Knitting traditions of the British Isles and Ireland

Many areas around the British Isles and Ireland have their own distinctive style of knitting or a particular garment for which they are known. Such traditions have tended to survive longer in more remote areas where there is less outside influence.

Knitting was sometimes the only way in which inhabitants of some regions were able to earn money. It was a craft that needed little equipment and a skill that could be passed down generations and was, at times, practised by both men and women.

Since the late 19th century, hand-knitted items of clothing such as Fair Isle sweaters have been valued for their individuality over mass-produced, machine-knitted items. Regional knitters have often adapted their craft to suit the market, for example by linking the patterns they use to ancient myths and cultures. In fact, unique styles of regional knitting, such as the Aran jumper, sometimes date back no further than the start of the 20th century.

Shetland jumper
Golf jumper, unknown maker, 1920s, Shetland Islands, hand-knitted two-ply wool. Museum no. T.185-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Shetland Islands

Shetland is a group of islands north of the Scottish mainland and a centre of major shipping routes between Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, the Mediterranean and the United States. It's likely that knitting originally came to Shetland from England, as English words were used for the earliest knitting terms. A 17th-century grave excavated in Gunnister, a moor on the islands, contained the body of a young man together with a knitted stocking, gloves, a purse and two caps. These finds are the earliest complete examples of knitting from Shetland.

By the beginning of the 18th century, Shetlanders were trading hosiery in exchange for money and goods from Dutch and German merchants. Knitters made large quantities of coarse woollen stockings and blankets, as well as the finer work upon which their reputation rested. By 1901, about two-thirds of Shetlanders were involved in the hosiery trade.

Lace knitting started in the 1840s, following improved transport links between the islands and the mainland. Aware of the local knitting skills, Shetlanders brought fashionable lace articles back with them to be copied. Unst, the most northerly island, produced a very finely spun yarn made from finest wool hand-plucked from the neck of sheep, which was ideal for making the lace shawls and scarves. The intricate openwork stitches, invented by the islanders, were given picturesque names such as fern, horseshoe and catspaw.

Shetland shawl1
Shawl, Amy Johnston, 1935, Baltasound, Unst, Shetland islands, knitted shetland wool. Museum no. T.335-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In contrast to most hand-knitting, Shetland lace knitting has no cast-on or cast-off edge. Instead they start from a single stitch, with edges knitted on the bias (knitted diagonally, rather than from side to side).

Traditionally, lace shawls were passed through a wedding ring to show off their fineness and flexibility. Although these shawls were sold to wealthy women, the knitters themselves earned little in return for the amount of work that went into creating the thousands of stitches that made up one garment.

During the 1920s, as a response to the popularity of Fair Isle patterns from the neighbouring island, Shetlanders returned to knitting patterned goods. However, a few lace knitters continue to ply their painstaking craft today.

Fair Isle

Fair Isle is a remote island situated between Orkney and Shetland to the north of mainland Scotland. Legend has it that Spaniards, stranded on the island after the break up of the Spanish Armada in 1588, taught the islanders to use the colours and patterns typical of Fair Isle knitting. However, there is also evidence that these design influences came from nearby Scandinavia.

The varied colours of Shetland wool have been a feature of knitting from this region since the 19th century. They came partly from the different breeds of sheep, but also from dyes. Madder and indigo gave red and blue, while lichens produced red, brown, orange and purple. Brightly coloured synthetic dyes, invented in the 1850s, increased the possible colour range but were used only in small quantities.

Fair isle jumper
Jumper, Annie Thomson, 1997, Fair Isle, Scotland, hand-knitted Shetland wool. Museum no. T.77-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The early knitters produced stockings, caps and scarves. Sweaters in the Fair Isle style – as it's known today – were not produced until the First World War. They are constructed by knitting bands of horizontal motifs from two different coloured strands of wool. The patterns are made up of motifs such as crosses, diamonds and eight-pointed stars.

There was a vogue for Fair Isle sweaters during the 1920s, thanks in part to the Prince of Wales, who wore one as part of his golfing attire, although natural shades like brown, grey and white were then preferred. The look continues to be regularly reinterpreted on the catwalk – the American designer Ralph Lauren included a Fair Isle sweater in his first collection.

Fair isle jumper lauren
Sleeveless wool jumper in 'Fair Isle' pattern, Ralph Lauren, early 1980s, US. Museum no. T.421:1 to 3-2000. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Yorkshire Dales

Hand-knitting in the Yorkshire Dales existed as a domestic industry from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th. Elsewhere in mainland Britain the rural knitting industry began to die out from the end of the 18th century due to developments in knitting technology and the rise of factories. However, around the Yorkshire Dales, the inhabitants continued knitting to supplement occupations such as farming.

Men and women knitted as they went about their daily errands, supporting the knitting in a sheath secured to their waist. The Costume of Yorkshire (1814) describes the knitters of Wensleydale:

A woman by the name of Slinger who lived in Cotterdale was accustomed regularly to walk to market at Hawes, a distance of three miles, with the weekly knitting of herself and her family packed in a bag upon her head, knitting all the way. She continued her knitting while she stayed in Hawes, purchasing the little necessities for her family, and worsted for the work of the ensuing week. She was so expeditious and expert that the produce of the day's labour was generally a complete pair of men's stockings.

The Costume of Yorkshire, 1814

Our collection includes an example of a knitting sheath made in the Yorkshire Dales. Known as a goose wing, the sheath was specially adapted to the shape of the knitter's waist to help them knit on the move. The sheath is carved with the date, 1842, and the initials 'AWG'.

Yorkshire sheath
Knitting sheath, unknown maker, 1842, England. Museum no. T.192-1960. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

People would also gather for knitting 'parties'. These were evening occasions where people told stories and sang, as well as continuing with their work. There were also knitting schools, which taught the skill to children from an early age, training them to sing songs to accompany their work.

Knitted items included stockings, gloves, jackets and caps. Examples that have survived have mostly been made with two different coloured strands of wool. The fingers of gloves are often made with a pattern of dark and light yarns known as midge and fly, with the palms in shepherd's plaid – a pattern thought to be derived from traditional weaving. The knitter's name and the date of manufacture were often knitted into the cuff.

Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are located off the west coast of Ireland in Galway Bay. Contrary to popular belief, the typical cable-patterned Aran jumper is a 20th-century invention. In 1891, the government set up the Congested Districts Board to help poor families survive unemployment and food shortages. The Board encouraged local people to weave and knit garments to sell. By the 20th century, this cottage industry began to take off and the Board trained knitters to create complex patterns. Instead of the dark coloured, oiled wools traditionally used to make fishermen's jerseys, the islanders experimented with soft, thick, undyed yarn.

Aran
Three-quarter length skirt, Wendy Dagworthy Prew, 1982, Britain, loosely-woven Aran tweed. Museum no. T.56:3-2004. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the 1930s, Aran knitting was being sold to tourists in cities such as Dublin, helped by a campaign by the owner of Art Needlework Industries in Oxford, and it soon became known worldwide. Vogue Knitting published an Aran pattern in 1956 and the design became popular in the United States. Although Aran knitting can now be done by machine, hand-knitted jumpers remain highly sought after.

Channel Islands

Records of knitted goods bought from the Channel Islands, situated off the west coast of France, date back to Elizabethan times. Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have worn a pair of white Guernsey stockings for her execution in 1567. The cottage industry for making woollen stockings and waistcoats on Guernsey and Jersey thrived through most of the 17th and 18th centuries. The goods were exported to England, France and further afield, and were valued for their high quality and finish. The knitted fabric Jersey gained its name from the island.

Revolution in France and wars in England disrupted this trade and the knitting industry in the Channel Islands began to decline in the 19th century. However, the islanders continued to knit clothing for themselves.

Channel islands
Jumper with patterns inspired by guernsey and aran designs, Artwork - Gottelier Ltd., 1991, London. Museum no. T.384-2001. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The fisherman's jersey or guernsey is probably named after the fabric from which it was made. They were made out of thick wool, often knitted in the round (a form of knitting that creates a seamless tube) using sets of four or five needles. While chunky, dark-coloured woollen jumpers were a staple of fishermen's wardrobes all over the British Isles, jerseys from the Channel Islands are characterised by a decorative knotted edge, created by knotted cast-on stitches (the foundation row of stitches), and a slit on either side of the bottom of the jersey to give greater movement. These traditional sweaters – also known as Guernsey frocks – were much simpler designs than the traditional fisherman's patterned gansey.

Coastal regions

It's thought that the guernsey may have been modified to become the gansey sweater. The gansey dates from the end of the 18th century and is closely associated with fishermen and sailors.

Traditionally dark blue, ganseys were hand-knitted using inventive combinations of stitches. High necked, tight-sleeved and made from tightly knitted wool, they were designed to offer the wearer some protection from wind and water. During knitting, the gansey would be measured so that it could fit the wearer tightly for warmth.

Gansey
Gansey jumper, unknown maker, 1980, Staithes, England. Museum no. T.47-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As their popularity spread, ganseys began to develop distinctive patterning. Stories of fishermen whose hometown could be identified by the patterns of their ganseys are part of the mythology surrounding knitting. Some patterns were perhaps handed down through generations or were the work of one local knitter, but the reality may simply be that these patterns were the ones recorded by early researchers, therefore setting them for posterity. It's known that patterns were actually passed on between places thanks to the seasonal migration of the 'herring girls' who followed the herring fleet around the coast each year and could travel the length of the country for work.

Cornish ganseys or knit frocks are traditionally much plainer, often using a thick, warm rib, now known as fisherman's rib. It's thought that this could be because ganseys, not stockings, were the main product of the Cornish commercial hand-knitting industry, meaning that the knitters prioritised productivity over decoration.

Hand-knitted fishermen's ganseys gradually died out in all but the most remote communities due to the wide availability and lower price of machine-made versions, although interest in them revived in the hand-knitting boom of the 1970s and 1980s.