Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
Sharon Miller’s ‘Heirloom Knitting: A Shetland Lace Pattern Book’ had become almost a book of legend before this reprint made it readily available again (or still least it cost more than I could justify to buy a second hand copy, even though I really wanted to get my hands on it), so you can imagine my excitement when a copy landed on my doorstep.
I’d heard a lot about this book whilst it was out of print; commonly described as ground breaking, and a game changer, it caused a bit of disquiet when it was first published – all of which hints at the complicated history of knitting in Shetland.
Up until the 1970s, not knitting was something of a luxury in Shetland. Children learnt out of necessity to make garments to trade from a very young age. I say trade because, up until the Second World War, the ‘truck system’ was still very much in place: a deeply iniquitous practice that exploited generations of knitters who had little choice but to comply with it. The truck system was a particular way of trading. Merchants would ‘buy’ knitwear from knitters by exchanging it for goods such as tea, sugar, and ‘fancy items’ on a sort of token or credit system – often not what families needed or wanted, so in turn they had to try and barter these things for food from other families. Latterly children would basically knit for sweets. The traders also often provided the yarn which would then be deducted from the value of the knitted goods. Knitters were very rarely paid in cash, and equally rarely given anything like the true value of their work. It was a system that was officially prohibited in the 1830s and again sometime around the turn of the century, but in practice continued until the Second World War. Even after that there was a very strong feeling that knitters were still being exploited, being paid a fraction of what their work was being sold for, until well into the eighties, by which time there were other far better paid jobs available. This led to something of a crisis in the hand-knitting industry- in the last decade or so there’s been a renewed interest, because knitters can now work on their own terms, but there was a point when it really looked like a lot of skills would be lost, and certainly that chain of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next was broken. The best demonstration of the lingering resentment this left is that after the North Sea oil boom, a generation of woman, more or less, simply stopped knitting when other jobs opened up. Later on knitting was also dropped from school curriculums.
By the time Sharon Miller originally published Heirloom Knitting in 2002, the skills involved in creating the best Shetland lace were slowly disappearing, not least because generations of very experienced knitters hadn’t really written patterns down. Where they did exist they were often little more than a few lines of abbreviations, or alternatively, published patterns which consisted of very long lists of abbreviations. Neither are easy for the inexperienced knitter to follow.
What Miller did, and what made her book such a game changer, is that she looked at pieces in the archive collection and transposed those patterns into charts that are far easier to understand. She collected motifs, edging patterns, and all-over designs, explained potential ways to put them together, and built a collection of projects that create an instructive guide which will take the relative novice and (if they have the patience) eventually turn them into a very capable knitter indeed. She also explores the history of lace in Shetland.
The result is that this art form, and it is an art, became much more accessible to knitters everywhere, including that generation in Shetland who hadn’t learnt these skills as a matter of course (this includes the very talented jeweller, Helen Robertson, who knits a variety of objects in wire, and has described this book as her bible).
Even if you have no special interest in knitting, the history this book records is fascinating, but if you do have an interest, it’s a book you really want to have. The instructions, and charts, are easy to follow, the creative possibilities endless. Miller’s love for her subject not only shines through, it’s infectious. This is a fully revised and enlarged edition, complete with new research and conclusions about historic practice. It has a wonderful set of illustrations, and even if it was just a catalogue of designs it would be an invaluable thing to have.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader
Sharon Miller, Heirloom Knitting (Shetland Times, 2017). 978-1910997123, 300pp., paperback.
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