelope is the letter I wrote to myself the year before.  The letters write what I hope for myself for the coming year, what I think I ought to do, try to aim for and wish for. I always forget what I wrote in the letter (s).  Today is the day to find out what I was thinking.  Here are both letters written to myself – word for word.

25th November, 2019, Upper House, Brindister, Shetland.

Dearest Tracey, So many things have happened since you wrote to yourself one year ago.  Some of the hopes have come true – risk taking, finding a path that is true to you, becoming more open.  
There is one thing you did but need to continue doing – that was to make calculated decisions and stick with them.  

You need to really decide now, because you are at a cross roads – what will you decide?  – here – I’ll list a few options.

Get an artist studio @SI Get an interesting job in Sheffield p/t – like arts co-ordinator

Sell the flat to buy in Shetland

Look to rent a place in Shetland for a year to see what happen
Apply for the Phd @ NTU – 2 options there

You WILL NOT get a full time office job – that’s for sure.

Tracey, choose a path.

Your patience has paid off lately.  Patience waiting @ SHU, patience with the situation last month, have patience with S because I think if you could have anything – it would be a growing, deepening relationship.

You learned to love on FI and you were loved also.

Do not forget that love in the coming year.   Open up more to love, Give more of yourself and of gifts of time – Just give

Volunteer, if you feel lost when you return to Sheffield. 

I wish for you, that your creativity flourishes – that you grow creatively  –  that the path you started to carve when you took VR is more deeply carved and you are on a great journey of self.

Be kind, be open be love and loved.  Xxx

Also, in the envelope was the letter from 6th November 2018, which I opened on 6th November 2019 by the sea whilst living on Fair Isle.  I took Lola, way before dawn and we walked to the North of the Island and I sat on a rock and opened the letter written to myself exactly a year before.

6th November 2018. 

Dearests Tracey.

Be kind to yourself.  To push yourself every minute is not entirely fruitful.

Take those moments to continue to be real, more real, most real.

What is this real?  What is the shape and colour of this reality?

Build on what touches your core, opens you up, loses you deeper into the life that is ever present. 

Wellbeing – basics – go to more yoga, keep going swimming, wear your cycling helmet, talk to dogs, wave at kids, book those trains, ferries, planes. 


Remember ( the distance between what we want and what we fear is the width of an eyelash)

I hope in one year that you will have carved a path that is entirely true to you, a place that you are happy to work, a place of wellbeing, a place of some kind of contentment ringed by periodic risk taking.  Don’t stop taking risks.  Be true to the real reasons.  Do not blame.  What do you want for yourself for in one year?  

To be less (not isolated, not alone, not single – but more open to a partnership with someone – will you ever find that – that thing?

You are still on a journey – be patient, it will grow.   So much growth already, but we never stop developing ourselves, do we?

I hope that you will be more professionally fulfilled.   You take calculated risks but actually, you should make calculated decisions and stick with them.

Do you want to live on the Tibetan Plateau for a month – if so, do it.  This is now.   What do I want now for you in the future?  I want you to be sound and happy.  Eric would say during yoga, ‘comfort and stability’ whilst standing on one leg.  I want contentment and joy, or excitement and joy, or health and connection.  Does it have to be two things only?  No. 

I want you to grow more sound in your wellbeing, more connected to people, more open to those things that you can have, break through any fear, give more of yourself to others, open yourself to others because you already make opportunities.

Be pure, be you – 6th November 2018.

Midnight, 25th November 2020, Shetland.   

Two years later – I am outside, in the small road by my broken gate and the old wall surrounding my small house, under a sea of stars in this clear Shetland sky.

The Plough is not above me, as it was in Sheffield, but to the North.  the aurora is showing but I cannot see it with my eye. To see it through a six second open shutter is to stretch time, hold time in one frame as if holding my breath to catch the dancing green light.  I will wait.

Already the inside of the windows in the porch and bedroom are clouded with condensation through their touch with the outside cold.  Here on the bench, for the first time in weeks, I see the sea, the stars, the moon and smell the heady scent of peat fire smoke.  All the world is here within the stars, the universe, the sea with its horizon line lit at midnight by the light of the moon, the old stone walls built and rebuilt over almost 2 centuries surrounding this house. All these things turn on the axes of the earth and will still be here long after I have gone. 

The cats have taken themselves to bed.

Tomorrow, I will write myself a third letter of what I hope for myself to come for the year ahead.  3 letters in one envelope to read a year from now – so many changes already – so many to come

.26th November

I nearly deleted this post as it makes me feel open to criticism by being completely vulnerable but I read a beautiful comment which made me leave these words in the hope that it may make you stop, just for a moment. And, then I looked at some of the great changes I have made – moved house, moved 1,000 miles from city to island, had a year of making, of helping people at the NHS, of being brave, taking risks, being open, started designing small knitting projects, started driving again after over 12 years of not driving a car, written words, taken photos, dug out a byre, researched a woman who lived in this house facing the sea. To date, this is my most meaningful creative piece – it may be a hat but it encompasses over 40 years of my knitting, of travel, of recognising strong women. The life that has inspired this latest pattern is a woman that lived in this very house I write in for 83 years, looked out of the same windows and door on to that vast ocean and sky. I called the Pattern Good Wishes for the New Year – Here it is

Here she is

Ravelry: Good Wishes for the New Year pattern by Tracey Doxey

Ravelry: Designs by Tracey Doxey

Further reading and design process below

https://www.patreon.com/TraceyDoxey

A letter to a rainy day

Saturday, 24th October.

The weather has turned but I am still deeply happy here.  For the last week, it has seemed as if the house has been a small boat buffeted by the 50 mile an hour winds and the relentless rains, bobbing on a sea of all imaginable water – rain, sea, fog, mist – except for Thursday.  Thursday was bright and sparkling where we all came out brightly and sparkly blinking in the sun to do outdoor jobs. 

Last night the aurora appeared but I didn’t leave my bed until 3am when Alf started his routine nighly bip bip bipping noise wanting to go out and my night was disturbed again much like 32 years ago when my children were babies.  We now have a cat flap but he cannot, for some unfathomable reason, use it and Tig can only go one way – in.  So every night, I am woken and have to let them out.  Sometimes, I get up, get them out, return to bed and sleep wondering in the morning if I did get up, sometimes, I get up, wait and let them back in then feed them and we are all confused about 3am being part of a dark daytime, but mostly, I am awake for at least 2 hours either mulling over the many, many jobs to be done or thinking and feeling.  I write words that are so crystalline that these nocturnal hours may be my best for writing.  There doesn’t appear to be enough hours in the day, so my thoughtful times blead into the night.  

I have found some kind of rhythm. It is dictated, in the first place, by weather.  If it is fine, I start digging out the byre behind my house. I am hoping that it will be my greenhouse.   I’m slow.  I’m getting old but every spade of years of growth moved, every flag stone revealed, and every time I bump my head on the low door way, makes this little shell of an old stone building more into the fabric of my daily life and for the future.  I’m keeping the ferns in it and there appears to be grape vine but the rest is slowly being removed to make way for a roof next year and a sheltered place to grow veg and scented flowers.  Every stone placed by someone before me, every shovel of overgrowth removed by me puts my small mark inside the place.   There’s a barn too – called a shed.  It leaks and houses inherited junk, rusted metal things, old wood and peat.  I like it. I have a vision for it but that will wait.

The house has not yet been changed inside by me.  I am letting it speak to me, expose its foibles, and express its joys.

Things are returning to this place, kindly returned to me by a man who cleared it after his Aunt moved out in the early 90’s.  His kindness at returning old jugs, glasses and plates that were once in this beautiful old house has been deeply moving. The pottery has once again seen the light of day and become pride of place.  My favourite returning jug is a mid 19th Century Victorian salt glaze cream jug with pewter lid, which Raymond remembers being in the kitchen.  It is returned to its old home after about 35 years of being away.  I also love an old Wedgwood plate and if anyone can shed light on this plate, I’d be grateful These tactile treasures have been touched and used by the last two women who lived in this house for nearly 100 years.  Just think of that – all the touches, all the pouring, all the meaningful reasons they were used.

old Wedgwood

This place and surroundings are always real, always natural. I am finding out more of the house and who lived here as well as change of land and outbuildings.  My boys have settled into island life – mostly taking to bed during storms (which appears to be quite a lot)  I’m glad they came with me – they make this place a home. 

Anyway, it’s raining, to put it mildly.  I’m going to put on 3 more layers of clothing and get out for a walk.

I also want to let you know that I have opened up my spare room on Air B&B for next year for single lady travelers, explores, lovers of knitting and crafts who would like to experience this island and lovely old house – the link is here.

Where ever I lay my hat….

Sea Urchin and Fire and Sea hats hanging behind my bedroom door.

If you would like to knit either of these hats, here’s the link https://www.ravelry.com/designers/tracey-doxey

Smola

I came to Smola in the 57th year of my life, wondering if it was foolish, due to age, aloneness, no income, no idea of future with two cats in a cat pram, arriving in a storm.

I still wonder those things, but will be patient with myself and life.

There are real highs and fairly low lows but I am in the right place, I know it.  This place in time belongs to me and how I live it. I should not worry, I should just continue and be the best person I can be for myself and towards others. 

I’ve said it before but I will remind myself that, Anais Nin said, ‘we do not see things as they are but as we are’ .

Yesterday, I called in at John’s who said speak to Jim, so I went to Jim’s and Martin was there too, they were off to a funeral and Jim was gracious with his time with me. He told me of Susanna (Susan, Cissie) who lived in the house that I now live in and that he was sent, as a child, to get the milk from her.  She had one cow and rowed the little milk bills up on a shelf in the porch, the same porch that I have.  He was a young boy – he told me of his house too, so much history in every place.  After,  I walked out of Jim’s old back gate, across the tufted grass,  down the bank and on to the beach, along the length of it then up the south bank to come up behind the cemetery. I stupidly and possibly unempathetically, didn’t think that the funeral would be at Levenwick, so when I saw the people all in black with face masks arriving, I left.  

But Martin, spoke with Raymond who came to see me today with the most wonderful handful of photos of photos of Susanna Halcrow (Susan, Cissie, or even Zizzie) and I saw, for the first time, a face to a name of a woman who lived in my old house for many years. She was born on the 6th February 1876 and Died 4th January 1960 – she was 83 and what a beautiful picture she was.  Raymond brought me 4 photos of Cissie and 4 of John, that had been left in the house before his Aunt Alice lived in it. Raymond remembers it well. I had seen John in a photo before –   John Halcrow, who one day walked out of that front door of the old porch facing the sea in Levenwick and never came back – he died in the battle of Jutland 31st May 1916.    I am beginning to gather the stories of the lives in this old house – some sad and this one of war and loss and a wonderful looking woman called Susan with a dog called Ralph.  So, if Tiggy will allow me,  I will also get a new puppy and call him Ralph too.  The woman looking back at me, who appears to have only worn dresses, gives me strength and look – the group are leaning against the wall that still surrounds this tiny house that used to be called Croft number 7 and Ralph sits upon it too.   Susan looks absolutely calm and I want her to know that I already love her old house which is now called Smola and hope to share it with other women who possess  a love of the wild and windy Levenwick and the old authentic place with a wall around it. And I think my next knitting pattern will be named Cissie.

With great thanks and appreciation to Raymond Irvine.

Levenwick Beach online Knit along – Smola Gloves

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 am here, this is me.
Sand blown, wind blown, sea salt tasting.

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. 

If you would like to join this online group –   here is the pattern and here is the ravelry group, if you would like to join

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.

Smola, Shetland. One week in.

Thoughts on the 18th day of the 9th Month, 2020.

 Exactly to the minute of one week since arriving at this tiny house.

I am utterly grateful for this opportunity to live in this life changing place by the sea. It wasn’t an easy journey but I am finally here.  

Every moment, I feel connected to the earth and I’m mindful of the days through the ever present wind, the break through of the sun and the pure blue skies, the wetness moving in over the hill – the weight of water moving in a line of cloudy fog, hail crashing onto the skylight at the top of the stairs so that the cats and I run around thinking we were under siege – new sounds, the weather making my face raw and ruddy and my hair in sea spray straw and above it all, this tiny house that is becoming the love of my life.

The kindness of friends and neighbours helping me arrive and settle in:  B – meeting me at the ferry then driving me to the house, flowers and veg from C and H, BD – bringing me peats and coal for my first hearth fire, D brought me a Sunday dinner and E, brought me home grown flowers and shiny wholesome home grown veg last night. 

Post cards from well wishers from all over the world begin to fill the wall.

I hear the geese fly over the house, knowing that they fly in their perfect V formation.  I step outside to watch how they change position and take turns to fly at the point of the V facing into the wind, the rest in the slip stream.  I am learning every moment, every day.  Old stones surround my house. Standing on hand hewn stones is grounding.

I have 3 doors – a front door that is mostly open, a small white glazed porch door and an interior door with a very old square wooden latch opener.  It’s wonderful.  How many people have turned the wooden latch-block before me to open the wooden latch inside? The inside latch clicks and hits the wooden housing and on that recognisable sound I hear the thud of the cats jumping off the bed in the bedroom above to come to greet me.

They have settled so well – now I put them out in the middle of the night if they are talking too much. They roam the area and roll in the sunshine outside the house on the road.  They squint into the wind and rain and change their minds about going out. They are becoming island cats.

I am painting the visible wood in the window frames outside before the Winter sets in, I need to order coals, oil for the heating and any number of things.  I still need to learn how to read the oil tank but I have managed to get the oven clock working so now I the oven works.

I am learning new things every time I turn around – looking at the hedgerow flowers growing with their faces away from the wind, the beach changes by the day, I search for heart shaped stones, I peel slugs the size of snakes from my porch floor, I move plants into a place of shelter, I wake and look out of the window towards the East for the sunrise every day – from the ship that is my bed sailing in a tiny house built into a bank for shelter. My TV doesn’t work but my environment is my TV.

This place will, at times, challenge me but I feel that there is nothing I cannot overcome. I’m beyond grateful for this time to live properly, feel deeply, touch the earth with integrity.

Beach wear – 60 degrees North

All knitting patterns can be found on my Ravelry page here https://www.ravelry.com/designers/tracey-doxey

If you are interested in following my journey then sign up here.

Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art …

W.B. Yeats – Preface to Celtic Twilight, 1893

At times, I am an artist who has, on occasion, created small, site-specific worlds in abandoned croft houses across Shetland as a response to the researched details in the realities of stories which I seek, hear, see and experience.  My art is a respectful conversation with the women who used to live in those beautiful places. I have an instinctive autoethnographic response in writing, site-specific films and photographs by using textiles, hand block prints and words. If I make art, this is currently my artistic practice, evolved from years of embedding myself within other cultures and places including Shetland and China.  

When, as a mature student at art school, a wise man who lived a stone’s throw from my house (once a Provost of Derby Cathedral then a retiring Vicar on the Chatsworth Estate), said to me, ‘I read widely, if somewhat cursorily,’1  I was reading Winterson and he,  Dostoevsky. On that comment, we swapped books, I went home and looked up the word cursorily in the dictionary and began my love of existential works – he read a modern ground-breaking 90’s book on sexual Identity and love; this was some time in 1996, he in his 80’s, me just turned 30. 

Exuding wisdom, not always in what he said, but how he thought and mostly his ever open, learning mind was a turning point in my life and our conversations became somewhat magnetic for me.    

Every now and again, this man, now long dead, returns to me either in the form of a found note, the gift of a book, a photograph, or lead chandelier crystals.  As he handed over the large prism crystals and cut nuggets that were once part of something larger but now lingering in an old shoe box in his shed, he said, ‘Tracey, never sell these, I had them during my grandiose period.’2  I, who don’t even remember what I did on Saturday, remember these words and both moments as if he had just spoken whilst sitting next to me on this bench in Sheffield.  Words that have shaped every year of my life since spoken.

But he didn’t speak to me here, his memory does.   I have hung those crystals in windows of every place I have ever lived in the 25 years since the he said that line, including in the old hutongs of Beijing and Suzhou.  He is not my story – I can tell you another.

In 2008, after 3 months of living in China, I found out that my partner was cheating on me whilst I was working full-time.  At first, I fell down, felt my heart damaged, tightened and fractured but after telling my Chinese friend, a Buddhist barber who lived in a one roomed house in the old hutongs of Suzhou for 50 years, he sat down and in front of me, wrote me a note in full Mandarin which I had translated at work.   He wrote, ‘There’s an old saying in China and Buddhists say it too. Falling down is not terrible. The terrible thing is that you don’t stand up in time.  You should stand up and brush off the dust and go on walking proudly as you used to do’.3 He also told me to let it go. 

5 years after this conversation, I travelled over 3,000 miles to meet him on an ancient bridge in the old hutong lanes of Suzhou.  He didn’t know that I was revisiting China, there was no way of contacting him, he hadn’t seen me in 5 years, he was walking with his head down, he raised his head, raised his arm in greeting and his eyes spoke.

Now, I think of the strange impossibility of both men meeting and talking together. I don’t know if they would meet in the heat of China or the well-heeled sitting room of a Chatsworth vicarage but what deeply moving stories they would have recalled for each other.  Wise, Christian, Mr Beddoes, beady hawk-eyes twinkling at the sheer marvelousness of the opportunity to speak with the ever deeply calm Cai Gen Lin, his Buddhist chanting songs playing in the background of his one roomed house, 24 hours a day –  both religious men responding to the other with great respect, without speaking each other’s spoken language but speaking through their understanding, eyes, hands, gestures and intrinsic visible knowledge.  Their stories flowing – neither could ever imagine – such worlds, religions, lifestyles and cultures so far apart both in distance and lifestyles from their own –  that only words could bring them close enough to feel those distant worlds. Imagine THAT story – I am their link.  I suppose, in a way, I am their story.

Yet, I have sat in silence with Cai Gen Lin and felt and known his worlds in China as I sat with Mr Beddoes in the scullery drinking warmed up old coffee on the stove hiding from people knocking at the door.

And then there are the stories of Shetland from my repeated visits between 2015/19 to listen to the oral histories of the old knitters and found that they mostly did not want to share their stories because they thought that I would steal them and their knitting patterns which, during my R&D trip in 2018, raised the question of, ‘Who owns words once they are said?’

I have so many stories inside of me – so many seen and understood lives.

I want to create the daughter of Hope and Memory – Art- but this may now be through words and not images.

Notes:

  1. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  2. The Very Reverend Ronald Beddoes, circa 1995 in the old vicarage garden shed, Edensor Village, Chatsworth Estate. b. 1912 d. 2000
  3. Cai Gen Lin, The Old lane by the bridge off Ping Jiang Lu, Suzhou, China, March 30th 2009 b. 1945, the 2nd child of 9, when China was still in Civil War.

This life to the next

Things, objects – why do we keep things?  Things that we don’t touch, or wear, or read or look at or even eat anymore. (go look in my fridge at the jars and see what I mean)

I am packing to leave on an unspecified date and in an, as yet, un arranged manner and it is dawning on me the magnitude of all of this.  Initially, packing is quite exciting – interesting even.  I open the kitchen cupboards, empty things out that have not seen the light of day in the 3 years that I have lived here, dutifully wash, dry, wrap and pack them in boxes that I have been collecting at a rate of two a day from the corner petrol station. I pack in a fine order to be opened up at the other end in an organised fashion.  The boxes grow like interior walls and building blocks under other things – like tables and the bed and I begin to drown. 

Reality of the movement of all of these neatly packed things is brought to a very sharp head when the removal company from Shetland call to say that I have too much stuff for one van and I will need two. The weight is too much and the size is too much – they want to see a video of all the stuff.  A whatsapp video call is dutifully planned and I look around.  It is dawning on me that it might be an idea to burn it all – all this stuff and be free.  The boxes that are packed have things that I might need – a solid frying pan for that camp fire I might have, beautiful embroidered sheets for that guest I might have, my four vases for the flowers I might pick – it goes on and on for things that may never happen and it dawns on me that I am moving things, at great expense, to another place that is tiny where I want to be free. There is an internal argument for keeping these things because replacing them is expensive, they have a history with me, they are good quality – the argument goes on and on but comes to a wonderful crescendo whilst washing a tiny cut glass trinket thing with a battered silver lid with ancient patina going back to Victorian times.  It’s washed, placed onto the drainer but slips gracefully and almost in full technicolour slow motion on to the Portuguese tiled floor and smashes into shards and chunks. Immediately, it’s rendered useless.  It’s neither aesthetically pleasing nor valuable.  It’s gone. And with that simple result I feel nothing and it is let go.  This thing goes in to the bin.

I’ve left previous lives with a few bags and boxes. I’ve travelled to China with a back pack and bag with wheels on. Always, I was starting again and it always felt liberating – cathartic even.

So, when I get time, I will unpack and remove things. Because none of this can come back from that island and no one will want it which brings to mind all of the derelict abandoned croft houses I have been in across Shetland – some containing household objects of the previous occupants; china cabinets with their tea sets all toppled over in dust.  They couldn’t take it with them – wherever they went and no one else took it.  

And, in my case, why would I cover a Shetland life with an English one?

Making Marks. Shetland wall flowers

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.

https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/shetland-wall-flowers

Fair Isle grass knitting

Fair Isle grass – a knitting resource to hand.

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

home for a while – Fair Isle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave No Trace, Shetland

Place of return

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

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

march 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

leave no trace

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