I recently interviewed the wonderful Susan Crawford for another blog post I was writing and I took the opportunity to sneak in some extra questions – things I had always wanted to ask her but never had the time when we meet up at various shows.
Even though Susan focuses her work on vintage patterns, her attitude to her work is definitely not set in the past. In fact her approach is most certainly innovative. For example, she turned to crowd funding to help her realise her latest project The Vintage Shetland Project. It was so successful that she has been able to devote more time to the book. I can’t wait to read the essays about knitting that will lie alongside the lovingly recreated vintage designs.
So it is my great pleasure to share her answers with you about her latest book, yarn and her farm.
How did The Vintage Shetland Project come about?
Several years ago, Carol Christiansen, the curator at the Shetland Museum asked me if I would like to study some of the archive knitwear with a view to doing a then undefined ‘something’ as a result of that study. I of course jumped at the opportunity and over a period of two or three visits the concept of The Vintage Shetland Project was born. The more I studied the pieces the more I appreciated the stories behind them, the history each and every item was sharing with us and the need to impart those stories to others. The knitted pieces I looked at all had signs of deterioration or damage in some way and this made me ever more aware of the need to pass on their histories. They were also such fascinating pieces with so much to say not just about themselves but the knitters, the wearers, Shetland, social history and fashion history.
Why is it so important to protect this heritage?
The history within each knitted piece goes beyond how it was knitted or who knitted it. It tells us so so much more. And often because knitting is an everyday, dare I say it, throw away, item, the role it plays in fashion and social history are often ignored. However the reasons why we craft are complex and are deeply connected with the social, fashion and economic history of any given period and also the personal history of the knitter and the wearer. By studying these knitted items they provide us with an insight into all of this and without them our knowledge of ordinary people’s lives would be less. Also because of its apparent closeness to us, this twentieth century heritage is not explored to the extent it could be, and the ‘primary’ evidence to do this is already disappearing or has got lost amongst tales and reinterpretation, making it even more important to gather as much of the facts together as we can before it is impossible to do so.
How do you decide on the look of your shoots?
I look at a lot of primary sources. Magazines and films of a period to see how they are shot, the posture and position of the models. I also look at photographs of the period where ever possible to see what people wore. I then also think about what mood/atmosphere I am trying to portray. And behind all this I usually have an ongoing story in my head that connects all the ‘sets’ and gives the models roles as though in a film or book. I have great fun with this, explaining to the models their backstory.
Who is your photographer?
I take all my own photographs. I see it as an extension of the creative process rather than a separate part of the production. As I am knitting or finishing a piece, I weave the story I want to tell in the images around it. On The Vintage Shetland Project I have also used an assistant photographer to capture the behind the scenes moments and my daughter, Charlie, has also filmed the process. She is a great photographer in her own right and although she’s often modelled for me, she would also rather be behind the camera than in front of it!
What are you favourite yarns?
Well obviously my own yarns, Excelana and Fenella. Both are 100% British wool, using fleece from flocks bred in the UK, spun in Devon and dyed in Scotland. I’m particularly proud of Fenella as it has successfully replicated the vintage 3ply yarns of yesteryear. I also created a colour palette which reproduced the colours I found in vintage garments from the 1930s to the 1950s so it really is the perfect replacement for these elusive vintage yarns. Excelana and Fenella are both soft enough to wear next to the skin but still have a woolliness to them, they are hard wearing and warm and have great stitch definition. The stitches also cling together for great colour work knitting. I am also a big fan of Finnish, Swedish and Estonian wools and particularly Snaelden yarns from the Faroe Islands.
What do you look for in a good yarn?
In the first instance I look for 100% wool. Then I go for feel – it needs to have bounce – stretch and recovery – and it needs some fibres so they will cling together when doing colourwork. I like both woollen and worsted spun yarns depending on what project I am making.
Why did you decide to take on your own farm?
Its something we had dreamed about for a long time. Both my husband and myself had grandfathers who ran small holdings and I think that desire for self sufficiency was in our blood! One of the main reasons for having the farm was so that we could keep our own sheep and therefore produce our own wool. I meet a lot of farmers who are struggling to see the purpose in the fleece from their sheep and it is such a shame when wool and woollen products are so popular that this isn’t finding its way to farm level. We would like to show that wool can be the primary purpose for keeping sheep just like it used to be rather than the fleece being a biproduct of the meat industry, so we shall see how we get on.
How is it going – what are the high and low points?
The high points are easy A beautiful landscape to wake up to every day, space to walk around and enjoy, the ability to be self reliant and in control of what we eat, animals to take care of, a connection with the starting point of the wool making process and being part of an ancient bond. I love the greater inter-connectivity with nature, the seasons, the weather, a heightened awareness of its power.
That closer connection does expose you to fiercely inclement weather conditions. Living on a hillside has really meant we ‘feel’ the weather. We experienced the recent floods and were left without telecommunications of any sort and power other than wood burning stoves, for nearly a week. We have had buildings blow away and we have sadly lost animals in our care at one point losing all our ducks to a nearby fox. You are very much more exposed, life is more raw and can be completely exhausting but we both love it regardless. This Spring sees our first lambing so after that I guess we can really call ourselves farmers!
You can pre-order Susan Crawford’s The vintage Shetland Project here.