Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Thursday, 27 December 2012
Fair Isle Life Style
My primo present this year was a wonderful, hand made Shetland Isle jumper from (at great expense) 'Brora' - a small chain of shops which manufacture wool and cashmere clothing on the island of the same name, using nothing but natural ingredients and traditional, age-old skills.
I remember when it was possible to acquire a proper, hand made Fair Isle jumper from a jumble sale, way back in the 1960s, but those days are long gone and you would be lucky to find one in a vintage shop for less than three figures.
The first Fair Isle I ever had as an adult (I am wearing one in my avatar photo) was pulled off a beautiful young girl in West Street, Farnham, and was spotted from some distance away as she - a total stranger - walked toward me one Autumn afternoon.
I spotted the jumper before I spotted her - unusually. It was predominantly blue, yellow and red, and had taken on the wonderful blurred quality that a well looked-after Fair Isle acquires through multiple hand washes in soft soap. The bands of colours begin to merge with each other as the fibres shift slightly in the mix, giving them a beautiful patina which just gets better with age. This latest jumper will outlive me, and - unlike me - will get better looking with age as well, even though I am making a pretty good job of blurring myself by losing all that youthful definition.
I stopped the girl on the street and asked her - without any pretence at politeness - if she would be willing to sell it, and she asked me how much I would be prepared to offer. I offered 50 pence (not a small sum in 1969), and she - having just bought it in a jumble sale that day for 10p - immediately agreed and pulled it over her head as I stood and watched in anticipation. It was an extremely intimate yet public little event, and I handed her the coin, then watched her walk away in a white shirt, hoping she was not cold. She was big, but well-proportioned, and the jumper fitted me well.
Unlike most of my clothing, I kept it for many years and after I had arrived in Bath, I befriended a well-connected, young Iranian man who admired it very much as soon as he saw it on me. When he left England to go back to Tehran, I gave it to him as a present, and - for all I know - a little piece of the Shetland Isles lives on in old Persia, looking for all the world like a piece of tiled Islamic wall from a mosque, as the geometric patterns mature with further age.
The trouble was that he was a little too well connected, and he arrived back in the old country a matter of days before the shocking Revolution which targeted families like his (his father was secretary to the Queen), so it is all too possible that the Fair Isle has a bullet hole in it, if it survived at all.
Over the years, I have sent many little treasures from the British Isles to distant countries - delicate Georgian drinking glasses to Australia, 17th century candlesticks to the USA - and I have always felt a pang of guilt at depleting the culture by doing so.
Then I remember that they have found Minoan pottery in 4000 year-old graves in Iceland, and items from the Middle East in British ones. This was most likely through trade - like my little trade in glass and candlesticks.
I used to be a small-time dealer in Chinese antiquities, and sold quite a few beautiful, unglazed pottery Tang horses via an antiquities shop cabinet rented from a Chinese friend. He would smuggle the bits and pieces back from mainland China and sell them to me. I would restore them in my workshop and sell them on again. Now, all the rich Chinese are buying up all the stuff taken from China over the last 200 years, and taking it back.
When I was searching for the ideal hat a couple of years ago, I found one which fitted the bill in a famous London hatters. When I spoke to the old boys who ran the shop, they told me that due to a shortage of Harris Tweed, they could no longer make them.
Shortage of traditional Scottish tweed? How? Have they stopped making it? No, all the best stuff is bought up - by the bolt - by Italy and Japan, then turned into haute couture for rich clients. Those elderly men and women in the Shetlands simply cannot make it fast enough, and cannot afford to turn their best customers away in favour of a little outfitters in London who may sell 20 hats in a year.
At the same time as you could buy a genuine Fair Isle in an English jumble-sale, I wondered how the antiques market could possibly survive with stock which was - by it's very nature - limited and irreplaceable, but survive it did, up until very recently.
For the last 30 or 40 years, antique dealers have been making money within the trade by simply circulating about 50% of their stock amongst each other, in the belief and hope that prices would continuously rise.
I used to restore many stone antiques for the trade, and I would never look in an auction catalogue without seeing at least two lots which had - at some time - passed through my hands. Then I would see the same lots in a different sale and understand that for about 15 years, the items had been passed hand to hand within the trade without ever finding an end-user.
Sometimes the end-user would fall on hard times, and have a complete contents sale from their country house (as did the Spencer family recently), or a collector dies and his family puts up the whole caboodle as a complete sale, and the collection is dissipated forever - as the executors of the estate of Craigie Aitchison did only the year before last. Someone's entire life, under the hammer and never to be assembled with the same eye, ever again. Very sad.
I suppose that - at least - all these items are cared for, even if they are locked away in basements as speculative investments. Who knows, maybe in future generations, the Scots will become wealthy and begin to scour the world for Jacobite drinking glasses with stippled engravings of the Bonny Prince, half way up an oak tree, or 1940s Fair Isle jumpers which have somehow found their way to hot and far off, war-torn countries?
I hope they will still have the skill to repair any holes in them, up there in the Shetlands.