Shetland lace is an extremely delicate knitted fabric made with soft Shetland wool spun into very fine yarn and knitted into intricate patterns.
The texture of Shetland wool is soft and light, which makes it suitable for knitting rather than weaving. As a result knitting has traditionally been the main craft of the islands.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women from the Shetland Islands sold knitted stockings to merchants and fishermen who travelled to Shetland from mainland Europe.
After Queen Victoria’s coronation, Arthur Anderson, a native of Shetland and the founder of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), presented the new queen with examples of Shetland lace. Her subsequent order of twelve pairs of lace stockings started a fashion for Shetland lace amongst ladies of society.
Shetland lace is traditionally made with wool taken from the throats of native sheep as this is considered to be the finest. The wool is hand carded or brushed between a pair of wooden paddles covered on one side with small metal teeth or tines, and then spun into a gossamer thread.
For really fine Shetland lace, the spinner will spin only one strand. For two-ply lace, two strands are twisted together.
Traditionally used to knit Christening shawls, wraps and stoles, Shetland lace is usually black, white or a light tan colour and, when properly made, is so fine even large pieces can be pulled through a wedding ring.
There are many classic Shetland lace stitches such as old shell, razor shell, bead, feather and fan, fern, trailing leaf, spider diamond and rose diamond.
Contemporary makers often use these traditional stitches to make modern garments in different weights of yarn and bright, vibrant colours.
Shetland lace needs to be set after knitting to stop it deforming and to fix the dimensions of the piece. This is called ‘dressing’ or ‘blocking’ and involves carefully hand washing the lace and gently squeezing it until it is just damp. The lace is then gently stretched flat to open out and straighten the pattern of holes. Cotton is threaded through the points of the lace around the border and the whole piece is pegged over a frame and left to dry naturally.
Despite its fragile appearance, Shetland lace can last for generations if it’s carefully hand washed and stored flat.
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