Vintage Shetland: A Fabulous Project

Susan Crawford and Donna Druchunas, England 2010

Susan Crawford and Donna Druchunas, England 2010

Whatever you pay attention to is what you will notice. I pay attention to knitting, history, travel, and writing. And that leads me to notice many interesting people. Sometimes I find them through intentional searches, and sometimes I just stumble upon them. I don’t remember exactly how I met Susan Crawford, but a few years ago when I found myself in Cheshire, England–about halfway between Manchester and Liverpool, where Susan was living at the time–we decided to meet.

I’d been following Susan’s work before our meeting, but ever since then I have paid more attention to what she is doing because her work and mine share several core components. We both love knitting and wool, we both are interested in history, and we search for the intersection between the two. Where knitting and history connect, there are always fascinating stories about people. When we look at a vintage sweater, and we consider the times when it was made and worn, we can connect to people who are long gone and we can understand what their life may have been like.

Susan’s past projects have all been based on updating vintage patterns for modern knitters and creating vintage-style designs that are comfortable and fashionable in today’s world. All four of her books are among my favoritesA Stitch in Time, Vintage Knitting and crochet patterns, 1920-1949 (vol 1) which was co-authored with the Jane Waller, A Stitch in Time, Vintage Knitting Patterns 1930-1959 (vol 2), Vintage Gifts to Knit, a collection of vintage inspired knitting patterns and Coronation Knits, a pattern collection inspired by the fashions of the Coronation year, 1953

Susan’s current project is one I’ve been anticipating since she first mentioned it on Twitter:

The Vintage Shetland Project by Susan Crawford

The Vintage Shetland Project is the culmination of several years research by knitting anthropologist Susan Crawford. With the help and support of Carol Christiansen, textile curator at the Shetland Museum, Susan has researched hand-knitted garments and accessories from the 20th Century, which are held in the Museum’s archives. Susan has studied 25 pieces, recording their construction stitch for stitch then recreated them for the Vintage Shetland Project. These pieces – all with their own unique story to tell – have been developed into comprehensive multi-sized knitting patterns, complete with instructions, technical advice and illustrated with colour photography shot in Shetland.

With an introduction reflecting on the story of each hand-knit item this book is a treasury of Shetland knitting patterns and an insight into Shetland’s rich textile traditions.

The Vintage Shetland Project

The Vintage Shetland Project: Fashion and History Intertwined, by Susan Crawford

Vintage — history, the past, a world gone by. I love the past. I am not a conservative or reactionary person. I don’t want to live in the past or embrace the past as an ideal. I don’t believe in the “good ole days,” nor am I nostalgic for some imagined romantic time long ago. But I love the past nonetheless. I am especially enthralled with objects of the past, objects that were made by hand, objects that convey the spirit of the times, objects that create a sensual experience that is completely different than my day-to-day life. I rarely wear sweaters that I made myself. Most of the sweaters I wear were made by my grandmother when I was a little girl, or even before I was born. These sweaters keep Grandma in my life, even though she’s been gone from this world since the late 90s. Vintage patterns and garments give us away to connect to our own past, and to connect to people who are very different than we are but whose humanity we can find through the stitches they made with hands very much like our own.

“When I first began researching the knitwear of the early 20th Century contained in the Shetland Museum archive over two years ago, my only criteria where for the items to be beautiful, unique and to tell a story – their own story or to be part of the story of Shetland, its inhabitants or its knitwear industry.

The more I studied them, the more I fell in love with them. But as I considered why I loved each piece it occurred to me that in so many of them there was an imperfection, a flaw, sometimes in the knitting, sometimes in the construction, sometimes in the yarns used, but often because the garment had been washed, worn, loved, repaired, worn more, washed again, shrunk, adapted, repaired again, enlarged, worn more, passed on, loved more… and so each story continued.

In The Vintage Shetland Project, Susan is taking us back in time to visit knitters who didn’t get to tell their stories in words.

What is N. Patteron's story? TEX1996-22 owner's name on back neck zip. Back neck steek visible.

What is N. Patteron’s story?
TEX1996-22 owner’s name on back neck zip. Back neck steek visible.

Shetland — Scotland, England, the United Kingdom. To me, this is a foreign country, one of mystery and magic. I’ve visited England and Scotland several times and it is always a surreal experience. When I read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit when I was a little girl, I thought they were so unusual, so fantastical. But much of what I found to be so enticingly exotic in those books was simply their Englishness. I love that Vintage Shetland will give me yet another way to enter the world of Scotland. (If you live in the UK, I’m sure you have a different perception of what may seem completely normal to you, although the Shetlands, being small islands, are magical in their own way, even for those who live on the “big island” in the UK. But time travel with Susan to experience the Shetland Islands at a time when life there was very different than what it is today.)

For the past four years Susan has been traveling to Shetland twice a year to carry out research for the Vintage Shetland Project and take the chosen items through an often painstaking process to enable her to recreate 25 hand-knit pieces from the Shetland Museum textile collection. These items have been donated to the museum over the years and are largely the products of creative knitting minds, rather than from commercial patterns.

In The Vintage Shetland Project, Susan is giving us a tour of Shetland through the stitches and garments made by creative women who lived there in the past.

TEX 8946 1920s cross over front tunic with matching tam

TEX 8946 1920s cross over front tunic with matching tam

Susan Crawford — designer, interpreter, writer, translator. Susan takes vintage pattern language and updates it for modern knitters. This is no easy task. The way patterns were written in the past is often very different than what we are used to today, especially for those of us who are Americans, but to some extent to all knitters who work from English-language patterns. Sometimes it’s simply the common abbreviations that have changed. Sometimes the techniques that were used in the past have fallen out of use today. Sometimes patterns were only written for one size, or didn’t include gauge, or didn’t give any suggestions for yarn substitution. But in this project, Susan has gone beyond the ability to translate vintage patterns into modern English knitting language and she is translating the stitches in the vintage garments into written instructions and charts. This is a phenomenal undertaking! What a gift to us as knitters.

Each piece has gone through a process of transcribing each and every stitch, taking comprehensive measurements and numerous images. In addition to this Susan has worked to recreate the garments as close to the original yarns and colours as possible. In order to transcribe the stitch patterns used into charts Susan’s husband Gavin has created a computer programme to enable colour charts to be created from each shade’s numerical code.

In The Vintage Shetland Project, Susan Crawford guides us through a place that may be faraway and seem foreign or exotic, or that may be in our own back yard, strange only because of it’s distance in time.

Vintage Shetland: A Fabulous Project 1

Susan Crawford examining a vintage sweater at the Shetland Museum Archives

Please take a look at Susan’s Vintage Shetland project Pubslush campaign and if you love history and knitting, pre-order a copy from her and perhaps make a contribution that is larger than the amount needed to pay for the book. Susan will get to continue pursuing her dreams and giving us more fabulous knitting books and patterns, and you’l receive a fabulous reward to treasure!


Knitting, Travel

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