A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book In Colour

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

This is the second book from the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers. The first one was A Legacy of Shetland Lace which is a tremendous book for anyone with the faintest interest in knitting or the history and culture of Shetland.

A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book is a somewhat different proposition; basically it’s a facsimile of two original graph books of patterns with slightly obscure beginnings. Guild member Kathleen Anderson acquired them some years ago from the son of the knitwear manager for Anderson & Co. As someone who primarily knitted lace she hadn’t given them much attention until the guild started talking about producing a book on Fair Isle. When the guild as a whole got a look at the books with a view to incorporating some of the patterns into the original Fair Isle project it seems the decision was quickly taken that they deserved their own book.

Unlike Shetland lace patterns – which if they were recorded, were recorded in the briefest of written abbreviations – charted collections of Fair Isle patterns have been around for quite a while, but generally they’re in black and white giving no clue to what the garments might have looked like.

These graph books are in full, glorious, colour. They date primarily from the 1930s and 40s and had belonged to Bill Henry who was in charge of hosiery at Anderson and Co in the mid 20th century. It’s not clear if he collected the patterns himself, but they would have reflected the kind of Fair Isle knitting the company bought from self employed knitters. Nor is it clear what they were used for: it’s possible that they were intended as specific instructions for knitters (though in that case knitted samplers, which were commonly used, would seem more practical). It’s also possible that the books were a record of interesting patterns or colour ways that passed through Anderson & Co, or simply a creative exercise. To me they look like someone’s working notebooks.

Seeing the patterns here is a revelation. There are traditional combinations of colours which would have been available with natural dyes, and straight off the sheep, but as by the 1930s pre dyed wool in all manner of colours was cheaply available there are also combinations I might never have guessed at. There’s also the chance to trace a change in fashions, and the effect the war had on knitwear design – for example a swastika motif that appears early in the collection isn’t recorded in Shetland knitwear after the mid 1930s. The Norwegian star motifs are also particularly interesting in this respect, they are devices which would probably have been seem by Shetland knitters before WWII, but the influx of Norwegian sailors during this time really boosted their popularity, they’ve been a feature of yolks, on gloves, and in all-over patterns ever since.

Dr Carol Christianson’s introduction is excellent for putting the graph books into context, and holding this book I feel like I’ve got something really significant in my hands. As a design source it’s a lovely thing to have, and one which is certainly going to encourage me to be bolder with some of my colour choices. It’s also really helpful as a guide for how to put patterns together. But it’s more than just a source book, it’s also an incredibly vivid historical document which gives an insight into how one small part of the past might have looked.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader

Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book In Colour (Shetland Times, 2016). 978-1910997086, 100pp., paperback.

A Shetlander’s Fair Isle Graph Book is available to order from the Shetland Times bookshop.