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Fair Isle and Storm Dennis

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

Home time!

​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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23 comments on “Fair Isle and Storm Dennis”

Thank you for this Glorious account of Life on Fair Isle, helping to keep alive the island traditions and feeding some of the happiest memories of my family’s long stay on da Isle.

Margo Murray

Thank you so much Margo, it means a lot to me to know you enjoyed the post and to bring some memories back. Fair Isle truly is a special place.

oh wow! this is really the place I want to go…
and I LOVE your cowl – is there a pattern per chance?
thank you

You’d love Fair Isle! The week I spent there was truly incredible. No, unfortunately there’s no pattern at the moment but perhaps it’s something to think about in the future…

What a fantastic account of your time in Fair Isle!
Marie has done an incredible work, her talent and passion shows in every detail. She is a great asset for the island. I hope our heritage and warmth keeps bringing more people like her to help carry the island’s tradition into the future.Very sad I miss you and hope you plan another visit soon.
Misa your cowl is stunnig!

Hello Mati, we were really sad to have missed you but hopefully we’ll come back soon. It would be great to see your studio as I’m a big fan of your designs and work! And I’m glad you liked the account of out trip, I feel so privileged and lucky to have been Marie’s first guest. She is very talented and hardworking indeed. Here’s to a lot more heritage and crafts visitors to Fair Isle. I’ll definitely back for more. And I’m going to continue on knitting projects this year too.

I read with joy this journey and can’t wait my own knitting holiday next june. I’m even hoping the weather will not be too good so i can make heaps of pics and knit meters in An extended week ;). I don’t doubt we will love marie’s food aswell.

Oh Kaat, you’ll be one of the lucky first customers that have booked with Marie. You’ll absolutely love it. And yes, there are indeed worse things than being stranded in the beautiful Fair Isle. I hope you have a wonderful time!

Misa, I took your advice and sat down in an easy chair to read this delightful post. Your photos are stunning and I love your cowl too. Your descriptions make this trip very enticing!

Hello Janet, I’m really glad you enjoyed the account of our trip, you’d absolutely love Fair Isle, so much history, heritage and lovely coastline for some great walks. I can’t wait to go back soon for more. Perhaps when the weather is slightly better so we can walk more…

Thank you for this wonderful piece. I was in one of the earlier groups making a fisherman’s kep using Anne Sinclair’s pattern. I have followed the doings of the group and the beautiful island of Fair Isle ever since. A truly magical part of the world.

I love your photos – what sort of camera is it ? That one of Eve is good ( she’s my niece ), she has a good ‘eye’ for things which she puts into her work. The snood you knitted is it doubled over ? fab colours , aren’t you glad your flight was delayed so you could finish it off !!

Hello Mary, I use Canon 80D but I’m still learning. Most photos I take are iPhone 8 (I think) and that the one of Eve too. And yes, Eve is very talented, it’s great she’s embarked on the Fair Isle chairs project. I would have been happy to stay longer if the weather continued to play up, just imagine all those other projects. I’m really inspired by the trip and meeting all the wonderful people.

I truly enjoyed the story of your journey and all the lovely pictures! I have dreamed of a week like this amerced in the history and knitting experience of fair isle knitting on the enchanting island of Shetland! This morning, while sipping my coffee, I took a journey there through your lovely story and beautiful photos! I’ve knit the Kep by Ann and am hooked! How I’d love to meet her, visit the museum and learn the history of knitting on the island! Fond regards, Sally Sytsma, Wisconsin, USA

Thank you Sally, I’m so happy I could take you to Fair Isle through my photos and words. Ann is so inspiring and knowledgeable!

Truly inspiring to read your blog and visit the other websites too… I live as far away from Shetland and Fair Isle as possible in the UK – down on the south coast. My dream is to visit your islands hopefully next year!

Thank you so much for you lovely comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Fair Isle truly is a wonderful place.

Such a lovely account of your time in Fair Isle – thank you for sharing! I echo earlier compliments re: your Storm Dennis Snood – it is lovely! I would love to recreate one for myself – will you be publishing a handknitting pattern for the design?

I, too, would love to be able to hand knit the Storm Dennis Snood as I do not have a knitting machine. The story was extremely interesting and I have distant relatives that came from Scotland. I think they were from around New Miln, Lepley was their name, but I do know they were of the Cameron clan.

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