This is the first article in our "Made in Scotland Q&A Series" - where we talk with artisans from around Scotland about their lives, their inspiration and their love of Scotland!
This week we have Sheila Fowlie from Shetland Lace Shawls. She tells us how knitting kept her out of trouble as a child and how a piece of bad luck ultimately lead her closer to her dreams!
You mentioned on your website that your granny introduced you to knitting. How did you learn and how did your hobby transform into a business?
When my dad died in 1960, me and my Mum moved back to Shetland and granny stayed with us. Mum had to go and help on the croft, so I was left with granny and as I wasn’t yet school age, she thought that a good way to keep me occupied would be to teach me to knit - I loved it from the very first stitch!
I have knitted all my life starting with clothes for my dolls and progressing to lace when I was about 10 or 11.
I had a bad accident in 1996 and was off work for 4 years, so knitting during that time kept me sane.
Then in 2009 I got the chance of early retirement and redundancy from my mundane office job and grabbed it with both hands! A year later Shetland Lace Shawls was born.
What is a typical day for you?
I usually try to get all my housework and other stuff done in the morning, so I can spend the afternoon and evening with my knitting. I’m waiting on a hip replacement at the moment and it’s a good excuse to sit down with my needles!
"I usually have more than one project on the go at one time, something I can do while watching the TV, something more intricate like a 1-ply shawl and something I can knit without even thinking about it."
If I have an order to fulfil by a certain date, then that gets my full attention till it’s finished.
How would you describe the style and inspiration of the shawls that you make?
I’m not sure where my inspiration comes from really. If I’m working with colour, it’s from the scenery around me, but with lace, I find my best ideas often come to me after I’ve gone to bed.
That’s when the inspiration for the shawl I designed in memory of my mother came to me (see picture below). I also don’t use patterns in the traditional way, but like to mix and match and experiment with different sized needles and wool thicknesses.
Which of your designs are you most proud of and why?
The wedding ensemble I made from scratch – dress, veil and dags to match is probably my greatest achievement. No pattern as such, just a picture of the style of dress the bride wanted and the type of lace patterns she wanted me to use.
Quite a challenge, but a thoroughly rewarding one and she did make a beautiful bride.
What does creating a new shawl involve from conception to completion?
When creating a 1-ply shawl for a wedding or christening, I start with the size they want and this then gives me an idea of the number of stitches I will have to work with.
I knit my large 1-ply shawls in the traditional way my granny showed me, by knitting four borders and then joining them to a centre square. I chart the border patterns on graph paper, as this gives me an idea of what the final piece will look like and what patterns will work best.
I like to make all my 1-ply square shawls unique, so the customer is then getting a bespoke item, which will last for many generations.
Which other creative people do you admire and why?
I admire Marianne Kinsel and Sharon Miller for their intricate lace patterns; Kaffe Fasset for his inspirational use of colour; Paul Bloomer for his paintings, which are so full of feeling and anybody who can spin the fine lace Shetland wool by hand. I hope to learn to spin one day!
What do you like most about living on the Shetland Islands?
I like the scenery, the pace of life, the peace and quiet you can find, the diversity of people you meet, my house, the freedom I feel when walking my dog, the wild weather and much more.
What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to make their living in a creative field?
- Persevere and never give up;
- Find your niche (still haven’t found mine yet!);
- Be prepared for knock backs;
- Get yourself out there and advertise;
- Relish new challenges and never say something’s impossible till you give it a go.
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