Shetlander Oliver Henry talks to Lindsay Sekulowicz about his life's work with TOAST yarn suppliers Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers and what it means to be an islander.
Twelve hours by boat from mainland Scotland, the Shetland Islands lie at an ancient maritime crossroads and are an important historical trading post of the North Sea. From the blue painted Picts, to the Vikings who used the islands as a base for their southern raids, to the Dutch and German merchants who came later for the herring; every new wave has brought people who settle and make their livings from all that the land and sea has to offer.
Oliver Henry is a man who epitomises this place. A true storyteller, he combines wisdom with an outward looking vision that embraces ideas of change. On the afternoon we speak, gale force winds and driving rain have abated and the day has become still and sunny. There was snow a couple of weeks ago, Oliver tells me, and soon will come the days of simmer dim, the perpetual dusk that takes the place of night.
Oliver grew up on a small croft on the west coast island of Burra where family life revolved around fishing, crofting, and knitting. In those days, the men would fish and women would hand spin the wool and knit in traditional Fair Isle patterns.
Coming from a long line of fishermen, Oliver always expected a life on the sea himself. His father and uncles shared a boat, and though he was always seasick, it seems that many fishermen, his own grandfather included, suffered in the same way throughout their working lives. As a boy, Oliver used to run down to the harbour to watch the fishing boats come in. This would have been during the height of the herring industry and there were hundreds of vessels - far too many to count or distinguish from one another. Oliver remembers how he would scan the decks looking for his father and the other Shetlander fishermen who always stood out in their Fair Isle sweaters, the bright colourways easily distinguishable from the plain Gansey and Arran knits that the other fishermen wore.
When they weren't at sea, the men would also help to knit the main body of the sweaters while the women would focus on the patterned yokes. He remembers his parents doing that. Oliver's stories often interweave the lives of his descendants and we talk about how different knitters interpret patterns, and how narratives can be woven into the colours of the yarns. He learned to knit himself from a school janitor who taught all the boys, and we discuss the importance of passing skills through generations and the power of being able to create something beautiful and enduring.
Speaking with Oliver and listening to his stories about those ragged coastlines, I feel that there must be a word that exists in some language that describes the memory of a place you have never been. Perhaps it is simply a shared understanding of a landscape that is situated within all of us. We slip easily into exchanging tales of Shetland's folklore and especially selkies', the half-human, half-seal creatures that shift shape with tides and are considered by some to be the souls of lost fishermen. The old people held many of these ideas and it's of benefit to remember their stories, Oliver says, It doesn't serve well to be sceptical when your fate relies on the sea.
As it turned out, these deep-rooted beliefs changed his own destiny. At thirteen years old, boys went to sea to see if they would cut it' as worthy mariners. He went out on his father's boat, and among the crew was an old fisherman who was deeply religious and superstitious. They caught nothing that night, and in the morning their boat lay empty while all the others were filled with herring. The young Oliver was declared a Jonah' and told he must never darken the vessel again. He was saved from a future of seasickness and left for agricultural college in Aberdeen. On his return to the islands in 1967, his mother helped him find a job working for John Sheepie' Smith, a crofter and wool broker. Oliver began by hand sorting and grading the wool of the Shetland sheep from the small family farm. He loved the work and quickly excelled, and he has worked there ever since. It's a simple story, about a simple life, but it's an important one, Oliver says. My story is Shetland's story.
Today, Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers buy Shetland wool from over six hundred crofters and farmers on Shetland, and the longstanding production of Fair Isle knitwear and yarns continues. They exclusively use the yarn from the sheep on Shetland itself where the wool is a superior quality, resulting from a combination of harsh windy conditions and a unique diet of seaweed and heather. Leafing through the colour charts offered by Jamieson & Smith is like reading this landscape through yarn. The heritage colours dyed with madder, woad, and peat line up alongside the natural oily lanolin shades with wildflower and mussel blue highlights.
TOAST knitwear designer Emma Brooks travelled to Shetland last year to visit the Shetland Museum's textile archive and select yarn from Jamieson & Smith. Emma speaks about the intricacy of the historic Fair Isle compositions with respect, explaining how closely you have to look at a pattern to really understand its complexity. The original knitter may simply have been using up leftover yarns, but sometimes even spontaneous decisions can feel like decoding a message over time. Often, it's the physical feel of the wool in her hands that inspires her - she describes a small scrap she found that had been overwashed almost to the point of felting, and how this unexpected hazing of colours informed her palette.
One particular piece in the museum deeply influenced a design - a scarf made in the 1930's that had been bought from a woman knitting at the side of a road overlooking the Atlantic, with a natural fawn ground balancing all the other colours. This was a period where Fair Isle designs had seen a surge in popularity and selling garments to tourists would have been a welcome source of income. Looking at Emma's interpretation in the finished piece, the acidity of a particular green she has chosen feels reminiscent of the lichen-covered rocks on the Shetland shore. There is a band of sharp coral red too that makes me think of the west coast orange sunsets that Oliver described, and something else he said in passing: The flagship of the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked off the steep rocky cove of Fair Isle in 1588. The crew scrambled ashore, and some have said that the orange and reds the stranded sailors wore were woven into future designs.
Though this tale may be as wild as the selkies, part of me still wonders if all stories become shared memories after enough time has passed. Perhaps this is why we are all islanders who feel familiarity in windswept landscapes and a seemingly endless sea around us. We can all imagine ourselves standing at the edge of this land composed of colour and pattern, looking north, with nothing lying beyond.
Words by Lindsay Sekulowicz
Images by Liam Henderson
Our Fair Isle Shetland Sweater has been inspired by a hand knitted scarf from The Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. It has been knitted from the wool of the local Shetland sheep, which is sorted and graded by hand by Jamieson & Smith. The finest fibres are selected to then spin into a warm, resilient yarn.