Knitting in Scotland: One Knitter’s Adventures
While people all over the world have knitted for a long time, certain regions have developed a distinctive knitting style or knitting culture. Kristen Orme had the chance to experience Scotland’s approach to knitting for more than 4 years. See what she found in this story from knitscene Fall 2014. If this intrigues you, the fresh-off-the-press Knitting Traditions 2017 explores further handmade Scottish history.
I’d successfully maneuvered my knitting through security, stowed my tray table, cast on some stitches with Cascade Yarns 220 Superwash, and enjoyed 8 straight hours with my airplane knitting project, the East Neuk Hoodie. This, you see, was an important plane ride: it brought me back to the United States after more than 4 years in Scotland. I’d left America as a yarn novice, a cautious knitter, only to return a proper knitwear designer with a wool obsession.
Upon moving to the United Kingdom, I quickly found myself submerged in Scotland’s knitting culture—working in an Edinburgh yarn shop, joining local knitting groups, teaching classes, and earning an MA in Fashion and Textile Design from Heriot-Watt University. Through these involvements, I learned that Scotland has an amazing support network for those involved in textiles.
I was dazed by the number of talented designers—Ysolda Teague, Kate Davies, Kat Goldin, to name a few—who call Scotland home. Scottish knitters and knitting firms are called upon by London-based designers for their expertise in development and production of handknitted designs both for fashion week and retail shops. The professional handknit designers of Scotland are balanced by a thriving knitting culture throughout the country.
Indie-dyed yarn, British-breed wool, patterns, local shops, and wool festivals can be found in Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as down the one-lane track roads of the Highlands and islands. Shilasdair, on the Isle of Skye, and other shops throughout the country act as hubs for local and traveling knitters. To live in Scotland was to be steeped in knitting. Organizations such as the U.K. Hand Knitting Association, local guilds and knitting groups, universities offering knitwear design programs, government organizations and grants, and of course shameless, rampant public knitting (on the bus or train, and in the pub or park) contributed to the long-running knitting culture in Scotland.
Intertwined with wool and craft, Scotland’s history is at the heart of this knitting culture. While large-scale sheep rearing was only introduced to Scotland in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the controversial Highland Clearances, wool has since become a pillar of Scottish industry. Even in the remote islands of Orkney and St. Kilda, activities such as carding, spinning, weaving, and knitting could provide families with a living.
Many families that were removed from their land to make way for sheep during the clearances flocked to the coastal fishing villages, and the surge in fishing gave rise to the gansey. In a time before Gore-Tex, densely knitted, 5-ply woolen ganseys kept fishermen dry, protected, and warm. Incredibly functional and decorative, these “jumpers” were also highly individualistic and personalized.
Every region of the United Kingdom from the Channel Islands to Shetland had its own versions, and rarely were these patterns written down. Women (and men) knitted intensely patterned ganseys from memory and shared their designs; many of these sweaters have stood the test of time and can be found in exhibits or private collections. From walks along the coastal paths between connected fishing villages such as Elie to Anstruther and beyond, we could see the quiet fishing culture was still very much alive and celebrated, and ganseys along with it.
Today in Scotland’s knitting community, ganseys are strongly appreciated and treasured, inspiring modern interpretation. Two of the knitwear firms I worked for incorporated gansey-work into their contemporary collections: Di Gilpin’s designs infused lacework with unique silhouettes, such as batwing sleeves, while ERIBÉ Knitwear played with pattern direction and introduced nontraditional fibers, such as cotton, into gansey-wear.
Working in knitwear, I had the rare and unique pleasure of interacting daily with knitters all over Britain. I would meet them through my day job, teaching, or at knitting events, such as the Edinburgh Yarn Festival. They came from such a mixture of backgrounds, ages, and knitting tastes, but one thing we all had in common was a set of fingers constantly itching to knit.
Upon leaving Scotland, which had very much become my home, I had to say goodbye to many knitters and faced intense anxiety: would I find another community of supportive and enthusiastic knitters? Would my experiences, events, and encounters become only a blurred recollection? As I bind off [my airplane sweater, however, I realize that it is my love letter to Scotland, a physical remnant of a season that has permanently transformed me. Now, weeks after that flight back, I brave the first day with a new knitting group. I am warmly welcomed, immediately at home, and of course, I spot a gansey.
Kristen Orme is a knitwear designer living in Portland, Oregon. Visit her online at www.kristenorme.com.
Knitting Traditions 2017 Explores More of Scotland