One of my knitting makes of 2014 was a first for me. I knitted myself a hap. A what? A hap is a traditional Shetland shawl or wrap for everyday use. A shawl… that doesn’t sound particularly amazing, I hear you say, which is what I thought too for a long time.
Despite having knitted for over 30 years, I always turned the page on shawls. Although they looked warm and I admired the lace knitting, I equated them with something characters out of Victorian and Edwardian novels wore, like Miss Flite in Bleak House or Mother in The Railway Children. I was quite happy to be eccentric but I also wanted a degree of elegance. And then I came across Kate Davies’ designs…
Some time ago I treated myself to Colours of Shetland, a beautiful book with knitting patterns by Kate Davies. Calling Kate a knitwear designer seriously underestimates her talents. Her interest and eye go well beyond pretty garments. She is a historian with a fascination for textiles and their connection to place, be it a place’s geography, biology, economy or demographics. These angles do not remain in the background, hidden in her research notes and private musings. They enrich her pattern books with delightful essays. For someone like me, who is as interested in the relationship between natural resources and socio-economic development as in traditional skills, Colours of Shetland is a fascinating read before I even pick up my knitting needles.
The Northmavine Hap is one of the fetching patterns that caught my eye as I leafed through Colours of Shetland. With its traditional feather and fan pattern in blues and greens, it is simple yet striking, and with the lace worked in Jamieson & Smith’s 2-ply jumper weight yarn it looks elegant in a robust way. It was, in short, the design that would persuade me to try my hand at a shawl.
I armed myself with a super long circular needle and skeins of the classic Shetland yarn. As blues don’t generally suit me, I modified the colour scheme. Whilst Kate’s version was inspired by the sea, sky and rocks of Northmavine, I sought inspiration in the browns and greens of my autumn garden. I quickly mastered the pattern’s repeat and despite the ever increasing number of stitches (nearly 500 per row by the time I had finished), it knitted up very quickly. Before long I was wearing my first hap and my first garment in Shetland wool and I have to say, I am a fan of both!
All my preconceptions about a shawl faded away after a few days. No longer do I consider this garment a ‘granny’ or ‘Victorian’ item. For one, I have had more compliments on my hap than on any other garment I have knitted, including from a mouthy teenager who yelled it was “cool” at me – yes, I had to do a double take! My shawl is also considerably warmer and more functional than a scarf. When I’m out and about it forms a warm cocoon around my neck that keeps northerly winds at bay, but at home, in coffee shops, in the library… I wrap it round my shoulders as an extra layer over my upper arms. I have even been known to pop it over my legs when I’m knitting at night.
As for Shetland yarn… it has shot straight up my list of efficient heating technologies! In our off-the-peg clothing culture British yarns often get a bad reputation. Many complain that it feels itchy or scratchy and prefer merino wool or acrylic, which isn’t wool at all but a petroleum-based fibre. Shetland wool, like many British wools, does feel a touch coarser initially but with a few wears and washes, the natural fibres felt a little, making them softer and warmer still.
For anyone in the British Isles, Shetland wool is also a ‘local’ yarn so an obvious choice for somebody like me who wants to source clothes as locally as possible. Furthermore, it comes from flocks of sheep roaming land that is not suitable for other cultivation and it supports livelihoods on our northern most islands. And if these credentials weren’t enough for me, I swear my Shetland hap paired with handmade socks is more effective at keeping me warm in our Victorian home than the central heating!