Shetland, Fair Isle

Learn, live, grow

I have returned to Shetland, initially on the invitation of Mati because she was heading off Fair Isle for a trip off the Island and offered me a couple of weeks to stay in her house, look after Lola and the cats and write – that changed for her but the dates for me did not.

I travelled to Shetland, ironically, or not, exactly two years to the day of travelling the same journey to live on the Island in the house I bought in Levenwick.  On that journey, in 2020, I travelled north by car and the North Link ferry with my beloved cats – I was filled with hope and excitement at a new life by the sea.  But, I left the island 13 months later, and in many ways, I am still coming to terms with those 2 years.   I never thought that I would do this return journey to Shetland after selling up and leaving, but here I am, back again.  There is something that seems to draw me back to this extreme place – I think, maybe, it is love, which, in itself, shows me that my move to live here was the right one at that time.

When I booked all of the details to get here, three planes, two taxis, one bus, and a car and an overnight in Lerwick (and the same for the return), I wasn’t really feeling much at all, then, when the final detail was arranged, I almost felt excited. 

Each stage of the travel up north began to remind me how far, both geographically and emotionally, I have moved.  When the 32 seater plane touched down at Sumburgh, I felt slightly emotional, as if coming home.   This surge of, almost tearful, emotion has happened to me every single time of returning to Shetland since 2016 – usually on the top deck of the Northlink when passing Bressay lighthouse. Maybe the feeling was relief that I made it after all the practical things that could alter on such a long journey or maybe it was connecting with an island that I do know intimately after living here – walking West Voe beach by the airstrip and watching the planes coming in or when collecting buckies at Grutness waving to the many different aircrafts that flew overheard.  So many things have happened here for me. Or maybe, it was the emotion of meeting a long lost friend – the islands of Shetland.   My connection runs deep to the islands, as deep as with my most precious son and daughter. If this is the case, then, the emotion I felt on landing is one of love.

My next emotional meeting to overcome was catching the bus from Sumburgh to Lerwick because it diverts to go through Levenwick, right past my old house but somehow, I was offered a lift by a visiting councillor in the taxi – I accepted. This meant that we didn’t painfully and slowly drive through Levenwick, stop outside Jimmy’s house where I walked his dog every day, then, opposite Herbert’s old house, at the shop where you can’t really buy anything in date, and then by the surgery.  The taxi passed, unemotionally and unconnectedly, above the hamlet of Levenwick, on the one and only road south to  north, onward to Lerwick. When we passed the village, at a fair speed, I fleetingly caught sight of the community hall and the foot-channelled, tufted grass path beside it that I walked every day for over a year, to the beautiful crescent beach and I felt nothing.  I have no idea how some emotions build or slip away but I really just looked over my shoulder, then concentrated looking forward as the taxi driver cut almost every corner possible.  I thought of all the road kill I had seen on this road to Lerwick over the 13 months of living here, mostly hedgehogs by the dozen, birds, and one day a magnificent otter. I sat in the back of the taxi whilst the councillor and the driver talked of things I could not hear and wasn’t interested in.

They dropped me at the Lerwick hotel.  I got out, thanked them then walked to the hostel.  In Lerwick, I couldn’t believe that the Queen had died.  I shared this disbelief with the lady at Isleburgh hall, reception who stoically replied, ‘well, she lived a long life and she’ll get a good send off.’ Which put an end to any additional conversation and, in itself was not incorrect but I felt a little sharp or matter of fact or just plain Shetland pragmatism.  This far up north, whatever you think of the United Kingdom, here is a very different land, structure and feeling – especially to royalty, Boris or Liz, or bank holidays.  I kept the thoughts of the Queen to myself and shared them with my kids and my lovely neighbour looking after my boys back home.  Home seemed a long way away with different thoughts and feelings to that of here. At home, the Queen means something even to folks who don’t care about royalty.  The Queen was a very special woman in her own right and our country of England will miss her presence and continuity.

It didn’t feel strange to be back in Lerwick at all, I didn’t bother with walking around – there was no point, the whole reason for being here was for a stopover before the plane from Tingwall to Fair Isle.

In the morning, before sunrise, Bains beach called. It is a small place of great beauty in the town. Always crystalline in clear turquoise water, crescent in beach and clear in view towards the island of Bressay, (even if fog) Bains beach is flanked by The Queens Hotel and the most famous house on the island – the Lodberry or Perez’s house.  I think it must be the most photographed house in Shetland too.  What a rich and full life these places have had, going back centuries.  Both buildings have stone stores built in to the sea.  I remember my first visit back in 2015 where I found out that Jimmy Moncrieff, his brother and parent’s used to live in the Lodberry.  His brother still does. I called Jimmy at his office at the Amenity Trust and went to visit him.  He photocopied information about the Lodberries and I suppose my love of Shetland started around that time, Sept 2015.  In January, 2016, I returned for Up Helly Aa  and Jimmy got myself and a friend tickets for one of the hall’s dancing and party all night.  Since then, I have built up my love of Shetland to the point of buying a home, living by the sea and leaving again. 

I was lucky with the flight from Tingwall to Fair Isle.  They sometimes don’t go because of wind or wind or even more wind and sometimes, they are delayed.  The flight on Friday was a dream flight. 25 minutes inside, over and below blue – blue plane, blue sea, blue sky, blue clouds, little wind – perfect conditions.  We landed and I was greeted by people I have long known who both live and work on the island of Fair Isle in a number of jobs.  One of them being Fire officers to meet the plane or guide it in.  Fair Isle islanders work really hard, in all weathers, relentlessly.  Their commitment to community is extra and above. Without the community working together to make things work, no one could live here – as it is, I think there are about 50 islanders though the island population is now swelled by contractors working on the water and building the new Bird Observatory after it burned down in 2019.  They are an impressive bunch of people with a vast array of skills to survive here. I think that these extra characteristics are some of the things that I also fell in love with here. Shetland creates stoic, pragmatic people who survive in the harshest of conditions as well as the most beautiful extreme terrains. 

perfect

This trip, I felt was to ‘draw a line’ so to speak, on my whole Shetland life but since being here, I find that Shetland, in all its many facets, is in my heart, though my emotions are like a pendulum, anxious at all the wind again, drinking in the familiar sights and enjoying the unexpected. But I do know where I am best placed now, and it is not in Shetland.  I nipped for a cup of tea with Marie, she mentioned that I am maybe ‘closing the circle’ and that seems a really nice way of looking at this whole cycle and journey in my life. 

As my stay on Fair Isle beds in, I note that I fluctuate from bitter/sweet thoughts about my life 60 degrees north and wonder how I could have made it better for myself when I lived here, but really, on my own, I could not have sustained it for another ten years and I missed access to my son and daughter.  The isolation and the relentless wild winds began to drive me crazy.

We are guided by the weather here.  Holidaying or staying for a few weeks or even months is not fully understanding what it is to live here. So many things affect a life on the islands, least of all the weather and quite frankly, that part is enormous. 

For now, I am beyond grateful to have returned to both Shetland and this rock 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, to have friends who welcome me, to have a place of great beauty and creativity to stay and think and breathe.  It is a gift of love, learning, personal growth and time.

If you are a knitter and would like to knit any of my small patterns, I am offereing 20% off all patterns on ravelry, while I am here on Fair Isle, link here

finding Smola and a new life in 2020

Two years ago, I was chasing a dream. I made that dream a reality and will now begin to write its story. Here is an overview of what happened to make the dream happen, seemingly so long ago. It feels as if a life time has passed but I have a story to tell and here is the beginning.

At the beginning of March 2020, I began to receive multiple messages from friends on different platforms with a link to a tiny old house which faced the sea and was for sale in Levenwick in Shetland.

The house was called Smola.

At that time, I should have been in Lerwick anyway but I wasn’t because the hostel had finally understood the magnitude of Corona Virus and realised that having 12 people sleeping in each dorm was not the best idea in a pandemic. They finally closed on 16th March, informing me with a telephone call, I was already booked on to the train and ferry on the 17th March and was due for an interview on 19th at the Shetland College. All this changed and cancellation happened overnight because of the Virus which we are all now well familiar with but then had no idea of. I’d called both the hostel and the college repeatedly the week before to check they were still open – travelling 850 miles was a risk for me during COVID too but the hostel had said they were still open and the college receptionist said that they were waiting for hand sanitiser to arrive but the college was open. Waves of knowledge of a pandemic take longer to reach an island 60 degrees north.

I was temping part time in the Sheffield Children’s hospital as medical secretary in Neurology and knew the panic of the virus in Yorkshire. So, on the 18th March, 2020, I was still in Sheffield and what appeared to be the house of my dreams was in Shetland – where I was supposed to be but wasn’t.

I’d been half-heartedly looking for a little house in Shetland for some time purely because I thought the idea seemed a good one as I had been going back and forth for the last 5 years. I’d looked at a small house myself, in the old lanes in Lerwick, in November 2019 but it seemed dark and hemmed in and the thought of not being able to have chickens made me think it wasn’t the place for me. I had a vague idea to have a B&B with a chicken or two and sunshine and this didn’t fit the vague idea. Then, in the new year, a Shetland friend went to look at another house for me that was for sale – he reported back that it was damp and wrong. My budget was low and was reflected in what I could afford. Then in March, a sunshine-flooded image of an old house for sale named Smola, didn’t just speak to me, it shouted my name which appeared to be written all over it. I called the agent who had an open viewing day, on Saturday 21st March, the last of any physical viewings of properties before lock down.

As I couldn’t attend the viewings of the tiny house in Levenwick, I was sent the house report and two small videos the week following the open day – one video of inside the property and one of the outside of the house, the back yard and the byre – which is below.

Outside view of Smola

Although the tiny house in Levenwick was basic, it was perfectly formed and without question, it seemed ideal for me and the dream I thought I had of living in Shetland began to firmly take hold of me. No one was allowed to go to see it for me on the island, due to COVID restrictions. Everywhere had finally closed down, as in England. I pondered, repeatedly looked at the videos sent by the agent which, internally, were mostly of the floors, out of the windows and of himself caught in the mirrors but I did nothing else. Then, on the Monday 23rd March, the agent called to say that one of the Saturday viewers had put an offer in on the tiny house and I lost hope and duly whined about it on Facebook. It appeared to me that this was not just a house, 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. This dream like state of rose-tinted glasses took over every thought.

I continued to work at the NHS typing consultant letters about very ill children while the heat wave and the pandemic raged on in Yorkshire and I dreamed of a 60 degrees north life where, in the Shetland March, I knew that it was sleeting.

I was screaming inside, it should have been me buying that house because during the preceding seven 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 city lockdown, whilst still working, feeling helpless. Then 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 people I knew in Shetland, who in turn, put me in touch with Chris, who had rented the little house for 3 years. He told me about the house. It wasn’t damp (except the porch), the bedroom was warm because it was over the fire, you could park your car in the grass by the house (what car) the man who owned it was a builder and could help with any issues, he’d really liked living there and the neighbours were lovely. I mean, what more did I need to know? My glasses became rosier as the house became more verbally known to me as some questions were answered.

Someone else messaged to say the roof was sound but it had been derelict in the 90’s and had had a lot of grants and an architect had altered it. In any case, I had already fallen in love with the village in August 2019, when I came across it on the bus route when I was flying to Norway and spent one glistering hour on the beach.

That weekend, I thought about nothing other than the tiny Shetland house and artist exchanges and workshops on knitting and design whilst all the time mentally composing a letter, in parts, to the owners, in order to compete with the unknown offer already on the table. Without seeing, smelling or touching the house, the letter flowed. I was honest, direct, clear and shot from the hip on the financial offer, which was 10% over the asking price.

On Monday 30th March, I emailed my letter to the agents with my ideas of what I wanted to do with the house and ended with the financial offer (which was 10% above asking price), then promptly let it go. I went to work in the searing heat of March and April at the Children’s hospital and through the real harsh uncertain beginnings of the Virus. I got on with my week. The pandemic gathered steam and I started knitting.

On Thursday, 2nd April, I was sitting on my procrastination my bench in scorching heat, outside the flat after work. It was at 5:20pm – a call came from the Shetland estate agent. I assumed it would 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 Sheffield flat (which wasn’t on the market and we were in complete lockdown other than anything essential) and finalise Scottish missives within 6 months.

Under offer – my offer and a hidden non refundable deposit

Between 2nd April until 7th May, two Shetland solicitors were 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. So, just over 8 weeks after seeing an image, both moving and still of a little house in Levenwick, I signed a document to say that I would pay the non-refundable deposit, deductible from the cost of the house, if I finalised the Scottish missives and all the papers to purchase within 3 months – an IMPOSSIBLE task. If, after the initial 3 months, I hadn’t made the sale agreement, I would be offered a further 3 months agreement with the same terms but the first non-refundable deposit wasn’t to be carried over – that became lost and I was to pay a second deposit.

It just seemed the right thing to do and somehow, I naively felt that although my flat in Sheffield wasn’t on the market and everything was shut down, and I hadn’t even seen the house in Shetland – that somehow, it would all work out.

I was asked by a friend, – ‘what did I get for my non-refundable deposit?’ and I said TIME but my wise friend Deb added, security. No one else could buy the house either but maybe no one else wanted it and I had paid way over the odds – it was a risk I took because something is worth its value in many different ways.

Anyway, from 14th May 2020, I had 6 months to turn everything around, still in lock down, during a pandemic and a recession to sell my flat and to purchase a house I had then begun to label – my dream.

My dream was to truly live a life fully, without borders between creative thought process and daily life, with my 2 cats, to go swimming with the Selkie swimming group in the sea, to write a book of knitting patterns and the homes the knitters 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 – was my rose-tinted dream – just words and thoughts…

But, in truth, I achieved the dream and moved into Smola on 10th September 2020 – I lasted just over one year – the house never dropping from being the love of my life and the most beautiful house I have ever owned – a house that drew me to accept a challenge to change every part of my existence to make happen.

I still love that house, I still love how that house made me feel because so many stories unfolded. It was a place of creativity, a place of sunrises so magnificent that the world stopped to watch, a place of history and tangible beauty. But, it was also a lonely house.

Two years exactly to the date of moving into Smola in Levenwick in September 2020, I will be returning to Shetland to stay with my friend Mati on Fair Isle. I need to think and go over what has happened in the last two years, to understand what I achieved in Shetland and to be proud of that.  to share it, to shout about it, to not hide it.

I aim to write a book on my year in Shetland and going back to the location will help re set my Shetland barometer.

Whilst on Fair Isle, I will be carrying out my online Colour blending workshops for Fair Isle Knitters. The workshops and I, have been successful in teaching over 200 participants how to develop an eye for colour blending in Fair Isle knitting projects and to get it right so that they can choose their own colours successfully for their own projects.   If you would like to join me on any of the workshop dates in Fair Isle, please take a look at this page and get in touch via the form, or message me directly.

If you would like to support this trip back to Shetland, then you can do so by buying any of my knitting patterns from here.

I look forward to your comments on what you would like to see / hear when I return to Shetland.

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.

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

Sea Urchin- a hat, a story, a pattern and a design.

afternoon winter light, 20/01/2020

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.

November 2019, Brindister, West Burrafirth.

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 pattern is here if you want to have a look.

https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/sea-urchin-shetland-hat

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.

textile, knitting or art?

Knitting, Art or just textiles?

Under a week after handing over this commissioned piece of knitting, I have had time to reflect.  I have a window of time to reconsider what I have made and why and what happened during the making and designing process and the outcome of what seems to some, to just be a knitted pullover.

The idea for this hand-knitted piece actually came from my thinking son because I was questioning the time involved in knitting and designing one off pieces. He suggested for me to consider intricately knitting something that I loved and to log every hour and minute spent making it.  This type of time is not commercial time but entirely creative, without speed, without a target.  So, to make a knitted piece in this way, with this idea behind it was the initiation that made it a project or a work of art; not just knitting and certainly not textiles.

A constant driving question of any maker is what is the value of time spent. I question time and the value of an hour of my time because, at 55 years old I may be running out of hours and what do I want to do with my one precious hour? is my hour of more value than, say, a 23 year old who, statistically, has more hours left to live than me.  If we knew how many hours left, what would we do with those hours? Knit?  

So, the act of writing, logging and recognising time spent whilst making became an underlying, fundamental principal of this knitted piece. I did not lie about time, did not hide time spent in the making process, did not adjust hours to fit ‘within time’ or an acceptable amount of time judged by others to take to knit this item and I did not exaggerate either.  I was wholly honest.

During the process there was no brief, or contract or even a binding conversation with the person who may or may not buy it, I made a Fair Isle pullover with a woman in mind.  A woman who I know respects hand-made items, understands art and creativity and supports makers.  And, I know that time is precious to her.  Of course, in the end, it is wearable. Win, win.

There was no design brief or discussion or demands or expectations.

Carte blanche. 

There was also no discussion of money due to the fact that this was not my driving force for the knitted project.  Notice, that this knitting has been called many things – a project, a hand-knitted piece, a piece of art but never just knitting or textiles. 

This whole project was a thought process – thinking about design, experimentation, research in practice, 2 years in an MA to research knitted lace, colours, heritage, Shetland-inspired memories, traditional patterns, blending colours, making mistakes and undoing mistakes, patterns I’ve previously knitted and why I wanted to weave those things into each stitch.   How can you sell that?  In a story? To a believer?  It’s an investment of time and detail.

In brief, the underlying principle was to create a work of art which encompassed understanding and mastery of the craft of knitting, which I have done for over 40 years now. To the untrained eye, this knitted piece is ‘textiles’ or ‘just knitting’ but,  to the thinking mind it is not.

So, I started. And unstarted. Designed and redesigned and felt my way through many, many, many hours of knitting.  Each hour was logged and sometimes what I was thinking, what I was feeling and my understanding of developing certain areas of the piece.  The work went everywhere with me and I knitted every day over 4 months. Yes, 4 months – sometimes at night watching things on iplayer. It went to café’s, babysitting, to Sheffield Institute of arts and on train journeys and to different cities but always I stayed true to the principle of logging the hours and to making every loop perfect.  I began to want to hold the work and get back to it.  It became a piece of wellbeing.

I became fascinated by thinking about how one colour sat next to another and where the pattern had come from and what memories the knitting drew on. I undid anything that I was not totally, absolutely happy with and the happiness came in the detail which fed back to the process of thinking.  The whole process took on a journey of its own.

The result is like a tightly woven carpet.

I am partly embarrassed about the hours I spent on this knitted piece and partly in awe of how much time I spent dedicated to something that a knitter would do in under half the time.  But, that knitting, from a pattern would be ‘just knitting’.  This piece came from scratch – from an idea and a bundle of over 50 colours of Shetland yarn.

On bank holiday Monday – the jewel-coloured surprise was ceremoniously and fittingly handed over