shawl, if well designed and well made, is a work of art. Yes, a work of art.
I am looking forward to seeing just such a work of art today. A friend is now the caretaker of one she thinks was made in about 1812 and not later than 1814. It has not, she tells me, been well preserved. Two hundred year old linen thread is fragile.
My friend, an expert embroiderer and teacher of embroidery, can knit and certainly knows something about knitting but she wants me to have a look as well. We are going to see if we can, with extreme care, open out some of this shawl from the roll it is in and photograph it so that we can try and work out the pattern.
I have never done anything quite like this before so it is going to be a challenge but, should we succeed, then my friend will be able to make a replica of it.
Something like this has been done before by other people. If you Google the term "Queen Susan Shawl" you will come up with the references to the fascinating story of how a group of knitters on the internet developed another pattern from the photograph of a shawl in a Shetland museum. Even for a non-knitter this is a fascinating account.
The very finest Shetland shawls, the shawls known as "wedding ring" shawls are made with "cobweb" weight yarn as fine as sewing thread. They are lace, knitting patterned on both sides. Traditional shawls were constructed by first knitting an edging (which predetermined the size), then knitting a border before knitting the central square section. They were made this way because the first knitters did not have access to modern circular needles which, because they can accommodate vast numbers of stitches, can be used to knit shawls from the centre out. There are purists, knitting police, who demand they still be made this way but the reality is that many (if not all) the good women of Shetland who made them would have welcomed the circular needles.
Not everyone could make them of course. Crofting women had many other responsibilities. Their hands were work roughened and using such fine yarn required smooth hands and hours of time. Most crofting women who knitted in order to bring in a few extra shillings each year produced heavier items. They knitted at every opportunity, even while they were walking. We have a photograph of my paternal great-grandmother knitting socks. She always wore an apron with a "knitting pocket" around the house and garden.
The women made "hap" shawls (everyday shawls) for themselves. The fancier shawls were made for the export trade to England. The finest shawls of all were often made to order and the task would be given to a woman who was not able to do heavy crofting work. I was once shown an unfinished shawl begun by a girl who died of some unstated disease. She had been confined to her bed but she was still expected to be useful.
Today I will endeavour to be useful too. I will take some time out and see whether it might be possible to reproduce the work once done by a woman far away - but not in a foreign country for my ancestors come from nearby and knitting speaks all languages.