Shetland Handknits

A Brief History of Shetland Knitwear

Sweater drying in a Lerwick lane
Sweater drying in a Lerwick lane.
Courtesy Shetland Museum.

The Shetland Islands are remote, and often cold and windswept. The inhabitants have made their living over the centuries through fishing, crofting and knitting, both for themselves and to exchange or sell.

It was the Norse settlers in the 9th. century who brought the native sheep to Shetland. A hardy breed which lived off the sparse vegetation and seaweed, their wool was woven into a cloth called Wadmal. But the texture of Shetland wool - soft, light and warm was more suited to knitting than weaving, so knitting became the main craft of the Islands and a significant part of the economy.

During the 17th. and 18th. centuries, a trade in stockings was established with the Hanseatic merchants and the Dutch fishermen. The Bishop Holar of Iceland received part of his rents in knitted stockings, so these became the mainstay of the Shetland hosiery trade.

Women. who ran the croft and home, knitted whenever time allowed. It was not an uncommon sight to see a woman knitting as she carried peats in a 'kishie or basket from the peat bank to her croft house.

The fine, delicate Shetland lace was popular with the Victorians. Even Queen Victoria herself wore lace stockings made in Shetland. Lace shawls became world-famous for their quality and were much sought after by ladies of society.

The Islands' other form of traditional knitting developed during the 19th. century. By 1850 the knitters on Fair Isle were famous for their brightly coloured, patterned knitwear, reputedly influenced by Spaniards shipwrecked on Fair Isle in 1588. Originally Fair Isle knitting used the natural colours of the Shetland sheep, whilst local plants and lichens were used to create soft but intense shades of yellow, orange and green. Indigo dye produced blue and madder added red to the mix. Fair Isle knitting has only two colours in any one row and the stranded knitting provides great warmth. Traditionally the patterns are bands of octagons and crosses, called OXO patterns, with bands of small or peerie patterns in between.

This tradition and skill has been handed down from generation to generation and still today the garments produced are of the highest quality. This quality is now guaranteed by the 'Shetland Lady' trademark which you will find on all REAL Shetland knitwear.

Published by Shetland Knitwear © 2000

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