Herring Girls’ knitting tradition is a good yarn

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A Hebridean clothing company is ensuring an age-old knitting tradition is kept alive.

Herring Girl Knitwear, based on the Isle of Barra, has created a workforce of skilled knitters and is marking its first year since launch.

By using unique patterns and styles first developed across Scotland and its islands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it has helped revive a tradition at risk of being lost.

The company was inspired by a formidable band of women from across Scotland known as ‘Herring Girls’. They followed the shoals of herring around the British coast to gut and cure fish, often spending months away from home.

Despite the hard work and poor living conditions, the women would spend their time off talking, singing and knitting.

Their skills and patterns were handed down from generation to generation and would often include nautical designs such as anchors and ship’s wheels, or hearts and marriage lines.

Such was the distinctive skill of the knitters, it is said a fisherman’s home port could be identified by the pattern of his Guernsey.

The new company also uses the official one, two or three letter fishing port registrations to signify which community the patterns relate to.

Margaret Anne Elder – known as ‘CY Grian nan Oir’ to her customers – is the founder and designer of Herring Girl.

She explained: ‘I watched my grandmother knitting every moment of the day. Often, when she walked from her home village to the shop or post office she could knit one sock there and one on the way back. Anyone who remembers her will always talk of her knitting.

‘For many years I’ve been determined to bring the story of the Herring Girls to life in some way, to honour those brave girls and women who had such a hard life and spent their time off creating such gorgeous gifts for their families.

‘Each pattern has a story that relates to our island heritage and I am proud to ensure those patterns and styles live on and can be passed onto future generations.’

She now has five experienced knitters supplying quality garments for Herring Girl and hopes to recruit younger knitters willing to learn the craft and history and pass it on to the next generation.

‘I am very keen to make sure these skills and patterns are handed on, just as they were to me. In these times, knitting is a therapeutic pastime which can provide a calming distraction to all that is going on around us.’

All of the products are available at www.herringgirlcollection.com or via their retail stockists and can be made to order.