The Book of Haps edited by Kate Davies and Jen Arnall-Culliford

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Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

I’m a little late to the party as far as the knitting revival goes, but better late than never.

I grew up in Shetland at a time when girls were automatically taught how to knit at school because it was still a common way for women to supplement the household income. Due in part to the oil industry, and also to changing fashions, the economic imperative to knit steadily diminished and with it people’s desire to do so.

In many ways things have come full circle now, but with one important difference; these days knitters are more likely to be designers too, and they have far more control over their work and what they get paid for it.

It took thirty years for me to rediscover the joys of knitting (I was seduced by a beautiful array of yarn in a shop, and one significant purchase later it seemed like I’d better re learn how) and my progress is slow, but it’s an unexpectedly addictive hobby. Less unexpected are the book buying opportunities that go with it.

Initially books like this intimidated me, but I’ve followed Kate Davies’ blog for a while and not only enjoy her writing, but found the concept of this project particularly interesting. For those who hadn’t been eagerly anticipating this book for months, didn’t follow each design as it was revealed online, and might never have heard the word before, a hap (and I need to be careful here because this is contentious) is something most people might recognise as a shawl. The difference is hard to pin down but in Shetland terms a shawl suggests something done in the very finest lace, a hap is a practical, everyday, working, garment.

The Book of Haps has 13 designs by 13 different designers all of whom have managed to take radically different approaches to what a hap can look like. The verb to hap appears in English and Scottish dialects from the 14th century, meaning to enfold, to cover, and to warm, and I assume this was the starting point because each design would do exactly that.

Kate’s own design (Moder Dy) is the most traditional, the colourway is contemporary and the size probably a little larger than historic examples, but it’s construction is authentic ‘borders in’ and it looks comfortingly familiar – the book would not be complete without a ‘proper’ Shetland hap. From there on in however the other twelve designers have had free reign for their imaginations and the results are stunning.

In truth however almost all of them look well beyond my current skill level – so why would a novice knitter buy a book like this? The answer, apart from it being good to have something to work towards, is that this is more than a book of patterns. The first part of the book deals with the history of Haps, and to some degree the history of knitting in Shetland. It’s a complex story, and it’s also predominantly a story about women. There is one chapter in particular; ‘Knitting the tree of life’ that really illustrates this. It examines one famous pattern, known by a variety of names, and the meaning it’s acquired for those who have either knitted it or been gifted the result.

The Book of Haps only scratches the surface (it’s an open invitation for more research) but it does it with such warmth, and manages to cover so much in the limited space available that anyone with even a passing interest in either knitting, or women’s history or creativity should give it a look.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader. She has so far mastered knitting rectangles.

Kate Davies and Jen Arnall-Culliford, ed.s, The Book of Haps (Kate Davies Designs, 2016), 978-0957466630, 120pp., paperback