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.

EXPERIENCE: I lived a Shetland Island dream.

I have decided to write a book proposal to send to agents to write my story of living in Shetland as a single woman – in the most beautiful house and also why I left. I sent a pitch to the Guardian for their Saturday magazine ‘Experience’ section. It is below.

I bought and sold a 200-year-old croft house in a pandemic year.

At first sight, the 200-year-old croft house in Levenwick, Shetland, felt like it had always part of my life and I part of its existence. Its childlike front faced east, towards the horizon where the sea bordered the vast sky. The coronavirus pandemic was in the early, frightening months when I sold nearly everything I owned—including my flat in the city of Sheffield—and made the 800-mile journey north to this house that was now mine. I had decided to buy it on a sound, the click of the old wooden latch hitting its wooden casing and the sight of the flag stone floor.

But my move to Shetland was not a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic. I had stayed on the island multiple times over the previous 5 years, and I’d always had a faint idea that I might move to there one day. Yet it was in March 2020, when Shetland friends sent me links to the tiny, jewel-like croft house for sale, that I knew it was time at age 57 to make my dream happen: living by the sea in a lifestyle of creative knitting. 

I arrived in September 2020 with 2 cats, 2 bags, and a cat pram, followed by a few pieces of my furniture a week later. I felt as if I had never lived in any other house in my life. Its easterly facing windows offered ever-changing light and colour, whales in the bay, sunrises, passing ships, dark night skies of stars and the Milky Way or full moons that seemed to rest on the house roofs. The island was there for me to explore, finding favourite spots to collect cowrie shells, taking ferries to see Iron Age brochs and knitting on the beach. I began my creative life of knitting design, writing and teaching online knitting workshops.

Because of the pandemic, no one was allowed in anyone else’s house or car and everything began to close for the approaching winter, but I was happy, learning about myself and living a life close to nature. I began to restore parts of the house, sanding wooden floors, getting the leaky shower repaired so I no longer had to wash in a bucket, sieving the rocky soil in order to grow vegetables in the shelter of the roofless byre.  At Easter, a two-day blizzard coated every window with frozen snow as if at the North Pole, an unfamiliar and beautiful experience. 

I researched the croft house and the generations of people before me, including a woman who lived there for 83 years. She and I had opened the same doors, looked at the same view from the porch, sieved the same soil. I cherished my time with two friends, one in the village and the other 40 miles away, an 80-mile round trip for us to visit each other. But, by May, I began to feel very alone, which was a deeper feeling than that of lonely. I missed my son and daughter, still in England, and I missed my Sheffield friends and the city’s multi-cultural, outward perspective. Then, there was the wind.

Until you have lived on a treeless island where the wind visibly surges from the four points of the compass, down chimneys with a roar that lifts the bedroom floor boards, pins the ears of the cat to his head when he leaves the house, drives salt spray across the windows from a sea half a mile away, and nearly rips the car door off unless you use two hands to open it, you have not experienced wind. Shetland’s wind is nearly constant and can easily blow between 40 and 70 mph. I found it invigorating at first, but it soon ripped into my thoughts and became exhausting.

When I began to go out every morning to see if the barn roof was still attached, I knew that I could not sustain a solitary life in the raw harshness of Shetland at my age. A friend had said to me, ‘If you bide in Shetland, you’ll need a man.’ A partner may have alleviated much of the loneliness, but my decision to leave Shetland would have been the same.

I learned that a place of great beauty alone is not enough to sustain me. I found that I wanted the multi-cultural, open-minded existence of the city. I needed real connections to people who didn’t just talk about me but with me. I loved the little croft house, but I had to let it go, selling it in the Autumn and returning to Sheffield in October last year, without home or job or knowing exactly what next.

When I came back, friends said, ‘well, at least you tried.’ But I didn’t just try.

I did it, and I undid it.

There is a quote, ‘she believed she could, so she did.’ I believed in my Shetlands dream, and I had the bravery to do it and the courage to undo it when I knew it wasn’t mine anymore.

—Tracey Doxey

May 2022

Grateful thanks to Ann Senuta (who lives in New Mexico) for editing this text for the pitch.

if you would like to support me with the idea of writing my story, then please contact me in the contact form on the home page – I would love to hear from you.

A last Shetland sunrise

teeep in a blur

A last Shetland sunrise
Its flaring red, pink, lilac and blue skyscape performs to remind
the boys and I of perfect
untainted natural beauty.


I smile
I walk out to greet the glow
Sky, wind, cold envelope me.
Sheltering from the Baltic wind in a steadfast porch that faces east,
I watch
To etch the view forever.
A basin of ice cold sea
wraps the surface of a world below a rippled dancing sky.
Alfie by my feet
on the age old stones.
The red sky does not fade,
it glows, it sings, it morphs

It shouts to me
“Goodbye, do not forget me,
For I am in your soul”

Levenwick, Shetland. 23/10/21

Shetland Wool Week 2021

This week is Shetland Wool week 2021.  The first time I visited Shetland, was for a Wool Week in 2015. I stayed at the hostel in Lerwick and every bed in every room was taken by wool week visitors.  I fell in love with Shetland, its culture of knitting and the tangible, visible history across the islands.  I also visited St Ninians for the first time and squealed with joy at just seeing it.  I still sometimes squeal at seeing St Ninians. 

Since 2015, I revisited again and again – for Up Helly Aa in 2016, a few more holiday trips, an Artist residency at the Booth in Scalloway in December 2017, and an R&D trip to Unst in 2018.  All of these trips deepened my love of the social history across the islands and my love for Shetland knitting.  I remember meeting Hazel Tindall in the Textile Museum one day in May 2017, and I recorded her talking about her Grandmother collecting the peats for the rayburn. (At that time, I had a passion for old stoves left in abandoned croft houses)   I still have that recording and I have always been in awe of Hazel, her skill and her warm character. She makes me smile when I see her. She is a Wool Week Goddess.  I met her for lunch a couple of months ago.  We went to the Mareel.  It was a joy to be with her, such an honour.

Hazel in one of her amazing knits.

Six years after first visiting Shetland, it is once again, Wool Week.  It is not a face to face Wool Week where thousands of participants descend upon Lerwick and the surrounding areas to enjoy workshops, trips, visits to museums and of course both Jamieson’s wool shops, but a virtual wool week. Next year will be real, I know it.   But, in 2015, it was my first experience of being here – I sat by the pier knitting and watched an otter come in carrying a huge fish.  He didn’t know I was there until I moved. I mean, a city girl watching an otter whilst sitting on the pier knitting in the town – who would have believed it?

Here is a blog from that time https://www.travelblog.org/Europe/United-Kingdom/Scotland/Shetland/Wick/blog-901174.html

This week, six years later, I am teaching Online Colour blending sessions in the Virtual Shetland Wool Week programme -2 this weekend, 2 next weekend and on Friday, three ladies are coming to the house to do a face to face colour blending session and incidentally, they are from my home town of Matlock.   Seemingly, we are 6 degrees of separation, or maybe just one degree.

I’ve been teaching online sessions since January when one of my supporters asked for a class, in December, for her friends for a Christmas present.  I said that I was busy with the house but would do a workshop in the January.  It happened the last weekend of Jan, – I got in by the skin of my teeth and since then have been teaching up to 4 sessions every month ever since – except when I took a 6 week break to work on the Dear Susan Project.  I would very much like to thank that supporter who truly developed my own Creative Practice.

This weekend, I have met ladies from America, Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, The Netherlands,  Sweden and Scotland.  Today, I had two ladies join me from Canada and America at 2am and 5am their time – I felt honoured and flattered that they were so dedicated to join me in the middle of their night.

Every time I do an online workshop, I feel warm and happy afterwards.  I get so many messages after the sessions that I know that all the hard work to teach, inspire, engage with and to share skills is worth it.  Some of the ladies over the last 6 months have also become my international online friends – especially Cait St. George, whom I met through a session with Cream City Yarn in Milwaukee.  Cait became my test knitter for Dear Susan and also number crunched the pattern.  The Internet and Instagram has made these sessions possible and I want to thank every one who has attended a session already, everyone who is booked on to a session and to future bookers.   You make my creative practice valued and I value every one who has joined me.   If you would like to join a colour blending workshop, I have a couple of places left on 17th October and I am taking a waiting list for November (dates to be confirmed) If you go to my online workshop tab, here on the website, you can see information of the classes.

Dear Susan jumper

Here’s to Shetland Wool Week 2021.

I look forward to seeing your work – tag me on Instagram.  Tracey 😊

Oh yes, I have 20% off all of my knitting patterns during wool week.
The code for the basket is Wool Week Workshop

and patterns are here

https://www.ravelry.com/designers/tracey-doxey

a labour of love…

Red gloss makes me look away. It’s the first inherited colour that I paint over.  Red, raises stress, draws the gaze, takes over the place especially when on the focal point of a room like a fire place. Layers and layers of gloss over an old iron fire place makes my heart ache.  The iron cannot breathe through paint.  Here, I had so many other things to do that the red paint was far from the first thing in this room that was removed. I have been spending hours sanding, painting, oiling floors, nitromorsing and brushing iron, stripping wallpaper, painting ceilings, walls and stone. Slowly, the south bedroom of my small house, with an unbroken view of the sea has grown subtle, more natural, in keeping with the elements. Yesterday, as I was leaving,  I stepped back to look at my house with the disbelief that I actually live within it. I actually looked at the house and thought, ‘Man, I did it’.  It has taken me 6 months and one serendipitous moment to stand back and admire my home as an achievement.   Within the first few days of moving in, the house became a love of my life – not the – because I have Jess and Patti but this house sure is a love of mine.  I shared this view with a woman from the village who trod on my joy by saying, ‘you never would have guessed’ she said she was being sarcastic.  After that,  I began to hide my love, my joy and retreat to the sound of the old wooden latch, the view, the light, the tangible history within the house, which have all become a deep evolving love of living here.  

To get things done, I have been compartmentalising my life by working an admin job, teaching online knitting workshops, writing a business plan, designing knitting patterns, buying a car, writing online pieces and I have been working on my guest room in order to prepare it for guests.  Everything in the house has been shifted around to make space for this room to be restored, lovingly.   I find things to dress the mantle, to converse with the room, view and light.  Shetland sea urchins, I found in Brindister, the old wheelbarrow wheel from my barn, a bird’s nest from Martin’s lambing shed and one from Sumburgh farm, a bird’s wing from St Nininan’s beach – tiny shells and large shells all found within 3 miles of here build a story of local nature, Shetland life.

I yearn for an old iron and brass bed for the guest room – much like my own.  I have sourced one but it is in London and I cannot get it here. There are no deliveries off the mainland. I will wait to get the right bed.  I hear the Oceanic sank just off Foula in 1914 and there were 3 days things were removed from the liner and afterwards, when it sank, many things were washed up on the West Coast.  The Oceanic was the sister of the Titanic and it carried many ornate iron and brass beds now on the  sea bed.

I’ve restored many homes but this room has been a pretty big job – I have shed blood, sweat and tears – at one point, I knocked myself off a chair when the belt sander chewed up my trousers when I lowered my arms whilst trying to sand the ceiling (yes, really)  and that was really scary.  I did the  risk assessment, I knew the biting of the sander but it still happened. Finally, the sander has stopped. The screw and  plate had worked lose. I spent an hour trying to fix it but could not – so I finished the floor sanding by hand.  The guy at the paint shop is on first name terms with me because I’m a weekly customer.  The paint is the best I could buy. It’s inspired by a sample of wallpaper that I’m completely flattered that Emma has agreed to print.   When the paper goes on the walls, if Emma agrees, I will share its story – because event the wallpaper has a story.

I’ve just closed the bedroom door and realised that it is only 60% stripped.  I forgot about that.  But when it is finished, this room will be an unassuming, living, breathing room to gently connect to Shetland in more ways than one.

sanding again and again, oiling, fixing.

before

Look over your shoulder

17 Feb 2021

If on the 17 mile journey on the  way home from work in Lerwick, you realise that you don’t have enough petrol to get to town tomorrow, then you have to continue past home southward to get petrol and along the way you find a place you have never been to before, whereupon you arrive in time to watch the clever dog working the sheep with ease and grace while the unexpected winter sun rests upon your face and the roaring sea is in sight line, then you wander and find the  marks of your dreams – where a woman stencilled upon her croft house walls many, many years ago and the  pattern is still faintly visible even though the house is open to the elements – and after all the wondering if you made the right decisions to move to an island from a city come to a head because at that very moment you become washed over with a sense of pure contentment whereupon all the uncertainty and current concerns fade away and I know that I made the right choices to get to this very point on earth that I never knew existed and I look over my shoulder at the five year journey I have made to get to this one pure moment of clarity understanding at my own achievement – to  live life fully – even if it hurts sometimes.

To look over one’s shoulder to see the journey of risk, decisions, learning, acquired knowledge, tears and joy is to truly come to a resolution – it may be fleeting but these moments are the pure moments that mark out lives. I will never forget it.  My life choices have not been easy nor have they always rendered happiness but without doubt, I am trying to fill my life with curiosity.

A similar pure moment happened to me when I lived in China and found, exactly one year to the  day of arriving, that I also turned and looked over my shoulder at the journey – that was in 2009.  It is here but it happened in a similar situation when I was walking to Tiger Hill and all the stars aligned.

https://www.travelblog.org/Asia/blog-424932.html

Shetland light.

Sun Rising pure light.   

Saturday, Sitting in this old house, with the doors open for this fine Shetland sunrise, listening to the sparrows and starlings mutter and chatter over the breakfast seeds on the wall, the red light pours sharply in to the house as a shard of light, hitting the back wall at an angle in the corner – a different place from even two weeks ago where light hit the middle of the sofa.  I am learning a cycle of annual shifting light. 

Light, so commonly taken for granted, is a big thing here.  Its appearance is being squashed into a smaller opening by the darkness of Winter speeding in to borrow light’s hours. The night darkness is squeezing out the daylight day by day but sunrise is putting up a spectacular morning fight.

For a brief half hour, I listen, wait and watch to see the magnificence of a new day writing its signature across my walls, through my windows and refracted through the old lead chandelier prism crystals that now become brokers in this arrangement between sunrise and light. The crystals throw rainbows of light across the walls and ceiling. The moment is enchanting.  Why not be enchanted? – if only briefly. 

I have always noted shifting light, where it hits the walls of my homes, how it affects me, how it shifts around the room at different times of year, how I wait for it to appear at certain times of year and how it slips away. I have rejoiced in it for years.  But here, here it is more powerful because being so northerly, the light is extra precious during winter. I have yet to learn of its daily power during living here through a summer where the light fights back to take over the hours of darkness.

This morning, all my world stopped to be in this November moment. Grateful at being able to see the pure light and to feel its powerful healing properties.

Pure Moon light.

A moon beam paints its light in the whole shape of the window across my bedroom floor. Unbeknown to me, light is also painted across the floor in the room downstairs.

Outside, the moon world is brought together by a party of present and missing elemental guests.  The sharp light is here because wind and rain are missing.  The moon is the main guest of honour.  A moon so bright and full that it creates a pool of light in the basin of the wide and deep sea.  The fold of the earth, visible through the window,  as horizon line between earth and sea, marks a line between moon light and night darkness as if drawn by a spirit level.

After the storm, after the Orcas, the moon paints the sea silver and my bedroom floor with a faint but clearly defined light in the shape of a window resting on the old wooden floor boards.

How can I turn away from this natural visual world that is lit by a full moon guest?  To sleep is to miss it. I cannot sleep, or read and although knitting beckons me, the moon light pulls my gaze and I see nothing but tones of grey, silver, slate, graphite,  black, white.  A boat sails on the horizon trailing its own white light.

To be alive at this moment, here, now, with all the elements in perfect harmony is priceless. Except for the personal cost of noticing, taking time, being aware, being in the moment – given freely.

I write in the pure darkness, not seeing the pen or the words. The white page is faintly highlighted by the painting moon light. 

Suddenly, rain arrives at the party, accompanied by blowing wind and bringing cloud. Other natural elements join the party, breaking up moon’s isolated glow. Rain, wind and cloud cover moon – he leaves the moonlit party, taking with him light. 

Black ness returns accompanied by rain on the roof and wind down the chimney.

If you would like to receive a monthly newsletter on living in Shetland, I have started a Patreon site for unpublished stories – which will only be available to Patreon supporters. If you would like to receive monthly newsletters, stories, updates on research on this old house and Susan Halcrow, discounts on my knitting patterns and information on Shetland, please consider supporting me through Patreon at £3 per month or £6 per month. The link is here. https://www.patreon.com/TraceyDoxey

This story is the first one and it is free. After that, my Patreon supporters will receive exclusive stories and I will dedicate time to my writing on that page.

If you are interested in staying at Smola in Shetland, the link to Air B&B is here

https://airbnb.com/h/levenwick

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

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.