As a bairn I grew up with the name “wirsit”, it was the most common description of knitting yarns which played such an important role in the Shetland way of life and economy. From a very early age I remember my mother telling me to hold out my arms whereon she would place a hank of “wirsit” (yarn) and proceed to wind it into a ball before beginning her hand knitting.
The English definition of the term “wirsit” is worsted the other spinning method is woollen spun, worsted spins a smoother stronger finer leaner yarn and is more suitable to knitting fine lace.
In 2008 I received a phone call from the late James Moncrieff, the general manager of the Shetland Amenity Trust; I could not envisage at the time what a huge impact that phone call would have on textiles, wool producers and Shetland in general.
James, better known as “Jeemie”, said we had never met and he would appreciate if I could visit him at his office at Garthspool, former home of fishing merchant Shearers, the last company in Shetland to process herring in the late 1960s. I took up his invitation and on entering the building I was impressed at how all the original wood had been restored the flooring was of reclaimed street flagstone.
I was shown into James Moncrieff’s office and met with Jeemie, he had said “We have never met before,” I replied, “Not recently, however I knew your family. Your dad Tammie tried to teach me navigation at the Central School, and when I joined J&S I used to deliver yarn to your mother at your home at the Lodberries when you were a child”. He appeared to be quite taken by this and responded by saying at this stage; “Yes, Mam was a very busy knitter.”
It would be fair to say from that moment until shortly before he prematurely passed away we were very good friends and worked well together. Our last conversation was at Bells Brae School at Up Helly Aa, 2016, where Jeemie was a host. We were discussing our past ventures and agreed we should meet up and plan our next development. Sadly he passed away a few weeks later.
Jeemie began that first meeting by saying, “I have brought you here to show you a short film I made while working as a volunteer helping clear up after the tsunami at Tamal Nadu, Coastal India.”
The film was about an Indian lady that was helping show poor people how to revive the art of hand silk making, which would help them improve their impoverished situation. “Very interesting,” I said, “but what does this have to do with us in Shetland?”. “It is my wish,” he replied, “to revive that art of Shetland lace, as you know they aren’t many folk knitting lace. Unless we do something it will vanish.
“I was given your name and told you would help. What we need from you is to produce ‘wirsit’, recreate as near as possible the original yarn used in times gone by when lace knitting was vital to the community”.
I said, “We have lace yarn, that is not a problem.” “No” he replied, “you have woollen spun lace. We need 100% Shetland lace ‘wirsit’ spun.”
Woollen spun Shetland lace yarn in order to spin it fine enough needs to have added strength by introducing lamb’s wool to the blend. There is practically no lamb’s wool in Shetland, we purchase almost 85% of the local wool clip and precious little is lamb’s wool. This has to come from out-with Shetland and is normally Australian Merino wool.
“Can you do this?” was his question. I said, “Yes we can!”
When I went back to the store I hunted around until I found a sample cone of Shetland worsted spun lace sent to us by Daniel Isbeque of Curtis Wool Direct around about 2004.
I tried at that time to have a batch spun but was told “no”, by my former boss Eva Smith.
We had the natural undyed Shetland combed top supplied by our parent company Curtis Wool Direct from Shetland wool we sent them. It was produced in their combing plant in Bradford. Combing is part of the process stage before worsted spinning takes place.
All we needed was to convince Curtis Wool to help and invest in this project. On approaching them I was told prepare a business plan including marketing sales projections and they would consider it. I met up with Jeemie, told him what was required and we worked out a plan of action. Several weeks later, we had a commitment from Curtis Wool to make a small trial batch, and subject to positive knitting trials we would get the green light to produce a range of natural undyed shades.
I approached two of the most experienced lace knitters I knew, Mary Eunson and Mary Kay, both of Lerwick, and they both agreed to knit the trial batch. When the yarn arrived there was a great deal of excitement the yarn was extremely fine and strong, with a very smooth handle. I visited the two Marys and left them with the yarn. A few days later I again went to see them; the knitting was superb and the extremely fine. Mary Eunson had commented, “Lovely yarn, but it is as thin as the hair on your head, I cannot see inexperienced knitters managing it and also the darker shades would be difficult to see when knitting because of its fineness.” I asked Mary to put her findings in writing. I next visited Mary Kay, she agreed with Mary and added this is an exceptional yarn; hand spinners beware this as close to a hand spun lace yarn as you could get. Again she did a report and both were sent off to Curtis, along with the museum’s comments.
“This is all very well and good however this was only from a Shetland perspective. We need comments from a wider international audience before considering it.” A fair comment, in my opinion.
Immediately I contacted an old friend in the U.S.A., Myrna Stahman, knitter, designer, author and lace instructor. We discussed the project and she was eager to help so I sent off two small cones. Several weeks later I received excellent news; Myrna had taken the yarn to her knitting retreat and supplied it to her knitters. She had also prepared a comments sheet which each knitter filled in. Myrna sent this to me by email and I remember such was the detail and volume of content it froze my computer!
I passed on the reports and findings to the parent company and was given the green light to proceed.
The yarn would be made slightly thicker than the original trial in the five shades of natural colours. We had to place a fairly large order of singles yarn and so decided we would also make a 2 ply lace weight yarn as well, another bonus! At this stage the yarns were on cone only and we had to rewind and put on 250 gram cones as requested by the majority in Myrna’s report. Their reason, why cone and not ball that with cones you could knit a complete shawl from a cone thus avoiding knots if it were on a 25 gram ball.
We received the first batch of single ply; a truly unique yarn and indeed so much like hand spun. I was very proud to visit Jeemie with the finished product: his reaction was worth seeing! It was well through 2009 before we had all the yarns available in order to supply the museum and into 2010 before the project started.
Part of their marketing and packaging plan included a DVD on lace knitting which had to be made, Jeemie visited me with his film crew and we had a very interesting day filming, with Jeemie as producer naturally! It had to be done his way and the project could not be rushed his final target release date was a Christmas launch 2010.
At this stage, I knew little of what impact this collaboration with the museum and archives would have on all involved in Shetland wool and also a wider global audience.