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”
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Last night was the closing party to Celebrate ‘Making Ways’. I came back from London especially for it. ‘Making Ways’ was an ambitious 3 year programme to support artists in Sheffield.
I stood in a group of people at Sidney and Mathilda last night and felt a deep sense of pride to have been a small part of what has happened here in Sheffield over the last three years, with funding for the arts and Artists developing from it, me included. Most of all, I was proud of Janet Jennings who has tirelessly co-ordinated the project of over hundreds of artist applications, events, workshops, gallery programmes, supporting new staff and studio workspace development. The Cultural Consortium of Sheffield bid for the money and won it, but it was / is Janet who has held it together.
In January 2018, during my MA in Knitting at NTU, I applied for an R&D grant in the 2nd round of Open Calls. It was my first ever application – ever, ever. It was a pure application, heartfelt, possibly a little naïve, but for me – very focused. Out of 98 applications in that Open Call round, I was firstly shortlisted then, one of 7 who were successfully awarded the money for either their project or R&D. I was grateful and earnest but didn’t fully understand what the impact of that grant would mean to me. I met with Janet to talk it over and planned then went to the furthest inhabited island in the UK – Unst – the home of Shetland lace knitting.
My application was called ‘Vod’ – and empty place. Vod is a Shetland word for an abandoned or empty place. I had fallen in love with the many abandoned croft houses that lie across the whole of Shetland.
I aimed to use a concentrated period of 10 days in May 2018 to:
Travel to and work in Unst Heritage Centre to research
primary lace knitting and to record stories from the women who still create
fine lace and of their ancestors.
Find derelict crofts on the island of Unst,
research and record the oral histories of these abandoned homes. (which I have
started to do)
Make site specific work using photography as a
platform develop a relationship between Contemporary Art, the stories of women
knitters in Unst, the crofts, dialect and the elemental landscape.
to experiment with a one-off pop-up summer
installation in a found derelict place on Shetland (agreed by the land owner)
to develop audiences for photographic contemporary art which tells a story.
I already had one amazing contact on the small island of Unst (Rhoda) and over the previous two years had built up relationships with many knitters on mainland Shetland.
This was an ambitious aim in 10 days. I embarked on the 9 hour train journey to Aberdeen from Sheffield, the 12 hour overnight ferry to Lerwick, the 2 local buses and 2 interconnecting island ferries to get me to the northern tip of Unst. 36 hours after setting off, I arrived. I’d done my ‘ethics’ training at NTU, I’d brought my books and recording equipment, cameras, laser cuts and power shima knitted lace entirely inspired by Shetland, its heritage and culture- I was ready.
I was a fresh, naïve 54 year old from a city who had spent many weeks on Shetland with women who enjoy talking of their knitting heritage and knew my stuff, but Unst is a different land.
The thing I mainly learned is that even if you are trusted by one person in a small community, on a tiny island (some of whom have never left the island in their lives) it is not an instant green light access to connect with everyone. I was taken in by a wonderful woman who was chair at Unst Heritage Site – Rhoda, who took me places and talked of her ancestors who knitted to subsidise the income of the family. I have beautiful recordings of her talking of her mother and aunt. I spoke to other women but none wanted to share information, saw fine lace knitting, I found abandoned croft houses that I fell in love with and recorded their soundscapes, I watched the sea, learned of the press gang stealing Shetland boys. I saw, heard and felt so many amazing things that it was the changing of me in a long chain of change.
The main thing on the Island of Unst that I quickly learned and reflected on was that some lace knitters do not like to share what they knit or make in case you steal the pattern or idea and make it your own. This was definitely not my aim but it dawned on me after a few days and there was nothing that I could do that could change that in my 8 day stay. Over months, I would have fully engaged, been part of the community and eventually been trusted and accepted. The major deeply moving light-bulb moment came when I understood that not many would talk to me about the past and the history of knitting because then the words would be out and I would have heard and possibly, they would no longer be theirs. This learning was something that ‘ethics’ training cannot teach. You learn it by being in it.
In Unst, I wrote to Janet part way through the night in late May and remember writing – ‘who owns words once they are spoken’. This is the main thing I learned at that time but since the R&D trip. But it is not the main thing that I felt and saw. I know that you earn the voices that you hear spoken and that those words are not yours. Since the R&D, I have gathered confidence, learned a new language, and found an honest understanding of my creative practice and built an aim to go further.
After graduating, I applied for and was lucky to be accepted on the AA2A Artist In Residence scheme at Sheffield Institute of Arts. This one year residency has built on my skills and technique and given me the absolute freedom to make work in that amazing building but I would not have applied for the AA2A had I not had the leg-up from the Making Ways R&D grant in 2018.
Last night I felt proud of Janet, of Sheffield, of Art and
Sheffield, even a little proud of myself because I haven’t finished yet. There’s
still so much to learn and research and find out and make. I’m always just at the beginning of something
new but there is so much more.
These few words are written in gratitude to Janet Jennings and ‘Making Ways’ Sheffield.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.