Notes from a February Fair Isle Adventure
Wednesday 12th February
After a long time the dream is finally coming true - we’re going to Fair Isle!
‘A bright green spot like an emerald on the wide ocean, this place is quite a world in itself; covered with grass of a most vivid luxuriant verdure.’
The words of Catherine Sinclair in her book, Shetland and the Shetlanders (1840) are a fitting description of this beautiful island. In winter the colours are more muted and vary between gorgeous shades and hues of blue, turquoise, rust, brown and gold. The first sight of the isle from the air is spectacular, especially on a still frosty day like we travelled on.
I have been to Fair Isle in the past but only for a short one-day visit. So when Marie came to speak to me October about her plan to run her Fair Isle Knitting Holidays and asked if I’d like to come and be her first guest I said yes straight away. What could be better than spending a week in Fair Isle learning about the place, history of Fair Isle knitting and learning to use a knitting machine.
Marie who is originally from France first came to Fair Isle five years ago. She studied textile design at l' École Supérieur des Arts Appliqués et du textile in Roubaix and when she was looking for a work placement Fair Isle seemed like the perfection option. She perfected her hand knitting, machine knitting and finishing techniques working for almost three years with Mati Ventrillon. Marie is passionate about design and craft and she likes working with colours and designing and mixing traditional Fair Isle patterns. She is also keen to share the traditional island knitting skills and promote the heritage of the isle.
In 2018 Marie met Thomas and when an opportunity of renovating a house came along they decided to stay and become part of the close-knit Fair Isle community. Thomas is a relief crew member on the ferry, among other jobs and both of them are also part of the local firefighter crew.
After a short 25-minute flight we were met by Marie at the airstrip who took us to her beautiful home. The minute we stepped into Taft, a beautifully and sympathetically renovated old croft house at the south end of Fair Isle, we felt like at home. I loved the panoramic views and I knew immediately that my favourite thing would be watching the ever-changing light and skyscapes from the window. And the lighthouse... just wow, that was a complete dream for someone like me who grew up in a landlocked country.
Later in the afternoon we went for a drive around the isle and then we picked up provisions for the dinner including beautifully fresh locally grown parsnips. I know this might not seem like much to you but as someone who's been trying to grow vegetables in Shetland's challenging climate at 60° North, I was amazed by the size and perfect shape of these parsnips as Fair Isle is even more exposed than most parts of Shetland. They were simply perfect.
After a delicious dinner we spent some time speaking about the projects we would like to work on over the following days and then it was time for bed so we could start bright and fresh the next morning.
Thursday 13th February
Anne Sinclair showed us around the George Waterston Memorial Museum and shared some of her vast knowledge of Fair Isle history with us. Anne and her brother Stuart were the driving force behind setting the museum up in the 80s in the former school. The museum is packed with displays of the island’s history and the highlights are artefacts depicting Fair Isle life in the past, a beautiful collection of traditional Fair Isle chairs, information about shipwrecks, striking knitwear and much more. Anne designed the famous Fair Isle Fisherman’s Kep pattern based on the traditional hats of the isle and the proceeds from the pattern sales go towards running the museum. The museum truly is a jewel.
And as the weather was good, Stuart showed us to the top of the South Lighthouse which was an unforgettable experience. There are two lighthouses on Fair Isle the South (Skaddan) and the North (Skroo). The South Lighthouse was built in 1891 by David and Charles Stevenson and it was the last Scottish manned lighthouse to be automated. I particularly liked the staircase which is a complete work of art on its own.
After lunch (another delicious meal) Marie showed us how the knitting machine works. We chose colours for our projects we started with designing. I decided to make a snood as I like wearing them all year round in Shetland. I chose colours I like, there was grey (Sholmit and Granit), blue (Titanic and Nighthawk) and red with a splash of orange (Madder and Ginger), all in Jamieson's yarn.
Friday 14th February
After a cold night the day started bright, so we decided to go for a brisk walk to Malcolm’s Head as we knew the weather was to get worse over the course of the day. In fact this was the only chance for a walk as we'd learn over the course of the next few days as the Storm Dennis was on its way. According to Wikipedia Dennis became one of the most intense extratropical cyclones ever recorded and struck the United Kingdom and Ireland at peak intensity less than a week after Storm Ciara, exacerbating the impacts from that storm. So we were in for a very windy spell.
Anyway, as we climbed the hill the wind was gusting so strong that we struggled to walk at times and taking photographs was the ultimate challenge. We almost lost our hats and gloves to the Atlantic several times. But we thoroughly enjoyed it and felt rejuvenated and exhilarated.
After thawing out over a very welcome cup of tea we started designing our patterns which was fun. At this point I have to mention Marie's expert knowledge, and more importantly patience, as she lead us through the process.
We also went to see Kathy Coull and her textile workshop. Kathy produces her own yarn, spins, designs textiles, runs workshops and much more.
Another very inspiring day.
Saturday 15th February
We woke up to a wild day with spectacular views of waves crashing into the rocks. Although it would have been easy to just sit in front of the window and gaze at the beauty of the landscape, big skies and wild sea we had to get going as we had a lot to get through. Both Donna and I continued with our projects, this was the day I started feeling more comfortable and confident with the knitting machine.
Later in the morning we went to see Anne Sinclair again, this time to learn more about Fair Isle knitwear history. During our chat it became clear that in Fair Isle there’s an incredible amount of skill and talent and many people still continue to craft beautiful objects, be it knitwear, chairs or art.
The oldest known piece of Fair Isle knitwear dates back to 1857 and it is on display at National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. We spoke about the differences in design between Fair Isle and the rest of Shetland and colours. After a lovely cup of coffee, listening to many interesting stories and seeing some Fair Isle knitwear pieces from Anne’s private collection we left her house inspired, excited and energised.
In the afternoon we spent an hour with Eve Eunson and learned about her Fair Isle straw back chair making project. Eve showed us her wonderful and very precious sketchbook where she’s recorded many Fair Isle chairs she's surveyed. Eve is currently learning the process of making Fair Isle chairs with Stuart Thompson.
The making of Fair Isle chairs with a wooden base and a straw back, similar to the Orkney chair but with distinctly different frame construction and a unique technique of straw work created through knotting rather than stitching rows of straw.
Sunday 16th February
Baby, it’s wild out there! Lying in the bed and thinking about how life would have been in the past in the extremely exposed place in the middle of wild sea. The rain driven straight into our side of the house by southerly wind first thing in the morning sounds really loud. But after breakfast the sun comes out and we can venture out to take photos of the wild seas which turns out to be a truly exhilarating experience. The sea was virtually boiling and it was spectacular watching the waves crashing against the rocks.
When we got back we continued working on our projects and I felt like me and the knitting machine could actually be friends after all. I really started getting into the rhythm of it.
Later in the afternoon we went to see Bob Worrall who was taught how to make Fair Isle chairs by Stuart Thompson’s father the late Stuart Thompson. We had an opportunity to visit his workshop which used to be the Fairly Isle post office. The old tools were beautiful and I loved the workshop. The interesting feature worth pointing out was the windows which originally came from the lighthouse. Bob showed us the straw weaving technique and we spent an enjoyable and inspiring hour speaking about craft, provenance and sustainability. The biggest issue the current chair makers face is the lack of Shetland black oats (Avena strigosa) as not many people grow it due to the challenging climate in Shetland.
Monday 17th February
We were supposed to fly home today, but as the wind was gusting up to 60 mph it was sure we wouldn’t be getting home this day. But the good thing was that it meant more knitting on the machine and I finished knitting my snood. What an exciting moment taking it of the machine! The next step was learning to graft which seemed fairly challenging for me at the start but after both Donna and Marie explained the process and with a help of a written note managed to do it.
After lunch Marie had a surprise for us - a taatit rug workshop with Kathy Coull. Taatit rugs are part of a Nordic tradition of pile bedcovers which extended from Finland to Ireland. The woollen bedcovers were made using natural dyes to create bold, colourful designs. Some of the designs incorporate symbols used in Nordic and Shetlandic folklore. Carol Christiansen from Shetland Museum and Archives researched them extensively and wrote a book about them.
We really enjoyed our afternoon spent by learning about the rugs and making our own small one. We were warned that making taatit rugs is addictive and I completely agree. I’m looking forward to taking time to finish mine when we get back home.
Tuesday 18th February
In the morning the weather was still not looking promising for travel, so we were more or less prepared to stay another day. In the morning Marie helped me to press my snood and it was time for a photo shoot. I have to say I'm absolutely thrilled and with it I never imagined I could create something like this myself (of course with a lot of help from Marie).
At lunch time we got news from Tingwall - the plane would go after all so we quickly packed our bags and headed to the airstrip. It was really sad leaving but I'm certain I'll be back for more soon. Fair Isle is a very special and inspiring place and I fell in love with it. We came as guests and left as friends.
I really enjoyed learning to use the knitting machine and the whole design process as well. Overall I loved the week in Fair Isle and Marie is a wonderful and a very attentive host. The food throughout the stay was fantastic too and we really enjoyed staying at Taft. And of course the most important thing we were there for, the knitting and learning about the design process, was outstanding.
So if you are thinking about the next trip where you would like to spend time in a wonderful place, learn something new or deepen your knowledge and skill you might already have I can wholeheartedly recommend Marie's Fair Isle Knitting Holidays.
For more photos and inspiration from Fair Isle and Shetland you can follow my adventures on Instagram or on the Shetland Wool Adventures feed.
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