It would be an understatement to say that I’m proud of my Fair Isle hat. For a number of reasons: because it’s only about the sixth thing I’ve ever knitted; because when I showed it to my mother she thought I’d bought it; because I made many mistakes and successfully solved almost all of them; and because I learnt how to make such a thing in the proper place, on Fair Isle itself.
For two months this summer, I took a break and travelled for two days to reach the most remote inhabited island of the British Isles. Located about 25 miles south of Shetland, off the north coast of Scotland, Fair Isle is on an approximate latitude with St Petersburg, and in June/July it doesn’t really get dark in the ‘simmer dim’. The island itself is a mere three miles long and one mile wide, a tiny emerald haven for travellers and birds. But it is also home to the friendliest, most interesting people I’ve ever encountered. And they really can knit. There are a handful of extremely talented knitters among this 70-strong population, and I was lucky to learn from several of them: Ann, Elena, Triona, Mati and Elizabeth. When I arrived, we were preparing for the Tall Ships festival, an annual celebration of traditional maritime techniques and experiences. In days gone by, one method of obtaining goods not readily available on the island was to barter with passing trade ships. Someone would send up a flare or fly a flag and the ship would dock nearby. Small boats would be sent out to trade knitted goods such as these traditional fishermen’s keps or other raw materials for liquor, tobacco, and even wood – there are no trees on Fair Isle. For the Tall Ships 2011, the Fair Islanders were reviving this barter economy – so knitters, of whatever standard, were needed to make more than 40 hats!
I was a very inexperienced knitted when I joined Anne’s knitting club (or ‘chat club,’ as the men called it), and I didn’t even finish the hat I started there – I think someone better finished it off for me and I pity the poor Norwegian who traded vodka for that shoddy specimen… But what I did take away with me was the skill to make one by myself, and a little booklet made by Anne for the occasion. I bought wool from Jamieson’s in Lerwick on my way home at the end of my stay, and cast on 168 stitches when I got back to London.
A couple of months later, and the kep is finished.
Now just time before Christmas to make a second one for my mother. I’ll keep you posted.