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.

from Shetland to Sheffield Institute of Arts

Dear Gentle Reader,

In your haste to pass from one place to another, you may have accidentally fallen across this inessential corner and stopped for a moment, caught by the sight of cut paper or printed ink.   

This place of scattered and fragmented light, which writes across the sill, is an echo of everything that I have been in search of for some time now.

I have been here before, in a place of contemplation, only to wonder how many women have stood before me and looked out of this seaward facing window or leant against the door frame, waiting for their man to come home from the sea, knowing that he may not return.  The ever-present harsh wind, a constant reminder, battering the window pane and whipping the grass into knee high tufts.

Then, everything was about surviving and longing and waiting. Now, if you look, you can trace this across the walls in abandoned Croft houses on Shetland, some of which bear traces of decoration lovingly painted by the families that have long since moved away.

The world reveals itself to those on foot and I’m glad to have met you.

Tracey Doxey is a knitter, researcher, traveller, site-specific artist, writer and currently, an AA2A Artist in residence at Sheffield Institute of Arts until the end of September 2019.

What makes that one pure creative moment?

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I’ve unknowingly walked for almost two years to find this pure creative moment – Or, did this one pure moment draw me back to this derelict, abandoned croft house on the tiny island of Bressay to find me?  

Planning for the unplanned. 

This morning, I didn’t know that I was going to return to this place.  I was in Lerwick, it was sunny, I spontaneously caught the ferry for one last time over a seven-minute stretch of water between two islands. I instantly feel free, always standing on the steps of the ferry deck to watch the island of Bressay greet me.

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I walked left to right, my feet bringing me the long way around to a place I know well. In my back pack a tube with a roll of cut paper and no clear plan – just a creative desire to place the paper in the ‘right’ place.

Climbing the gate at the road side, I break in. Pushing the roped, iron gate, I break in to a place I know has been sold away from a family to a farmer who has made it into a barn. A two-roomed croft house, 8 strides by 4, that has seen births and deaths, and women waiting for men, and men coming home to a place that only towards the end of its lived-in life had running water.  Three windows, a long-gone porch, slate tiles strewn across the ground, roofless and now all traces of painted walls gone. A place I found in August 2016, returned to in April 2017 with a woman who had been born in it, to now – this day in May 2018.  It is not new to me but each experience is different.  

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Almost two years gone, the walls all turned to white chalky plaster – all traces of the family’s carefully stencilled wall paint in deep rust and yellow now gone.  But I saw it.  I remember it. I draw my hand across the wall. Seven seasons of weather putting an end to colour that I know was there.

Instantly, on being inside the roofless croft house, I feel at home. It’s sunny and breezy. The ever-present wind on the islands wraps itself around every minute of the day. I can hear it, feel it, see it.

No time to waste.  I don’t measure, don’t think, just empty my bag across the earth floor to unroll the paper and without much thought, hammer it with a rock and Shetland tacks in to place in the old window that still has glass in it.

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I step back to experience a purity so pin-sharp that I cannot breathe for one moment.   

This pure moment of creativity that speaks to me.

But the paper has been cut into by a two-year long story of my knitting and a search for authenticity. It also contains a technical skill not to be ignored

 

In reality, to the unseeing eye, it is a laser cut in tracing paper. But look to see, because for me it is not just paper.  The moment of placing the ‘fitting’ and fitted paper laser cut draws on every single thing that was leading to this moment.

No one else would have / could have felt this because it is my pure moment pulling on threads of two years ago selling a house to go to Uni at the age of 53, to learn something about myself that I already knew but had lost and to learn new skills and to understand resilience once again.

In placing that laser cut, I found myself in its authenticity – my authenticity.  A language of knitting lace stitches using a computer aided design simulation to create a fine paper laser cut which can rival any fine lace knitting.  It has skill, it has knowledge but more than that, I can hear all of the voices of my past from when an old man once said to me, “never sell these, Tracey, I had them during my grandiose period”  to a woman telling me only last week of her ‘grandmammy’ walking up the hill, using a knitting belt to knit and wearing a kishie on her back going to collect peats for the fire, to a man silenced for fifteen minutes in the wind, the ever present wind on these islands and of course, it is this physical place.

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It’s not just a paper cut. It holds a physical and emotional and philosophical journey, even.

But that one pure moment is a visible celebration and a testament of my repeatedly returning to a group of islands, learning the cultural climate, a landscape and how to get around in seasons on my own to a place that holds stories which I pick up and add to with the materiality of life.

It’s a celebration of all the knitters who have lived in these croft houses over generations and generations subsidising the small crofting income with a material craft and a skill that was given little value.  

Other people will read  it differently, on a different day, the light is different, the wind, the sounds, the movement. 

No one same moment can be pure for everyone. This moment is mine only because it is wrapped up in thinking about authenticity, heritage, time past, a woman standing in a doorway waiting for her man to come back from the sea. The pure moment is the placing of something that fits exactly in that space, without tensions and stays there in an elemental landscape until it blows away.

Like dirty paper.

 

I place the work, it becomes site-specific.  I feel it, document it, understand it and walk away – without looking over my shoulder.  Such a pure beautiful moment. 

With Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield for enabling this trip to happen. And to Sue Turton for hours and hours of laser cutting. 

 

‘Vod’ an unoccupied, empty place.

I am a Contemporary artist who works with textiles and photography.  I am also a knitter – sometimes a pretty good one.  And, I suppose I’m a designer of contemporary lace knit.

Recently, I took my knitting, which is fine lace knit,  back to the place of original inspiration, which, for my current project is Shetland.  I take the lace back to a found derelict croft – a home where knitting certainly would have taken place and lace could have also once been knitted there. The project is called ‘Vod’ which is a Shetland word for Unoccupied / Empty place.

Shetland has many derelict crofts, sometimes quite plain and simple, sometimes with a yard and gate, some with modifications such as a lean-to toilet room but always, they are deeply moving. There’s something powerful in the traces that can be seen of what  once was, their remoteness and their outlook. They all have a soul.  It’s compelling to stand and look out of a derelict croft house window.

It is mostly in the window that I place my work. Sometimes across a door

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The more crofts that I found in Bressay and Burra and worked in, the more I looked out of the windows and wondered how many women had looked out of that same window, waiting for husbands to return or for kids to come home and that was when I began to really get interested in the social history of the places and the women who had once knitted there.  Below are some of the archive images of women knitting by crofts, which are from Shetland Museum.

My practice began to explore particular social and political narratives of place and values of material production embedded in place/s.  Once I found the crofts, I began to research how the women were paid for their knitting and came to learn about the truck and barter system.  I long to hear Shetland women tell stories of their ancestors’ home life and history and this is why I want to go to Unst – the most northerly isle in the British Isles – parallel to Norway and below Iceland on the map. It is the home of Shetland lace knitting.  I’ll spend time in the Unst Heritage Centre and cycle around the small Island, taking in the surroundings. 

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Almost two years ago, when I started my part time MA at NTU, I was firstly inspired by Shetland knitted lace and my research was initially about the textiles only – how the lace was knitted and the motifs in it.  Over the last two years and over five subsequent visits to Shetland,  I have become more interested in the women who made the fine Shetland lace and how and where they lived, often in remote and extreme conditions. Learning this, and finding these places, developed a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of lace knitting in Shetland. To express my respect for and love of Shetland lace and the homes once lived in and the knitters themselves, I respond to place and its associated narrative histories – in particular woman’s material and conceptual histories of creative practice.

There is a sublime energy in the derelict crofts coupled with the energy of a my contemporary take on lace knitting placed back into a abandoned building which creates a third energy – the site specific work itself.  I hope that my latest Site specific work has integrity, authenticity and soul.  The symbiotic relationship between my lace knit or lace engravings coupled with placing the work into derelict crofts,  is an act which produces contemporary art that speaks of place, time, culture, textiles, struggle, hardship and past lives.

I’m lucky enough to be returning to Shetland to finish ‘Vod’ and I hope to interview and record the oral histories of knitting and crofting from the women at the specialist Heritage Centre in Unst. These women keep the origin of heritage lace knitting alive. I want to respond to their stories by making a textile and photographic site-specific work around their stories and creative practice on Unst. I have not been able to reach Unst on my previous visits to Shetland due to Winter, ferry crossing availability or non-availability of space to cross the sea between the islands, availability of day light (5 in the Winter) and the closure of the Heritage Centre between October and the beginning of May.  I have not previously recorded oral histories and this is the only place where the lace stories originate.  Unst is 60 degrees North and I learned from my son today, who will be filming in the most Northern part of Norway in March, that there are only 90 degrees, then you are at the Arctic.

The reason that I can return to Shetland is that I have been awarded an R&D grant to research the stories of the knitters, their lives and to look at the knitting itself and to work in derelict crofts, this time, with the permission of the owners to hopefully arrange a pop up  installation in a derelict croft, around the Bank holiday weekend at the end of May. I will invite local artists, knitters and crofters for tea and cake and to look at the  work that has grown out of this body of this project  that has taken me a year and a half in the making

The Research and Development work in Shetland, is called ‘Vod’ – an unoccupied, empty place.

Thanks to Making Ways, Sheffield  for supporting this R&D trip and for supporting the development of my creative practice.

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a making process

At 5am, before sunrise, I wake immediately thinking about my making process – what it is and why. I thought it was the middle of the night because it was still not light at all but when I looked at the time, it made it acceptable to get up and develop the thoughts I was thinking.  ‘What is my work’ is the main point that I keep coming back to when I’m reflecting on my making.  I research craft, mending, repair, reflection, authenticity and tradition. What is my work about, if it’s about anything at all?

And, this is how I come to be in the avenues of the Hanging Water allotments at 6:30 am with the heavy scent of a late flowering honeysuckle in the air whilst picking fat ripe blackberries – sun rising to my left.   The ground is very damp, wet in fact. The late summer sun is rising with a hint of Autumn snapping at its heels.  Quickly, I threw on any clothes just to get out in the sun rise. I  noticed that it was the first time I reached for a jumper before leaving the house.  The mustard fair isle cardigan was the first choice – a perfect choice to greet the sun.

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All the world is here in this moment in the allotments. Whilst picking the ripe berries, I think about what people have said about my work.  The first thing that someone said about my work was stridently expressed in a tutorial at NTU. ‘You’re at Textile Artist, I’ve already told you’.  So, I assumed that mantle – an impressionable 53 year old taking every word as the truth.  But I’m not only a textile artist and this I have learned along the way through reflecting on process, result and reason.

The rising sun catches my face, plump berries from a cultured, thornless bush fill the bowl. Nature’s sounds fill the air – the brook at the bottom of the avenue, pigeons calling, a bee. You can almost hear the fruit creaking with weight.

 

My process is to see, think, feel, have an idea, run with it, see what happens along the way, make modifications, see the outcome, accept the outcome and either embellish it or just let it be – as it is and the outcome feeds another idea and it develops. I’m constantly learning – rarely is anything repeated, which makes it more of an art practice.

I’ve realised that there is a narrative that runs through all of my work. There’s a story.  Even the innocent blackberries that I am picking, weave a story or a moment into my work and process. It could be colour or texture or taste, even. Can’t work just be about the journey of making textile and memory? How can this small avenue of long wet grass that runs between old allotments, with the sun rising to my left be a starting point – but it is.  All the world is here, if you just look.

 

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Tracey Doxey is studying at NTU on the MA Fashion, Textiles Knit course.

She will be carrying out an Artist Residency at The Booth in Scalloway during December 2017

Embodiment

To craft something that has taken a journey of almost one year incorporating everything from the ill-tempered, sleeping cat that lies by my side as I write this piece to the deeply difficult-to-learn (for me)  digital CAD knit design, to make a lace knitted piece that I never knew could exist an academic year ago, is a good place to be.

Is it craft?

If, as written by Louise Valentine in the paper ‘Craft as a form of Mindful Inquiry’ is the case, then, I feel entirely relieved.

‘On reflection of the intellectual and social meanings of craft practice, craft is often misunderstood as skilful making. The notion of craft as a concern for innovation, individual vision and future cultural concerns: a fusion of art, science, engineering and technology, is uncommon’

The relief is born from realising my knitted pieces are craft in the sense of a fusion, a journey of enquiry and perpetual activity, not as skilful making.   Because, the result would be denied as skill by many.   The knitted pieces look to ‘hold skill’ but don’t look quite skilful because they are messy and ill fitting.  It is uncommon to consider the fusion of knitting and technology as craft but the outcome can be.

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How to make messy – attractive?

The lace trousers are the embodiment of my practice to date. Each loop and knot and lace hole contains all that I have seen and felt in Shetland over the last two years – they are possibly my most intellectual activity to date but not the most attractive or practical. To make these trousers, unbeknown to me at the beginning, I navigated through the naivety of an idea (to make a tube of lace into sculptural trousers)  through basic technical mastery of a software package (CAD), to develop an art practice that shows not tells.   My thinking process was knocked and shaped by software and ideas whereby I gained an awareness and understanding of practical things to take forward such as drape, tension, size, linking, mirroring stitch patterns, and finishes. My initial aim was not trousers but to learn the software and to power knit machine lace. The trousers grew out of trial and error.

But really, the joy that has come far outweighs the practical learning.  My joy in holding something that I have made which has drawn on stitch patterns developed from what I saw in the lace cabinets in The Shetland Museum and the Bod of Gremista.  This joy far outweighs the acquired technical knowledge to get to this point.

The technical knowledge I can take away, the embodiment is within.

Hours of looking, seeing, sensing have gone into this small, slightly unattractive piece of wrongly shaped knitting, which now is the start of my second year as a part time student at NTU for a discourse for craft and mindful inquiry.   The lace trousers are currently my ‘capacity to synthesize and integrate information’

Exploration in knit design is, for me,  a dance with an unfolding imagination.  To dance needs time and space.

I will be undertaking an Artist Residency at The Booth in Scalloway – December 2017, surely, I will be dancing with time and imagination.

The tacit knowledge in a piece of broken knitting.

The final week of the first year of my part-time MA at NTU is drawing near and what have I learned?

More than that, what have I felt?

On a technical level, I have learned measurable things: how to use Digital CAD knit to a level where can design lace knit – maybe that’s the only measurable thing. (and maybe linking – but badly)

But from the perspective of just soaking in the atmosphere and feeling my way, I’ve taken leaps and bounds from that first day in Sept 2016. 

I arrived at Uni only being able to hand knit now I can see a future in my knitting that is beyond what I thought possible or considered and that is to make knitted lace – it’s as simple as that but what goes into that making isn’t simple at all. I suppose that this year, I have been working from accidental results and prototypes built from flawed outcomes from the digital CAD and power knit, but that’s also not the result.  Flawed endings are not a result. There may be a broken piece of power knit in front of me but it has a heart and a soul and a back story and here lies the unmeasurable learning.broken lace samples

To look at a broken piece of knitting with vision and joy is or has been the task of my countless attempts at trying  to knit lace – perfection was never an aim (but only when it seemed so risk ridden). The birth of my broken power knit samples involved multiple journeys to Shetland, taking in the light and the landscape and language, looking at traditional hand-knitted fine Shetland shawls in the Shetland museums, spending hours figuring out how the lace patterns are made and translating that into digital CAD designs, graphing lace patterns out in knit language that I had to learn,  then digitally positioning them to make an altogether knitted piece that is aesthetically pleasing in a number of yarns (some of which have been brought to the machine by contacting sponsors – some from the yarn bin at Uni – none purchased) stretching, pulling, steaming the pieces to flatten dishcloth shapes with holes in – sometimes unwelcome holes which were caringly darned to save the piece. Some pieces involved designing a garment shape and positioning the tried and tested lace patterns within the boundaries of the ever moving edges or mirroring, chevroning and altering patterns.  Why, then, are there still holes and errors? If I love it and have developed it to a sort of visual simulated perfection – then why does it still have broken areas – ah, take-down, tension, bent needles, programming, yarn waxing, yarn breakage, doubling up, single thread, finding something suitable. And why, then, is it still a bit broken – never mind, I’ll embrace the broken bit by darning into it. What? Darning? Dutch darning, boro darning – regular sock darning – it’s all in there in this broken piece of knitting that we will call unique’

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So, I look at the unique piece of knitting with joy and vision.

and, the latest samples are also intriguing  –  The gauge is too wide, the fairisle is like lace – nnoooo, it’s just like the drawn line.  It has a pencil line quality – that’s what it is. it’s quite beautiful in its looseness. The fairisle is like a loose pencil drawing. It’s not knitting at all – and I can see how it will look in a garment.

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When I look over my shoulder, I am pulling a faint thread of invisible yarn from Jamieson & Smith in Lerwick, Shetland to here in Nottingham to attach it to a power knit machine that I never knew existed 10 months ago, and I can (at last)  see the journey that I have travelled.