SHETLAND WOOL WEEK
We report back from Lerwick
THE SHETLAND archipelago lies 105 miles from the Scottish mainland and just 190 miles from Norway. There are more than 100 islands, although only 15 are inhabited. This remote community of just over 22,000 people has a rich heritage of knitting and crafts. Up until the 1970s, these were a valuable source of income for women while their menfolk were away on the fishing boats. The islands’ traditional yoke-style jumpers and the achingly beautiful Shetland lace shawls have been well documented by knitting designers including Kate Davies and Susan Crawford. These traditional skills are being kept alive by an energetic guild of spinners, knitters, weavers, and dyers, and through the yarns produced by Jamieson & Smith and Jamieson’s of Shetland.
Shetland Wool Week was started in 2010 as a way to celebrate these skills and pass them on to a wider audience, and this year I was one of the lucky ones to travel to the islands, along with four friends.
Our journey began back in October 2017, when we managed to book some accommodation - if you are planning to go, the sooner you can find somewhere to stay the better, because accommodation gets booked up very quickly! Estimates vary, but the number of crafters visiting Shetland for the event is between 500 and 700, and this year they came from as far afield as Newfoundland, Canada, the United States, including Hawaii, Australia, South Africa and most of Europe - and those were just the people I met.
In spring 2018, my friends and I decided to pay for a premium membership so that we could get our hands on the Wool Week workshop programme in advance. There are so many different ways to enjoy Shetland Wool Week, but planning the tickets you want to buy before they go live in May is essential. There is quite a scrum when they launch.
The range of workshops is extraordinary, taught by expert knitters, spinners, weavers, dyers, felters, jewellers, whittlers and book binders, covering all skill levels. There are talks almost every day, exhibitions, tours, and so many ‘drop ins’ where you can meet groups across all the islands. One of my favourite places was The Hub at the Shetland Museum, where knitters just hang out in between their activities. Furnished with comfy sofas, no sooner have you taken a seat than someone will draw you in to a conversation or ask to see which project you are working on.
Quite a few people I chatted to had come without managing to secure any tickets to workshops or events, but the Hub has a noticeboard where visitors can trade tickets they no longer need. I met a group of American ladies who were just happy to be a part of the whole experience, and another group that had been every year and religiously took at least three classes. The beauty of Wool Week is that it’s entirely up to you.
But there is so much more to discover. We arrived a few days early by boat and plane, and hired a car so that we could explore – a very good idea. We drove the length and breadth of the mainland, and everywhere we went we met people wearing the official SWW hat. Each year, the patron creates a design that is released in advance for visitors to knit, and this year it was a pretty Fair Isle pattern by Elizabeth Johnston. It’s a great icebreaker, because you can just go and introduce yourself to a complete stranger, confident in the knowledge that they are ‘your kind of person’ and are there for exactly the same reason as you. I never saw two hats that looked the same. The sheer variety of colour combinations and palettes used was a celebration of our creativity in itself.
It is so hard to capture the whole experience in a few words, but the welcome we received from Shetlanders was so incredibly warm. They were more than happy to share their skills in an informal and generous way, which completely bowled me over. I learned so much, both in and outside of the workshops.
Then there’s the cake. On Shetland they have 11 O’Clocks, 3 O’Clocks, and 8 O’Clocks when you can expect to be offered copious amounts of the most delicious home-made bakes – some savoury, but mostly sweet. In fact, I am pretty sure that Shetland would find it hard to function without cake!
I was asked if I would be back for the tenth year in 2019. No. This year was so perfect that it would be hard to beat, and I am content to bask in my wonderful memories and make room for one of you to experience the holiday of a lifetime. – Next year’s Shetland Wool Week runs from 28 September to 6 October. Find details at www.shetlandwoolweek.com