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The SheepSaver Project: Part Two

In Part 1 of the SheepSaver Project, I offered an introduction. Today’s post offers some background on Yarns International as well as some information about how the SheepSaver Project will work.

Yarns International

Betty Lindsay and her partner, Bonnie Hassler, opened Yarns International in 1993 as a brick and mortar store in a small shopping center in Maryland, just north of the Washington, DC line. By the time Betty and her family made her trip to Shetland in 1997, the store was a successful concern. The name of the star was chosen to reflect the founders’ belief that there was a market for high quality wools from other parts of the world. According to Betty’s daughter Lee Wittenstein (who worked in the shop), they were one of the leading retailers in the U.S. of Alice Starmore’s yarns available as well as being among the early retailers of Dale of Norway. In the words of a woman who worked in the store

Yarns International operated as a brick and mortar store until 2006. At that point it closed, although the company continued to operate as mail-order business until 2013. At that point it closed for good. In addition to the work creating the Shetland 2000 line, the store played a major role in the life of the knitting community of Washington, DC. In the words of a former customer of the store, “…they had one of the most beautiful selections of high-quality yarns of all different types that I could possibly imagine.” Another customer remembered that they were “devoted” to Fair Isle knitting.

So it was in this context that Betty took her 1997 trip. And what becomes clear when looking at the patterns that were developed to support the yarn, she had a strong sense of how yan, pattern, and place come together to tell a story.

How the SheepSaver Project will work

The SheepSaver Project is a deeply personal exploration of the story of Shetland 2000, including its past, its present, and its future. It includes research, reflection, blogging, and of course knitting. Because this kind of research, particularly if it is taking place during a pandemic, is an often solitary undertaking, writing the blog is a way to try and connect with others. I hope to share my enquiry process, pose questions, and have conversations. Conducting my work this way means that my thoughts often will not be fully formed. But, if I wait for “perfection”, then nothing will happen.

Hand knitting is an old craft that is constantly made new. It is a craft where people constantly innovate, while drawing on traditions of many different countries and cultures. For example, when I taught myself to knit in the 1980s I spent a few years churning out “Icelandic Sweaters” (which I now know are called lopapeysa), from “authentic” patterns (printed in the US by Reynolds Yarn, which imported Lopi brand wool). But I made them my own, by knitting them on wool from Maine, often in non-traditional colors. At the time, I was captivated by the way the pattern came together. But I did not ask questions of myself or anyone else about the origins of the patterns or how “authentic” they were. More importantly, I did not ask how what I was creating was part of a tradition, particularly one connected to place.

Others have written very eloquently about the role that hand knitting has played in Shetland. It is not my intention to duplicate that work. But as I set out to explore the story of Shetland 2000, I will draw on that body of work. I will provide references and there will be a reference list and will be updated as the work progresses.

Coming next

A consideration of pattern and place

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