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Shetland Lace Knitting in New Zealand

How a knitting tradition rooted in a cluster of tiny islands in the North Sea came to be transplanted to an island country in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Margaret Stove Jun 5, 2023 - 7 min read

Shetland Lace Knitting in New Zealand Primary Image

Try your hand at lace with this gorgeous subscriber-exclusive pattern, the Rata Scarf, designed by Margaret Stove. Photos by Joe Coca

Margaret Stove shares the origins of her lace journey and lets us join her with the pattern for her Rata Scarf. Current PieceWork magazine subscribers can log in and instantly access this bonus subscriber-exclusive PDF download below.

Shetland Islands: Hard Life, Soft Lace

Since at least the sixteenth century, the cottage industry of handknitting in the Shetland Islands has supplemented the meager island economy based on fishing and farming the small farms or “crofts.” Sheep were introduced to the islands as early as the Stone Age, and these small, hardy animals produced the finest wool of all the British breeds. The high quality of Shetland knitting clearly was recognized by 1790, when knitted stockings from the town of Unst sold in Edinburgh, Scotland, for higher than average prices.

Although they are isolated by an inhospitable ocean, their extensive trade in fish probably afforded the Shetland Islanders a look at knitted lace from Europe as early as the fourteenth century. Yet, there is no evidence that the islanders produced their own knitted lace earlier than 1830.

The names of the patterns reflect the island environment, where sea and farm are prominent features. Names such as Ears o’ Grain, Acre-Plough, Crest of the Wave, Old Shale, Razor Shell, Fern Lace, and Cat’s Paw describe lace of incredible beauty that belies the often arduous life of the knitters. From the beginning, little of the finished lace stayed in the islands. Of little use to people who must work hard every day in harsh conditions, its value lay in the income badly needed to buy goods not produced on the crofts.

Knitting Lace a Hemisphere Away

For as long as I can remember, the desire to knit has been a part of my life. When I was four years old, my maternal grandmother gave me my first knitting lessons. Her Danish mother had taught her the continental method of knitting which she passed on to me.

I was plagued with all the usual problems of a beginning knitter and experienced all the pleasures of each new stage of accomplishment. Eventually, my grandmother decided that I deserved to learn my first “fancy pattern.” That pattern was Feather and Fan, as she called it, or Old Shale, in the Shetland tradition. A chance reply my grandmother made to friends who commented that “she knitted back to front” led to my interest in Shetland lace. She defended herself by saying that her method was very fast, like that used by the Shetland Islanders, who, furthermore, could spin fine yarns and knit shawls that could be pulled through a wedding ring. The image set my imagination working.

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