Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Photos from Shetland College

Lots of interesting toys in this room

A beautiful example of machine knit lace

They run so quickly!

Very fine thread, very tiny needles
Finishing pieces: steaming to fix shape

Textile Art

Ready to knit

Time to program!!!

Did you know floppy disks are still used?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome to Shetland

I've had trouble writing about Shetland. I've been here about a week, and I struggle to find words to explain this place, even in my own head. How have these islands stolen my heart in the space of a few days? The place, the people, but somehow something more.

On a bus yesterday they played a song, sung by schoolchildren from Yell, that begins:

Far away from the bustle of the city and its crowds
There's some lovely little islands in the sea
Some are large, some are small
There's 100 in all
And a hundred welcomes waiting you and me

So come with me across the sea
And meet the folk of my land
Where a welcome true is waiting you
In a hundred shetland islands

When I read this words on the page, they seem insignificant. They don't describe the islands much (a bit more in later verses), "large and small" hardly conjures an image into the reader's mind. "Far from the city" is a bit more telling, but not much. And yet, when sung in harmony by children while looking over the peat stacks to the sea the song has a bit of magic in it. A simplicity in reducing a place to the kindness you'll find there. A magic, I think, that the song "it's a small world" also tried to capture and bring to a larger audience.

And they are right to dwell on the kindness of the folk who live here.

Shetland is beautiful. Perhaps I should start with that. There are so many colors everywhere, and the more you look the more you see. The greens and browns and oranges in the grasses, the purple of the heather, the bright splashes in other flowers, the darker greens in the few trees, the multitude of shades of gray and black and white in the rocks. And the blues. Nowhere on these islands are you more than three miles from the sea. I find this absolutely staggering, having grown up in the central US. And when you can't see the saltwater you can usually see a loch (and sometimes an island on the island).  

This doesn't explain it though. These pieces don't capture the magic in the air here. The raw power of the waves and the wind. The harshness that drives away all but a certain type of person. The land where there are many more sheep than people and they walk on the road and slow down the cars. The community in a place where you can call the ferry and ask it to wait a few minutes for you, or where the bus drivers know to drop you at the end of your grandmother's driveway and send their greetings in with you.

When I was standing on the ferry yesterday watching the shore I told myself to look at the landscape and focus on the human presence. To pick some piece that I could write about if I were back in cultural geography class. I looked at the changing light, and the shapes of the rocks, and the salmon jumping in the pens, and then I turned my head and saw two passengers wearing Fair Isle knitwear: a hat and a sweater respectively. And something clicked in my head.

I've been struck by the odd juxtaposition of the harsh environment and the delicate and intricate knitwear made here. This is perhaps most noticeable in the lace. Light, airy pieces that seem to float. So fine that entire shawls can be pulled through a wedding ring. Pieces of sea spray, frozen in a moment. And colorful Fair Isle. Infinite combinations of colors and patterns that blend together like a sunset.

I was disconcerted when I first visited the textile museum in Lerwick. I'd been windswept on the hillside over town, and then wandered past the electric plant and the concrete storage buildings on the harbor, and found myself opening the door to be greeted by the artistry of the Shetland knitters: hats, gloves, scarves, each presenting a story of time and talent. Why here?

But when I saw the two pieces on the ferry deck, they fit into the landscape. It's not that the patterns or the colors matched the natural shore. They didn't. They had sharp lines and strong colors. It's that they told the story of this place more eloquently than I will on this page. Shetland is a place where over and over again I find people going "one step further" in a task. Honestly, I think it's more like 10 steps further. This attention to detail is seen everywhere.

It isn't that you can play a tune on the fiddle, you can improvise on an old fiddle that's missing a string after working all day and walking to the pub in a rainstorm and still amaze the listeners. It isn't that you can knit a hat, you can knit an intricately patterned Fair Isle hat that matches the jumper you made in grade school and still finish it in half the time that most people can knit a plain one. And did I mention that it's properly finished with no knots, washed and stretched, and is made of 100% Shetland wool? It isn't that you can knit a shawl, but that you knit it on a commission from royalty. It isn't that you smile at passerby, but that you welcome visitors politely and warmly make them feel right at home.

And what I find so compelling here is that this dedication is matched by an effortless modesty. You didn't bring your fiddle because it was to be a quiet night out. You needed something to keep your son warm at sea. You were glad for a customer. You were well brought up. There is a sense of equality. Queen or college student, you can admire the artistry.

In a sense, I can look at a piece of lace and think, "of course, if you have good wool it would be a shame not to spin it finely. And if you have fine thread, it would be a shame not to knit it to advantage..."

And thus, with straightforward logic, come the wedding ring shawls admired the world over.

Fair Isle is even easier to view practically: two colors in a row makes for a warmer fabric. And using many colors in a garment allows one to use up odds and ends of yarn.

And it is this spirit, this quiet combination of elegance and hard work, and an ability to admire beauty in harshness and create beauty in softness, that I have found so inspiring in three of these hundred Shetland islands.

Monday, September 14, 2015


This is the first of many many many overdue blog posts. Hopefully I'll actually write the others soon...

While on the Isle of Mull, I had the pleasure of visiting the Ardalanish weavers. I hopped on a bus in the morning, got off in the pouring rain, and walked a few miles down the road following the windblown signs. When I got there, I received a warm welcome. This was the first time I had ever seen a mechanized loom, and I was very excited about it. Especially about seeing the punch cards with the programs for the weft color changes. (If you haven't picked up on it yet, "Katie being excited" is one of the major themes of this year)

Just as interesting, however, were all the pieces of the process that I hadn't considered at all. In retrospect, you'd think that I would've wondered how they get the warps into the long rolls for the looms, but I'd never even thought about it. Maybe I thought they just came ready to go, the way the loom kit I had as a child did?

But no! There is this fascinating machine that allows them to string out the warp strands (in many different colors) and wind them onto a roll that will be attached to the loom. It was somewhat startling to me to suddenly consider the magnitude of weaving: several thousand strands of several hundred meters each adds up to a lot of wool. Even when it isn't as thick as the strands used for knitting, this still means using many cones of wool for each bolt of fabric. Then there is the process of pulling each strand through the loom itself. 

And even as I as impressed at how fast he was working (this was started when I arrived about an hour before the picture) I learned that there is a shortcut. Instead of pulling each strand through individually, you can tie them to the strands from an old pattern and pull the entire set through at once. While it doesn't sound like a big difference, even tying several hundred knots is much faster than locating each eyelet. Once the warp is all set, it's time to consider the weft. This is where programming comes in! A program is constructed out of a series of links to control which shuttle, and thus which color, is used for each row of the weft. 

Once it's all ready, you put on your headphones to protect against the noise and start weaving. As long as I stayed back ("see those holes in the wall? those are from a loose shuttle...we don't want one in your head") I could watch the loom chug along and the fabric wind around the roll. It seems almost like magic to me, even after seeing the whole process, that a few strands of color can produce such intricate designs. 

And beautiful too! I quite enjoyed looking through their shop at all the beautiful scarves and blankets. 

But perhaps the best thing about my entire visit to Ardalanish is that is has followed me around Scotland. It gave me the background to ask better questions when I arrive in the Outer Hebrides, and several times I have run into people who used to work there. Both in Skye and in Shetland I have described my interest in weaving, mentioned I visited Mull, and received wonderful stories about what it was like to live and work there. Indeed, when I mentioned that the kind gentleman who is threading the loom in the photo above had woken me up when I nearly missed my bus stop on the way home, the Skye weaver laughed and proceeded to show me his entire warping set up. It had been constructed from recycled materials (and a lot of ingenuity) mostly contributed by this same gentleman: the weaver who trained those working at Ardalanish. It seems that his kindness extends well beyond jet-lagged travelers wandering around the island. I was quite lucky to have a brief conversation with him before I fell asleep, about which places he would visit if he were to travel the world to study weaving. And while I won't be visiting the Navajo this year (maybe next?), I seem to have already landed on several of his top destinations! Good thing or I'd be considering switching up my itinerary...

Orkney Photos

Maes Howe

Barnhouse Neolithic Village

Ring of Brodgar I



Stones of Stenness

Skara Brae I



Colorful seaweed!

Beach by Skara Brae

Orkney Harbor

Friday, September 11, 2015

Viking Graffiti

Also did I tell you I'm drinking tea at a bar listening to a group of Scottish musicians rehearse because the ferry leaves at midnight and I can't go back to the hostel?

After I sent that text I reread it and laughed; it pretty much sums up the quirkiness of my two days in Orkney. I arrived on a ferry at 2300, walked outside, looked somewhat skeptically at the dark, empty bus before locating the driver, let myself into an honor code hostel, and fell asleep. The next day I made my way to the bus station to figure out when the "infrequent, useless for seeing the ruins" bus ran across the island this week and accidentally wandered into the winding main street of Kirkwall.

I took an impromptu trip out to Maes Howe on the next bus and was sent off down a footpath towards an earth mound to catch the last tour. If I'd done my research better, I would've known what I was looking at. Instead, my jaw dropped when I was led inside the mound through a stone tunnel. Perhaps it was just as well I didn't know, I was suitably impressed this way. Maes Howe is a burial chamber that is nearly 5000 years old. It has a main central room built around four standing stones (they're in the walls, but apparently useless for support), three small side chambers with ingenious roofing (the stones in the wall of the main chamber extend backwards to cover the side chambers, and the tunnel leading back outside. This tunnel became even more impressive when I learned that the two sides are each made of a single stone. Even knowing that they were building with a rock that conveniently splits into long slabs, I was blown away by the effort that went into collecting and placing all the stones. What I find particularly cool about Maes Howe, though, is that it juxtaposes two eras of history: the Neolithic and the Viking. Because the tomb is covered with Viking runes. The tour guide described it as Viking graffiti. And indeed, it would appear that people haven't changed all that much in hundreds of years. Many of the inscriptions read things like "so and so was here", there are a number related to searching for treasure, and my favorite, up near the top, boasts that the carver could write higher than anyone else. There is also a gorgeous carving of a lion, with a back so smooth you wouldn't think it could be shaped in stone.

Within sight of Maes Howe are two sets of standing stones and a Neolithic village (Of course, in this windy land of no trees, within sight can still mean several miles). I made my way out that direction, basking in the sunlight but still wearing two coats against the wind. When I visited Callanish a few weeks ago I was struck by how tall the stones were, which surprised me because you have no comparison from far away (#notrees). I swear the Stones of Stenness are taller. There are only a few left, but they are a very impressive sight.

This patch of ground is riddled with ancient work. There are single stones in other places (including someone's yard?), the Barnhouse Village, the Ness of Brodgar, and the Ring of Brodgar. Enough that I wasn't surprised when I learned the next day that the population of Orkney at this point was actually higher than it is today. The Ring of Brodgar is huge. It is a single large ring which consisted of 60 standing stones originally, of which 36 are standing today. And, even more exciting, there weren't many visitors when I arrived. It even had two convenient mounds that we could climb up to take pictures of the whole circle. I'm sure if I visit again in a few years these will have been excavated as tombs with tour guides bemoaning how the previous idiots weakened the roof by running up the sides.

The day's adventures, however, did not end with my return to the bus stop. Because there was a fire that had closed the road. And I was on a bus with all the schoolchildren who were trying to get home. The bus proceeded to take an alternate route (first passing the "road closed" sign and continuing towards the smoke), which involved driving in circles to get the kids home, and backing down a one lane road to find a place to let a string of cars go by. Scottish bus drivers will never cease to amaze me. They're fearless.

Once I got back to Kirkwall, I paid a visit to Annie Glue, a knitter I had met in Edinburgh who had kindly offered to show me her studio! She showed me the knitting machine, the linker, the boxes of patterns for the machine, and many examples of her work. All interspersed with visits from her lively puppy (in contrast to the happily sleeping ferrets). There are two big things that I didn't know about knitting machines. 1) they have a lot of resistance! The piece that runs across the teeth has roughly the size and shape of an iron, so I expected it to be as easy to move. False. It requires a very deliberate motion, and l suspect that many of these knitters have the finger and wrist strength that some climbers work hard to acquire! 2) the patterns are all repeats of 24 stitches. This means that designing a pattern for a knitting machine requires a whole different form of ingenuity than handknitting. Each pattern needs to match seamlessly at both sides, and the designs must lend themselves to repetition. Also, curved shapes require careful thought in order to create smooth lines. This was very enlightening to me, because I had previously thought of knitting machines as able to recreate any and all color patterns I could imagine in half the time.

I had more time to think about the challenges of designing repetitious patterns when I visited a shop the next day selling knitwear and wool. They had a large selection of knits with Celtic knotworkdesigns. Naturally, this caught my eye. These were an intriguing challenge. The plait work, after all, lends itself to repetition, but creating smooth curves is a challenge in only 24 stitches. If I get the chance, I would like to try adapting some of my knots from last year into knitting patterns (they're already pixelated after all!).

After a quick tour of the beautiful red sandstone cathedral, and an even quicker walk through the Orkney museum, I caught the bus to Skara Brae. This is a special place. Wandering around, looking into the ruins, I found it difficult to believe they could be 5000 years old. The stonework looked so stable. The shelves so normal. The rooms so comfortably sized. And everything is so well preserved. Almost as difficult for me to believe is that it's thought that 50-100 people lived in this village. And that they had a sustainable lifestyle and could spend time creating artwork. Thanks to a friendly and lively staff member, I learned more than I expected about the complexities of this group of people. They had a rich diet, an extensive trade network, and skilled builders. The houses were connected by roofed tunnels (I assume it was windy then too) and I was very surprised to hear that the houses in Skara Brae had locking doors. He even showed me the drainage system running underneath the village! Apparently persistent inquisitiveness is a welcome trait here, because people keep answering my questions with a friendliness and an extensive knowledge that exceeds my expectations.

Also, apparently I'm shorter than the average Neolithic Scot.

And then I wound up back in Kirkwall, waiting for the ferry, sipping tea and listening to music, before catching the bus back out to the ferry port to catch the next sailing north to Shetland, curling up to sleep on a bench in the ferry bar.

Friday, September 4, 2015

first week photos

Tobermory Harbor

First glimpse of the mountains

So. Many. Jellyfish.

Beach on Mull

My new friend - we have the same haircut

It wasn't always sunny...

Follow the leader

North from Iona...

...and south from Iona

Town and the Iona Abbey

Headed back to the mainland

Oban Harbor

Knit lampposts - this is my kind of town