I Thought I Knew How

A podcast about knitting
and life and all sorts

A podcast about knitting
and life and all sorts

Episode 003: Shetland

003: Shetland

Released: February 26, 2019

In this episode, Anne shares her trip to Shetland in July 2018.


The early days of knitting on Shetland have hazy beginnings. “Gunnister Man” died around 1700. He and his clothing were preserved by the peat he was buried in, including the earliest examples of knitted clothing found on the islands. A recreation of his knitted clothing and purse can be seen at the Tangwick Haa Museum.

Shetlanders were trading stockings to Dutch fisherman hundreds of years ago. Over time, the industrial revolution decreased demand for stockings and the knitting industry shifted to fine, open-work shawls in the mid-1800s. A photo of Edward, Prince of Wales, in a Fair-Isle sweater in 1921 popularized the style beyond the shores of Shetland, and it has continued to be a part of popular fashion to one degree or other since then. Excellent examples of both styles of knitting are available for view at the Shetland Museum and Archives and the Shetland Textile Museum.

A collection of fair-isle garments from various times, including a dress with a fair-isle top and plain skirt, a traditionally styled hat, a glove, and a cardigan of more contemporary design.
A few of the Fair-Isle pieces on display at the Shetland Textile Museum.

The Crofthouse Museum is a great place to get a sense of the conditions that many of the island knitters. For many years, these women were subject to the truck system in which they were paid for their goods with merchandise, typically tea.

Local Tools

Shetland Knitters came up with many creative ways to do their work. To simplify blocking, they came up with a system of stretching frames for shawls and jumper boards for sweaters. Both allowed the women to move the knitting out of the way while it was drying in the proper shape.

Two fair-isle sweaters on traditional Shetland jumper boards leaning against the outside wall of the Shetland Textile Museum.
Examples of Jumper Boards used to block Fair-Isle sweaters outside of the Shetland Textile Museum in Lerwick. This style of board would typically have been hung, here they are propped up against the wall with the help of some rocks.

A second ingenious invention was the knitting belt. This simple leather needle holder allowed knitters to keep control of their knitting while having to multitask. It also took the pressure off the right hand while they knit. Keep your eyes peeled at fiber festivals for a chance to give one a test drive.

Shetland MRI Scanner Appeal

Rather than having a sponsor on this episode, Anne would like to call your attention to the Shetland MRI Scanner Appeal. From their website:

“Over 600 patients from Shetland must travel south to have an MRI scan each year. MRI diagnostics are used to diagnose and monitor a wide variety of conditions and the number of patients who need them is steadily increasing. 

There can be delays in getting an MRI scan due to bad weather, transport delays and logistical problems in getting short notice appointments or one-stop clinics. There is also the challenge of making the journey itself, which can involve time off work, and impact on family life and child care at an already difficult time. “


There are many ways that you can contribute to the cause. Please visit their website and click on the yellow donate button at the top of the page to see their Fundraising Pack. It shows the many ways donations can be made, some at no direct cost to you. Planning to buy something from Amazon or eBay this week? Use their EasyFundraising link and the retailer will make a donation at no additional cost to you! There is information on ways to donate directly, host a fundraiser in person or online, and more! You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay aware of fundraising events as they arise. Get in touch–they would love to hear from you!

Personal Essay

The view through the window of an abandoned crofthouse on Bressay Island in Shetland.
The view through the window of an abandoned crofthouse on Bressay.

Anne shares the lesson she learned while on Shetland about the consoling power of history and place.

Yarn Shops

Yarn is not hard to find on Shetland. Most gift shops carry either knitted items or yarn or both. But there are two yarn producers on Shetland who have stores in Lerwick that you won’t want to miss.

Jamieson and Smith is a bit of a walk from the High Street area, but it’s an easy walk and they have large amounts of everything in stock. Plus, they take in fleeces from crofters right next door and you can take a peak to get a sense of just how much work goes from getting the “before” to the “after.”

Jamieson’s of Shetland has a storefront on the High Street, with all their yarns, plus woven cloth. Those who sew as well as doing yarn crafts shouldn’t miss it!

Both shops carry patterns, notions, hand-knit sweaters and more. If time permits, visit both. They each have their own special look and feel. Listen to the podcast for a more thorough description of each shop.

Recommended Books

If this episode piqued your interest in the history of Shetland knitting, some good follow-up books were mentioned in the episode. They are listed here, along with a few others:

Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting – This book has a general, but thorough, overview of Shetland’s knitting history. The rest of the book is patterns for several different sweaters, as well as designs for motifs and instructions to design your own fair-isle sweater.
Magical Shetland Lace Shawls to Knit – This book opens with a brief history of Shetland openwork knitting, and is then followed by a series of shawls inspired by or mimicking traditional Shetland shawls. There are projects at various knitting levels. It’s a good choice if you want a collection of patterns you can “grow into” as your experience level increases.
The Magic of Shetland Lace Knitting – This book by Elizabeth Lovick, the same author of Magical Shetland Lace Shawls to Knit, is a collection of the motifs common to Shetland openwork. It’s a must-have for designers! At the end of the book, Lovick applies the motifs to a series of modern projects. They would make great gifts for someone deserving of the effort!
Knitting by the Fireside and on the Hillside – If you wish to delve more deeply into the history of knitting on Shetland, this is the book. Linda G. Fryer takes readers into the society of the knitters and merchants involved with the hand knitting industry. You’ll get to know some of the knitters and merchants by name. A more scholarly work, but still an enjoyable read.

Featured Music

The first song featured was by Fjanna, a group of teen musicians on Shetland who are keeping traditional music alive. They have great energy and sound! Put them on when you’re tidying up or out on a run, and they’ll keep you moving! Follow them on Facebook and YouTube to hear more of their music.

The second song was “Between the Eyes” by Arthur Nicholson, a folk singer from Shetland. Arthur’s work is insightful and mellow. You’ll find yourself singing his choruses to yourself through the day. Find his work on Soundcloud or YouTube, or visit his website to buy a CD for yourself.

If you are a musician who would like a song featured on the program, or if you have comments or feedback, please contact the show at anne@familypodcasts.com.

Social Media

You can follow Anne on Instagram or Ravelry as @ithoughtiknewhow. She posts articles related to knitting and yarn on the Facebook Group and on Twitter as @ThoughtIKhewHow. Subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or the podcast app of your choice.

Affiliate Notice

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Anne Frost

knitter & podcaster

The host of the I Thought I Knew How Podcast and Online International Fiber Festival.

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