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  • Starting at the beginning
  • Helen Robertson

Starting at the beginning

Starting at the beginning

I really haven’t known where to start with writing this blog then it occurred to me that it’s always best to start at the beginning!  And that starts long before I was born, in the island of Unst, the northernmost island in Shetland and home for generations of my mother’s family.  Being most northerly, it and its human and animal inhabitants grow strong against the fierce north wind and wild seas.  The sheep, in particular, grow not very high but grow very, very fine fleece. This coupled with a need to innovate in order to survive led to the advances in hand knitting that led to Shetland Lace.  The finest examples of which can be seen in the Unst Heritage Centre, and the Shetland Museum and Archives.

My Great Aunty Betty wearing a hap with Norwick beach in the background

My Great Aunty Betty wearing a hap with Norwick beach in the background.  There is another photo of her with her pony in Kate Davies “Book of Haps” https://katedaviesdesigns.com

As well as the spinning and knitting done for everyday use, the women spun extremely fine yarn and knitted exquisite shawls. These were sometimes used as bridal veils.

Shetland knitted bridal veil made and worn by Alice Henderson

Here you can see one made and worn by Alice Henderson who married James Priest in 1921. Traditionally the shawl was kept and then used as a Christening shawl.  This shawl was so exquisite that stories of it carried down to me and it was the legend of this shawl in particular that inspired my awe and respect for the previous generations of Unst knitters and their craft.

When I was commissioned to make a tiara in 2000, the hand spun, hand knit shawl worn by Alice was the direct inspiration for the final piece. I drew out the shape created by the lace edge and started trying to recreate it in metal.

Metal lace tiara

I can remember it was a particularly beautiful, unusually hot, day in May and I was sitting outside our house, looking out onto the sea, pregnant with our first child, when I started knitting with some beading wire I had left from another project.  It was definitely the start of new beginnings for me, both personally and creatively.

I experimented further with knitting with wire and came up with a design that was modern but still had elements of tradition. I could use the traditional lace pattern but the stiffness of the wire meant that the shape of the tiara being formed by the knit edging called, in Shetland simply “The Lace”. I discovered fine silver wire and used that for the final tiara. I made the bridesmaid a simpler knit wire lace tiara with dyed crystals to match her gown.  I decided there and then that in order to honour the preciousness of my heritage I would always use at least one strand of silver wire in my knitted wire jewellery

Although my knitting journey had started in the early 70’s and my jewellery making journey had started in the early 80’s this combining of the two has formed the person and artist designer that I am today.

I have since made many more bridal commissions and many more pieces of jewellery and art using this method.  I will speak about them in further blogs.



  • Post author
    Helen Robertson

Comments on this post (1)

  • Aug 31, 2017

    Love all these old pictures Helen

    — Louise Cheyney

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