Photography by Joanna Hunter-Coe & Sarah Clarkson
Of the many things I’ve learned about knitting, there are almost as many kinds of knitters as there are techniques to learn about the craft. Many new knitters seem to focus only on the knitting, concentration fierce as they struggle with awkward grips on needles and how to tension yarn, throw or pick, and so on. Other knitters embrace knitting like a warm hug, finding the tradition as something comforting, secure in the knowledge that they are following in the footsteps of those who came before
As we evolve as knitters, so too does our awareness of and appreciation for the craft deepen. Our own methodical evolution as knitters is not unlike that of a traditional knitting technique – growing and changing as new hands and cultures pick up sticks and string and make them their own. For some knitters, that evolution includes learning as much as one can about a technique, adapting it to suit their own purposes, or even making it more modern through the use of new materials or tools.
Many of us come to knitting with the techniques passed down through families and within our culture, but what about the families we make for ourselves in our friendships and knitting groups? While my Lithuanian grandmother taught me how to knit, her teachings weren’t centred on any cultural or traditional specificities. Coming back to knitting later in life, much of what I’ve learned is through friends and fellow knitters. Often I’ve learned new stitches or techniques only as they were necessary for a particular project, and in my evolution as a knitter, I’ve learned there are so many styles and stitches that I’ve yet to stop discovering any new ones.
There’s a pride we knitters take in slow fashion, but what if you’re a really, really slow knitter? Do you find ways to knit faster? (I’m looking at you, continental knitting, of which I’ve not quite been able to master). Or work projects that make it seem like they’re moving more quickly? (Maybe stripes or stranded colourwork). Or do you find a different way?
It feels like my evolution has slowed as I take the time to dive deeper and learn more about each new skill – lingering on those that have more of an emotional pull than the others. Is there a cultural connection that calls to me, or is it merely the aesthetics that resonate? It feels like I bump up against some variation of these questions time and again, especially when run up against attitudes of surprise or amusement at the idea of anyone still knitting anything by hand.
And what about knitters for whom knitting is their business, their livelihood? These questions started to crossover with me on a visit to Shetland in 2017. While stranded colourwork is a tradition found in many knitting cultures, it is perhaps nowhere more prevalent or has greater awareness than in Fair Isle Knitting. Considerable credit is given to HRH Edward, the Prince of Wales (and later future King) who wore a Fair Isle jumper golfing and even had his portrait painted while wearing one. Just as the royals and celebrities inspire
trends in fashion now, so, too, did the prince’s painting in 1921 and Fair Isle jumpers became incredibly popular around the world
Machine knitting helped speed up the process for the Shetlanders, who traditionally knit the garments by hand. Machines helped them churn out garments more efficiently, while still hand-finishing and assembling pieces, to keep up with demand. On that visit to Shetland, I saw knitting machines still being used to create the traditional sweaters and something clicked within me. How did the innovation and use of the knitting machine influence the work of these traditional Shetland knitters? And could a knitting machine be the way to help this pokey knitter make things a little faster?
Joanna Hunter-Coe is the owner of Ninian, a Shetland knitwear company that sells stranded colourwork garments and accessories around the world. While Joanna considers her work Fair Isle in the traditional sense, she prefers not to put her designs in a box. Many of her designs are inspired by vintage garments and patterns passed down through the generations of her family, as well as interesting pieces found in the Shetland Museum and Archives.
I asked Joanna how tradition and innovation worked together in her collections. She told me that her business had always concentrated on machine knitting as she finds hand knitting too slow and doesn’t have the patience for it. She first knitted on her grandmother’s machine at the age of 7 and was shown both hand knitting and machine knitting processes by her grandmother. Says Joanna, “I like to look at my grandmother’s hand knitting and see how I can develop it on the machine. It can be an exciting process. She was an amazing teacher and a great inspiration. I’m sure I wouldn’t have chosen this career path if it hadn’t been for her.”
Machine knitting has also been an influence and integral part of the work of Sarah Clarkson of Woolly Originals. Born in Yorkshire, Sarah lives in Edinburgh and works on a knitting machine to create fabric for her custom made bags. Sarah also tends to think of her work as Fair Isle because she uses mainly Shetland wool from Jamieson’s of Shetland in her creations.>
“I chose to use Jamieson’s of Shetland wool as I wanted to use a yarn produced in Scotland. Originally, colours were more muted as plant dyes were used. But now there is a great range of colours. Jamieson’s use a heather dyeing technique so there may be up to 25 colours in one yarn! My Woolly fabric uses a full range of colours, some more natural and some bright depending on the design.” she explains.
Joanna, while inspired by some of the beautiful gradings in patterns and designs from vintage patterns, chooses not to stick with traditional colours in her garments and accessories, instead often clashing colours together. She also likes to work with solid colours, focusing on the texture of a piece.
“I’m not sure where I fit. I guess I don’t fit and I quite like that,” Joanna added when explaining how her projects have evolved from more traditional Fair Isle.
Talking about the intersection between tradition and innovation and whether it makes knitting modern, Joanna is practical in her outlook, “Tradition, for me, inspires everything and makes new, modern, and exciting ideas come to life. We’re always creating new traditions, they most definitely evolve over time.
Joanna’s designs at Ninian are contemporary, but inspired by tradition, using timeless shapes and working with colours in different and unusual ways. Joanna also prides herself on the quality of her garments, which are all made in Shetland and hand-finished – just as they’ve always been in the Fair Isle tradition.
Sarah, too, has brought innovation to her work by designing custom colourwork patterns for her bags. “All of my designs are my own. Each has a story behind it. Each has to be punched out on a punchcard that’s 24 stitches wide and 60 rows in length. Whilst some of my designs are quite traditional, such as my Saltire Star, which is based on the traditional Scandinavian Star motif, and the Scottish Saltire, others are more modern such as the Scott Monument which I designed from scratch.” A tradition that Sarah clings to is designing all of her patterns first with pencil and knitters graph paper.
Having begun my own tentative steps into exploring machine knitting (perhaps unconsciously influenced by that visit to Ninian in Lerwick), I was surprised to encounter the occasional comment from hand knitters who viewed machine knitting as “cheating”. I asked both Sarah and Joanna how they felt about the idea and whether or not it had changed their work in ways they didn’t expect. “It’s not as easy as it looks,” said Sarah. “And it is quite hard work.”
Joanna’s outlook circled back to her grandmother, “I was brought up with everyone around me knitting to help pay the bills. Many a house had a knitting machine, and they were a major source of income. The houses that didn’t have machines, hand knitted in yokes and finished – one couldn’t exist without the other. When my grandmother managed to buy a knitting machine, she could produce a huge amount of garments compared to by hand. In many respects, this was the difference of either having or going without, so I don’t see how that can be classed as cheating. I have also entered into this line of work as a career and I couldn’t produce garments in a price bracket which would sell and provide me with a living if I sold items knitted by hand; they would cost a fortune.”
As my exploration of tradition and innovation evolves, I can‘t help but wonder if I’ll ever have the skill to merge my own love of stranded colourwork with my increasing confidence on the knitting machine. Perhaps, with a little digging into my Lithuanian ancestry, I can innovate my own way forward. &
With thanks to Joanna Hunter-Coe of Ninian in Lerwick, Shetland, and Sarah Clarkson of Woolly Originals in Edinburgh.