To knit or not to knit?

Malachy Tallack wrestles with his desire to knit, a practice synonymous with his Fair Isle home.

A strange and unnatural urge has come over me this week . . . I am thinking about knitting a jumper.

For the past two years, a knitting machine has occupied the corner of our kitchen, and I have barely looked at it for most of that time. But suddenly I find myself compelled to create something on it; a desire that is neither sensible nor entirely explicable. Particularly since, for the brief period when I did use a knitting machine, not long after we first moved to the island, I was terrible at it. And it nearly drove me mad.

For most people, Fair Isle is synonymous with knitting and knitwear. The brightly coloured, banded patterns that are now associated with the island first came to prominence towards the end of the 19th century, though their origins are less clear. Because of their alleged similarity to certain aspects of Moorish design, legend had it that the patterns were borrowed from the Spanish sailors who were stranded here in 1588, when the Armada vessel El Gran Griffon wrecked on the island. But that is not a theory that is given much credence these days.

In fact, original Fair Isle patterns bear an uncanny resemblance to the traditional patterns of certain other sub-arctic regions, which makes some sense, though it is not obvious why the patterns here should be so different from traditional patterns in Shetland. It is not a puzzle that is likely to be solved easily.

What is clear though is that all of the raw materials – soft, strong wool from sheep, as well as plants and lichens for dyeing – have been available on the island for millennia, and that people have been making good use of these materials for a very long time indeed.

The trade in Fair Isle knitwear has also been long-running, though its history as a fashion item began just around 150 years ago. By the 1920s, when the Prince of Wales was pictured in a (Shetland-made) Fair Isle patterned sweater, teeing off at St. Andrews, the style had become well-known enough that islanders were appealing to the Board of Trade to trademark the name ‘Fair Isle’. They were trying to protect what might these days be termed ‘cultural property’, particularly from the much larger Shetland industry.

That attempt proved unsuccessful unfortunately, though islanders were allowed to over-print the Shetland trademark with the words ‘Made in Fair Isle’. Since then, of course, the patterns have become public property. It is now possible to buy a ‘Fair Isle-style sweater’, machine-knitted in China, which bears only the slightest resemblance to the original island patterns. Top fashion designers too, such as Alexander McQueen, also make use of the Fair Isle ‘brand’.

The only place where authentic Fair Isle garments are available these days is in Fair Isle. A co-operative group, Fair Isle Crafts Ltd., was launched in 1980 to try to preserve the dwindling knitwear industry on the island, and to ensure a reasonable wage for the knitters. They are still producing ‘hand-frame knitted’ garments today.

It is no longer possible to buy hand-knitted sweaters here, but they are still being produced in Shetland, where knitters generally earn about 50 pence an hour. Consumers are simply not willing or able to pay a fair price for a garment that can take up to 120 hours to produce.

When I first came to Fair Isle, I joined Fair Isle Crafts and learned to knit. In the time I was a member I was noted for both my lack of productivity and my lack of skill. The other members were probably just as relieved as I was when I eventually gave it up.

I think I will manage to resist the temptation of the machine for a little longer.

Photographs by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.