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.


  1. Fascinating account of antiques and treasures Tom! I have a few treasures from my Grandmother whose family settled in America in the 1700's and in the 1800's started the first milk bottle company. (I have one bottle)
    The sweater vest you mention is a treasure for sure and your story of buying it "off" a girl is funny! My favorite clothing too is classic. Amazing that Harris Tweed can't be gotten by a hat maker.
    As for the snow that we have and you covet....I'll send it from the US to England ASAP!!!

    1. Yes, I have only just heard about your blizzards and 18 inch deep falls.

  2. I had a friend at my Foundation Course college who bought every Fair Isle jumper he could find. They were always slightly too small for him (which is what he liked), and he wore them with 'home made' bell bottom trousers. I should add that he was Belgian. This would have been around the same time that you made that poor girl strip in the high street.

  3. I am off to offer the RFWF 30p for his tweed hat

  4. Fascinating. In my Ebay days I helped a friend close out her antique/collectable store. I was pleased to find some things going back home, especially Navajo rugs, pottery, some jewelry, Apache baskets. I could never have guessed the prices paid! Now I wonder what of the buyers were dealers; the eternal reshuffling didn't crossed my mind.
    I could not keep the glass straight; thank God I only had to figure out if it was cut or pressed or Depression. Good descriptions put the hounds on the track.

  5. Since I raise Shetland sheep, I have a keen interest in Shetland products and simple adore Fair Isle "anything". It's wonderful to see that there are folks around yet that truly appreciate how wonderful these garments are and that they truly are a work of art.
    Here's a link to my friend's blog, she is from the the US (as am I) and just posted a Fair Isle style button up (or down) cardigan that she designed. I thought you might find it interesting.

  6. I have a Fair Isle cardigan that i bought at a thrift shop some years ago, 8 or 10 at most. Think i paid $2, and the yarn alone is easily worth 10 times that.

    You could take up knitting, Tom. I'm trying to steel myself for making my own Gansey jumper--little projects like mittens and hats i can do, but a big project like a sweater is a commitment.

    1. When I get to the stage when doctors suggest I take up knitting, I will know for sure that the days of working with my hands are truly over.

  7. Did you wear it all of Christmas Day and Boxing Day ?
    I have a pair of high heeled red satin shoes from Brora that I love but there has never been anything else to tempt me from that shop.
    ..... and, I would LOVE a photo of you, sporting your Fair Isle jumper and knitting ........ now there's a sentence that I didn't think I would be typing on Tom Stephenson's blog !! XXXX

    1. Just the day itself. I have been in hiding ever since - a sort of retreat. Tomorrow I leave the house for the first time in 2 days. Re the photos - tough, though I'm willing to do a swap.

  8. What a lovely story - buying a jumper off someone in the street - these days you would probably be arrested for ... what, being a public nuisance, perhaps!

  9. my mother made my father a fairisle to exactly that pattern. he wore it most days.

    1. Amazing. The old pattern has turned up again.

  10. Dear Tom,
    I love men who know what they want - and act accordingly :-) And 'The Girl Without a Jumper' was happy too. (Sounds like an Edna O'Brien-titel).
    "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.(...) I am making a pretty good job of blurring myself by losing all that youthful definition." Hahaha - my friend The Idiot Gardner would say: Let's drink to that!" (An easy way to get that blurred look inside and outside).
    I remember a lot of my clothes very clearly - haptic, colour, smashing look - and can imagine that such a wonderful jumper is a real treasure.