The inspirational family of designers from Shetland
AFTER TALKING with three inspiring Shetland designers - Wilma, Terri Laura, and Alyssa Malcolmson - I discovered that the threads linking their individual stories were family, economic necessity, and changing technologies, bound by a love of knitting and colour. Wilma runs the knitwear company Shetland Designer; her granddaughter Terri Laura and great-niece Alyssa have embarked on their own journeys using 21st century technology to share their love of Shetland’s traditions.
Once upon a time, knitting provided an economic lifeline to families on Shetland. Knitting was done in the evenings by women wanting to earn money. Watching and copying the adults in their lives, Wilma, Terri Laura and Alyssa began learning the craft from an early age.
“I cannot really remember being taught to knit; my first memory is trying to knit clothes for my dolls,” recalls Wilma. “My mother was always knitting to supplement the family’s income. Everyone was knitting by hand where I grew up - it was a very social thing, as well as essential work. I always enjoyed it, and was very aware of the patterns and colours being knitted.”
Wilma and her sister-in-law Jean Halcrow continued to knit while raising their families. In the 1980s, the punch-card knitting machine transformed their knitting and soon their lives. Mastering this new technology enabled Wilma and Jean to create original designs for family and friends. Their impressive efforts created demand for more designs: the punch-card machine made it possible to meet this demand. Wilma and Jean used their skills to design a range of knitwear which became the business Shetland Designer. Its premises, near Cunningsburgh on Shetland, is a combination of shop and workshop: lots of lovely knitted garments, jumpers, hats, gloves, mittens, scarves; sample packs of yarns; and the workshop area with Wilma’s sample boards, cones of wool, and knitting machines.
“As I made knitting my work, I have designed and produced whatever the market demanded,” Wilma says. “For many years I designed using the colour predictions for the current season. Sometimes this was challenging, but led to many varied colours and designs. Now I use pictures of landscapes and seashores to inspire new Fair Isle patterns.”
Wilma acknowledges that social media has made Shetland knitwear more accessible, resulting in a greater interest worldwide. “We, on Shetland, are aware of the excellent work of knitters from around the world and many friendships have
formed thanks to connections on Ravelry and other social media. Now there is a greater interest in all aspects of textiles, and we are seeing younger people getting involved. I have especially enjoyed watching Terri’s and Alyssa’s progress. Both are aware of Shetland traditions and methods, while developing their own individual styles. I also work with the Peerie Knitters in Cunningsburgh Primary School, where volunteers enjoy teaching children to knit.”
Wilma tends to knit in her studio, surrounded with wool and swatches (hand or machine knitted). She also enjoys knitting by the fire in the winter evenings.
A lasting legacy
Terri Laura and Alyssa are the next generation of Shetland designers. Terri Laura began her knitting journey aged six, playing with her brother in her granny’s workshop. This involved organising cones of yarn, pinning colourful Fair Isle swatches to corkboards, and playing ‘shop’.
It all felt very real to Terri Laura, as she recalls: “I remember coming up with ideas for knitwear and planning out how they could be made,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in arranging the colours in ways that would knit well together.”
At the age of eight, Terri began knitting in primary school, working through a range of projects; more advanced techniques were learned from Granny Wilma. Colour is a recurring theme in Terri’s work, so does she have a favourite? “Asking me to choose a favourite colour is like asking me to pick a favourite sibling! Never!” she laughs. “Now that I’ve had more experience of colourwork, I’ve found myself looking at colours as if they all have a use and a place, instead of either liking or disliking them. However, I do find myself going for interesting blues, greens and pinks, whereas my grandmother gravitates more towards earthy tones.”
The 21st century has brought changes to this generation of knitters: the internet and social media have been game-changers, and Terri Laura cites this as the main factor that makes the difference between her brand and Shetland Designer. “I use the internet every day to communicate with my followers. My website hosts my blog posts, portfolio, competitions and online events, although my favourite way to use the internet for my business is through Instagram. I have taught classes online and held live informative chats with my Facebook group, and I also worked with Jamieson’s of Shetland to host a live event on their Facebook page. I find social media a great way to reach people who are interested in Shetland knitwear and design during the off-season, when fewer people are visiting us here in Shetland.”
Social media, coupled with yarn festivals and knitting events, made Terri Laura look at her business plans in a different way: “Thought and planning went into the options I have when it comes to offering products and services around knitting and Fair Isle”. Knitting is never very far from Terri Laura. “If I am going to be anywhere for any length of time, I generally take my knitting with me,” she says. “The Shetland Designer workshop would be the main place where most of my productivity takes place; however, you will find me working from Granny Wilma’s house, my parents’ house, and my partner’s parents’ house during any given week.”
Another legacy from Granny Wilma - Terri Laura knits by hand as well as using a knitting machine or using both. “I love how quickly ideas turn into a reality when using the machine, but there is definitely something comforting about hand knitting with my knitting belt,” Terri says.
Terri Laura gets her inspiration from people: “Taking personality and personal style into consideration when designing is so much fun. Looking at what people wear, what they like and what suits them gives me the best idea of where to start and how I want my end result to turn out. I have
used this method to make classically styled garments as well as decorative pieces for homes, while still keeping the finished product traditional and distinctively my own. I am interested in seeing what real people are wearing day to day. I’ve never really been into the high-end fashion magazines or shows, but noticing what people are wearing or buying for their homes really interests me.”
Seventeen-year-old Alyssa Malcolmson is also a passionate knitter and emerging designer in her own right. The great-niece of Wilma (Alyssa’s granny married Wilma’s brother), Alyssa taught a sock knitting class with Emma Eunson at this year’s Shetland Wool Week, and is set to begin an apprenticeship as a mechanic technician on the mainland of Scotland; her knitting will go with her.
Alyssa’s earliest knitting memory was of sitting with her granny watching her knit, and desperately wanting to be taught. “I must have been about four, but I was really determined: I was going to do it; Granny wasn’t going to do it for me. My first project was a simple scarf.” It was the ‘Maakin and Yakkin’ knitting group Alyssa joined while attending Anderson High School in Lerwick that rekindled her interest in the craft, thanks to the enthusiasm and encouragement of the teachers and friends who were involved.
Alyssa particularly enjoys making the ‘allover’ style of Fair Isle sweater - one of which won a prize at the Cunningsburgh Show in 2017. She likes to have several projects on the go at any one time - jumper, socks, gloves, tam - so that whatever her mood, she will have knitting to suit.
Fair Isle gives plenty of scope for playing with colour; Alyssa enjoys seeing all the choices on offer in the shops, and often finds she comes away with completely different shades to those she’d originally intended to buy! Like Terri Laura, Alyssa uses Instagram to showcase her work and start conversations about knitting.
Fans of the crime drama Shetland may remember the quote from Detective Jimmy Perez: “They think all we do is knit jumpers up here…” Wilma, Terri Laura and Alyssa have taken knitting beyond jumpers and promoted a craft that delights and encourages knitters worldwide. All three designers are showcased in the most recent Shetland Wool Week annual, with Alyssa’s delicately beautiful ‘Tree Yoke’ sweater starring on the front cover. Wilma and Terri Laura, meanwhile, demonstrate their skills with colour blending in their ‘Atlantic Lace Hat and Mitts’ (Wilma), and ‘Banksflooer Mitts’ (Terri Laura).
Wilma’s creations can be found all over Shetland - the staff in Shetland Museum wear her waistcoats as a uniform - and also around the world, with Japan being just one destination for her exports. Terri Laura’s online tutorials and festival appearances reach and encourage knitters in many locations, while Alyssa’s Instagram posts show her range of colourwork in a variety of projects.
– More from Clan Malcolmson knitters: www.shetlanddesigner.co.uk www.terrilaura.co.uk – Find them on Instagram: Alyssa.margaret, terrilaura, wilmadesigner
Terri Laura (right) learnt her knitting skills from her grandmother Wilma, and today brings her own unique style to traditional Fair Isle designs. She sells finished pieces, knitting kits and patterns through her online shop
Wilma founded her company Shetland Designer in 1982, and sells her exquisitely beautiful knits to customers all around the world
Alyssa’s ‘Lichen Legwarmers’ pattern is available on Ravelry
Alyssa showcases her work on Instagram; she has won prizes for her Fair Isle colourwork
The 2018 Shetland Wool Week annual features Alyssa’s jumper design (left), mitts by Terri, and Wilma’s ‘Atlantic Lace’ set; the book costs £19 from www.shetlandwoolweek.com