fourth edition

A Visit from the Knitting Police, or, On the Origins of Things

December 2013 1122

Yesterday I was working on the second sleeve of my Orkney cardigan when the following exchange happened.

Passer-by: Hey, what are you doing?
Me: Oh, I’m working on this fair-isle cardigan..
Passer-by: Oh no! That’s not fair-isle. You are not from Shetland. You cannot be knitting fair-isle. I am from Shetland and I am telling you that you cannot work fair-isle.
Me: .. uhmm, okay?

This led to an interesting discussion on Twitter about geographical locations, if any non-Shetlanders are allowed to say their stranded colourwork is fair-isle (and if it is fair isle, Fair Isle or Fair-Isle) and if we are able to talk about “traditional knitting” at all. Here are some selected highlights:

(Great point! Can a technique or motif be geographically trademarked?) Some snarky comments from amused knitters:

And, finally, less snarkily and more to the point:


I am interested in the socio-political aspects of so-called traditional knitting: there is definitely a discussion to be had about what constitutes a tradition – who decides something is a tradition – and if we can talk about origins at all. Motifs and techniques have criss-crossed geographical boundaries and what we may think of as “traditional knitting” may only date back to the early 20th century. My personal view is that all these things only tend to be “fixed” in time and place long after actual innovation has occurred – and that many of these “fixes” have little to do with the actual innovations and more to do with money/prestige.

It’s a fascinating topic and I wish I had a fresh mind with which to tackle it (alas, I am writing this after working all day on another piece of writing). I’ll keep knitting my Orkney, mind. Only half a sleeve to go and I refuse to leave it alone despite my personal geographical failings.

11 Thoughts on “A Visit from the Knitting Police, or, On the Origins of Things

  1. Quite apart from the discussion of why some people feel it necessary to police other people’s actions like that.

    What constitutes tradition is an interesting subject – I heard an interesting book on the radio a while back about Walter Scott and the invention of Scotland (roughly the title) about the impact he had on what we now think of as Scotland and Scottish tradition. Some of this may be a response to the loss of sense of place and huge amount of change wrought by the Industrial Revolution, leading to a nostalgic longing for the past and the things of the past? An attempt to recapture something people felt they had lost? You can see it in Pugin and his love of the English Gothic too.

  2. Alexandra King on March 13, 2014 at 1:33 am said:

    The serious discussion on the geographical ownership and definition of tradition interests me, but it would be fascinating to explore the logic behind the (quite rude, in hindsight) remarks of the passer-by. If a Shetlander knits something in fair-isle technique while they are away from Shetland, does it still count? Do descendants who move away lose the ability/right? Can someone from Shetland knit an aran jumper? Is a guernsey not a guernsey if knitted by someone from Shropshire? Are traditional techniques and materials not authentic enough in themselves?

    I am also tired, but suspect this is going to keep me awake a while longer.

  3. mdawnrt on March 13, 2014 at 4:24 am said:

    How about just adding ‘in the style of’ to the stitch designation, when conversing with those knitters who are fiercely loyal to specific regions? There are designs in the Native Nations , here in North America which are family owned by Blood Relations. There does seem to be preferences within groups which are passed down, but when the original clans of all the countries began to intermarry, it would seem more cause for Clans’ recognition ,rather than actual technique.

  4. Well, I’m from Shetland and I say it’s fine – I’ll write you a permission slip! More seriously, can I just apologise on behalf of Shetland. I’m finding this more than but embarrassing to be honest. If they’re going to be that picky Fair Isle knitting should only be knitted by folk from Fair Isle itself, which is the furthest flung island and a lot of us have never been there. Not all stranded knitting is in the Fair Isle tradition, that’s fair enough, but your cardigan is. There is, or was, a Shetland trademark – Shetland Knitwear perhaps? The logo was a stylised figure knitting, known locally for a while as ‘the wife with the fish’ because it looked she was holding a fish rather than a piece of knitting. Perhaps the critical person was thinking of that?

  5. It’s funny how some people, especially those who perhaps learnt a niche technique or craft before it was popular, hang on to their self-perceived specialness with one hand, frowning on any newcomers or fresh ideas and use the other to complain that there’s no-one supporting them or no materials available on the other. I see it all the time in the niche lacemaking world I live in. Does make me wonder what she’s knitted herself recently in order to keep the tradition alive.

  6. I’m sorry I missed the twitter discussion, I would have mentioned the distinction between Shetland and Fair Isle, but Ginny’s got there before me here. I guess EZ’s notion of unventing applies … who’s to say which knitters where were the first to try anything, it’s impossible given how few historic textiles survive.

  7. I just couldn’t care less. It’s all knitting, regardless. :-)

  8. Whatever you decide to name it, it’s absolutely beautiful. You’re an amazing and talented woman.

  9. Honestly? It sounds to me like she wanted to be a bitch all for the sake of being a bitch. “Oh, I’m better than you because I’m from the place where what you’re doing originated. Nah nah, nah nah, boo boo!” You could’ve responded in kind by saying something like “Is it normal for Shetlanders to act like bratty children over something as insignificant as what I call this knitting technique?” Personally, I probably would have laughed in her face, but I’m not always a nice person. ;-)

    P.S. – That is some absolutely STUNNING work you’re doing! Just looking at it boggles my mind. You can call it whatever you want, considering all the work you must be putting into it.

  10. So by that logic, the blue mohair sweater that my husband once knitted for himself is an Irish-Ukranian-British-made-in-America traditional sweater.

  11. I’d probably call the technique “stranded knitting” as similar knitting can be found certainly throughout Northern Europe. Scandinavian, Estonian and Latvian knitting share many similarities with Scottish knitting – like Sanquhar and Fair Isle. It seems churlish to say the least to say that a person cannot knit a technique or style because they are in a place other than where the technique was originally used. You could not say you are a Fair Isle knitter just as I cannot say I’m a Sanquhar knitter but you can knit a Fair Isle pattern just as I can knit a Sanquhar pattern. I wonder if the lady who was so rude only knits Fair isle and indeed if she is actually from Fair Isle or from another part of Shetland.

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