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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 11


SHETLAND HOSIERY

That exported restricted to Coarse Stockings, &c., for a long period — Fine Shawl-knitting of Recent Introduction—Its Ongin and Rise—Veils, &c.—Present to the Princess of Wales.

COME account of the woollen manufactures forms a ^ natural sequel to the reference to the native sheep and their wool, which appears in the foregoing chapter. Native claith or tweeds having been already mentioned, let us restrict our notice to knitted goods. In the olden times, the under-clothing of the Shetlanders was entirely home-spun, consisting of such comfortable articles as knitted stockings and undershirts, and roughly woven claith garments; while native dyed wadmel or claith, for the most part, formed their outside clothing. The hosiery goods, prepared for exportation, appear to have consisted almost exclusively of coarse stock-ings, gloves, and night-caps, in which a very large trade was done every summer during the palmy days of the Dutch herring-fishing; the Hollanders and their neighbours from Bremen vand Hamburgh being the purchasers. After commerce with Leith began to supersede that with continental ports, quantities of these articles were sent thither.

Nor have the close-knitted goods of the Zetland women always been of coarse texture; ladies’ stockings having been frequently produced of so fine a thread that a pair could be drawn through a finger-ring, and readily sold at fifty shillings. The open lace-work knitting, for which the islands are now famed, was never heard of until a very recent period; and I have much pleasure in giving an account of its origin, kindly furnished by an accomplished lady of Lerwick, who is personally acquainted with all the circumstances :—The late Samuel Laing, Esq., of Papdale, when a candidate for the representation of the county in 1833, was, while in Lerwick, the guest of the late Mr Charles Ogilvy, to whose infant son Miss Laing afterwards sent, as a present, a beautiful christening cap, knitted by herself, of thread such as is used in the manufacture of the celebrated Lille stockings. This cap was much admired, and a lady related to the family succeeded in making an exact copy of it. While doing so, it occurred to her that fine woollen mitts, knitted in a similar style, would look well; and she accordingly made a pair, and subsequently a very handsome invalid cap for a gentleman. This was in 1837, when the late Mr Frederick Dundas first became M.P. for the county. Having received the cap as a present, the honourable gentleman showed it to his landlady in Lerwick, requesting her to try to induce some of her young acquaintances to imitate it in shawls. This she did, but with little result.

In 1839, Mr Edward Standen, of Oxford, while travelling through the islands, saw a shawl which the above-mentioned lady was knitting, and, on his return to Lerwick, he also mentioned the subject to the person with whom he lodged, urging her to advise young women to knit shawls of that description. Mr Standen, who was extensively engaged in the hosiery trade himself, now succeeded in giving a fresh impetus to the fine-knitting of Shetland; and by introducing the goods into the London market, was the means of converting what had been for a few years previously followed as a pastime, by a few amateurs, into an important branch of industry, affording employment to a large proportion of the female population of the islands. The articles first sent to market appear to have been somewhat rudely executed, having been knitted on wooden pins. However, steel wires were soon introduced, and, year by year, the manufacture gradually improved, until it reached its present perfection. Many of the peasant girls display great artistic talent in the invention and arrangement of patterns, which 'are formed, as they express it, “out of their own heads.”

The manufacture of fine Shetland shawls thus became common about 1840, but it was not till five years afterwards that the demand for them became very great. About 1850, the shawls were, to some extent, superseded in the markets by veils, in which a large trade was soon carried on. More recently neckties and various other fancy articles have been produced by the neat-fingered knitters of Zetland.

All articles of Shetland hosiery, open and close alike, are presently more or less in demand in the southern markets. The amount sold is said to yield £10,000 or £12,000 yearly. Wool from the native sheep has, of late years, become rather scarce; and, therefore, the importation of Pyrenees wool, mohair, &c., has been rendered necessary.

Mr Edward Standen, to whom the islands are so much indebted in connection with the hosiery industry, in other ways strove to benefit the humble peasantry of Shetland. In 1844, while in the islands, he narrowly escaped drowning, by swimming two or three miles through the open sea, after the boat in which he sailed had gone down with his companions; and, next year, he ended his honourable and useful career in the county to which so much of it had been devoted, by a painful disease brought on by exposure while travelling in the islands.

It is interesting to observe how the rise of this industry is associated with the name of the late lamented M.P. for the county; and how the father of the present distinguished member, who did so much for his native Orkney, should, very indirectly and unknown to himself, have conferred such a boon on Shetland.

The handsomest collection of Shetland knitted goods probably ever brought together, was that presented by a committee of the ladies of Shetland, presided over by Miss Ogilvy, Lerwick, to H.R.H. the Princess of Wales, on her marriage in 1863.


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