I write to report on a fascinating article I just read entitled Knitting, Autonomy and Identity: The Role of Hand-Knitting in the Construction of Women's Sense of Self in an Island Community, Shetland, c. 1850–2000, by Lynn Abrams (The link I have included will give access to the article in PDF format for subscribers- as a university student, I have access to the article, but if you would like to read it and do not have access, you can purchase privileges for a fee.)
Knitting, Autonomy, and Identity addressed the unique situation of knitters on the island of Shetland, a small archipelago off the coast of Scotland. Before reading the article, I was excited to address my own conflicting views of the knitting community on this island- I have always imagined two very different ideas of the Shetland knitter's world; one of a romantic fishermen's village full of gansey-knitting wives and daughters, and one of a group of independent bread-winning women supporting their families.
My latter impression has been confirmed as far closer to the truth. Abrams focuses greatly on the economy of the hand-knitting community in Shetland, and explains that the islands relied largely on fishing, crofting, and knitting for financial stability. Due to the nature of the fishing community, women largely outnumbered the men- most men were on the sea as soon as they reached maturity, and the death rates of fishermen at the time were high enough that many men did not return. Women knit out of practicality- they needed a way to support themselves if they were not able to get married, and needed security in case a husband passed away and was no longer able to earn a living.
Shetland was 100 years behind the rest of the industrial world technologically, but was 150 years ahead of the rest of the world socially. Although knitting frames and hand knitting machines existed and were used both in factory settings and in the home for at least a hundred years, they were still absent in Shetland, where women knit all of their garments by hand. However, the self-sufficient nature of women on the island might have shocked American women living at the same time.
In order for knitters on Shetland to reap benefits from their work, they needed to leave the home and come in contact with quite a few entities. Abrams argues that this created a more social environment for the women than they would have otherwise experienced. I'm not sure if I agree with that- women found ways to be sociable whether or not they needed to sell their goods- but perhaps the women were exposed to the business world due to their sales, a world they otherwise would have been excluded from.
The knitters of Shetland dealt almost exclusively with systems of trade- the hosiery they produced would be traded for either dry goods or lines of credit, which could later be cashed in or given away in a trade. The receipt of cash for goods was, in fact, so rare, that when women were afforded an opportunity to receive money for items they had knit they devalued the item extremely, taking far less for the item than its equivalent in goods might have been.
One aspect of the economy which Abrams danced around but failed to address head-on was the level of poverty in Shetland. Abrams provided accounts of such poignant images as women sitting up all night to finish their knitting, placing black sheets over the windows so the neighbors shouldn't see that they weren't finished in time, and this constant ache to knit more and more (and not for enjoyment, as we might stay up to do today) belies a deep poverty which drives women to work- and even steal- to keep food on the table.
Theft in Shetland was far more prevalent than one might imagine. Abrams used theft as an example of the nature of the community of knitters which existed- that knitters would steal from shopkeepers but never from each other, because in a barter/trade economy trust is the most important aspect of a salesman. I see in the evidence of theft on the island a community steeped in poverty, so poor that although trust kept their precarious economy viable they risked everything to take items they desperately needed from those who had extended to them credit, and helped them in the past.
I couldn't help but think, as I finished the article, of one account included of a woman who, at age six, had knit two baby-sized sweaters and brought them in to the local shop, where she traded them for wallpaper. She expressed her pride and satisfaction in having procured something necessary out of items she had made. As Abrams put it, wool, for the knitters of Shetland, was like gold dust- it could easily and immediately be made into something that could be traded for necessities.
Today, the economy on Shetland has an entirely new face. In the 1970s, oil companies began to move in after discovering vast quantities of oil off of the coast, and this discovery immediately improved the economic situation on the islands. Knitting in Shetland is now widely recognized by knitters as influential and beautiful, and companies such as Spirit of Shetland and The Shetland Trader have capitalized on the islands' reputation in the knitting world.
Women on Shetland no longer knit hosiery to support their families, although the tourism trade probably keeps them knitting iconic Shetland lace.
When looking at a community such as Shetland, in which a community developed which was completely independent of the societal norms so rooted in the rest of soceity- women were producers, traditional gender roles were naught, domesticity as we know it was absent- it becomes hard to understand the modern view of knitting as synonymous with frivolity and old age. Shetland women knit constantly from as early as they could hold needles until old age prevented them from making another stitch, and they knit not for fun or relaxation, but because their hard work kept them afloat financially.