This is the third and final installment about my 2013 trip to Scotland, Shetland, and Norway.
We left Shetland and took the short flight to Bergen in western Norway on Midsummer’s Eve. Our hotel was near the university, which has a fantastic museum with a number of knitted artifacts on exhibit. I was surprised to see a few of them were pieces I had studied closely in some of my favourite knitting books, and I greeted them like old friends. (Like the sweater on page 14 of Susanne Pagoldh’s Nordic Knitting.) The museum’s permanent collection includes the earliest knitted fragment found in Norway to date. I was rapturous when I saw that it was included in the current exhibit. The fragment has been dated to the early sixteenth century. Translating the placard, I learned that it is knit in stockinette stitch using 2-ply wool, which was plied S (left). It appears to be fulled and is about 10 sts to the inch. The fragment was discovered during excavation in Bergen’s historic Bryggen area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since Bergen was a historically important trading port, determining whether this piece originated in Norway is difficult. I can’t share a picture of this lovely artifact, but here are some images from Bergen. Click on any image to open the gallery.
Bergen’s train station.
Looking towards Bryggen from the Fish Market
Gardens near the university.
I spent a blissful day at the Norsk Folkemuseum once we arrived in Oslo. Months before the trip, I arranged to visit the collections at the museum and selected a number of artifacts that I would like to see. When I arrived at the museum on a bright, sunny morning, I was met by the collections manager, Heidi.
Here is an example of the artifacts I was so very lucky to see. You can find these gloves (and more) on the digitaltmuseum.no database, and they are currently part of a new knitting exhibit at the Folkemuseum. These fingervanter (gloves) (NF.1901-0502AB) are particularly fine and well-preserved examples of fulled and embroidered handcoverings from the Telemark region. They were added to the museum collection in 1901. They are woolen—knitted and intensely fulled, with added cuffs of fulled cloth.
Do these gloves set your heart racing, too? One of the reasons I wanted to take a closer look at this particular pair is that there appeared to be several types of woolen embroidery thread used, and that is indeed the case. The elaborate Telemark-style patterns on the back of the hand are done with matte, 3 (or more) ply yarn, and the embroidered initials are done with a silky, 2-ply yarn. Itching to make your own? I wrote an article for the summer 2014 issue of Spin-Off about these yarns, their history, and how to spin your own. In the meantime, allow me to show you my favourite corner of the internet.
Step 1: Connect to NRK Folkemusikk, the Norwegian Broadcasting Company’s folk music station. (Also available through iTunes.) Step 2: Dive into the collections at digitaltmuseum.com.
This is the second of a three part story about my recent trip to Scotland, Shetland, and Norway.
I’ve read a fair number of essays about a traveler’s first impressions of the Shetland Isles. Many of these begin, quite reasonably, with the surprise one experiences in suddenly popping out of a cloud in a tiny tossing plane and seeing jewel-green islands crisscrossed by stone walls directly below. Once on the ground, there is the usual bustle of luggage gathering, car hiring, and map pointing. But my first trip to Shetland truly began in Scalloway, looking out towards the sea. It was here that I stopped moving long enough to experience the place—the Shetland that endures through ages and empires. When traveling, that moment of first meeting always reminds me of the stillness that is cultivated in Buddhist meditation between the intake of breath and its release. In stillness, we can feel the pulse of history. Scalloway, as the capitol of the Shetland Isles until 1708, is an appropriate place to begin.
I was keenly interested to see what the sheep of the Shetland Isles would look like. I have seen Shetland sheep in many areas of the United States and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but not in the place that gives them their name. The sheep I saw in traveling from the southern tip of the mainland to the most northerly tip of Shetland, and island called Unst, varied as widely as I had imagined. I also had a chance to talk to a number of people about the sheep in Shetland and how they have changed over time. For a fairly small land mass (less than half the size of the state of Rhode Island) it has a varied terrain and complex geology. It makes sense that rocky grazing areas exposed to the raw weather that comes off the sea would require hardy sheep if those sheep are not only to survive, but produce offspring. In areas that are better protected from the elements and where supplemental feed might be provided at times, sheep that are more delicate can produce spring lambs and a fleece to be shorn around Midsummer.
Shetland sheep have a wide range of fleece types. Fleeces can vary not only from animal to animal, but can also differ substantially from nose to tail. To make matters more complicated, even this inconsistency is inconsistent! This is one of the reasons that many people around the world are so intrigued and devoted to these very special sheep. It was heartening to hear from the Shetlanders themselves how they feel about the sheep that are so ever-present in their lives. There are sheep almost everywhere you turn in Shetland. They are found grazing along the roadsides, speckling the green hills as far as one can see, and (my favourite) resting on rocky outcrops gazing placidly out to sea.
Shearing season had only just begun when we visited the Woolbroker’s, known to knitters as Jamieson & Smith. Oliver, who is described as “top wool man” and manager at J & S, gave us a tour through the wool sorting facility in Lerwick. Then, of course, we made our way to the yarn shop and were never seen again. No, not really. We did re-emerge, as it was time for tea and scones, but we returned a number of times through the course of the week.
I also had the opportunity to spend time with two Shetlanders well-known in the knitting world. Early in my visit, I was able to spend a day with spinner and knitter Elizabeth Johnston. I have never been able to catch her when she teaches at John C. Campbell Folk School, so I was excited to meet her in Shetland. Elizabeth welcomed us to her home for an unforgettable day filled with wool and many cups of tea. Elizabeth knits traditional Shetland pieces, from haps (warm shawls, often square) to jumpers (sweaters or pullovers), using her handspun. She uses the full range of natural color that the Shetland sheep are known for and also uses natural dye stuffs to produce brilliant, complex shades. Visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more about her work. She does take commissions, so you too can have a Shetland treasure!
Hazel Tindall is also known far and wide for her tremendous textile skills. She is not only one of the world’s fastest knitters, but is a lovely person as well! You can see Hazel knitting here and here. Hazel is active on Ravelry and Facebook, but has also recently launched a website where you can find her beautiful knitting patterns and blog. She also had several of her patterns included in A Legacy of Shetland Lace, which was written by members of the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers, and Dyers.
Shetland is so vibrant and complex, I can only just begin to tease out the threads of cultural identities amid the vastness of human history. And so I simply must return, soon. But for the time being, I was off to Norway… Stay tuned.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” –Marcel Proust
This is the first of three posts about my 2013 trip to Scotland, Shetland, and Norway.
For me, one of life’s greatest joys is in revisiting corners of the world I have previously explored. This has always struck me as a bit of a paradox. Travel—seeking new landscapes and horizons—plays an important role in my life, but retracing my footsteps is an almost sacred undertaking. To return to a place that has a life of its own in my absence and to think over the changes in myself since my last visit is an intense journey in and of itself. One such place for me is Edinburgh, Scotland. When I was working on my undergraduate degree at Purdue, I had the opportunity to study for a year at Lancaster University in the north of England. I loved taking the train up to Edinburgh on weekend trips, usually staying at Castle Rock Hostel. I have been back to visit Edinburgh several times since, always finding new corners to explore along with my old favourites. I’ve only just returned from an adventure that started in Edinburgh before heading to the Shetland Isles and Norway with my traveling friends Susan Markle and Kathy Peoples. We met up with Deb Totten once we arrived in Shetland. Traveling with fellow spinners and knitters is great. I never have to explain why visiting a woolen mill or off-the-track heritage center is of the utmost importance!
While staying in Edinburgh, we took a day to make the very easy trip to Stirling Castle. Again, this was a journey I have made a number of times before. When I was at Uni in 2000, an Historic Scotland guide mentioned to me that some of the castle apartments were due to be renovated to look as they would have during the time of James V. When I visited in 2004, the apartments were not yet open to the public, but the first of an epic series of tapestries had been completed and was on view. A tapestry studio had recently been constructed within the castle walls where weavers from the College of West Dean were working away on a new tapestry. This was about the time I was beginning to find my place in the textile world and watching the weaver sitting at the tapestry, the way that she interacted with the fabric as her fingers danced through the warp threads, made a lasting impression. She, as weaver and creator, had an intense relationship with the tapestry. And yet the tapestry would go on to have a life of its own, lasting far beyond that of its human creators.
The Stirling Castle tapestry series has been an immense undertaking, taking two to four years for each of the seven works to be woven and a total budget of about £2 million. The College of West Dean in London was commissioned in 2001 to weave seven tapestries, recreating the Hunt of the Unicorn that is now in the collection of the Cloisters Museum in New York. These are not the same tapestries that would have hung in the Stirling Castle apartments, but researchers are confident that the royal household owned a similar series of tapestries during this time period. The unicorn, as a symbol of Christ, was a common subject for sixteenth and seventeenth century art. To learn more about the pieces and see fantastic, mind-blowing images of the original sixteenth century tapestries, check out the online collections at the Cloisters.
And then I was off to Shetland, where I met many sheep, touched many fleeces, and totally indulged myself with endless tea and biscuits… Check back for another installment next week.
In 2011, I had the good fortune to be part of a textile tour of Estonia led by Nancy Bush. I had traveled a fair swath of Europe and the UK previously–as far south as Crete and as far north as the enigmatic Old Man of Wick at the northern tip of Scotland–but the Baltic region was a totally new adventure. My friend Susan Markle and I also spent several days in Helsinki, Finland, to complete our three-week Finno-Ugrian expedition. We arrived in early June, so the weather was beautiful. It was sunny and warm nearly every day. The lilacs were blooming in every direction, and I learned that in Estonia, “white nights” near the summer solstice means that the golden sunset lingers through until morning.
Each day was packed with unforgettable food, new friends, and vivid textiles. The most memorable part of the trip for me was our time on Kihnu, a small island that lies not far off the southeast coast of Estonia in the Bay of Riga. We stayed at the Tolli Turismitalu, where I slept in a traditional log barn with a thatched roof. It was perfect. I didn’t sleep much while I was there, as I watched the sun not quite set over the bay only a few hundred feet away.
Kihnu has a unique men’s sweater tradition. The Kihnu Troi, as the sweater is called, is knit using the color-stranding technique in white on a dark background. Indigo-dyed blue was typically used in the past. Black, brown, and occasionally green are used, with black being the most common color of the modern Troi sweaters that I have seen in shops and displays in Estonia. Many sweaters also incorporate red bands into the hem, cuffs, and neck edge, which is believed to help protect the wearer from danger. When the sweaters were newly knit, they were worn to weddings and special events. As the sweater aged, it was used as a work garment and is often associated with the island’s fishermen.
While in Estonia, I eagerly searched out every Troi I could find. With Nancy’s help, I was able to get a close look at three older examples in museum collections. I love looking inside old sweaters. One of my favourite Troi sweaters had armholes cut into the body and sleeves sewn in place with fine handspun linen instead of wool. From the ferry returning me to Helsinki, I watched Estonia fade into the distance. I pulled out my needles and began swatching and sketching a Troi sweater, incorporating all that I had learned in the past weeks–and here it is!!
One of my favourite things about traveling is revisiting places made familiar years earlier. I just returned from SOAR (Spin-Off Autumn Retreat) 2012, held at the Granlibakken Resort at Lake Tahoe, California. SOAR changes location each year and was last held at the Granlibakken in 2006, when I attended as a scholarship recipient. SOAR is a fast-paced, fiber-filled week of workshops. Experiencing SOAR for the first time that year, I was immediately swept into the current of the event. New people, fascinating conversations, fiber everywhere—and my first brushes with those individuals that would become, and forever be, my mentors.
Six textile-obsessed years later, the stars aligned and I was invited to participate in the 2012 event as a mentor. Amazed and thrilled, I was! Now that it has come and gone, I am left feeling as I usually do after SOAR—creatively energized and brimming with new and renewed friendships. I’m still digesting the experience, but here are some highlights:
Snow. When I arrived it was seventy degrees. By the next day, this is what was outside my window. It snowed for days and then the sun came out—spectacular!
Amy Clarke Moore, the lovely editor ofSpin-Off and Jane Austen Knits, took some pictures of my three-day workshop. My classroom was amazing: huge windows on three sides looking out into the snowy trees. We spent the afternoons knitting round the fireplace—really. I had so many wonderful people in my classes all week. I hope they had as much fun as I did!
Unexpected bonus: my colorwork bag was on the cover of the SOAR event booklet. Yay!
One of the high points of the experience was getting to know some of the other mentors a bit better. They are such an amazing group of interesting folks. Now back at home, I know that I will continue to carry the creative inertia of the SOAR community through my year.
Decorah, Iowa, has been on my Must See list for quite some time. Located in the hilly northeast corner of Iowa, Decorah is home to the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum. This extraordinary museum has over 24,000 artifacts in its collections, making it “the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group.” (Vesterheim)
For me, there is something so special about the moment I first step into a museum collections facility. The storage areas typically have a deep silence, are a bit dark, and are brimming with stories I have yet to learn. Laurann Gilbertson, Chief Curator at Vesterheim, gave me a wonderful introduction to the knitted pieces in the textile collection and allowed me to spend time looking over the artifacts at my own pace. I’ll share two of my favourites:
Often, the most important information we can gather from a knitted artifact is on the inside, or what a knitter would call the wrong side. This Fana Sweater (a style of sweater that is identified with Fana, Norway) has sleeves that are knit from the shoulder down. The longer stranded floats of yarn from the two-color knitted pattern are woven in, and the buttonholes have been carefully sewn by hand.
This glove and glove fragment were very densely knit in wool and then fulled, before being embroidered. The pattern is a beautiful rosemal design. While at the museum, I was also able to see some of the trunks that the immigrants brought from Norway, many of which are also painted in a rosemal design. The Vesterheim has some of the trunks featured in its online collection database. If only there were a few more hours in a day so I could learn more about embroidery, too! Alas.
The main museum also has a nice textile display and spinning wheels in nearly every room. The Fladager Library at the museum has an amazing collection of out of print knitting and weaving books in both English and Norwegian. Definately worth a trip!
I love travel—to be out in the world, brushing up against new places and new ideas. My latest adventure was to the Midwest Fiber and Folk Art Festival north of Chicago last weekend. I had a great time catching up with very dear friends, like John Mullarkey, and meeting new folks on the fiber trail, like Franklin Habit. If you have not visited Franklin’s blog, The Panopticon, I suggest you do! I stumbled upon it early in my blog-reading days and still love it. And the name—how clever and sly. What is a panopticon? Franklin explains it here. As a sociology student in England, I was blown away by Michel Foucault’s use of the panopticon as a sociological metaphor. Heavy stuff. However, Franklin’s book It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoonsis great fun and not nearly so dreary as Foucault!
And then I return to my studio and the sheep and the farm. I was able to spend this day balancing the weekend’s excitement with a quiet day of work. A day like this always makes me think of a quote from Sylvia Plath: “We stayed at home to write, to consolidate our outstretched selves.” This is what my consolidation process looked like today:
John C. Campbell Folk School has been on my To Do list for ages. Have you heard the stories, too? Life-changing weaving workshops, watercolor classes in the misty mountain mornings, new friends made during the fragrant, wooded walk to dinner.
I had the good fortune to be Judith MacKenzie’s assistant last week at the Folk School for her Spinning Recycled Materials workshop. We all had a blast! Everyone in the workshop did a great job and created an impressive range of yarns—from fine recycled cashmere yarns frosted with kid mohair to handpainted paper yarns.
You can see the studio windows beneath the porch in this photo. It is a beautiful, open room—it also happens to be stocked with spinning wheels, combs, cards, dyepots, and anything else you might need!