Part Second: Where sheep watch the sea.

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.

Fleece at the Woolbroker’s. Lerwick, Shetland.

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.

View from the sixteenth-century laird’s house at Jarlshof looking towards Sumburgh Head, the southern point of the Shetland Isles. Learn more about the 4,ooo years of human history excavated at the mind-blowing Jarlshof archeological site here.

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.

Jamieson and Smith
Jamieson and Smith. Center: Kathy Peoples, Deb Totten, and myself. Right: Deb chatting with the lovely ladies of J & S, Ella and Sandra.
Shetland's 2013 wool clip begins to arrive at the Woolbroker's (Jamieson and Smith) to be sorted.
Shetland’s 2013 wool clip begins to arrive at the Woolbroker’s (Jamieson and Smith) to be sorted.
One of Elizabeth Johnston's beautiful handspun hats that I am smitten to call my very own.
One of Elizabeth Johnston’s beautiful handspun hats that I am smitten to call my very own.

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 at home, holding one of the first garments she knit as a child.

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.

Peats cut and piled for drying.

To learn more:
Shetland Museum and Archives
Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World by Lynn Abrams
Shetland Arts and Crafts Trail

Part First: The traveller returneth.

“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!



Stirling13_1While 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.

Walking from the main courtyard and out through what might have been an earlier main entrance into the castle, you can see a row of low stone buildings. At the end is the Tapestry Studio.
© Crown Copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland.
“The unicorn is killed and brought to the castle.” Tapestry woven for Historic Scotland by College of West Dean, London. Wool, pearl cotton. © Crown Copyright reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland.

Stirling13_4The 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.

Sunsets and Sweaters on Kihnu Island.

Estonia 330-002In 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.

Estonia 326-001
When we were not biking, we travelled by truck. Perfect for all the beautiful sunny weather.
Estonia 350-002
My wonderful friend Susan Markle knitting in Kihnu Roosi’s front garden.

DSCN2310-001Kihnu 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!!

The pattern was published in Knitting Sweaters from Around the World (Voyageur Press, 2012.)
My husband, Olaf, looking very northern European in my handknit Troi. I used Elemental Affects fingering weight yarn.
My husband, Olaf, looking very northern European in my handknit Troi. I used Elemental Affects fingering weight yarn on a US #2 needle.

Common Dress

Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900. Joan Severa. Kent State University Press 1995.

I have a fairly short list of things without which my life would be greatly diminished–such as sheep, tea, travel, textiles, and books (not necessarily in that order.) The very best is when more than one not-to-be-without item can be found in one place. Tea drinking sheep, perhaps not. Historical textile books with a unique perspective on material culture, yes! I found Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900 at my wonderful local library branch, Kennedy Library in Muncie, IN.

In looking at old photographs, I always have a great awareness of how much information is held within the photo–and how much of that information is inaccessable to me. A full understanding of the broad historical context of the sitter, in addition to the minutia of daily life and dress, is needed to truly unlock the secrets of an old daguerreotype. There are certainly aspects that are always left unknown. Did the sitter borrow clothing or wear her own? Did the photographer rearrange her shawl or does she typically wear it as photographed? But how a sleeve is cut or a bonnet trimmed can tell us so much about the social context and personality of the sitter. One of my favourite photos from the book is by photographer Charles Van Schaick (pg. 513.) The image is of a Norwegian couple in La Crosse, Wisconsin, walking along a storefront surrounded by town life. The woman strides out ahead of her husband with a sure step and gives the camera a level gaze. On her manner of dress, Severa shares “The entire costume has an ‘Old Country’ flavor not in its cut and fashion but in how it is worn. For one thing, she wears the mannish hat in an uncompromising manner, without any trimming whatsoever, which, in the New World, certainly marks its wearer as ‘different.'” I would love to have met this uncompromising, un-corseted woman.

Dressed 2
Book is broken in to sections covering each decade from 1840-1900.

This book is like having costume expert Joan Severa sitting with you, looking over photos and filling in the gaps. I have learned so much and have not gotten through half of this tome of nearly 600 pages. So, if you have requested this book at the Muncie Public Library, you will just have to wait a while longer–I’m not done yet!

Rebuilding Judith’s Studio

Judith collecting lichens for the dyepot. Orcas Island, Feb 2012.

The effort to help Judith MacKenzie rebuild her studio following the fire in Forks, WA, is well underway. I delayed posting this until I had plenty of info. I have met two of the three wonderful people who have created this website and they (all three) are an important part of Judith’s network in the northwest. As many of you know, Judith is not one to ask for help, but she does know about this relief effort and the organizers are working with her to determine her needs. It was a horrible fire—I am so thankful we are talking about replacing looms and no lives were lost.

Judith has been a tremendous force in my life and I am happy to have a way to help in the rebuilding of her textile studio. 

Visit Rebuild Judith’s Studio to make a donation, add an item to the online auction, or leave a note for Judith.

Wherein Tess of the d’Urbervilles meets Jane Austen.

Photo by Christa Tippmann

I often name my sheep after characters in the books I am reading at the time they are born—Gudrun and Gerald from Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence, Jude and Sue from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and Marcel is named after Monsieur Proust, of course! As a huge Thomas Hardy fan, I also have a Tess.

I recently had an article published in the new issue of Jane Austen Knits (Interweave Press Summer 2012) about Leicester sheep during the Regency period, and I included a picture of Tess!

Tess is one of my most beautiful ewes with strong Border Leicester characteristics. She has a pronounced “roman nose”, or bow-shaped head, typical of both Border and Bluefaced Leicesters. She has a curly, lustrous fleece and a sturdy stance.

Tess at 2 months old.

Unlike Hardy’s heroine, my Tess is convinced she is not only the master of her own fate, but everyone else’s as well. She guards the other sheep in her group and does her best to lead them to the greenest pastures.

Tess at 9 months old. Yes, she is actually sticking her tongue out at me!
Tess in January 2012. Haughty as ever.

Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in 1798 that included news of their father’s flock. “. . . I am likewise to tell you that one of his Leicestershire sheep, sold to the butcher last week, weighed 27 lb. and 1/4 per quarter.” Sheep carrying the Leicester name in Jane’s day were undergoing changes that would influence the as yet uncharted field of genetics for generations. A Leicestershire farmer named Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) began improving the sheep on his farm in the English Midlands. Bakewell developed a new breed, which he called the Dishley Leicester or New Leicester, through his own system of selection, now called Line Breeding. Bakewell would eventually become one of the most noteworthy figures in the history of animal husbandry.

I just love learning about the long and circuitous history of the sheep that graze outside my windows as I write. I can imagine Jane Austen looking up occasionally from her work to see her father’s flock grazing on the grounds of their home at Steventon Rectory.

Photo by Christa Tippmann

I designed Mrs. Smith’s Tea Cozy to accompany my article, “Leicester Sheep in Jane Austen’s England.” Using my own handspun Border Leicester for the pattern was very exciting! Both shades are natural color. The white wool is actually from Tess, because it was just more fun that way! I based the pattern on Regency era pinballs, or pincushions. You can see some great examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection here and here.

Yarnbomb the Indiana State Museum!

The Indiana State Museum is going to be yarnbombed! Swift is participating in the creation of ephemeral fiber objects that will be scattered through the museum. Here is a preview of what I have planned:

Does Kate even own US 13 knitting needles?!

The Indianapolis Crochet Guild also has some great pieces planned—I can’t wait to see what everyone has contributed. The objects will be installed just in time for Memorial Day Weekend and will be on exhibit through June 30, 2012. Go check it out!

Did you know that June 9th is International Yarnbombing Day? So look around your neighborhood—you never know where stealthy knitters might turn up!

Spin-Off Magazine Spring 2012

The new issue of Spin-Off has finally arrived- and my new pattern is on the cover! An article on how I prepared the dyed locks of wool for worsted spinning is also included.

Spinning the handpainted Polwarth locks from Rovings and a silk/Merino blend dyed in a beautiful golden color by Abstract Fibers was a treat indeed!