I knitted my first jumper when I was 10. It had brown and yellow stripes — which seemed a good colour choice in 1969 — and I finished it in time for my first school trip.
I then knitted my way through adolescence and, by the time I arrived at university, I knitted as a way of dealing with alienation and homesickness.
In my first year there I held knitting classes in my room and taught a group of mainly male undergraduates the difference between purl and plain. While they learned how to wrap the wool around the needle — many of them doing so with languid irony — I showed off with Aran, mohair and with the thing I liked best of all: Fair Isle, which involves knitting with two colours at the same time. I designed patterned jumpers for myself, for my family. Every successive boyfriend got his own jumper with his name knitted into the back.
Tired of the garish colours available in London shops, I started sending off to the Shetlands for yarn in more muted shades. I would hurry down to the porters’ lodge in the morning to see if brown parcels containing skeins in heather and mossy green had arrived. Jamieson & Smith of Lerwick, it would say on the label.
In the 35 years since then, children, work and the invention of polar fleece have taken their toll on my knitted output. Yet when the FT’s travel editor put out an email asking if anyone fancied going to the Shetlands for a Fair Isle knitting weekend, my fingers started an involuntary twitching. Of all the possible holidays, I could think of none that were better made for me.
Ten days later, I was sitting with a friend in a hire car by the deserted dock at Toft, watching the back of a departing ferry. The hail was falling in horizontal lines. It was 10 hours since I had left my house in unseasonably mild London, three of which had been spent in Aberdeen airport, packed full of the rough-faced men who work on oil rigs, waiting for a delayed flight to Sumburgh. From there it was a long drive through the dark to Toft, a long wait for the next ferry, and then a breakneck journey north across the next island — Yell — so as not to miss the last ferry north. Never has an island been more aptly named, I thought, as we hurtled through Yell on the dark icy roads, trying to avoid the sheep, who were inclined to wander on to the road, their eyes flashing red in the car headlines.
By the time we reached Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in Britain, it had been dark for nearly six hours — and was only 9pm. You can’t miss Belmont House, said the man on the ferry, but in the pitch black you could, and we did. Even when we found it, there was no one in, our half-dozen fellow knitters having gone to the opera — somewhat implausibly, given that there are barely 600 people on the island — and we couldn’t find the key that had been left.
When we finally opened the door and got out of the hail into a restored Georgian house, entirely painted in Farrow & Ball, I was on a weird sort of high. We had made it to the edge of the world, surrounded only by sea and sheep. The trouble with most travel, I thought as I settled into my bed in a pretty attic room, is that it is too easy.
Later that night, woken by the cold, I fished out of my luggage the Fair Isle jumper I’d knitted from Lerwick wool in 1980. It was coming apart a bit at the seams but otherwise holding up well. I felt rather less proud of it the next morning, seeing the work of our housemates. One was making an impossibly delicate work in greens and mauves. Another showed a picture of an intricate woven carpet she’d made. Someone else had knitted a garden fence out of twine on curtain rails.
The chief knitter and teacher on the course was Kathy Coull, who is one of 60 inhabitants of Fair Isle and can make anything at all out of the soft wool that grows on the backs of the sheep that roam around her cottage. The class began with the inspection of a muddy fleece recently shorn from one of them, and then of wool that had been washed. Each was given a handful of matted wool and shown how to comb it by attacking with a pair of brushes.
As I beat at the fibre, trying to get it to lie in neat lines, I learnt my first lesson about wool. Its warmth is miraculous — both in itself and in the heat that comes from working it. Central heating has made us lose respect for warmth; but in the land of horizontal hail and draughty houses, it is the greatest gift there is.
We then learnt how to turn the fibres into felt. We wet them, soaped them, and scrubbed at them with Bubble Wrap. Outside, for the few hours of daylight, the sheep grazed on the icy grass, while inside half a dozen women arranged fibres of wool into pictures of squiggles, sunsets and peacock feathers.
This was lesson two. There is a joy in making something alongside other people doing the same thing. We combed and felted, happy together. There were no phones ringing, or rival attractions of any sort.
Just as I was wondering whether I wouldn’t have been happier born on Unst and devoting my entire life to wool, we were shown a video about the downtrodden women of Shetland in the past. They knitted all day and half the night, only to exchange the fine lace and Fair Isle designs they had knitted not for cash but for a little food.
A hundred years on, the islands’ knitters are better at standing up for themselves. Last year two designers from Chanel visited Fair Isle and examined designs of assorted jumpers — some of which appeared almost unchanged on the catwalk. The knitter, Mati Ventrillon, complained; resulting in a grovelling, public apology from the fashion house for what it claimed had been a “team dysfunction”.
Now the knitters of Fair Isle are rather better paid for their labours — Kathy Coull has just sold a jumper made to her own design to a man in Japan for £900. Not only did she knit it herself, she had spun the wool herself from her own sheep, with the result that the jumper is as soft as cashmere. Spinning, she assured us, was easy. She held a spindle in one hand and some fibre in another, and twisted until the spool filled. Hers was smooth and even; when I tried I produced a length of uneven yarn in which some bits spun as thin as thread and some as fat as my finger. I couldn’t get the hang of it, so gave up and went to bed — just as a man stepped in from the windswept darkness bearing an accordion. He played music into the night while the other spinners span.
The next day I was meant to be flying to Fair Isle to visit the birthplace of my jumper. But the wind was still howling and even if the plane had got there safely I was warned I could be stranded for weeks. Instead I made do with buying 10 balls of wool from Kathy’s Fair Isle sheep and got to work at once.
I have always had a mild inferiority complex about how I knit. I anchor a needle in my groin and take my hand off the needle to pass the wool around — much to the scorn of English knitters who flick the yarn around with a single finger. But as I watched the Shetland-born woman knitting next to me, I noticed she was doing it my way, her needle stuck into a bulbous leather oval strapped to her waist. What’s that, I asked. It’s a knitting belt, she said, eyes stretched wide in amazement that I had never seen such a thing.
Now with a new knitting project, and with the vindication that comes from knowing my technique had been right all along, I left Unst, stopping for the night at the Scalloway Hotel. Here the proprietor told me the bed in my room was stuffed with soft Shetland wool and cost £7,000, and that David Cameron has slept in it last year when he visited the Shetlands trying to whip up support for the “No” vote on Scottish secession. Sinking into the impossibly soft and warm mattress I was briefly troubled by the thought of the prime minister’s body occupying the same intimate space, but the wool was so warm and comfortable I didn’t lie awake for long.
I woke the next day to a patch of blue sky and asked at the hotel which was the best direction to strike out on a walk. The proprietor looked surprised. “I don’t walk. I have a car,” he said, his substantial torso enclosed in a surprisingly manly Fair Isle cardigan. We set out on foot over the stubbly ground, with views of the sea and islands dotted outwards, but after 10 minutes, freezing rain was being flung in our faces and we turned back and set off to Lerwick in the car to find the home of my wool.
Jamieson & Smith turned out to be in a corrugated iron shed on the edge of town, which it has occupied for decades. Inside were sacks of wool ready for dispatch to knitters in the US and China, while at the back the fleeces were sorted by the same man who has been doing it for 40 years. On the shelves were the same colours I used to knit with, the only difference being that back then they were skeins, now they are disappointingly ordinary-looking balls. Alongside the wool was a basket of leather knitting belts in every colour. I bought one in bright orange, strapped it around my waist and, on the interminable journey back home, on ferries, planes, cars and trains, knitted the entire way back to warm, crowded London.
She was a guest of Visit Scotland (visitscotland.com), Belmont House (belmontunst.co.uk) and the Scalloway Hotel (scallowayhotel). Kathy Coull runs courses in traditional textiles on mainland Shetland and Fair Isle, and offers accommodation on a working croft on Fair Isle. Her four-day course at Belmont House costs from £420 per person, including accommodation. For more on visiting Shetland see shetland.org; Mati Ventrillon’s jumpers can be ordered at mativentrillon.co.uk
Photographs: Mati Ventrillon; Steven Smith