Not a brand name – at least as far as I know – but a geographical description of the assorted sweaters that I have accumulated over the years from around the North Atlantic seaboard. There have been many, often purchased urgently against sudden climatic variations. Spring here being deceptively cold these last few days, I once again found myself rummaging in the back of the wardrobe to unearth the bin liner than contains the winter woollens. Tipping a heap of jumpers out on the bed I recalled the provenance of each, before selecting a lightweight beige number of extraordinary softness and a label that pronounced it Jamieson’s Knitwear of Shetland.
Eight hours steaming due north from Orkney, on the Kirkwall to Lerwick route. I remember wrestling with a door against the buffeting wind and going out onto the pitching deck in the middle of the night to be met with a wet slap of horizontal drizzle moving at speed. I was wearing a sweater from the Faroe Islands, further north again, roughly halfway between Shetland and Iceland. It was a three-ply number so rich in lanolin that the rain beaded off it. It has never been washed, and has a distinct tang of the original sheep. (The name Faroes comes from the old Norse word fær, meaning sheep, and øja, or islands.)
Off the starboard bow a small white light winked in the night, and then a steady golden one came into view beyond it. I made out a looming mass of dark cliff which slid steadily past. Fair Isle, three miles long, a mile-and-a-half wide, known for its traditional knitwear patterns. The steady light must have been a cottage, and I wondered who lived there, what it looked like inside. The island was soon behind us, a tiny speck of rock in the rolling expanse of sea. And then arriving in Lerwick in the morning, oil tanks, fishing boats at anchor, grey buildings around a small harbour, their monochrome in contrast to the luminous green of the hills behind, dotted with the white specks of sheep. As we clanked over the metal ramp of the ferry and mustered in the car park I saw that the side of the ship was decorated with an enormous stencil of a Viking in a horned helmet, billowing hair and beard, arm outflung, pointing. Onwards!
Shetland has always looked to Scandinavia due to its geographical location, and indeed belonged to Norway for a couple of centuries. The name is said to derive from the old Norse Hjaltland, which may refer to the hilt of a sword, hjalt, or to a fine type of yarn. When the original Norn language spoken by the locals gradually evolved into the Shetland dialect of Scots, the letter yogh, written as a kind of stylized 3, replaced the Norse hj sound, and the name was written as 3etland. Because of the letter’s similar shape to the Z in English, the islands became known as Zetland. To this day, Shetland postcodes begin with ZE.
After we had driven around the harbour three times we decided to ask someone for directions. An old man was walking a dog and we pulled up next to him and asked him the way. He replied in a strange singsong dialect somewhere between Aberdeen and Bergen and was impossible to understand. My mother, who was driving, asked him to repeat it, laughing that she found his accent quite hard to follow. “Ah don’t have an accent,” he replied, deadpan. “You do.”
We had a picnic sitting in the car on a clifftop, sheltering from horizontal rain and a buffeting wind. It was the old red Volvo, its interior littered with memorabilia from its travels. A road atlas of Scandinavia. Nord Norge veibok. Tin of travel sweets. Ice scraper. National Trust guide. Snow chains. From my position in the back seat the contents of the seat pockets provided a distraction of sorts from the squall outside. The sea churned and boiled hundreds of feet below, pounding against the cliffs, which seemed to shake with its force, and just offshore lay the low outline of the island of Papa Stour, visible through intermittent clouds of spray. The weather showed no sign of letting up, so after a while we drove slowly away, and then passed a track with a sign that said Jamieson’s Spinning Mill. Visitors Welcome. There wasn’t much else around, so we drove up it, coming to a collection of buildings huddling against the lee of the hill.
It was very much an active factory. Looms whirred and chattered away, wheels spun, strands of yarn spooled into patterns. A handful of people attended them wearing earmuffs, blithely unaware of the three figures in dripping Haglöfs anoraks who had just wandered in. Eventually a man noticed us and wandered over, beckoning us into another room away from the clacking mechanical chorus. He was happy to show us around, and told us the history of the factory, explaining that Shetland wool was famous for its softness due to the softness of the weather – “The sheep are out in the rain so it’s like being on a permanent rinse cycle.” I had seen them out dotting the hillsides all the way there, odd, small, goaty-looking creatures with fleeces ranging from the most brilliant white to a dark chocolatey brown. There are several main colours recognised by the Shetland sheep breeding association, and if you wanted an illustration of the Norse influence in the language, they offer a good example: emsket (bluish grey), shaela (steely grey), moorit (reddish brown), smirslet (white muzzle) and sokket (white socks, of course). In the small section set aside as a kind of shop there were mounds of jumpers, piles of knitted socks, hats and mittens, in colourful Fair Isle patterns, the Icelandic yoke design with the half circle around the neck, some that looked Norwegian, and then the plain ones which resembled the natural colours of the land – a bright moss green, a faded russet brown of heather in autumn, slate grey of the cliffs, and an off-white, ecru sort of beige, which is the one I chose.
What else do I remember of Shetland? The green tops of tiny islands, smooth as pool tables, jutting out of a heaving sea. A small ferry and an otter swimming out across the channel, its passage cutting a V-shape in the glassy water, until it stopped, the sleek head eyeing us as we watched it, droplets of water on its whiskers, and then the abrupt dark arch of its back as it dived, only to reappear again 50 yards away to observe us some more. A tearing wind on a bright, cold day, and a lone cyclist flying the St Andrew’s Cross from his recumbent, struggling to get up a hill and slowly grinding to a halt in the teeth of the wind, until he had to get off and push the thing, while in the background the sea foamed and roared.
Gannets wheeling and diving all around us, a cliff alive with their harsh cries, the gothic mask of heavy eyeliner around pale reptilian eyes, a yellow fade of blusher sweeping back across the face, around smooth, snowy heads, folding back their wings at the last second to plunge knifelike into the waves. Gannet, gainéad, guga. They used to eat them here. Still do, in the Outer Hebrides. Every August ten men from Ness on the Isle of Lewis head to the island of Sula Sgeir, home to thousands of gannets. The hunt is centuries old – indeed most inhabitants of the North Atlantic coast relied on seabird foraging to supplement their diets until about 100 years ago – and the hunt has been assessed and pronounced ‘sustainable’ by Scottish Natural Heritage. The gannets are hooked from the cliffs by long poles, then salted and left to pickle in their own juices on the cliff before being dug up and served with potatoes. “Like very well hung duck stewed in cod liver oil,” as one Lewis resident recalled who now eschews gannet himself.
The hotel where I had a chowder, which was a creamy seafood stew served inside a round loaf, and which was so good I can recall it still. On the way there we had been held up by roadworks out on some blasted heath, the traffic brought to a halt until an enormous man in a hard hat and orange vest walked into the road, eyed the waiting cars in a not very friendly manner, spat on his palms and then swung a sledgehammer over his head, bringing it down with a tremendous crack upon the surface of the road with the force of mjölnir – Thor’s Hammer. The tarmac splintered. He did his work as the line of cars watched, then he shouldered the hammer again and sauntered back to the verge, his colleague turned the sign to Green for Go, and we drove on. Narrow roads with passing places every few hundred yards, rising and falling across the treeless hills, and around every other bend the glimmering waters of a sheltered inlet, a voe, in local parlance, often with a solitary whitewashed cottage overlooking it or a small boat moored. Every other car or van seemed to be a Citroën; were they oddly suited to this climate? After all, we found Volvos to be the most reliable car in the mountains of Norway in winter – until we encountered a large Citroën dealership on the outskirts of Lerwick and the mystery was rather obviously explained. The sound of Grieg’s piano concerto on the car radio, and the next piece, I Høst – In Autumn – with squalls of weather and notes which cascade like fallen leaves, played by the Bergen Philharmonic, the sound of which will always transport me to the Northern Isles.
Onto the bed I tip:
A natural wool-coloured Guernsey made by Guernsey Woollens on the island of Guernsey, thus establishing its authentic provenance beyond doubt. A tightly twisted yarn in two-ply knit, quite a narrow fit, rather stiff until worn in, it has the traditional patterns of a Guernsey: a raised seam across the shoulders, and a garter stich ribbed section around the waist.
A roll neck submariner sweater, MOD spec (Ministry of Defence), in off-white ecru, with long cuffs and waist. This is based on the sweaters issued in the Second World War, but the original looms were destroyed after the war, and the modern variant uses a slightly lighter knit.
The three-ply Faroese rollneck, mid-brown with white patterning. Faroese sweaters saw a surge in popularity after a certain detective from a Danish TV series in the early 2000s was seen wearing one. Hers came from Gudrun and Gudrun; mine is from Navia of Torshavn. As I said, it’s virtually waterproof.
The Norwegian submariner, in Navy blue. Another rollneck, in a heavier knit than the MOD one, and with a ribbed fisherman’s pattern. This came from a sale bin outside an army surplus shop in Oslo on a hot July day, when no-one in their right mind would’ve been buying sweaters. It is exceptionally warm, but lacks the long cuffs that can be rolled back of the other submariner.
A lambswool sweater by Barbour with shawl collar, which forms a high cape at the back of the neck. This came out of a sale bin in Regent’s Street, and is my first sweater made with 100% marketing nonsense, which is why I suspect it was on sale. It is black in colour, very soft, but when I picked it out of the bin I saw an odd patterned patch on one elbow. Then another, in a different colour, on the cuff. The tag explained that it had been designed to resemble a much-loved and often darned sweater. This was so ridiculous that I bought it at once. It has a few holes in it now, after 20 years of wear, but as it is pre-darned from the factory I haven’t bothered to repair it.
A traditional Aran sweater from Inisheer on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. Although normally off-white in colour, this one is a lovely dark green shot through with a silvery grey. It’s a fairly loose knit, so good for cooler days. The myth that the cable pattern has a traditional interpretation stems from a yarn shop owner called Heinz Kiewe, who noticed the similarity of the design to traditional Celtic knotwork patterns, and wrote a book about it called The Sacred History of Knitting. Another myth was that every Aran family had their own unique pattern, which would aid with identification if a fisherman was drowned. This is thought to have originated with the play Riders to the Sea written by J. M. Synge in 1904, in which the body of an islander is identified by his knitted socks.
I should explain, if it isn’t abundantly clear already, that I know nothing about knitting. I just like wearing the things as being particularly appropriate for the cool, damp climate where I live, on the North Sea coast of East Anglia. As a side note, the usual word for these garments in Ireland, Britain and Australia is jumper. Sweater is more commonly used in North America and in tourist shops. Nevertheless, I find myself using the terms interchangeably. Interestingly the Irish word is geansai. In Shetland they are called gansey. Further down the North Sea coast of Britain this became known as a Guernsey, just like the Channel Island. Not to be confused with the neighbouring island of Jersey, of course, which is completely different.