Bread and Thread: Shetland Lace

Opening Music

Liz: Hello and welcome to bread and thread, a podcast about food and domestic history I’m Liz
Hazel: I’m hazel we’re two people who studied arch together and love history
Liz: hazel what have you been making since our last episode
Hazel: ooh i have been doing more spinning, i had a thing i was gonna say
Liz: was it the wine you tweeted
Hazel: it was not wine oh i did finish the wine i say finish i didn’t do anything it finished fermenting and then i siphoned it off into bottles from the demijohn which was a surprisingly messy process, i thought technology would be more advanced by now, you basically use a tube where you suck the air out for the wine to be siphoned off, so it’s like physics it’s kinda cool but you do get wine all over you but depending on how much you like wine might be good or bad
Liz: but presumably you also get a little bit of a taste of it
Hazel: yeah i was kinda worried at first i thought it was going to be a bit vinegary, i think it needs a bit more ageing, but we tried some out it’s wine and it’s certainly drinkable
Liz: that is the main requirement for a beverage
Hazel: I’ve only ever met a bottle i couldn’t drink and that was the free bottle we got from a college pub quiz at uni which i accidentally broke all over my carpet when i moved out of uni accommodation which we tried to hoover up with the henry hoover
Liz: how’d that go
Hazel: it worked but i wouldn’t want to be the next person to use that henry hoover
Liz: you probably killed henry
Hazel: oh no i got henry fatally drunk. how about you?
Liz: I’ve gotten into granny squares – I’ve been very broody lately, not at a point where i can do anything about it, so I’ve been channelling it into making single blankets for the future
Hazel: are you nesting
Liz: I’m nesting
Hazel: how many
Liz: just a couple single ones, 5 by 7 kind of large squares. I’m trying to think if I’ve baked something, i must’ve baked something
Hazel: oh thing i was going to say earlier i bought dye seeds and I’m going to try to grow dye plants, I’ve got some madder dyer’s green weed and Wode which isn’t as difficult to grow as i thought it was
Liz: it just kinda shows up doesn’t it
Hazel: it’s kind of a weed which i didn’t realise that
Liz: speaking of yarn and things you’ve been researching Shetland lace
Hazel: i have indeed so this is a really really cool historical aspect i guess i mean it’s still a thing the both of us are kind of familiar with Shetland lace as knitters – you made a Shetland lace wedding shawl
Liz: i did it was bright blue and v soft because it was Marino
Hazel: it was so cool
Liz: it was also a pain in the… behind
Hazel: for anyone who hasn’t come across it Shetland lace is a style of knitting from the Shetland is at the very north of Scotland and it’s very delicate open work knitting
Liz: do you want to define open work
Hazel: the garment has lots of holes but on purpose and it makes a pattern like lace
Liz: if you think of an even more elaborate doily
Hazel: yeah i guess
Liz: it’s most people’s reference point for the concept of lace
Hazel: it’s that kind of fabric, traditionally they’re made of the wool of Shetland sheep – and shawls especially they’re really delicate made from really thin wool on tiny needles i do have a Shetland lace project I’ve been doing that I’ve been doing for a while which is on 2mm needles with cobweb weight thread – uh -yarn
Liz: cobweb weight is basically thread
Hazel: yeah basically i can’t even spin it – it’s this v thin wool, they are mostly garter stitch they are fiendishly difficult because they are patterned on both sides normally where you are knitting lace you get one side where you get a plain stitch but you have to do lace stitch on both sides with tiny needles on tiny yarn and they have this specific instruction where you start at the border and work inwards but some modern patterns i think go the other way where you do middle first then the border
Liz: yeah my shawl was middle first
Hazel: shawls they’re most known for, like the wedding ring shawl which is when some of them are so wide they’re up to 2m wide but you can pull them through a wedding ring because they’re so fine – Liz’s fits through a wedding ring I’ve seen it. they’re made from the wool of the Shetland sheep and it’s one of the finest British sheep breeds and the wool has this really nice curl to it which when spun into a yarn has these air pockets the heat gets into and it has a really nice soft halo around it which is nice for fine work
Liz: what makes a sheep attractive
Hazel: i like a good sheep, you know personally I’d just be like… that is a fine sheep
Liz: it might be controversial but my favourite is the blackface sheep because they’re just really cute with their tiny faces
Hazel: the south downs have really chubby teddy bear faces but Shetlands are v hardy like you’d expect Shetland doesn’t have the famously most nice climate and the finest wool comes from the throat and the underbelly of the sheep which would be combed out traditionally. apparently but it’s shrouded in the mists of time
Liz: shawled
Hazel: shawled in the mists of time- but knitting supposedly came over to the island from Scandinavia in the 1500s I don’t know… were the islands owned by Scandinavia at that time
Liz: Norway i think but it might be Orkney – I’m sure the Shetlands have some connection to Norway
Hazel: i think they do I’m sure there’s some Viking old Scandinavian names in the Shetland islands
Liz: the north of Scotland did have a lot of Viking influence generally
Hazel: there were Vikings all over the shop generally. that’s how knitting came to the islands and by the 18th c there are records of Shetland islanders being involved in the hosier industry, the most exciting of industries, making both coarse and fine stockings to be sold all over the British isles and by i think the late 19th century it’s estimated 20% to 2/3 of islanders were involved in the stocking trade
Liz: that’s a lot that’s more than a gender split that’s the majority of families
Hazel: i guess by that time the knitting machine had been invented or the hand operated knitting machine so you’d have a lot of people involved i guess. Shetland lace as a thing didn’t really become famous until it became associated with queen Victoria. so in 1837 Arthur Anderson who randomly is the founder of P&O ferries presented to her some samples of lacework. he showed her some stockings and she immediately ordered 12 more pairs and then basically became a fan and was often seen in shawls from Shetland and other knitted garments and was often i think in photos wearing a white shawl, which is a Shetland shawl and the white work was quite popular – a white lace shawl
Liz: so is white work the stuff that is white
Hazel: yeah basically white goods. so that became fashionable because everyone wants to copy the queen – though queen Elizabeth ii’s headscarves haven’t taken off
Liz: but have you seen an old lady without a headscarf
you can’t know that they’re all doing it because of the queen
could be the queen’s doing it because she’s old
Hazel: ooh which came first
Liz: that’s the big question
Hazel: asking the big questions on Bread and Thread- I’ve seen a bunch of old ladies in Liverpool in the supermarket in their curlers, maybe that’s just another thing. I’ve never seen the queen do that, so-
Liz: i grew up in Warrington where people went to the shop in their pyjamas
Hazel: that’s alright though
Liz: not the corner shop the proper one you have to drive to
Hazel: I’d do that
Liz: I’m not judging I’m saying it’s a thing
Hazel: I’ve definitely been to the corner shop in pjs and dressing gown – i did wear outside shoes though which is very mature of me. so because of queen Victoria lacework became very fashionable especially the shawls and became very expensive because they were delicate and required a lot of work
Liz: back when artists were paid what their work was worth
Hazel: yeah about that
Liz: oh no exploitation
Hazel: yeah thanks to capitalism the actual knitters in Shetland didn’t make much money from their work. it was definitely a source of income and a way to earn extra money for their families but they rarely had a chance to sell themselves being in the Shetlands which was quite difficult. often brokers or middle men would come round and buy the shawls or would take them into a local goods shop where they could trade them, and the shop would sell them on. so these workers wouldn’t get paid what they were worth, certainly not a proportionate share of what they would be sold for in London
Liz: yeah that tracks
Hazel: but a significant proportion of people in the Shetlands were involved in making them. I’ll try to get some pictures on twitter or some links to women outside their houses with their shawls. when they were finished, so with lacework you don’t often get to see the pattern until it’s blocked which is where you get it wet and peg it out so it’s stretched. they were massive so you’d block them on these big frames and leave them to dry outside so I’ll try to get a picture of that because it’s really cool. the patterns of these shawls and tops of the stockings and things had these really lovely names that reflected the Shetland landscape like print of the wave old shale cats paw candlelight
Liz: oh those are lovely
Hazel: it’s very cool. most of the time people wouldn’t even be using a pattern these would just be passed down through generations on the female side just having these incredible patterns in their head which they would then just knit up in whatever configuration they liked. the earliest piece in the Shetland museum which i desperately want to go to one day is a christening shawl from 1837
Liz maybe when we get enough patrons we can take a trip
Hazel: ooh trip. there’s also the Unst Cultural Heritage Museum in Unst which would be cool to go to. in the 19th c these shawls were really really popular but at a certain point in the 20th century wearing shawls went out of fashion which if you ask me is a shame because it’s basically a blanket you can wear who wouldn’t
Liz: I’ve worn shawls to work and that’s not going to change
Hazel: you’re a fashion icon and i salute you. i have also worn shawls on occasion. as a knitter making shawls is fun and you want to wear them but also yeah they’re kinda great so bring shawls back
Liz: that is our podcast’s real mission
Hazel: that’s the agenda bring back shawls and cloaks
Liz: i do have a cloak i made a cloak it’s very good it has arm holes so i can be all cosy and if i want something i can slip out like a snail
Hazel: like a tortoise. so wearing shawls fell out of fashion in the 20th century so the demand for those kind of hand knitted goods dropped but i did find this out and i had never heard this before in the 1920s the blouses of Shetland lace work became popular as knitters on the island tried to update their stock to reflect modern trends. there’s these amazing – I’ll link these as well – the V&A have these amazing Shetland lace blouses which would be really daring at the time because they had a lot of holes in
Liz: they might see your underwear
Hazel: they’re beautiful i would 100% wear one today. using those traditional patterns in lace work that continued on into the 20s. unfortunately shawls not being completely back in fashion and now with the push for people to get paid for what they’re doing a hand knitted real Shetland shawl costs a lot of money which is fair but-
Liz: yeah just getting enough of that delicate wool spun must take weeks
Hazel: yeah i don’t know if you can get one from hand spun – as it would traditionally be – from hand spun wool, you probably, maybe you can somewhere i think you probably couldn’t unless it was made for you by someone who wanted to by someone who made the knitted shawls. while it’s not around in fashion today it still retains its cultural significance, it’s quite well known in Shetland and i think the queen of Norway got a shawl when she opened the Shetland museum in 07
Liz: that’s cool
Hazel: that’s really cool and there’s quite a few modern knitwear designers that use Shetland lace pattern so I’m going to give you some of the favourite ones I’ve found. and it’s a challenge in knitting circles to make a Shetland lace shawl
having made one i can confirm it is challenge mode
it’s a bit of a bucket list thing for a lot of knitters and there are some absolutely incredible patterns out there. the heirloom knitting forum have created a few patterns based on a few pieces from the Shetland museum or from the Unst museum and these things are like massive tiny needles just thousands of meters of thread and yarn and those are proper show-off pieces. Kate Davies who is quite a well known designer uses a lot of Shetland patterns she’s the designer of the owl pattern and modern designs. one of the main tailors of Shetland wool is a company called Jameson and smith who purchase about 80% of the Shetland wool crop and that’s keeping the sheep industry going and they just describe themselves as a wool broker so they buy up the wool from the farms and they produce their own yarns so they produce knitting yarns and they also do the specialist yarns for Shetland lace the really thin ones. they also will sell the wool they don’t use to companies who will make it into clothing into rugs. so here we are in the modern day and Shetland lace is still going.
Liz: that’s really cool i didn’t know it was still such a big thing
Hazel: it’s still an industry i think the knitting itself is not so much like a big industry any more as like a cultural kind of thing i mean i could be wrong i wasn’t able to
Liz: if you’re from Shetland let us know
Hazel: Please do! but definitely the production of Shetland wool the quality is still really good, it’s still going and the company is still in Shetland which is keeping that alive which is really great. oh a fun fact i found out as well, this not a connection i would’ve thought to make but in 1897 Queen Victoria presented as a gift a Shetland shawl to Harriet Tubman and i think that’s my favourite fact.
Liz: that’s really cool.
and that about wraps it up for the short history Shetland lace
before we go onto local larder i wanted to talk about our patreon. if you wanted to support us you can do at you can support us at different tiers so at £1 a month you get access to our discord server where you can talk about various things we’re making so we’re trying to build a community of makers and crafters. at £5 or whatever currency we’ll be posting patreon exclusive recipes and patterns so you can try them yourself.
Hazel: I’ll be making some patterns
Liz: there’s currently the recipe for my banoffee cookies from last episode up there
Hazel: i want that
Liz: you can have it for free
Hazel: aaw
Liz: at ten monies per month we’ll be posting instructional videos for various crafts and things so you can learn to do them yourself. if you do use them please tweet us @breadandthread we’d love to see what our listeners are up to.
Hazel: i can’t promise my instructional videos will be foolproof but they will be entertaining.
Liz: for our local food portion i have been looking at stargazey piece
Hazel: this is exciting i know what this is but I’ve never seen them or eaten them
Liz: a stargazey pie is from the town of it’s spelled mousehole but i believe it’s pronounced mosel
Hazel: yeah mosel or mousel i remember reading from a children’s book about a cat who lived in mousehole
Liz: sounds like a good place for a cat to live you’ll find out why in a minute. it’s a delicious pie it contains fish potato grated egg various herbs and spices and fish heads sticking out of the crust like they’re stargazing
Hazel: that’s…random
Liz: do you want the historical stuff or the legend first
Hazel: oh definitely the legends, this is what i want to believe so
Liz: the story goes there was a fisherman in mousehole named Tom Bawcock.
Hazel: what is[laughter]
Liz: i don’t know what you’re laughing at this is a clean podcast. so the legend goes the village was facing starvation as there hadn’t been enough successful fishing trips lately so he sailed out into a violent storm facing certain doom. instead of dying he came back with a huge catch of 7 different types of fish and they were baked into a pie and shared amongst the townsfolk. it’s a story that’s celebrated every 23rd December in a pub in mousehole where they make this pie with several kinds of fish and sing a song i will put a link to in the show notes about tom and his saving of the town.
Hazel: I’m so glad Bawcock was saved
Liz: he is the hero of mousehole and i love and support him
Hazel: we love Bawcock, we do[laughter]. the best things happen in pubs. there’s one that has a pea throwing competition.
Liz: shelled peas or whole pods?
Hazel: the peas themselves you just like yeet them i guess
Liz: of course
Hazel: that is a great story
Liz: so more historically this pie goes back to at least 1800, a reference to it appears in the journals of Captain Frederick Hoffman, who mentions a pie of pilchards with their heads poking through
Hazel: everyone has such a good name
Liz: they do. he compares this pie to potted flying fish he encountered in Barbados. he talks about how he’s worried that the similarities of cuisine between the two places but he’s worried he wouldn’t be able to get stargazey pie outside of Cornwall. it also appears in Halliwell’s dictionary of archaic and provincial words in 1847 which also suggests putting leeks in the pie which i haven’t encountered outside this dictionary. JO Halliwell’s just like no you put leeks in this. no leeks anywhere else. maybe it’s nicer with leeks.
Hazel: maybe sometimes you just need to take a leek.
Liz: but it is still made today not just for this celebration in mousehole, it’s kind of a display dish that you might make like hey look what i did. kind of like we talked about the pond pudding which is as much of a thing to put in the middle of the table as to eat.
Hazel: i imagine that you probably wouldn’t especially nowadays where you don’t generally pick up fish heads at the supermarket.
Liz: that’s the advantage of pilchards they’re quite easy to buy whole.
Hazel: i stand corrected
Liz: yeah pilchards is sort of sardine adjacent they’re generally used interchangeably but it’s regional which one you use. I’m used to calling them pilchards because I’m from t’north.
Hazel: i get that. they’re not very big are they, sardines.
Liz: no. you tend to get a decent amount poking out like 7 from the story.
Hazel: yeah that makes more sense i was thinking big fish heads or maybe sardines because they’re tiny
Liz: I’ve seen a ring of them outside the pie like 7 or 8
Hazel: that’s a decent number
Liz: it’s quite convenient. in Dorothy Hartley’s food in England from 1953 she actually suggests cutting the pie between the fish in order to portion it.
Hazel: that’s a good idea like when you get birthday cake with a chocolate button on each slice except instead of a chocolate button there’s a
Liz: a fish head yeah… I’m sure nowadays no-one’s expected to eat a fish head. though sardines are small you could probably eat that whole.
Hazel: I’d eat a fish head
Liz: there’s not much about stargazey pie that’s what i was able to find. i do want to know what the 7 fish were in the story. presumably one was pilchards but i wasn’t able to find a list. probably a closely guarded secret of the pub that does it.
Hazel: i could probably only name 7 kinds of fish
Liz: probably mostly whitefish
Hazel: how many fish are there?
Liz: how many fish are there? I’m going to go with seven. i forgot to mention the name of the pub – it’s the ship inn. if you’re in mousehole on the 23rd Dec, tom Bawcocks eve, you can go eat this bizarre pie. so yeah hope you enjoyed today’s episode
Hazel: i certainly did
Liz: if you have an episode suggestion or a local larder suggestion you can email us at or you can tweet at us at bread and thread… and we’ll see you next time.

Closing music

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