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.
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.)