The Cordova Gansey Project: The Long Story #8D Fair Island

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(For those who are just dropping in, start here to read the full story)


A place to stay and a way to get there... that was the extent of it.

Pressed for time, once I decided that the island of Fair Isle would be on my itinerary, I did a little searching, wrote off some emails, and ended up making arrangements with a gentleman named Tommy at the Auld Haa Guest House, built for the island's Laird in the early 1700’s. Tommy kindly made my flight reservations from Tingwall to the island, so I was set.

 A place to stay and a way to get there.

I had heard repeatedly that the flight to Fair Isle was weather dependent, and there was always a chance that if the weather wasn't right, then the trip would be off. This being said,  I was delighted when the storms of the previous week had passed and appreciated the blue skies I awoke to on the morning of the flight. Knowing that this wasn't always the case, I was grateful for the clear and wonderful view of Shetland as we lifted off from the runway.  I loved that I could see below many of the places I had traveled to and from throughout Shetland Wool Week as we passed across the islands and headed southward. 

I was in the far back seat and could see the view on either side of me. On my right I could look back towards my little home at Vementry Farm  off in the distance, and to my left I could look out and see as we nearly flew right over the bridge and the village where I had traveled to weave in the evenings with Emma Blain of Aamos Designs.

Continuing south I spied the outline of the lengthy Burra Island where I had silversmithed with Mike Finney, and could see in the distance the ridge and on down the east coast  where I had taken the spinning course at Hoswick. What a wonderful week it had been.

Soon the Shetland Islands  were behind us, and as we flew across the deep blue waters, I reflected on these present times and this little lone crossroads island I was headed for that at one time was only reachable by sea. Once an important way station for North Sea seafarers, now not so necessary. How swift the changes come and go through time as inventions that create new opportunities sometimes cast shadows on those they displace. 

As we flew, I knit and thought about this tug of war between traditions and the need/desire to keep them intact and the inevitable forging forward into the future and allowing of ourselves to break free from the traditions that somehow might possibly limit us.

I thought of Joan Fraser, the designer at the town hall Makers Market  just a few days previously in Lerwick, and her fine gauge machine knit merino cowl I had bought from her that incorporated  traditional patterns into a contemporary piece, yet still made and designed in Shetland. In contrast to this refined "high tech" accessory was the handspun handknit mushroom and lichen dyed hat I had purchased from Elizabeth Johnston that same day, which has since become my favorite day by day cap. Though very different, I love them both.


Fodder for future conversation…but for now, we were sweeping around the island preparing to land.  This was it now, the island of Fair Isle right below me, where the trail  of years and friends and fiber had led me...

Which takes me to the idea of expectations...I hadn't had a chance to form many concrete expectations, and believed I was wide open for whatever lay ahead,  especially since I had so little preparation.  But preparedness isn't always an indicator of how much or how few expectations one may hold within. And sometimes they are deeply embedded, and we don't even know we have certain expectations or assumptions until they are not immediately realized.  Perhaps it is like the person arriving for the first time in Alaska and thinking to themselves, even though perhaps they may know better,  "Where are the igloos?" 

I stepped out of the plane and although I was just barely above sea level, as I my foot rested on solid ground, I felt as though I was taking a step on to the top of a mountain peak. Like my old camp days, the view and perspective from above was akin to my view back through time and what had led me here, and in all of that, my heart swelled with emotion.  My host, Tommy, greeted me donning his Fair Isle knitted cap.  As we drove to my new "Fair Isle home" I peered out the car window scanning the countryside, and found myself looking for what I didn't realize that I was thinking and expecting to find.  Maybe down deep I thought I was going to  see  the road lined with cottages with rows of hand knit jumpers (sweaters) on wooden stretchers drying on their porches and alongside the fences.  I didn't know that I expected to see them until I didn't.

Perhaps it was the scenes in the Alice Starmore video  I had viewed so many times so long ago that had made a long forgotten impression, or possibly I had been influenced by the photographs in those Fair Isle books cast away on the shelf at home.   All seemed very very very peaceful and still, except for a random birder binoculars  in hand ( or "twitcher" as they called them) here and there, walking beside the stone fences harboring grazing sheep, but other than that, not a soul or sweater in sight.

Like I said, it is funny about expectations, sometimes we don't know we have them until things are different than what we sometimes don't even realize we are expecting. 

We arrived at the Guest House and I loved what would become my "Fair Isle home" for my days here, a two story building with worn wooden floors and deep window sills resulting from the thick stone walls, and a large fireplace with coal burning insert and mantle topped with Tommy's wonderful handmade wire & carved cuttlefish creations. 

Tommy knew I was a knitter and that I was interested in seeing the "knitting sites" on the island because of our shared correspondence. After a light lunch, he kindly showed me his personal knitted examples, his Fair Isle hat collection.  Each hat a story, some were handknit, some were hand spun, some were natural Fair Isle Wool,  some were hand dyed colors. I soaked in all the stories which wove into the history of the island itself, and through them, tried to get a feel for what the current state of knitting was here on the island.





There was something settling for me about seeing all the knitting and patternwork. Down deep, I think it was because this was Fair Isle and I was primed to see "authentic Fair Isle knitting".  I guess you could call me the epitomy of the "knitting tourist". Knitting...could you show me your knitting?  Embarrassed to admit..Such a tourist. My expectations were calmed and quelled by this handful of handknits.

What is interesting is after looking at all those patterned hats, and studying them so carefully as we set them on the floor to photograph, I looked beyond and over to the rug on his floor and noticed how several of the shapes on the rims of his hats bear a close resemblance to this motif on his rug.  It was an innocent observation, but interesting to note and observe, knowing this rug was more than likely from a faraway place,  and loved thinking about how from makers hands, through craft and pattern, distant cultures may find common ground and connection. This, of course, rekindled my own personal curiousity about the trail and movement of patterns that have followed migrating cultures, especially when worldwide communication was more difficult. This was not just about the movement of people, but also about the traveling objects of their making, even when they didn't, and that part of them that unbeknownst to them influenced others as they melded and mixed with the designs along the way.

I also loved his use of worn Fair Isle jumpers which still had some usefulness left in them in these seat cushions, pillows, and even in his whimsical wired bird creations.


But what I liked most were the stories he shared entwined in the knitting. I was listening carefully to Tommy's tales and really appreciated the foundation they provided for my time here. With only 55 permanent "Islander" residents and several of those away at school, it was a small world here, and because of its geography, somewhat like Cordova, but on a much smaller scale, limited and isolated in the flow of passing through traffic.  It wasn't always this way, for in the days when ships were the main mode of transportation, Fair Isle was an important stopping place, and frequented by fishermen. He mentioned that the hat he wore and several of his hats were actually traditional fisherman caps or as they called them, "keps". I had seen photos of them in the books long ago, but it just never really clicked, and now that all my gansey thoughts were stirring,  I was more in tune to hear that this hat style he had was another fishing, fisherman and knitting connection, especially I would find out later on my trip,  in regard to Fair Isle knitting. Aha....

Because of our emails back and forth, Tommy had so kindly pre-arranged for a knitterly focused visit and had planned meet ups for me with certain people on the island. While on the phone to someone I was scheduled to visit,  I overheard him say, "I have Dotty the knitter here to see you", and as I heard him speak, I felt somewhat intimidated by the title he was referencing me by. In my head I thought, perhaps I would consider myself  "Dotty a knitter"  but certainly not "Dotty THE Knitter".  

I had two instant thoughts.  First it reminded me of when I was homeschooling our children and when we were studying history through literature and how we read this one book which we all loved which told the story of Leif Eriksson, called Leif the Lucky and how his father was known as "Erik the Red".  It just felt like that same sort of title.  

Then I thought back on this concept of the worthiness we sometimes wrestle with in our lack of confidence concerning our abilities, like those I spoke of earlier who I ask those that come in the shop if they are a knitter and they question if whether or not they are REALLY a knitter.  In my own self consciousness, I just didn't believe I was anything special to deserve any such title. 

I had to laugh at myself, however, as I soon realized that this was merely a reference to what had brought me here. I was simply being referred to as “Dotty, the knitter” in contrast to "Dotty the birder, or ticker or twitcher", the names they give the birders who bring the greatest number of visitors to the island. Silly me...

But for now, Dotty the knitter had people to see and places to go, and I couldn't wait to see where the rest of the day would find me, and Tommy was preparing to drop me off at my first stop. And so from my new two story "home", the Auld Haa Guest House, we left down the lane, and I was on my way to my next adventure...


The story continues. 8E


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1 comment

Not only are you Dotty THE Knitter…you are Dotty THE Writer, too!!
thanks for sharing this journey with all of us;-)

Shoo Shoo

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