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Shetland Oil Money Can't Unravel Islanders' Knitting Lifestyle


With their zigzags and star patterns, Fair Isle sweaters are easy to spot in just about any major store. The style originated in the Shetland Islands in northern Scotland where knitting is a way of life. NPR's Ari Shapiro paid a visit.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is where it all begins. Shetland is home to about 400,000 sheep. They outnumber people here 20-1. So if you're invited to someone's home for dinner, lamb will likely be on the table. And if you're wearing a local scarf or mittens, chances are it was made out of Shetland wool. Ingrid Eunson is sitting at her spinning wheel at home. She's turning what looks like a fur ball into thread which will eventually become yarn.

INGRID EUNSON: This is a color called moorit, which is brown.

SHAPIRO: To the side, she has blue-green yarn that she died herself. Her hands enact a ritual that her ancestors have practiced for generations. Locals used to survive by trading knitted hats or stockings with fishermen on passing ships.

EUNSON: I'm quite glad that I don't actually have to do it, so I get more pleasure out of it probably.

SHAPIRO: Have your thought about the number of hours, beginning to end, that it takes to create a sweater?

EUNSON: Yes. And I've thought about how much it would cost at minimum wage. And nobody would afford more than one jumper in their lives if they paid according to the hours that went in.

SHAPIRO: Here in Shetland, knitting is not a hobby reserved for grannies or hipsters it's something people just do because they've always done it.

CAROL CHRISTIANSON: Knitting is what drew me here initially. I visited in 1989 as a tourist - as a knitting tourist, actually.

SHAPIRO: Carol Christianson is originally from Seattle. Now she's a curator at the Shetland Museum and archives. She loves the fact that even within this small cluster of islands, there are knitting traditions specific to each island - fine lace on the northern island of Unst, rows of colorful patterns on the sweaters of Fair Isle down South.

CHRISTIANSON: This is a really strong tradition. You see teenagers and young people walking around with Fair Isle hoodies on now. And it's just part of life here.

SHAPIRO: Wilma Johnson can't even remember learning to knit.

WILMA JOHNSON: I just knit because it's like breathing. I can't do without it.

SHAPIRO: She and her friend, Marian Ockendon, are knitting upstairs at Shetlands textile museum. They answer questions from curious knitters who visit these islands from as far away as Japan, New Zealand and the U.S. When we begin chatting, Marian asks if I want her to speak proper. No, I say, just the way you would normally talk.

MARIAN OCKENDON: Well, I learned when I was about five or six from my granny, again, like Wilma. Oh, I'm speaking posh here. You want to speak normally. (Laughter). I canna mind learning, either. But it was definitely me granny taught me and me mom also. And the first thing I mind knitting was scarves for me dolls.

SHAPIRO: These islands are so far from any mainland, they've developed a culture and a dialect all their own. It's part Scottish, part Scandinavian, part uniquely Shetland. And the culture persists even though the larger noticed oil and gas terminal in Europe is here providing the islands with massive wealth. Wilma Johnson sees no sign that the traditions may fade away. Her 15-year-old granddaughter is a knitter.

JOHNSON: She was actually up beside me yesterday pinching some of my knitting.

SHAPIRO: She says some people might be upset to be robbed by their grandchildren, but as long as her granddaughter is stealing knitting supplies, Wilma is delighted. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.