knitting in the orkneys

detail of Elizabeth Lovick design

Crowded by oil industry types and beefy oil riggers, the flight from Amsterdam to Aberdeen is brief. A taxi cue outside the airport huddles under shelter from the rain, and when we finally arrive at the Central Rail Station we have only an hour to wait for our train to Inverness.  Located in the city centre, Central Station opens onto a recently constructed mall which includes a boutique hotel--Jurys Inn--cafes, and the usual high street stores. Ferry access, where one may catch the Northlink Ferry to the Orkneys and Shetland Islands is nearby.  First Scotrail to Inverness meanders through green countryside, windows streaked by rain that continues all day. We disembark in Inverness to change trains. Located across from Inverness station is a charming Victorian shopping arcade where ecomodista browsed briefly and found a parts shop for bagpipes. 

Kirkwall Harbor 

btw, Earlier this month, Inverness hosted the Ganseyfest, an international seminar, which included designers such as Di Gilpin and Elizabeth Lovick, who is also an historian and written various books on ganseys, Fair Isle, and Shetland Lace.

St. Margarets Hope, Orkneys

A fascinating individual, Liz had recently restored The Old Harbor Master's House in St. Margaret's Hope in the Orkney's. She conducts meticulous research related to the history of various types of traditional knitting in addition to designing patterns for Fair Isle, lace, and other styles of knitting. Her site, Northern Lace, is extremely interesting and a wonderful resource. Lovick offers hand dyed North Ronaldsay yarns in her Etsy shop when available and has written an excellent book of patterns just for this very special yarn. see: Her book with patterns for ganseys features her research in local museums and collections. Surprisingly, Lovick points out that  ganseys knit by early 20th century gutters, girls who gutted herring then packed them in barrels of salt, were pastel colors, and generally 3/4 sleeves, as opposed to those knit by or for sailors which are generally dark blue or black. 

Traditional gansey motifs  include anchors, ropes, herringbone, and similar imagery related to fishing. Densely knit, these patterned garments served seamen well, providing insulation from the harsh conditions in the North Sea. Recently an article from 1975 was posted online that includes a few traditional stitch patterns, probably inspired by the Moray Firth (the bay on the North Sea near Inverness) Gansey Project. Locating and documenting ganseys from families in this district, organizing exhibitions and events such as the Ganseyfest, the Moray Firth project has inspired a resurgence of gansey knitting. See:

At Inverness, we changed to a much smaller rail line, apparently narrow gauge, that travels north to Scabster/Thurso, crawling along the Moray Firth. This scenic route hugs the coastline, detouring through wild Highlands landscape and acres of Scotch distilleries, row after row of stone warehouses where the whiskey is aged. After spending the night in Thurso, we took the ferry from Scabster to Stromness,  the second largest town on the mainland of Orkney, known during the Viking period as Hamnavoe or safe harbor. 

George Mackay Brown, the brilliant Scottish novelist and playwright has written eloquently spare novels and plays about the Orkneys, especially  Magnus, one of the outstanding books of the 20th century. 

Focusing on the medieval Earls of Orkney and Saint Magnus and brilliantly juxtaposing the saint's death with a scene from Auschwitz. Mackay Brown evokes an eerie perception that human nature has changed little since the Orkneys were ruled by Norway. Mackay Brown's novel about daily life on these islands,  Greenvoe, is a poignant account of the impact  of  late 20th century economy and culture in the Orkneys. 

From Stromness one takes public transit, a tiny bus, to Kirkwall. Fortunately, the station is near the central business district, and hotels. ecomodista and husband stayed at the Albert Hotel, and despite the fact we were the only guests (it was October) service was perfect and the room extremely pleasant.

lighthouse in Scabster

Two well known knitwear designers live in the Orkneys, Elizabeth Lovick and Ingrid Tait of Tait & Style. ecomodista stumbled upon Ingrid's boutique although already familiar with her work which has been featured in various department stores, such as Barneys in NYC. see

Liz Lovick, after obtaining her doctorate in biochemistry, worked as a medical researcher and educator. Later, she morphed into a well respected knitwear designer. History and tradition animate Lovick who discusses her background. "I learned to knit from my Cornish grandmother, at an early age, and later bought my own clothes from the income I derived designing and knitting sweaters for friends. When ill health forced me to stop teaching, I did what my forebears would have done--I turned to knitting."