June in New England can be unpredictable. Usually, you can count on a great deal of sunshine and warmth, the flowers in their prime and the forests lush and green after all the spring rain and snow melt. It can be humid and hot. But sometimes, like this year so far, Mother Nature can be fickle and give you an early summer more like March than June. Last year, I was counting on a late-arriving Spring and a warm Summer. I was getting married in early June, and I needed those peonies and weigelas delayed just enough that I could raid my mom’s garden for the bouquets and table arrangements. Because I like to make things easy on myself, I had decided–much to my family’s chagrin–to do almost all of the wedding planning and prep on my own. In the months leading up to the wedding–while I was also trying to finish up grad school and traveling back and forth between the Midwest and New England–I was a mess. And my mom, despite my being a ticking time bomb most of the time, was still trying to take care of me.
Unbeknownst to me, my mom had been planning to knit me a shawl for my wedding day–and for that unpredictable New England weather–but I had foiled her plans by staying at home so much. She had, of course, decided that she wanted to make a Shetland Lace Wedding Ring shawl–a garment so fine, that the entire thing could be passed through a wedding ring. What would have taken her months to do in borrowed moments, even with her expert skills, became impossible when I unexpectedly spent a few months at home right before the wedding. Instead, she found a woman in the Shetland Isles who made and sold traditional wedding shawls. We perused her website together, picked out a pattern and color, and ordered a beautiful shawl. The truth is, I had secretly always wanted one of these shawls for my wedding, but–knowing how much work they were–I hadn’t wanted to ask. I should have known that my mom would think of it.
I come from a family of knitters and crafters. My mom is an expert knitter, and she learned from her mom. To them, I think, the process of knitting garments is both soothing and challenging. Its a way to stretch your mind with new patterns and techniques, but it is also relaxing, a form of meditation as you slide into the familiar pattern of movements and stitches. And, it is just another way that my mom and grandmother take care of and watch over their families. Milestones have always been marked with knitting projects: Christmas stockings designed and knitted for each new addition to the family, whether through birth or marriage; vegetable hats and tiny sweaters for new babies; countless mittens and scarves for birthdays and Christmases.
Now that my grandmother is gone, I think it is also a way for my mom to connect with her mother, to remember and feel close to her again. Knitting was an activity that they shared from my mom’s childhood–I think she knitted her first sweater when she was only ten years old! You spend so much time with a knitted garment as you make it–in picking out the yarn, finding a pattern, and of course the actual labor of making stitches–that you put a lot of yourself into each piece that you make. I think of my grandmother’s hands every time that I pick up the needles myself–quick and sure before the arthritis claimed them fully. I think about my mom, and countless conversations across the coffee table in the family room as she knitted and I chatted away. Living on the other side of the country now, I feel my mom or my grandmother beside me each time I wrap myself in a shawl or cozy up in a sweater that they made for me. I keep those garments close, especially when I am far away.
The Shetland lace shawl arrived in plenty of time for the wedding, although, as we watched the weather forecast, it seemed increasingly unlikely that I would need it to keep warm. Regardless, I was determined to wear that shawl even if it was 90 degrees outside, if only for a few pictures. As luck and stress would have it, and in characteristic fashion, I got a nasty cold that nearly steamrolled me the day or so before the wedding–its all a little hazy now. What I do remember is waking up the morning of my wedding feeling miserable, but determined to enjoy the day. And, as if my mom had planned it, it was not hot and humid like the forecast had been threatening; it was a perfect, cool, stormy day, right out of an Irish fairy tale. My favorite kind. By the time we got to the venue and were ready to go, I was ignoring the cold and feeling amazing, wrapped in the shawl that reminded me of the grandmother who could not be there, and the mother who was still taking care of me and knows me better than myself.
I realize now that this was supposed to be a post about the history of Shetland Lace and wedding shawls in particular. Clearly, it wanted to be something else. But, I do want to showcase the amazing work of Sheila Fowlie, who made my shawl, and the other women who continue to knit traditional Shetland lace in the Isles.
All Shetland lace work begins with Shetland sheep–at least, the traditional garments do. Nowadays, you can use almost any type of yarn with these patterns if you adapt them. These sheep, however, are as much a part of the island as the patterns and the women who make them. They are an ancient breed, part of a group known as North Atlantic Short Tailed Sheep which were spread through the area by the Vikings. These sheep have double coats, and it is their incredibly soft inner coat that is used to make the lace-weight yarns. Most Shetland lace is done with a single-ply yarn, historically often much finer than modern lace-weights.
The history of lace-making on the islands is a bit sketchy, largely because it was an activity of the peasant class, who did not leave written records behind. The only early examples of lace knitting that we have were those made from silk or linen–which survives longer than wool–and the few preserved in acidic peat bogs. Written records begin in the 1830s, when wealthy tourists began to travel to the islands and record their observations. The women of the Shetland islands, themselves, only ever wore shawls meant for everyday working life, called haps. They were knit from a heavier, two-ply yarn from the same sheep, and were less intricately patterned than the fancy shawls Shetland is now known for. Haps were usually large, rectangular shawls with a center panel done in garter stitch, surrounded by a border of feather and fan lace or ‘Old Shale.’ In the nineteenth century, the Islanders were struggling to survive in dire poverty on the periphery of the British empire. Tourism, and the production of lace goods for sale, became a life-line for many families, especially during the difficult winters. Luckily for them, in terms of survival anyways, Queen Victoria was made aware of their work, fell in love with the beautiful shawls, and made Shetland lace fashionable throughout England and beyond. She commissioned garments for both herself and to give as gifts, and many other wealthy women followed suit. The Shetland islanders became astute businesswomen, designing patterns that were simple to make, but looked extremely complicated–the more complicated a design looked, the more she could charge for the work, even if it did not take more time to complete than other patterns. These shawls remained popular–and lace-making an essential cottage industry on the islands–throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Nowadays, lace-making in Shetland has a mixed heritage. There is tremendous pride in the craft, but it remains a reminder of great poverty and grueling labor to some. It is only relatively recently that it has been picked up again, that islanders have realized that they must preserve their traditions and carry them forward into the next generations.
Sheila Fowlie, with her company Shetland Lace Shawls, is one of many women on the island carrying on the tradition. It was this lovely lady who made my wedding shawl, and you can find many different patterns to choose from on her website. For more information on the history of lace-making in the Shetland islands, and for patterns and projects, look no further than the 2012 book, A Legacy of Shetland Lace, by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers. This book was compiled entirely by women on the island, and so provides information on the craft and its traditions from the islanders themselves. And, of course, there are countless other books and patterns on Ravelry for those interested in designing and making their own. One of the wonderful things about Shetland lace is that, once you learn the relatively simple stitches and the traditional construction of the shawls, you can begin to design your own.
I have always loved both lace and cabled knitting patterns, and particularly those that combine many different stitches to form unique garments. The idea of choosing stitches not only for their looks, but to tell a story or to represent a family, has always delighted me. Below are some of the traditional stitches used by the Shetland knitters in their shawls. Like with most crafts, the names for the stitches came after the stitches themselves–women did not set out to make a stitch that resembled a horseshoe, they simply recognized the image in the shape of knots and holes. For this reason, although some consensus has developed, not all knitters know the same stitch by the same name.
The names of the stitches, then, also tell a story about the lives of these women. ‘Old Shale,’ ‘Cat’s Paw,’ ‘Fern,’ ‘Bead,’ ‘Tree of Life’–all of these images came from the world around them, on their small, isolated islands in the North Atlantic. ‘Cat’s Paw’ is a particularly popular stitch, and it is used as a single motif, in vertical lines, or as an overall pattern throughout a garment. My own wedding shawl is a combination of blocks of ‘Cat’s Paw’ and ‘Bead,’ surrounded by a scalloped border. ‘Old Shale,’ on the other hand, was traditionally used as the border on haps, with their central panel of garter stitch, while ‘New Shell’ was frequently used to decorate the tops of stockings.