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Women’s Work: Knitting in Shetland, 1800-2000

Professor Lynn Abrams discusses gender and women’s work through a case study of kitting in the Shetland Isles, 1800-2000.
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LYNN ABRAMS: This section focuses on a form of women’s work, hand knitting, which was widely undertaken primarily at home across Britain and Europe until it was largely superseded by mechanised production in the 19th century. Hand knitting is often seen as leisure rather than work, a domestic craft particularly suited to females on account of their alleged manual dexterity, their tolerance for monotonous labour, and their association with the domestic sphere. For these reasons, hand knitting has traditionally been one of the most poorly rewarded jobs, despite the skill required to produce items such as fair isle sweaters and lace shawls. In recent years, hand knitting has undergone a revival. Its reach has extended to all age groups and genders.
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It’s used to counter stress among students and memory loss amongst dementia sufferers. And it also has a place in high fashion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, knitting was heralded as the antidote to anxiety and loneliness as crafters used social media to connect with one another around the world. Today, women are still employed to hand knit as outworkers for some of the large fashion companies. But the association of hand knitting with domestic craft means that it remains poorly paid and undervalued by consumers. In what follows, I’m going to summarise the treatment of hand knitting within the historiography of women’s work.
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And then I will take hand knitting in the Shetland Islands as a case study of a place where hand craft survived as a key element of the female economy and contributed to a strong and distinctive female identity in the islands.
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Hand knitting doesn’t fit easily into typologies of European women’s work because of its association with pre-industrial economies. As knitting frames superseded knitting by hand, production gradually moved from the home to the workshop and finally to the factory. By the early 19th century, in most places in Britain, hosiery production was technically complex and was defined as skilled male work. The ancillary activities, such as seaming and finishing, were undertaken by women either at home or in a workshop and were invariably low paid. However, this narrative of progress and change ignores the diversity of production methods that coexisted side by side in different regions and sectors of the industry.
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In many parts of coastal and rural Scotland, hand knitting survived as an important economic activity, albeit on a small scale to supplement fishing and farming. Shetland was one of these places. And owing to its unique demographic profile and its marginal economy, hand knitting survived here far longer as an important economic activity than anywhere else. In Shetland, a collection of islands situated off the far north coast of Scotland, hand knitting remained a labour intensive, unmechanized, home-based industry into the 1930s. It was female dominated at all stages of the production process and was praised by visitors as a local handicraft, which could be conducted without damaging a woman’s physique or her domestic diligence.
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In 1898, one commented that, “they seem to knit going to or returning from the hill, gossiping at their doors, resting in the sunshine, their fingers are never still.” But of course, the reason their fingers were never still was economic need. Hand knitting assumed such significance owing to the unique population profile of Shetland in the 19th century. As here, women significantly outnumbered men, owing to high levels of male migration, long-term absence, and death at sea. So in 1861, for every 100 men, there were 143 women. This meant, of course, that many households had no male breadwinner. And in an economy dominated by fishing, the plight of women without men was extremely hard.
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Knitting was a lifeline then for such households, though, rarely, a sole means of support. This explains why, in 1901, 2/3 of women were employed in knitting and hosiery on the islands. In the period before World War I, hand knitting belonged to an economy of makeshift to use Olwen Hufton’s term. That is, it was one element of a mixed female economy, which also incorporated taking in lodgers, working in the domestic service trades, dressmaking, and laundering, intermittent farm service, and seasonal work at herring gutting. Hand knitting was also enmeshed within the complex barter system on the islands. And it was this that shaped a unique female economy here.
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Local merchants paid for knitted items not in cash but in goods or credit notes. This forced women to make complex exchanges for staple food items and necessities. While the scarcity of cash and women’s reliance on merchants to take their knitwear severely limited women’s consumer power, on the other hand, the need to engage in a wide variety of economic relationships strengthened their autonomy. So although hand knitting was regarded as an outmoded form of textile production, it did enable women in this part of the UK to be more independent than women usually were.
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After World War I, a combination of factors, including an increase in the price of wool, the decline of the barter system, the competition from knitting machines, and the discovery of fair isle knitwear by consumers outside Shetland, meant that hand knitting became more organised and mechanised while still providing employment to around 3/4 of the female population. So for Nan Patton, who was born in 1918 and lived with her widowed mother, knitting was still an important element of the household economy. She said, “I had to learn to knit so that we could have a jumper every week to go to the shop to get groceries with.”
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During World War II, women earned more from knitting than they did working for the war effort because they could make direct sales to servicemen. But as Jesse Sinclair remembered, “it was only in wartime that we started to get what looked like money for our hosiery. Because, quite honestly, before that, it was such a mere pittance that you got, and you were having to live on.” Since the 1970s and the revival of Shetland’s economy through the discovery of oil in the North Sea, hand knitting has been reinvented for the modern economy and for the modern woman.
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Today, hand knitting is regarded as creative and skilled work, which is undergoing a re-evaluation by means of the reappropriation and adaptation of traditional skills by modern artists and designers. The few remaining women who produce high quality hand knitted items using the colourful fare isle patents can demand very high prices for their work in overseas markets. Women running craft workshops throughout the islands similarly regard their work as creative and innovative while still retaining traditional skills and materials. The annual Shetland Wool Week celebrates the island’s knitting traditions and brings visitors from all corners of the world.
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The material culture of women’s work in the past, the beautiful hand knitted sweaters, shawls, hats, and gloves can be viewed at Shetland Museum and inspire amateurs and professionals alike. While we can celebrate the skills of the women who made them, we should also understand the context in which they were produced. Hand knitting was work, poorly paid, and undervalued. But in the 21st century, hand knitting is one of the ways in which this society brands itself. An irony that would not be lost on those women who knitted to survive.

In this video, Professor Lynn Abrams discusses gender and women’s work through a case study of kitting in the Shetland Isles, 1800-2000.

Lynn explores the importance of knitting within the context of Shetland society, one dominated by women due to high levels of male migration, absence and death at sea. She explores the gendering of knitting as female, and how it was undervalued, underpaid and associated with leisure rather than highly-skilled work. Yet, as Lynn shows, knitting was an essential economic lifeline within Shetland with an enduring cultural and gendered legacy.

Task

Watch this broadcast from 1964, where Cathal O’Shannon discovers the intricate gossamer shawls of Unst, and answer the following questions: https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/shetland_shawl_knitters/zff27nb

  • Were the women of Unst fairly compensated for their work on these shawls?
  • If not, what can this tell us about gender and how women’s work was viewed in past and present societies?

Comment below

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