Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
The Vintage Shetland Project has had quite a journey into print, one that I’ve followed with interest for the last 3 years from when I first heard about it and subscribed to the crowd funding campaign to get it published.
It was 2015, I’d finally given in to the idea of Instagram, and was starting to get really interested in knitting both for the social history it represented and the creativity that goes into it. Instagram pointed me towards Susan Crawford who had already produced a couple of books that recreated vintage knitting patterns and was now working on garments from the Shetland Museums collection.
The idea was to focus on 25 garments that Crawford found particularly interesting, literally read them stitch by stitch, then work out how to size the patterns up so they could be made in a variety of sizes. One reason for doing this is that these objects are fragile, some coming into the collection in an extremely well worn, cut down, or otherwise damaged state. So much so in some cases that they’re unlikely to ever be openly displayed – thoroughly documenting these things is one way to preserve them, actually recreating them is arguably another*.
To allow for the most accurate recreation possible, Crawford has also developed two ranges of yarn which replicate the weight used in, and the colours of, the original garments. This is more than an impressive attention to detail, it also answers the questions I had about why vintage knitwear I’d seen from the 1930’s looked and felt different to modern knitwear made with Shetland wool.
At this point all was looking good for The Vintage Shetland Project. The yarn was in place, the patterns chosen, the research coming together, and the funding flooding in. The crowd funder was such a success that Crawford expanded the original scope of her project and added 2 more patterns. Expansion plans delayed publication, as did a breast cancer diagnosis – so when this book finally arrived the excitement of finally seeing it was augmented by knowing that it meant a comprehensive return to health for the author.
After so much anticipation I wasn’t at all sure if the book could possibly meet expectations, but in the end it’s totally exceeded them. The knitwear is beautiful; the items chosen were made for the knitters or their families, rather than for sale, so tell much more of a story about the individual’s taste and fashion sense, and they are fashionable items. The range is tremendous as well, there are very traditional all over jumpers, but there are shapes and pattern combinations that are unexpected too. It’s fascinating just as a record of what people wore.
For me though, the best part of the book is the essay section. I cannot overstate how exciting I find Shetlands textile history, or how much I think it’s a story that needs telling from every possible angle. There’s a lot to explore there and Crawford does explore it. She’s found the work of the previously forgotten Lysbeth Henry who was documenting the lace patterns being used by Shetland knitters at the end of the 19th century. She recognises the design skills of specific knitters, looks at the personal stories behind some of the garments, explores the significance of ‘Norwegian’ stars and other motifs. She sets domestic and commercial hand Knitting in to a historic fashion context – and so much more.
This is a really important book in so many ways. It’s been a labour of love, opens up all sorts of avenues for further research, and is a treasure trove of images. It’s a tremendous achievement and an important step forward in recognising the skill and creativity of generations of Shetland women.
*Although it’s not an argument I’d make.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Susan Crawford, The Vintage Shetland Project (Susan Crawford Vintage, 2018) 978-09572286-1-0, 472pp., hardback
Book and yarn are available from www.susancrawfordvintage.com