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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.