Last fall, just a few days into my trip to the Shetland Islands, the Scottish subarctic archipelago across the sea from Norway, I found myself on the top of a cliff face, peering through the fog at a huge rock in the northern Atlantic Ocean. The rock was topped with a spike of white: the Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built in 1854, a mind-boggling feat as the rock’s cliff face juts straight up out of the roiling sea. In the early days of the lighthouse, our tour guide told us, men had to be hoisted by ropes around their arms to safely cross the gap between their boat and the landing area on the rock. At this most northerly point in the U.K, I felt a profound sense that I was very far from home.
I had disembarked to this spot from a bus at the very top of the tiny island of Unst, the most northern and rocky of the Shetland Islands, with a population of about 600. On the bus with me was a group of mostly women from all over the world, all of us attendees of Shetland Wool Week, a knitting and textile festival hailed through the world’s knitting grapevine as the mecca of all knitting and textile festivals.
To get to this spot, the bus had driven us up the length of “mainland” Shetland, the largest of the 16 populated islands, then crossed on a ferry to the smaller island of Yell, then driven up a snaking road to Yell’s tip and to a second ferry ride (this one on more of a raft than a boat, the bus exposed on all sides) to the island of Unst.
Now, we stood at the top of the cliffs of Hermaness, home to some of the largest colonies of nesting seabirds in the U.K. We squinted through the fog, our knitted scarves whipping in the wind, trying to keep our feet on the ground and our knitted hats (many of them made special for Wool Week, which sends a new hat pattern to participants every year) on our heads as the howling gusts of wind pulled at us.
Before I left New York, the only thing I really knew about Shetland was that it is the birthplace of Fair Isle knitting (Fair Isle being the most remote of the islands), a technique of colorwork recognizable in traditional sweaters. What I found was a place with a complex history beyond that of the knitting industry, difficult to get to but well worth the journey.
In Shetland, knitting is a tradition that goes back centuries and is embedded in the place’s rich history. Sheep here outnumber people by 20 to 1, and inclement weather on the islands has encouraged the local sheep to grow a softer and lighter weight fiber that makes Shetland wool unique.
For much of the 20th century the textile industry was an important element of Shetland’s local economy; women farmers, before production was moved to factories, knitted the yokes of sweaters to be sent abroad while they walked to and from the fields.
Today, knitters in Shetland are unambiguously celebrated for their vision and skill; frequent signs on the road advertise local designers whose homes double as shops.
The growing resurgence of interest in knitting around the world — likely directly linked to our digital age — has made knitting festivals worldwide increasingly popular (tickets for classes at knitting festivals in Edinburgh or Iceland, for example, sell out within hours). In as small and remote a place as Shetland, however, the festival is actually helping to bring textiles back into view as a player in the economy.
There are about 100 islands in Shetland, though only 16 are inhabited. To get to mainland Shetland, one either takes an overnight ferry or a small plane from Aberdeen, on the coast of Scotland (I took the ferry, a very memorable roller-coaster experience on the heaving sea that I’m nonetheless not sure I want to experience again).
On the smaller islands like Yell and Unst, there is no police force, no hospital or health clinic, and no school. Most of these islands’ municipal needs are taken care of from Lerwick on mainland Shetland, the islands’s central port and biggest city (with a population of about 7,500), which is also where the hub of the festival is.
Schoolchildren often travel to Lerwick during the week and then back to the smaller islands to spend the weekends with their families. Mystery writer Ann Cleaves has set a series of murder mysteries on Shetland (they were made into an excellent BBC series, “Shetland,” that the islanders are understandably quite proud of), and one can easily see why: driving around the tiny islands is an experience in moodiness -— you snake down one-way roads through pockets of brightly painted houses and grazing sheep, the seething ocean on one side or the other of you (or sometimes both, the North Sea on one and the ocean on the other).
Often when you curve around a bend in the road the view before you is breathtaking, and if you are driving a car you have to be careful not to drive right off the road. Cliffs drop precipitously just feet from the pavement; inlets have choppy waves (and, in summer, killer whales who pick off sleepy seals), enormous rocks jut up from the ocean just off the coast, and everywhere, roofs and boats and houses are painted cheerful colors that burst against the overcast sky.
I had watched the BBC series, but even such a well-crafted show is no substitute for being there. One cannot experience the Shetland wind through one’s television. I was there for a full week, and there was only one night that I didn’t hear the loud howl of wind all night long. At one point, someone asked a local farmer whether the wind was normal, if it kept up all year long — “Wind?!” he said incredulously, “this is nothing! It’s been calm ever since you came!”
The wind is a large part of life on the islands: as winter approaches, everything that might blow away is removed from yards -— wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, wooden benches. When the lighthouse keeper still lived at the Eshaness (a lighthouse on the northwest of the main island — there are upward of 34 lighthouses on the islands), our guide told us, he used to chain his car to the cliff to make sure it didn’t blow away. There aren’t many trees in Shetland, for this reason — the same reason we were given for why native Shetland ponies and sheep are so diminutive.
In the winter, there is a month of near-perpetual darkness, and in the summer, a month of continuous sunlight; the wind, I was told, is constant no matter the time of year, though at certain times it is known to gust harder, stronger, or more or less predictably (in September, the month I was there, the winds are known as “the Equinox gales”).
The people of Shetland, though, really could not be nicer — one is tempted to think their isolation and hardiness has formed them for kindness. At the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed, Virdafjell, the owner, Dorothy Stove, greeted us with a plastic bin of clean house slippers for us to choose from, and every morning put out a breakfast spread fit for 10 hungry men (though my friend and I were the only people there): scones, assorted bread, eggs, yogurt, fruit, at least 10 different kinds of cereal, and even decorative butter slices in a perfectly sized dish.
Considering the size of Shetland, Wool Week is incredibly vast and diverse. The program is eight full days, and each day features myriad classes and exhibitions, tours, gatherings, teas and lectures on nearly all of the islands; on a random day, I counted 54 different offerings.
Community halls in tiny towns all over the islands host Wool Weekers every day, local people serving lunch or tea and exhibiting local crafts — a day tour of the main island, for example, included a stop at Ollaberry Hall, an exhibition space on the west shore, where a table more than eight feet long boasted plate after plate of handmade cakes and cookies (“homebakes”), and local women served us all tea. This spread accompanied an exhibit of lace haps (or shawls) — most of them made by local schoolchildren — knitted with cobweb-thin yarn, so thin the whole shawl could pass through a wedding ring. My fellow bus-riders and I, once all the shawls had been exclaimed over, sat and happily ate the homebakes while working on whatever knitting project we had brought with us. There is a lot of knitting, as one might imagine, being done during SWW.
For such a small place, Shetland offers an incredible amount to attract visitors. In addition to the textile industry, visitors are drawn by archaeology — (there are ancient sites scattered all over the islands), by geology (the islands sit atop a network of tectonic plates and boast an array of ancient and volcanic rocks), by caving and kayaking, and by an enormous diversity of nesting seabirds (puffins, who nest there in the 100s of thousands in the summer, are a popular draw).
In the winter, a tremendous fire festival dating back to the 1880s celebrates Shetland’s Viking history all over the islands with costumes and a torch procession resulting in the burning of a full-size replica Viking long ship. Nearly 1,000 torch-bearing islanders show up in Lerwick alone.
Two of the nights we were there, there were sightings of the northern lights, ethereal streaks of color across the night sky. The main industry on Shetland is still fishing — primarily mackerel, herring and salmon farming — and more than 75 percent of Scotland’s mussels are produced there.
In Scalloway, once the islands’s capital and the home of the fascinating “Shetland Bus” (a clandestine special operations group that carried resistance fighters, materials, and refugees to and from Norway during World War II), there is the ancient Scalloway Castle, where a sign hung on the gate declares “Castle Open, No Key Needed.” Inside the castle it is cool and damp, and one can wander through the rooms unaided or restricted (my friend and I were the only ones there).
Despite all of this, the main action at the time of my visit was Wool Week, which begins Sept. 28 in 2019. One of the festival’s distinctive aspects is the community that it creates and celebrates all over the islands; it feels as if every local person who has anything to do with textiles or wool is featured in some way, be it Oliver Henry, the wool sorter at Jamieson’s and Smith, one of the two largest purveyors of Shetland wool (the other being confusedly, coincidentally named Jamieson’s of Shetland), who gives a talk about the job of sorting and grading wool against the backdrop of his garage-like space overflowing with wool fleeces, or Wilma Malcomson, a local knitwear designer, whose workshop you can find by a sign tacked onto the main road, and who teaches a class on knitting with multiple colors. (Wilma is the designer of the knitwear worn by the detective on the BBC’s Shetland — I bought a sweater from her from a prototype for about $100, and she knitted and mailed it to me within two weeks.)
A highlight of my week was a visit to Uradale Farm, one of six organic farms on the islands, where Ronnie Euston, the farmer, gave us a tour of his property and talked us through the process of making the all-organic yarn that he and his family produce and sell. The farm is high on a hill overlooking many rolling acres and the sea; it was raining the day we were there, but the view was still staggering and the sheep unimpressed.
Getting there was a bit of a challenge — as with most everywhere on the islands, there are no street addresses, so one has to know the landmarks one is looking for, or pray that Google recognizes what you are searching for and can lead you to the correct dropped pin.
Uradale Farm is actively trying to bring more of the native Shetland sheep back to Shetland — currently, of about 150,000 sheep on Shetland (compared to 25,000 people), less than 30,000 are native, though the native sheep are the ones most well-adapted to thrive on the islands.
Ronnie decried the phasing out of native sheep — for many years, only white wool has been worth any money (white wool can be more easily dyed, and is considered more “pure” for no clear reason), though native sheep are traditionally black or brown (or “moorit”). Asked whether he saw any change, he spoke about Wool Week and the bigger crowds it brings to the islands every year, all with interest in and passion for the native wool. “You’re standing here, that’s the change,” he said. Before Wool Week started nine years ago, he said, the situation seemed quite desperate.
After he talked, he brought us into his colorful home (a rainbow is painted on the ceiling) for tea and more homebakes, and spoke a bit more generally about the increased interest that Wool Week has brought to Shetland (he and his wife also then let us shop for wool in their living room). One of the organizers I spoke to said that Wool Week in 2017 brought in more than 700,000 pounds (or about $900,000) to the local economy, and that doesn’t include all that was spent at local shops, restaurants, or B & Bs by the 600 attendees. In 2018, nearly 700 people made the trip, primarily from Europe, the United States and Canada, but also from many farther-flung places such as Australia, Japan, Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia and Israel.
Where is all of this attention coming from? The BBC series has helped, as has perhaps a general back-to-basics interest in those of us who feel increasingly distanced from a natural form of community in our modern world.
One doesn’t want to get too positive — nearly every person who shared with us the good news about a resurgence of interest in the knitting industry was also quick to share the difficulties their line of work still faces (the general demand is still for inexpensive, mass-produced white wool, and the market for handmade goods is still small and imperiled) — but standing on the shores of Shetland during Wool Week, a knitter can’t help but feel optimistic, and a person can’t help but feel swept away.
Nellie Hermann is the author most recently of the novel “The Season of Migration,” and is a fellow at The Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris.
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