We were very lucky to fetch up in Lerwick just as an woolly exhibition had opened at the Shetland Museum, and it was fascinating. A post ago I mentioned taatit rugs very briefly, so now for a bit more….
Taatit rugs are pile bedcovers, and follow a very northern tradition. Making them died out in Shetland during the last century, but they were relatively common in the nineteenth century and the Museum has some from the mid-eighteenth century too. They didn’t belong in the smarter homes; they belonged to ordinary people and were used, often heavily.
I’d heard of them, but I’d not seen one except briefly at the Crofthouse museum four years ago, and I was intrigued. They’ve got a woven base (a muckle wheel / great wheel was used for spinning the wool for taatit rugs; the wool is thick and usually 2-ply throughout),
and the ones in the exhibition were in a mixture of natural colours, not just white. I think I fell just as much in love with the grounds as I did with the rugs themselves!
One intriguing thing – they needed to be wide, but a big loom was impossible in the average Shetland establishment at the time. So the grounds were woven to double the length needed, then cut in half (I think this is how it went – one large piece of cloth rather than two shorter ones), and the rugs were actually worked in two halves which were then sewn together down the middle. They could then be unstitched for washing and restitched once dry, as well.
The pile is a bit different:
and generally looked to me as though it had been slightly more finely spun, but I may be wrong.
They were put together rather like a rag rug, with the yarns doubled up and sewn into the backing fabric, going round a couple of yarns in the base – difficult to describe, but if you turned one over (which I did, discreetly), you see something that looks like a hyphen on the back. Apparently when they were new the pile could be as long as 4cm. Then the rug was then hemmed and the two halves sewn together along the selvedge. Some were hemmed as a whole, but that must have made the dismembering / reassembly process very awkward and it doesn’t seem to have been common. They differ from rag rugs or clootie rugs, of course, in that the pile is spun wool, not woven cloth.
Origins? Much speculation, but they seem to derive from shaggy rugs and cloaks present in Scandinavia and Iceland, and there was a recreation on display to illustrate the point.
(I remember a Celt wearing one like this in Asterix Legionnaire, hee hee, though there’s no evidence of them ever being worn in Shetland, er, sorry about that diversion!)
They were real family pieces. As you walk into the foyer at the Museum you are greeted by one taatit rug which went to New Zealand with its family when they emigrated in the nineteenth century; it has been sent back to its homeland by the descendant of its original owners. They were used as bedcovers, generally in rural families, and often in a box bed – and there is considerable speculation (though no concrete evidence) that they were used upside-down: pile side innermost, for extra warmth and comfort. Certainly that’s so in Norway, and the grounds there often have designs on the ‘back’ as well so they would show up. They were also used there as warm covers for sailors in open boats; in Sweden they might keep you warm on a sledge.
The dyes are natural ones, often local or at least locally grown. In later, early twentieth-century rugs, there are some synthetic dyes, but straight fleece colours are also comparatively common. The exhibition has samples of the lichens and plants that would have been used to create colours like these, and research has shown that a huge range of dye sources were used – many more than had been assumed to be present.
Some are marriage rugs, with the couple’s initials in the design; others have design elements designed to protect the sleepers from all sorts of nightly horrors, like the mara – the hag – who would sit on your chest and crush the breath out of you, but who could be easily be fooled due to her inability to count to more than three (so you put more than three elements in a design, presumably, and she counted again and again rather than suffocating you).
That should do it (this is the oldest rug in the exhibition, from about 1760).
I love things like this. They are so ephemeral, the sort of things that disappear into the background and simply do not survive in any great numbers. And yet they are so evocative of a time and place and – ergh – lifestyle. It’s lovely to see such an excellent exhibition celebrating the ordinary – and also the extraordinary, for their very survival.
Time for a revival?
If you’re in Shetland before 19 July, do go along. It’s fascinating – more information can be found on the Museum’s website, here.