Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Sheltland Lace Knitting heirloom Christening shawl

My mother has been knitting since she was a small child; she grew up during the second world war in a family that wasn't too well off, so learning to knit at an early age was extremely important, and so, as you can imagine, she is an extremely skilled knitter. I was expecting this would mean I would get lots of lovely traditional knitted baby clothes from her (knitted baby clothes being one of the easiest ways to get vintage looking baby clothes these days, in my view). Well, she did knit a couple of cardigans, but in fact she turned her hand to knitting an 'heirloom' shawl for baby of such complexity that it's taken her six months!

The finished shawl is however, extremely beautiful (so much so I'm a bit scared to let baby near it in case of puke etc!), and also, it turns out, an interesting little peice of textile and fashion history, because it is a Shetland lace knitting 'wedding ring shawl'. These shawls are openwork knitting with incredibly fine yarn that are supposed to be so fine they are able to pass through a wedding ring.

My mother told me that "they were usually made for a wedding present, and could be worn over a wedding dress, and was then ready for the first child! Imagine knitting it in a Shetland croft, in the winter, by candle light! They are supposed to be fine enough to pass through a wedding ring, but yours doesnt, I have tried it."

My mum is disabled and this slows down the rate at which she can knit, and she estimates it took her about 408 hours to do, but the pattern is so intricate even a proficient able bodied knitter would have taken a great amount of time to produce it. The wool is Jamiesons Ultra Cobweb (ie single ply)  50% Shetland wool and 50% lambswool.

Intrigued by the romantic story, I have done a bit of searching to find out more about the history of these shawls. It turns out they were a highly fashionable luxury product during the Victorian era, and I found an excellent article by Kate Davies on their history in 60 North, a Sheltland magazine, which can be read on pg 15 here:

To summarise, the Shetlands were actually commercially well connected by sea from the 17th century, and Shetland women supplemented their incomes by producing and selling wool products, particularly stockings, to merchants. By the 18th century, government trade restrictions and competition from mainland knitters meant that their income from this went down, so they had to change, innovate and specialise in order to still be profitable, specifically by carving out a niche of luxury fine openwork products. The fashion for lace in the Victorian era made handmade openwork products (as oposed to machine produced lace) highly desirable to show a woman's status as a wealthy individual. Several examples were shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, making it even more fashionable. Towards the end of the 19th century, the shawls started to fall out of fashion, but the producers continued to adapt, creating black versions aimed at the elderly and for mourning.  Kate Davies writes: "The fine openwork Shetland shawls and stoles that adorned the shoulders of wealthy Victorian ladies were profoundly innovative accessories, developed in response to the demands of a rapidly changing market, and prey, like any other nineteenth century grament, to the fickle fortunes of fashion".

There's a lot more detail in the article which is a really interesting insight into the drivers behind Victorian fashions from the perspective of a specific product, and I highly recommend it as an interesting read if you're interested in textile history or Victorian fashion. The writer also has a great blog here: 

Meanwhile I'm going to enjoy and appreciate the lovely shawl my mother has made me, but it is likely to be carefully displayed in the nursery and occasionally worn by myself rather than let near baby very often. But that's ok, as his other grandmother also a skilled knitter, also spent 6 months knitting a beautiful shawl for him, which is luckily a bit less delicate and so usable day to day! Here it is, and isn't it lovely?


  1. They are really lovely, you are very lucky to have such talented knitters in your family. :-)

  2. I came across this post while researching fine knit lace. What gorgeous shawls! Your mother and mother-in-law are very skilled knitters! Beautiful heirlooms to keep & pass on.

    This is the wedding ring shawl that i made for my daughter. Made from Jamieson's cobweb wool. It does pass through my wedding ring - i checked!
    I am loving looking at the stitches in your shawl - beautiful!!!