Scottish knitting past and present

Posted 12/01/2023 in Tips for Crafters

With Burns night approaching on Jan 25th, our focus this week turns to the wild and beautiful landscapes of Scotland and the rich tradition of knitting held within. So much of the history and beauty of this amazing nation is encapsulated in its knitting, and it continues to boast a thriving knitting community, exporting both products and expertise internationally. We at Craft Insurers are proud of our Scottish knitting clients, selling crafts online in the UK.

Knitting first came to Scotland from Europe in the fifteenth century and was the means of earning a living for many, as well as of providing warm clothing for the family. Initially it was mainly carried out by men, skilled at their craft and belonging to guilds or incorporations. As time went by, it developed into a family affair and was a source of income for many. As ships arrived from the Netherlands, trade, including knitted woollen garments, evolved between these two nations.

Women living in fishing communities on the east coast of Scotland developed the “Gansey” jumper, a heavy, hard wearing dark blue garment created to keep their menfolk warm during the long and sometimes dangerous fishing trips out to sea. They often displayed distinct patterns, handed down through the generations. Folklore tells us that these unique patterns were the means of identifying men if an accident had occurred during a stormy voyage. Whether this is true or not, having jumpers with your own particular family “crest” sounds a great way to strengthen family bonds.

Another classic knitting technique, Fair Isle, originated from the remote island, in between Orkney and Shetland, which bears that name. These distinct patterns, alternating between dark and light colours have now been replicated worldwide, but are still made authentically on Fair Isle itself. They were originally created using yarn form local sheep and dyes from plants available on the island. Truly a reflection of the landscape and culture. As synthetic dyes became more available the palette developed and they have had worldwide surges in popularity during this last century.

A lesser know pattern, or group of patterns, Sanquhar, is also named after its town of origin, Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway. Having been granted its status as a Royal Burgh in 1598 by King James Vl, trading flourished and textile exports were a part of this. The two coloured geometric patterns may have been developed to stand out in a generally thriving knitting industry, and thus protect the livelihoods of these whose income depended on healthy sales. Gloves often had the owner’s initials knitted into the cuffs. Maybe a marketing idea which could be taken up today?

Frame knitting came to Scotland following the development of the first stocking frame in 1589 by William Lee, an English clergyman. Another legend tells us that Queen Elizabeth l refused to grant Rev Lee a patent as she foresaw the financial implications even such small scale industrialisation would have on cottage industries who needed the income to sustain their families. However, by the end of the eighteenth century the Borders’ town of Hawick had several frames within a small factory, employing a workforce of both men and women. As time went by, the factory diversified from stockings only to producing other woollen garments. Then, in the late nineteenth century finer raw materials such as cashmere began to be imported and, to this day, Hawick is known throughout the world as a producer of luxurious merino and cashmere knitwear.

From this potted history of knitting in Scotland we can see what a rich heritage today’s knitters stand upon. Knitting truly is part of the culture. Right up until 2010 when financial cutbacks sadly put a stop to it, knitting was taught as a timetabled subject in Shetland schools. However, the resurgence of knitting circles, knitting classes, support groups, group knitting for charity and knitting clubs in schools is exciting to see. This interest in knitting has emerged right across the UK, and is very much seen in young people as well as those who have faithfully knitted for years.

Knitted products are ideally suited both for selling locally and, due to their relatively light weight, for selling crafts online UK. In an age where so many clothes are mass produced and made within ethically questionable working conditions, hand made garments created often from locally  sourced wool are very appealing to customers. Knitted garments speak of constancy, of a steadfastness which is often lacking in our modern world. The population of the British Isles has  been clad in wool for centuries, keeping out the bitter cold winter winds, offering protection from our grey drizzle and even, by conducting heat and moisture away from the skin, keeping us cool in the summer. It is good to know that we are continuing a practice which has been threaded through our nation for years.

Hand made woollen garments are appealing too in that they are both versatile and classic. A Fair Isle jumper will not go out of date, and has a certain “je ne sais quois” about it.  Similarly, knitted  clothing today is designed to last, both in terms of wear and tear and longevity of style. And it’s not just adults who can sport these beautiful jumpers, socks, hats and mittens. They are a great investment for children too. What child would not take on a slightly angelic look snuggly wrapped in a colourful, knitted jumper? Although the price may well be higher than of a synthetic garment it will continue to look good when synthetic counterparts have dulled. It can also be handed down for others to enjoy, thus ensuring the continuation of a family tradition.

So, for all of those selling crafts online UK, and in particular to our dynamic and creative Scottish knitters, we wish you a joy and fun filled Burns Night, red rose, haggis and all!