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The knIT crowd are hooked on warm Hebridean clothing inspired by the historic herring girls, crafted by a growing team of knitters on Barra and Vatersay.
The close-knit team, which has expanded from one to 14 knitters in just two years, found purls of wisdom in Barra’s traditional knitwear, putting the island’s unique pattern called a True Lover’s Knot into scarves, shawls, hats, gloves, cushion covers, bed throws, and fishermen’s jumpers called guernseys.
The thick, warm, woollen ‘gansay’, or ‘geansaidh’ in Gaelic, is named after the Isle of Guernsey where it originated. It’s tight knit makes it almost wind and water proof, and lighter than a jersey, named after a neighbouring Channel Island.
A sea-faring labourer’s clothes had to be durable, easy to mend, stain resistant, easy to move about in, and warm. Traditionally they were knitted by fishermen’s wives, sisters or mothers, using a pattern passed down through the generations.
This meant islands, coastal communities, and families had their own unique designs, which could be used to identify the wearer, like a US army ID badge. It’s said a drowned sailor could be identified by his jumper, but as fishermen followed the shoals of herring round the coast from Aberdeen to Great Yarmouth, closely followed by the herring girls salting the catch, the British Isles’ distinctive patterns got guddled.
Scotland’s most famous knit comes from Shetland, the Fair Isles jumper, marked by complex rows of multiple colours. Crosses and lozenge shaped hexagons containing symbols, often of a religious nature, form the basic OXO pattern. A range of smaller patterns – such as anchors, ram’s horns, hearts, ferns and flowers – also reflect the isle’s life and environment.
The Aran jumper, taking their name from the Aran Islands in Ireland’s Galway Bay, employs cable patterns and off-white, unwashed lanolin-rich wool, which made them water-resistant and wearable when wet. Each stitch represents a different meaning: for example, the basket fishermen used, and his hope of filling it with his catches; the cable illustrating ropes, promising good luck and safety at sea; the tree of life or trinity stitch bringing a long life and strong children; and the Irish moss stitch symbolizes carrageen, a seaweed used as food and fertilizer of barren fields.
In the Outer Hebrides, the Eriskay jumper is traditionally blue or cream, and covered in patterns symbolising ropes, fishing nets, anchors, and harbour steps. It fits snuggly around the neck and skin to provide maximum protection from the Atlantic wind and waves – and strength if you were pulling a fallen crew member out of the water.
In 2016, a South Uist knitter Marybell MacIntyre travelled to the Vatican in Rome to present an Eriskay jumper to Pope Francis, the successor of St Peter, ‘The Fisher of Men’, who wears the Ring of the Fishermen kissed by Catholics to show their devotion.
It is from this deep well of tradition that the Barra knitters lifted up patterns for their Herring Girl Collection, which is securing orders from all over the world.
The herring girls were a band of formidable island women who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spent many years following the shoals of herring around the British coast undertaking gruelling work to gut, cure and pack the fish for sale.
During their time away, they would pass the time by chatting and singing in Gaelic, as well as knitting patterns handed down through the generations into garments they sent back to their families. Some of these patterns, such as anchors, ships’ wheels, hearts and marriage lines, feature on the collection’s products.
The Herring Girl Collection launched in October 2019 at the Royal National Mod in Glasgow, where they were worn by Còisir Ghàidhlig Bharraigh (the Barra Gaelic Choir). It is now on sale in An Lanntair in Stornoway, and increasing its use of Gaelic on tags and labels.
Margaret Anne Elder, founder and designer of The Herring Girl Collection, said: ‘As an arts centre that showcases the rich culture of our islands, An Lanntair is a perfect outlet for this knitwear that celebrates the story of the formidable herring girls and recognises their legacy through these traditional patterns.
‘I hope those who purchase the knitwear will immerse themselves in the story of these hardworking women and understand the lengths they went to support their families and help preserve these precious patterns and culture.
‘It has been a hectic but hugely rewarding first two years for the company. In that time, I have gone from being the only knitter to now having 14 people around Barra and Vatersay who regularly produce high quality knitwear from their own homes to satisfy online orders and our stockists.
‘Interest in herring girl knitwear continues to increase, and I am looking forward to the future with several exciting opportunities in the pipeline.’
Put a sock in knit? Don’t worry: we are now done with all the knitwear puns.
Or sew it seams.