Saturday, October 6, 2007

a flight to Fair Isle

I realise that 'fessing up to having been flown out to Fair Isle isn't going to earn me many friends among knitters, walkers or twitchers/birders, but hey. I was paid to do it, okay? Put that axe down, would you? And I guess if I mention that I met the last hand-knitter of Fair Isle sweaters to live on the island ( the sweaters made on Fair Isle are machine made, these days) and that I also met her lovely husband who spins the yarn for her on - take a deep breath - spinning wheels he makes himself, I imagine I'd better start running now. While I'm at it, I'd better change my name, burn my fingerprints off and go into the witness protection programme, hmmm?

Yes. I know how lucky I am. I had to keep on pinching myself as Annie and Stuart took me into their home and showed the kindness of their Fair Isle hospitality to this idiot from the South. I babbled like a fool, I yibbled for scotland and i generally behaved like a complete gushing twit, but I was stunned. It was like I'd been floating in space for years and suddenly was invited onto the bridge of the Mothership. It was as if time stopped, reversed and we were back in the 40's before the war. A time when Fair Isle was populated by crofters, knitters, spinners, shepherds and fishermen. Frequently all of these roles were played by individual people ; all of them - to use a hideous 21st C term - multitasking to get the day's work done. I'd wanted to meet a Fair Isle knitter because the woman who runs the yarn section in John Lewis in Edinburgh had raved about the Fair Isle method of using one hand to do the 'british' method of knitting, while the other hand busied itself with the 'continental' method. Presumably while one foot was drafting out War and Peace and the other was giving Shiatzu massages to the dog...whatever, I wanted to see this in action for myself. 

So. On arrival at this incredible island which rears out of the sea, all vertiginous cliffs and green sward on top and deepcut geos, with, I swear, the shortest landing strip I've ever seen - clean underwear, anyone? - we were whisked off in an elderly white Volvo taxi to the school, a trip of approximately 2.5 minutes. The plane was miniscule - six of us, including the pilot, crammed, and I mean crammed into a tiny twin prop beastie, not unlike Icarus's prototype before he improved the design. Oh. My. God. 

Handbags went in the boot/ trunk, which was, basically, the back of the plane with a tarpaulin stretched between it and the passengers. In with the handbags were boxes from Amazon dot co dot yoo kay, plastic kinder boxes full of food for the bird observatory on the island, cardboard boxes with perishables and cardboard boxes full of assorted foodstuffs and my portfolio with all of the roughs and some of the watercolour artwork for 'The Trouble with Dragons'. And a zip-up bag crammed full of picture books. 

Fair Isle primary school was our destination. School roll - six. Nursery - three. Total island population - seventy plus assorted guests, birders, more birders and tourists who come to learn how to spin with Stuart and assorted indigenous spinners. The sun came out to welcome us, so my impression of the island is a tiny nubbin of green-topped rock, thrusting out of the sea, full of light and birds in abundance. Not that I saw a whole lot, due to being fully employed with all of the schoolchildren for most of the morning and some of the afternoon. 

The children are the lifeblood of the island. When they grow up, they go off-island to high school in Lerwick. I asked the most imminent candidate for educational-exile how she felt about her upcoming uprooting. 'Can't WAIT,' came the reply. This beautiful child is the great grand-daughter of Annie and Stuart, knitter and spinner and wheel maker who allowed me into their home after I'd finished at the school.

Stuart's wheel-making studio is a back room in their house, full with a family of wheels made from irocco(?), walnut and even a recycled window frame. Wheels, I realised have the same character as violins - each one a personality of its own, each one a presence that belies their mere wooden nature. As we spoke, Stuart spun, showing how thick and how fine he could spin a yarn. Fiddle music on a stand behind him prompted me to say that my Dad makes violins, as does Stuart's son, Euan. He asked if I played, and I admitted yes, but very badly, to which he replied - oh, if you'd brought your fiddle we could have haed a tune. 

Next time. I'm going to practice and practice till I can limp along behind him. Post-Shetland mission statement number one. Practice fiddle, then book ticket back to Fair Isle.

Stuart also mends sad and battered wheels, and he produced two tiny hanks of what looked like pale brown sewing thread. He'd found them wrapped round the business end of a wheel he was mending. They were yarn, spun so fine that they were thinner than one-ply which is the gossamer spider-web they knit shawls from in this part of the world. At this point I felt like some kind of blundering idiotic fumblethumbs who not only cannot play fiddle but can barely knit unless it's with yarn the weight of steel hawsers. To which Annie's advice was - practice. She also said that the kind of twin handed, twin method knitting produces unevenly stranded yarns across the back of the work, so she was not wildly impressed by my handwaving, blurty explanation of something I hadn't seen but had only been told about by the lady in the yarn shop in John Lewis.

Post-Shetland mission statement number two. Practice knitting more. Better. Finer. Faster.

I laughed out loud when Annie looked straight into my eyes and said - I wouldn't have tried to learn to knit when I was your age. She meant she wouldn't have had the patience to work her way up from fumblethumbs to faintly competent and then to her current phase of Zen Master Black Makker's Belt Order of the Gossamer Weavers at the Gates of Dawn.

She's right, but I like challenges. What she didn't know that as well as wanting to join the order of the Zen masters BMBOGWGD, I also want to rewrite their constitution, invent a foot-operated row counter, have a yarn named after me and save the world. Compared to which, learning to knit Fair Isle, stranded multicoloured, multiple yarn patterns that don't bunch up like an maiden aunt with haemorrhoids is a mere bagatelle.

We flew out of Fair Isle with three hand-spun hanks of yarn gifted to me from Stuart. One in Fair Isle white 
(creamy white), mourit ( cafe au lait, but on the darkish side) and Fair Isle black ( the deepest, richest darkest cocoa with 70% cocoa solids dark brown). The hanks smell of air in the same way that air dried and wind-blown sheets and pillowcases do.

I know. This goes beyond luck and into a whole new territory. I am blessed.

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