^ Tom Kent, A Shetland Knitter: in this posed scene a woman knits a shawl of Shetland-lace type, while wearing a similar shawl, with another over her straw-backed chair. Other essential domestic items also appear: an upright spinning wheel for wool or flax, a cubbie for storing balls of wool, and a double cruisie lamp hanging on the wall
© Orkney Library & Archive

These paintings of Shetland interiors, below, include tools and equipment for textile crafts as an integral part of the home, probably providing supplementary income. The view by Ursula Wood shows an upright spinning wheel and two ladies knitting Shetland lace. In the painting by Robert Tucker Pain the stages of cloth production can be seen, with the spinner at her wheel, hanks of wool over the back of the settle and hanging from the beam, and a partly-warped loom behind.

Robert Tucker Pain (1840-1942), No. 2 Interior of a Shetland Cottage, 1877,
oil on canvas; acc. no. ART 2009.145
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Ursula Wood (1868-1930), Shetland Fireside, 1900,
oil on board; acc. no. ART 8683
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Pair of wool carders, Orkney, early twentieth century

Pair of wool carders, Orkney, early twentieth century; acc. no. 1976.2
© Orkney Islands Council

The process of carding is used to soften and open up the fibres of raw wool before it is spun. The repetitive action of passing fibres from the metal teeth on one carder to the other also straightens out any bumps. Once sufficiently soft, the carders are used to roll the fibres into a rolag (a sausage-like shape) for spinning.

^ Jenny (Janet) Seatter from Hundland, Papa Westray, with a pair of carders at her feet, feeding a rolag onto a spindle.
Seated in a straw-backed chair, she also wears a Fair Isle-knitted tam o’ shanter.
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Tom Kent, A woman spinning, Orkney. The wool for carding and carders are in a loosely-woven basket next to her chair, while the check or jack reel (also called a click or clock reel) to her right, is used for winding yarn into skeins of equal length
© Orkney Library & Archive

Samples of Orkney fleece and spun wool, dyed mainly from local wild flowers and lichens, mid-twentieth century

Samples of Orkney fleece and spun wool, mid-twentieth century;
acc. nos. 1981.172.1, 1981.172.3, 1981.172.6
© Orkney Islands Council

This group of samples in Orkney Museum’s collection has been dyed with iris root, tea, fuchsia, crotal or lichen, Old Man’s Beard and corn marigold. They were prepared and labelled by Miss Jean Robertson of Crantit, St Ola.

John Logie, Spinning wheel, late nineteenth century, carved oak

John Logie, Spinning wheel, late nineteenth century,
carved oak; acc. no. 1993.17
© Orkney Islands Council

The carved decoration of this spinning wheel is influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. It was made by John Logie for Eliza D’Oyly Burroughs (1849-1908). She married Frederick William Traill Burroughs (1831-1905) of Rousay and Viera in 1870. They commissioned Edinburgh architect David Bryce to build them a new house at Trumland from 1873.

^ Mrs Burroughs with the spinning wheel made by John Logie at Trumland House
© Orkney Library & Archive

The maker of this spinning wheel, John Logie (b. 1856), was butler at Trumland House in the late nineteenth century. He was a talented artist and photographer and some of his paintings survive in private collections in Orkney. After the deaths of Sir Frederick Traill Burroughs and his wife, Logie continued as steward to the Trumland estate.

The spinning wheel was purchased for Orkney Museum with Government grant aid through the National Fund for Acquisitions, administered by the National Museums of Scotland.

“James Pursel, Dalkeith”, Spinning wheel, mid-to-late nineteenth century

“James Pursel, Dalkeith”, Spinning wheel, mid-to-late nineteenth century; acc. no. 1989.8
© Orkney Islands Council

This wool spinning wheel was used by Isabella Harvey of Winksetter in Harray. She married John Corrigall (d. 1893) of Northbigging, Harray. Since John Corrigall’s family was related to the Corrigalls of Midhouse, now the site of Corrigall Farm Museum, the donor wished the spinning wheel to be displayed there.

^ Iron spinning wheel, made by Deerness blacksmith, Robert Dick
© Orkney Islands Council

Werner Kissling (1895-1988) was born in modern-day Poland to an aristocratic German family, but left his career in the diplomatic service to follow his interests in ethnography and photography. He travelled to the Outer Hebrides, staying in South Uist and Eriskay, taking photographs and film footage of people’s daily activities that would become Eriskay: A Poem of Remote Lives (1934). He also worked for various museums and universities and undertook research visits to Dumfries and Galloway, North Yorkshire and New Zealand with his camera. Kissling settled in Dumfries in 1968, but died in poverty, with his rich photographic archive only becoming known after his death and now in various public collections.

View Eriskay: A Poem of Remote Lives here at the National Library of Scotland.

^ Werner Kissling, A woman spinning, South Uist, 1930s; acc. no. 1993.1.3
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

Linen, Orkney, early nineteenth century

Damask napkin of flax reputedly grown, spun and woven in Orkney; inscribed ‘G.T. 1823’; from Holland House, Papa Westray; acc. no. 1980.128
© Orkney Islands Council

From the mid-eighteenth century until 1830, a linen-weaving industry grew up in Orkney, encouraged by the British Linen Board. Flax was already grown in Orkney, but quantities were increased, as well as imported to keep up with demand. Once the flax had been processed, it was spun by women and woven into cloth by men, then bleached and stamped for quality, before being exported to Newcastle, London, and also Shetland.

While linen-weaving took place in nearly all Orkney parishes at this time, the centre of the industry was Holm because the Graeme family of Graemeshall organised their tenants so that every stage of the process could take place on the estate.

Linen-weaving eventually declined because mechanisation in industrial centres further south meant that Orkney could no longer compete with the speed and quality of linen production in other areas.

Linen, Holm, Orkney, early nineteenth century; acc. no. 1977.70
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Damask table cloth of flax reputedly grown, spun and woven in Orkney, inscribed ‘1758 N.S.’; from Holland House, Papa Westray; acc. no. 1980.129
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Glass linen smoother
© Orkney Islands Council

Pair of child’s socks, 1907, cotton

Pair of child’s socks, 1907, cotton; acc. no. 2016.18
© Orkney Islands Council

This pair of socks was given to John Robert Hourston, born in Tankerness on 29th July 1907. The socks were made by Mary Ann Cooper, born in Stronsay in 1882, who learnt to spin and knit as a child. She met John’s mother, Isabella Wright, when her family moved to Tankerness and they lived in the same area for the rest of their lives.

The yarn for the socks was hand-spun and knitted by Mary Ann and believed to have been wild bog cotton. Although it grows in short tufts, and is often used for stuffing pillows, bog cotton has also been used to make thread and cloth. It featured at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the form of “garments woven by crofting women … much admired for their beauty and fine texture.” 

Bog Cotton, Flotta, known as Lucky Minni’s Oo in Orkney
© Rebecca Marr

John Hourston died at the age of 98 in 2005. The socks were never worn because they were too special, but he kept them all his life. The Hourston family presented them to Orkney Museum in 2016 along with the fascinating story of their production and history.

^ A pair of wedding stockings,
reputedly knitted from bog cotton, nineteenth century
© Orkney Islands Council

Shetland lace knitting

Lace-knitted shawl (detail), nineteenth century; acc. no. TEX 7789b
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Mid-nineteenth-century Shetland lace shawl as worn; acc. no. TEX 7778
© Shetland Museum and Archives

Shetlanders wore knitted shawls for warmth, but the lace knitting industry is thought to have evolved from knitted stockings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as techniques and patterns were refined and markets for island textiles grew from the 1830s.

Shetland has its own native breed of sheep which is noted for its fine and soft wool. To create lace-knitted items, the wool has to be very finely spun so that it is light, but strong. While shawls and stoles were mainly produced in the early years of the industry, other items included blouses and jumpers, children’s clothes, mittens and decorative covers for the home, especially in the early twentieth century.

^ Lace-knitted vest, early twentieth century; acc. no. TEX 76153
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ Lace-knitted jumper, early twentieth century; acc. no. TEX 8939b
© Shetland Museum and Archives

With knitters all over Shetland, different patterns and motifs developed and were given alternative names or adapted by knitters to make their work unique. For example, Frances Lambert, who was embroideress to Queen Victoria and ran a needlework shop in central London, included ‘Twelve Patterns for Shetland shawls, etc.’ in The Hand-Book of Needlework, Decorative and Ornamental, which she published in 1846. Some of the patterns she describes, such as ‘Zigzag Stripe Pattern’, ‘Shell Pattern’, ‘Leaf and Trellis Pattern’, and ‘Spider Web Pattern’, are found in Shetland lace knitting, although with different names.

Details of Shetland lace patterns
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^Knitting pattern, Bestway Traditional Shetland Scarves & Shawls, 1950s; acc. no. TEX 1990.505
© Shetland Museum and Archives

The origin and identification of knitted motifs was made more complicated by ‘Shetland’ patterns being published or produced in other parts of Britain.

Recent research and cataloguing projects by Shetland Museum have identified individual designs and patterns and their geographical origins by consulting historic examples in the collection and current lace knitters, as well as tracing and analysing knitting patterns elsewhere in the country.

^‘Price List of Shetland Goods Manufactured by Miss Johnston’,
The Gentlewoman, December 1913; ref. no. D.6/263/11
© Shetland Museum and Archives

^ J.D. Rattar, Shetland Knitters showing Andrina Petrie, Barbara Petrie (née Tait), Jessie Rattar (née Petrie),
and Joey Petrie working on lace, plain and Fair Isle pieces; ref. no. R02679
© Shetland Museum and Archives

View the 1945 film Shetland Wool at the National Library of Scotland.

Pair of knitted wedding stockings, Lewis, early 1920s, wool

Pair of knitted wedding stockings, Lewis, early 1920s, wool; acc. no. 1999.34
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

This pair of wedding stockings was made by a cousin for Kenneth (Red) Macleod prior to his leaving for Canada with three hundred emigrants on the Canadian Pacific liner Metagama on 21st April 1923. Many families and individuals left the Western Isles in the early twentieth century in search of better lives. Most of the young men went to work on farms in Ontario.

Macleod was from Bayble, east of Stornoway in Lewis. The village has also been home to writers in English and Gaelic, Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998), Derick Thomson (1921-2012), and Anne Frater (b. 1967).

The knitted pattern includes the words ‘LOVE THE GIVER’, also incorporating a star motif, often seen in Scandinavian designs, and a ‘Tree of Life’ motif, sometimes found on Eriskay ganseys or fishermen’s jumpers.

Jacket and skirt, Lewis, c1970, wool; acc. no. 2007.13.1
© Museum & Tasglann nan Eilean

This suit was hand-knitted without a pattern by Henrietta Garden (née Mackenzie) from Sheshader, Point, Isle of Lewis using tweed yarns. She has added crochet edgings and wool-covered buttons.

Socks, North Ronaldsay, c. 1960, wool

Sock, North Ronaldsay, c. 1960, wool; acc. no. 1984.11
© Orkney Islands Council

The socks were knitted by Mrs Tulloch of Cruesbreck, North Ronaldsay, for Joseph Grimond (1913-1993), Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland from 1950 to 1983, to three North Ronaldsay designs. Their worn condition suggests they were well-used by the owner.

There is a pencil portrait of Grimond by Juliet Pannett MBE, FRSA on display in the library at Orkney Museum. It was commissioned by the Illustrated London News, of which she was Special Artist, in 1962, and purchased for the Museum’s collection.

North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island in Orkney and has a native ancient breed of sheep. Since 1832, when a sheep-dyke around the perimeter of the island was completed, the sheep have been confined to the seashore, except for lambing, and have adapted to a diet of seaweed. Numbers are regulated and the flock and dyke managed by the North Ronaldsay Sheep Court.

Three times a year the sheep are gathered in stone enclosures, or ‘punded’, by the islanders for shearing, selecting for market and counting.

^ Socks, North Ronaldsay, c. 1960, wool; acc. no. 1984.11
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Socks, North Ronaldsay, c. 1960, wool; acc. no. 1989.193
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Socks, North Ronaldsay, c. 1960, wool; acc. no. 1989.192
© Orkney Islands Council

This jumper was knitted in Aran pattern by Mary Tulloch of Burray, North Ronaldsay, from ‘Pure North Ronaldsay Native Sheep Wool’.

Man’s jumper, North Ronaldsay, 1990s, wool; acc. no. 2000.210
© Orkney Islands Council

Historically, wool from native sheep was spun and woven or knitted in the homes of islanders. Natural colours range from cream and grey to brown and black. However, in more recent times, fleece was sent away for processing and made very little money in comparison to meat from the sheep. From the mid-1990s, North Ronaldsay yarn began to be sold as a distinctive product and, in 1996, a mill was set up on the island to process the wool. A Yarn from North Ronaldsay Ltd produces yarns, felt and rovings for sale and offers tours of the mill.

Orkney is also famous for commercial knitwear. Scapa Knitwear Ltd and Isle of Sanday Knitters (Orkney) Ltd employed Orkney hand- and machine-knitters working in their own homes and sold their products internationally from the 1970s to the 1990s. Judith Glue started designing locally-inspired knitwear in the 1980s, and her daughter, Annie Glue, is now also a knitwear designer. Both have shops in Kirkwall.

^ North Ronaldsay sheep on the shore
© Rebecca Marr

Sarah Knight (North Ronaldsay 1985)
Mina Tulloch (North Ronaldsay 1987)
Sydney & Tia Scott (North Ronaldsay 1988)
Meg Peace & Sissy Rendall (Stronsay 1989)

Blanket, Orkney, c.1890, wool

^ Blanket, Orkney, c.1890, wool; acc. no. 1992.21
© Orkney Islands Council

^ Hand-loom used by George Merriman, Corrigall Farm Museum
© Orkney Islands Council

^ At the loom, Westray
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Tom Kent, Weaver’s Loom, Birsay, pictured with a muckle or great wheel
© Orkney Library & Archive

^ Willie Grieve of Digro, Rousay, in the loom house, c. 1945
© Orkney Library & Archive

Wool from local sheep has been woven for many centuries in Orkney, with at least one weaver in every parish. A hand-loom used by George Merriman of Harray is in the Council’s collection and displayed at Corrigall Farm Museum, with partly-finished cloth still on the loom. The blanket pictured above was woven by Merriman when the loom was at his home at the Wilderness, Dounby, with wool from sheep reared at Skelday, Birsay, spun by Mrs Jane Isbister. As it was not possible to weave the full width required on a hand-loom, locally-made blankets comprise two widths joined by a central seam.

Once woven, cloth had to be shrunk before it could be used. This involved ‘waulking’, starting with soaking, then twisting and beating the cloth to squeeze out the water. Waulkmill Bay in Orphir takes its name from this process because it seems to have happened on a larger scale there. The cloth was then laid out to bleach in the sun before being held over a heat source and stretched and rolled until free of creases.

^ ‘Walkan’ A Wab’ (shrinking a blanket) at the Wilderness, Dounby;
image taken from Sheila Spence, Aspects of Orkney: More Old Orkney Trades, 1996
© Orkney Library & Archive

In the Outer Hebrides, the process of ‘waulking’ the tweed was done by hand until the mid-twentieth century and was a social occasion involving groups of women (and sometimes men) working together. It was usually accompanied by songs, the beat of which helped to keep everyone’s hands or feet in time as they pummelled the cloth.

Listen here to the Gaelic online sound archive, Tobar an Dualchais, for examples of waulking songs from different island locations.

^ Orain Luaidh: Waulking Songs, published by Harris Tweed Association (1986)