A Peek Inside The Vintage Shetland Project – A Treasure Hunt

As I enter the final stages of putting The Vintage Shetland Project together, I’m very excited to now begin to share a little more about what you are going to find in the book. ┬áSo today, without hopefully revealing too much and spoiling the anticipation, I would like to tell you about a treasure hunt I embarked on some months ago.

Several of the designs included in the book incorporate Shetland Lace patterns in their construction. Three are all-over lace garments and one uses a Shetland lace pattern as a decorative feature. The birth of the Lace knitting industry and its subsequent development played a major part in the research I did in order to find out more about these beautiful pieces.

lace knitting in vsp

And so, I set about reading every book I knew of that made reference to the fascinating history of the Lace knitting industry on the islands. The story begins in the mid 1800s and much of the information is anecdotal, but after reading and re-reading Rae Compton’s book, The Complete Book of Traditional Knitting from the 1980s and Sharon Miller’s Heirloom Knitting a mystery began to unfold.

RaeCompton

Hidden at the bottom of a page in Compton’s book is a reference to an Elizabeth Henry who apparently was the first person to transcribe Shetland lace patterns. Shetlanders themselves never wrote down the patterns they used, either memorising the patterns, learning from each other, or ‘reading’ the knitting itself, rather than following written instructions. I was intrigued to find out more about Elizabeth, who had done such important work, but both before and since Compton’s book she seems to have vanished without trace, and has become a missing link in the history of Shetland lace knitting.

I had a number of potential leads to follow, but all came up empty-handed. Trips to Museums and libraries, many, many emails, internet searches and phone calls, but nothing, there was no trace of Mrs Henry or the work that she had done. I began to become upset on her behalf. To have been the first person to attempt this type of study, but to be missing from the pages of knitting history seemed terribly unfair and I became more determined than ever to find her.

Working closely with Louise Scollay who was acting as my research assistant, we kept hunting, and eventually one winter’s afternoon, whilst sitting in a library reading room, a eureka moment occurred. A link to a document that in turn lead us to another, finally pointed us in the possible direction of her work. Filled with anticipation that our search was nearly over, we quickly made arrangements to visit the location where we hoped to find our pot of gold. However our dreams were once again quickly dashed as the hidden treasure could not be found. We left heart-broken and saddened, but quickly resolved that we wouldn’t let the search end in this way.

More emails, more conversations, and finally a chance suggestion led me to another contact who in turn had an ‘inkling’ as to where unidentified treasures sometimes find themselves. I imagined a ‘Room of Requirements’ like in Harry Potter, where lost wonders get stored and somewhere balanced on top of a stack of chairs or inside a wardrobe would be a knitter’s legacy. My eager contact made arrangements to go and check for me if this time we were right and I waited for news.

Eventually a communication came. What did I expect? What was I looking for? Details were passed back to me and finally I knew, the wait was over. We had found her.

Mrs Henry

An amazing treasure trove of notes, samples, photos, pattern transcripts and more is the hidden legacy that this important figure in Shetland textile history has left us, and yet her story, like so many other women’s stories included in The Vintage Shetland Project has remained largely untold.notes

detailfromphotos

pattern transcript

I cannot wait to share some of Mrs Henry’s work with you in the book and to finally celebrate this incredible woman. I feel she may well become the sole subject of my next book but in the meantime you will soon be able to read her story in The Vintage Shetland Project.

2 Responses

  1. Maggie C

    Susan, This is wonderful and I am going to read through my copy of ‘Rae Compton’s Traditional Knitting’ tonight also ‘The Art of Shetland Lace by Sarah Don ‘ is another book that I love and have knitted shawls from it before.
    Well done to you and all your helpers for all the detective work!

  2. Barbara Sandison

    I’ve lived in Shetland for 30 years now, a beautiful and tranquil place in which to live, work and raise a family. Textiles, knitting in particular, is a huge industry and your project provides a fascinating insight into a local craft. Look forward to reading your finished publication.

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