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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories