Thursday, 16 July 2020

My 2003 Shawl

In one of the fb groups I belong to (1) we were asked to post something about cobweb or gossamer spinning or knitting from our past. I thought I would post about the first shawl  that I both spun the wool for and knitted.

Completed shawl taken in the Viking Longhouse  in Unst 2019

As I got it out I saw a note that says 1 hour to prepare 1g and 2 hours to knit the g! (It is interesting on the many times that I have demonstrated spinning and had some lace knitting with me, I can predict I will be asked how long does it take you to make that. I ought to do the calculation now and check how accurate it is.) 

The afternoon became  quite nostalgic and I thought it best to write a post about it. 

Before 2000 I was a lace knitter, using laceweight yarn but wanting to knit in finer yarn. We were fortunate to go to Shetland on holiday during the summer of 2000. We visited Jamieson and Smith and I bought Gladys Amdrego’s book Shetland Lace and some cobweb yarn to knit the ‘Fine Lace Stole’. This took 5 hanks of cobweb lace. From the weight of the finished stole I think a hank was half and ounce. However, looking round Unst Heritage Museum I saw shawls made of finer yarn and that was hand spun.

My husband wanted to go on a trip round Noss to see the birds and there was no way I was going in the tiny boat he was keen to jump in. I had been given a drop spindle and had brought it with me, as I could not work out how to use it. I decided I would go to Tourist information and ask if they could recommend me to someone who could teach me to spin. After much head scratching by the staff I was sent to The Spider’s Web and met Elizabeth Johnston. Much thought from her too as she had been ill but a date was fixed for when M would be enjoying his birdwatching trip. Not only did I want to learn to spin, my goal was to spin finely, as finely as the Unst  Shawls! 

Elizabeth and I met and she was clearly an expert- little did I know at that time what a great ‘first tutor’ I had met. My life changed. I had knitted since before going to school and now after all these years there was this whole new spinning life to explore. Elizabeth suggested I looked at getting a wheel and on the way back to Norfolk we stopped to see Michael’s sister in Yorkshire. She said the family had a spinning wheel in the loft that I could borrow. (2)

We got back to Norfolk and I started knitting the stole with the cobweb yarn I had purchased. No charts in the pattern then, just long lines of symbols and numbers. With the wheel I started to improve my spinning. I researched teachers  of spinning and we relocated to Cheshire in 2001 where I took on a very demanding new job. However, a good aspect of being in Cheshire was I could join 2 Guilds of Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing- one in Alsager which met on a Friday evening and one in Clywd, Wales that met for a whole day on a Saturday. 

So back to the first shawl I knitted in my own hand spun  yarn. The note with it says I started it in June 2003. To say I designed it myself would be exaggerating. I took the shape of the stole that I had knitted in the J and S cobweb yarn and choose my own motifs for the middle section and lace edging. These were chosen from Heirloom Knitting, the first edition by Sharon Miller. 

Bird’s Eye which remains one of my favourite patterns and was in the original stole. ( I had named it Ring Stitch, as does Gladys Amdrego does) 

Bead Lozenge from the middle

I knitted the shawl to the same plan as the previous stole in commercial yarn. Do the bottom lace, pick up the stitches along the long edge, turn the corners and then knit the lace edgings at the same time as the body of the piece. I do remember the lace edging repeat was different from the repeat for the border sections and the centre section so ‘maths’ was needed to get it to fit exactly.

Lace holes edging 

I had now finished spinning the yarn and plyed it. (3) To me the yarn was thinner than commercial cobweb and today given my much more experienced eye it is ‘mostly’ finer. Today I think that was quite an achievement from being non spinner for half of 2000 to starting a shawl with my hand spun yarn in 2003. I used Shetland wool from a fleece  I had sent from  J and S and once this was combed I took a handful of Angora  and combined the two. (4). It was knitted on old size 11 needles (3mm)

The shawl weighed 80g when finished and blocked was 160cm x 50cm. 

Whole shawl - very difficult to photograph! 

The note also says 80wpi, I am not sure if this was singles or plyed. (On now finding a small ball of yarn, it looks as if the 80 refers to the plied yarn. I was a novice back in those days and did not realise that wpi refers to the singles.) The shawl goes through a wedding ring. 

Today as I got the shawl  out and took a photo (after a photo shoot of my latest Unst shawl) the plyed yarn looks ‘thick’. What I do know is then I was less fierce in my blocking and will now wash it and block this again. 

I have been so fortunate from 2000 when I learnt to spin until now. I have had lessons in spinning from some extremely knowledgeable lace spinners and knitters. To me, although I have the books, watch the videos, spin and knit lots of samples and real lace items there is nothing like having a lesson with a real expert. (5)

Currently I am in the middle of a self imposed bit of research where I am spinning small sample skeins very finely ( think about 120 wpi, NM 2/30 , of the order of, that will be naturally dyed. On the lace knitting front I have just completed knitting another Unst Shawl this time in commercial cobweb yarn which has been challenging in respect of grafting, this will be the focus of my next post here. 

I look forward to reading other journeys into this obsession with cobweb and gossamer spinning and knitting. 

  1. The fb group is called cobweb and  gossamer spinning and knitting focusing on singles yarn (which can be plyed) 40wpi and above. 
  2. This was an Ashford Traditional and belonged to Michael’s Australian niece (through marriage). They had returned to live in Australia permanently and she left the wheel behind. Nearly 20 years later Jenny came to stay with us when on a visit and was able to see the wheel and we talked all things spinning and knitting.  
  3. Even in the shawls with the finest yarn, in Shetland, the yarn is likely to have been used plyed as this gives additional strength. The spun yarn was very very thin and spinning this needed much skill. 
  4. The Angora  Mohair added a lovely lustre  to my yarn. It came from Crookabeck Angoras  on the shores of Ullswater  in Cumbria and came from a flock of goats.
  5. One can feel when one is the presence of a real expert, having learned their skill over many years. There is a saying that Shetland spinners and knitters have it in the genes and there is much truth in this, but they would not call themselves experts. What does frustrate me is when people call themselves experts when they have learnt something one week and think they can teach it the following! Time put in refining skills and knowledge is so important and it shows. 


  1. Such a wonderful journey, Janet, and one that inspires me to carry on working on my spinning.Nothing but practice -- hours at the wheel -- really does it. How did you"combine the handful of Angora"? -- Suzanne Wilsey

  2. Thanks, well although I have a scientific background I don’t think what I did was very scientific. From memory, few notes taken unfortunately, I think I took the same mass of angora / mohair as the mass of combed Shetland fleece. Then every time I took a combed lock I took what looked like (volume) the same amount of the angora/ mohair from that and I remember opening it up and putting the mohair on top of the Shetland and then spun from that , taking the spinning bit from the junction! Now I have a tiny portable accurate balance and would be weighing everything!