She was born on the Isle of Whalsay in the Shetland Isles as Agnes says, ‘a long time ago’. Agnes Bowie began knitting at the age of four, prior to starting school. The first thing a Shetland lass learned to knit back then was to knit a slipover (vest) which in a harsh Northern climate, devoid of central heat and walking miles to school, helped to ensure her young body stayed warm. By the time she was ten she had completed her first Fair Isle jumper – brown with peach, blue, red and white as she recalls. Why teach knitting to children so young? It was important to knit in Shetland because knitting meant survival.
Life ran in cycles according to seasons, and whilst Agnes’ life ran a little wider than most - she used to be a Herring Girl - she still knit to survive. The winter with its long, cold evenings was filled with the cheerful banter of knitting circles, gossip and storytelling with her Whalsay relatives, until the herring began to run and she came of age. Then Agnes packed up with her team (her needles always at hand to knit whilst waiting for the herring boats to come to dock) constantly moving with the schools of herring around the coast of Britain until summertime. Coming home to Shetland in the summer also brought cruise ships and tourists eager for souvenirs of Fair Isle knitting. But with thousands of Shetland women knitting came a buyers market and mere pennies paid per hour for their considerable efforts in Fair Isle hand knitting. Whilst the environment is pure and life slower not much about the economy has changed least of all with regard to the amount of money generally paid to these talented hand knitters.
A Shetland woman spending more than 110 hours (to make a full size sweater), applying more than sixty years of hand knitting skills, still earns about £65. Yet, native born Scotsman made (really) good, fashion designer Alexander McQueen realises £240 for a Fair Isle style sweater made on a machine, in Italy and of merino wool. What’s equally important is that the purchase of Mr. McQueen’s or any other ‘label’ offering ‘Fair Isle style’ fosters the further decline of the Shetland economy and an irreplaceable loss of a piece of Scotland’s rich cultural heritage. That’s why Thistle & Broom commenced its Fair Isle Knitting Project. Thistle & Broom decided to do something about preservation and fair market pricing by offering 66% of the retail price, or £230, paid in full up front to each knitter when we sell one of their hand knit Fair Isle jumpers.
We’ve asked Agnes to develop her offerings in the all natural palette (no dyes) of Shetland yarns and the end results are astonishing testaments to her design capability and knitting expertise. Given the made-to-order nature each sweater can be made in your choice of ‘colours’ please let us know how we can help by clicking here. From time of receipt, please allow four to six weeks for completion of your order.
8% of the net profit of your purchase serves to benefit Thistle & Broom Scholarship.