Knitting for tea

Our first woolly stop in Shetland was Lerwick and the amazing Shetland Museum and Archives at Hay’s Dock.

courtesy of  Shetland Museum and Archives, as are all images in this post

I mentioned, as I bought some bits and pieces, that we were there on a knitting pilgrimage – just making conversation. We were in the textile collection, pulling out drawers and being gobsmacked by the lace (let alone the Fair Isles), when a woman approached us – one of the staff. Were we the knitting people? Because she’d got some things to show us… and we had our very own discussion / presentation / introduction – all things, really – to knitting in Shetland. (They are doing similar mini-tours of the textile collection in the season and I suppose we got a preview; it was excellent.)

The guide – Cathy – was an amazing knitter, and showed us some of her fine lace, both finished and work in progress. As a child she had knitted Fair Isle gloves for pocket money, getting 7s 6d for a pair, of which she was allowed to keep 2s 6d – little enough, but a vast improvement on the iniquitous truck system which operated in the nineteenth century.

I’d known a little about this, but I’d never really understood the implications in full. Truck systems – where goods and/or labour are bartered for other goods – have operated all over the world in a variety of situations, and they’ve always been oppressive and exploitative, likened to a form of slavery. They’ve been illegal in the UK since 1831, but eliminating them proved problematic, and in 1871 there was an enquiry in which evidence was heard from Shetland – miles away in Edinburgh. The following year the Second Truck Commission took place in Shetland itself, and its report is a valuable historical resource.

The truck system extended to other areas of life in Shetland, notably fishing, but it’s possibly most striking when it comes to knitting, an activity which most knitters today find enjoyable and even addictive. It’s also the reality behind the photographs of knitters with kishies on their backs; it took a long time to get rid of truck completely.

Reading the Second Truck Commission’s Report is salutary. Basically, knitted goods were exchanged for a limited range of ‘essentials’ and money did not change hands. ‘Cotton goods, tea and shoes are almost the only things they can get for their knitting and are not enough to keep the life in them,’ added Guthrie, the author of the Report. The things which the knitters received were also priced more highly if they paid for them with knitting rather than money – as Guthrie noted, there were ‘two prices for goods, according as they are paid for with hosiery [a general term covering all knitted goods] or with money’.

Q: Do you always get goods for your knitting?
A: Yes, I get goods because I can get nothing else.

The knitters were almost permanently in debt, tangled in a complicated network of relationships and records with merchants and with dressers, who blocked the knitted goods and sometimes acted as middlemen. They were only infrequently able to work around these, sometimes selling knitted goods directly to summer visitors or ‘sending them south’ for sale.

It wasn’t, of course, a society without money. Money was just as vital as you’d expect – principally in order to pay the rent, but also for everything else a family needed. Sometimes the knitters did ask for cash; generally they had given up:

‘Women say they never get money because it is a thing that merchants never give, and that they never ask for it; or that they asked for it once, and being refused, did not ask again.’

One trader told the Commission that the women were unwilling to take cash – but he had offered them a lower price than the equivalent in goods, as was also noted. Women supplemented their income in any way they could.

Q: Is it a common subject of complaint in the country, that you cannot get money?
A: It is every one’s complaint.

Burning kelp

I think the last word from the Report belongs to one of the knitters, Agnes Tait from Scalloway, who was interviewed on 22 January 1872.

Q: Do you support yourself entirely by knitting?
A: Yes; I cannot work at anything else. I knit fine shawls and veils. I have knitted for the last six months to Mr. Moncrieff with his worsted, and I have been paid in goods. Before that I knitted with my own worsted, and I sold my work to any merchant in Lerwick, generally to Mr. Sinclair. I never asked any money from him, because we knew that it was the rule that we would not get it. I wanted it for many purposes; but I would not have got it even though I had asked it.

Q: But you could not get on without some money, I suppose?
A: No. I sent some shawls and veils south for money with which to pay my rent.

Q: Did you get enough money from them for all that you wanted?
A: I was often at a loss for money, and then I had to sell tea and other things which I had got in Lerwick for my hosiery. I sold tea and soft goods to any neighbour who was kind enough to take them.

The legacy of the knitters survives; thank goodness the truck system has not. Here, at least.

Dressing a sweater in Lerwick, early 20th century

A few years ago, I was chuntering my way around a large stately home, built on the profits of the slave trade abroad and appalling conditions in slate quarries at home. One of the invigilators interrupted me and said ‘I really agree with you, but I look at it this way. See this beautiful carving? It would have been done by people from the quarry. It’s a monument to them, not to your man who just went out and bought what he wanted.’ (She also pointed out that the painting of the plantation in the West Indies had been hung in a prominent place, so nobody could miss it.)


10 thoughts on “Knitting for tea

  1. Annie

    What a lovely surprise to sit down with an afternoon cup of coffee, log on to see what’s happening in the knitterly blogosphere, and find this long and informative post to keep me occupied while I take a break from more mundane things. The plight of woman – across the world and down the years – forced to knit and sew for little reward is a long standing interest of mine too, so thank you 😀

    1. kate Post author

      Thank you! The whole truck system thing makes me so cross, not quite as much as the Clearances, but then that usually makes me want to throw furniture about. Of course, the men also suffered under truck (especially if they were fishermen), but the women had to keep the family fed somehow… grr…

  2. Lindsay

    Kate I am SO pleased you commented on my blog because now I have traced you and found your own fascinating tales. I am saving them up to read this evening with a cuppa. Thanks for calling by!

    1. kate Post author

      Thank you — and one of the real pleasures of blogging is making contact with people whose blogs you’ve been reading for ages… love yours…

  3. Annie

    Just looked out my copy of Knitting By The Fireside And On The Hillside: a history of the Shetland handknitting industry … I was searching for a quote I thought might interest you. This was Edward Standen in 1845: “The fondness for tea is carried to an excess by the Shetland wife; for the sake of it she knits at all opportunities”. I’ve always been amazed by how he could get things so backwards … he must have known about truck, he was the man who introduced Shetland knitting to London!

    1. kate Post author

      I was about to try and get hold of that!
      Quite agree with you; Standen must have known – it was in his interests to gloss over reality (though he could have been fooling himself, I suppose). I found it really moving how far some of the ‘country’ knitters were prepared to travel in midwinter 1872 to testify to the Commission; it must have been a real trek. The evasiveness (yes, that’s the word) of some of the witnesses is quite clear, even at this distance. There was one shawl dresser who could have avoided answering questions from a Jeremy Paxman…

  4. Knitsister

    As always, your blog keeps us all well informed and I loved reading this installment. However, I so enjoyed hearing more about it in person at Kip Day yesterday in Llangollen, thank you so very much for making the effort of coming…and sorry you had to freeze, what we don’t do for a spot of knitting…9 October is in all our diaries 🙂

    1. kate Post author

      Yesterday was fun – good to meet the others, and I’m very glad it wasn’t today (Sun) – completely horrible, and my house has sprung a new leak (that’s old houses for you, always entertaining.) Thanks for organising it, and see you soon I hope!

  5. Annie

    Oh, I missed you both 😦 Llangollen is only half an hour away, but we had a big family party yesterday so there was no way I could have come. What’s happening on October 9th?

    1. kate Post author

      Well, it was a bit on the nippy side (socks and sweaters mandatory) but it was good fun… Oct 9 is an all-day Knit, Spin, Weave and Natter Day in Harlech – haven’t really started doing publicity yet, but I took a poster along yesterday just in case. last year we had loads of people from all over, spinning wheels, fleeces spread out, interested members of the public, press photographer, etc.. good fun… It would be lovely to see you!

      (I spread the word via Ravelry, local media, LYSes, Guilds, etc – and this year it will be via the blog too…)


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