I'm back from a fantastic weekend on, Papa Westray, where I spent a few days knitting, spinning and learning about some of Orkney's obscure knitting traditions through a talk and series of workshops lead by Liz Lovick of Northern Lace. As an enthusiast of folklore and owner of an Orkney spinning wheel, the talk was wonderfully informative and ticked all of my boxes (especially as it included some archaeology!). It was my first trip to Papay, as it's known locally, so I took a little time out to visit the Knap of Howar, which is the oldest standing building in northern Europe.
Like a lot of archaeology in Scotland, and on the islands in particular, much of the Knap has been lost to coastal erosion. The two structures visible today are extremely close to the recently constructed sea wall, and while the site may seem small when you're approaching it, standing within its confines certainly gives you a real sense of scale. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's not the best idea to build your house facing the sea, but the doorways have jams built within them, inferring that a door of some sort could be secured. You can see from this photo of my hand next to the upright stones that form the doorway just how skilled the builders of the Neolithic were in creating neat and beautiful structures:
The buildings that you see today are actually the remains of structures from a later stage of occupation, built on top of earlier midden material. The Neolithic houses were also built into midden, rather than standing upright on top of the land, as we are used to seeing with our own buildings.
Within the structures, a few interesting features can be found. There are two saddle querns, which are large grinding tools used to turn grain into coarse flour for making bread. There is also a square hearth in the middle of the floor in one of the buildings, which is typical for the Neolithic period, and was even present in Orcadian homes right up until the early 20th century.
The Knap of Howar is well worth a visit while on Papay. It has a small interpretation board, but even if you're not into archaeology, the scenery is gorgeous and very atmospheric.
Now onto the knitting workshop... Liz was actually running three workshops (lace, Fair Isle and gansey), but I chose to do the Fair Isle one, as it's rapidly becoming my favourite form of knitting and I wanted to learn more about it, while also taking the opportunity to see if I have been "doing it right". I say that in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, as I'm not a believer in strict "rules" when it comes to both knitting and crochet. Of course they are important when writing a pattern, but the biggest obstacle to learning either craft as a kid was the way that people trying to teach me were adamant that I had to do it their way. There are certain ways that a yarn should be held, or a direction that a hook should be moved, but it's very personal and everyone both knits and crochet's differently. When knitting Fair Isle, I knit one yarn continental and the other in English, but that's just the way I find most comfortable. The most important part of knitting Fair Isle is keeping your yarns untangled, and to do this it's best to keep one yarn on your left and the other on your right. It just so happens that a continental/English technique is comfortable for me, but I wouldn't expect all knitters to follow the same method.
This is where Liz's talk and workshop comes in. Her central thesis is that there are many traditions in Orcadian knitting that are unique to this set of islands, but may be the result of family or community traditions. You'll find certain motifs on one of the Orcadian islands that are absent on the rest. So what does this mean? Perhaps it's as simple as personal preference - I enjoy knitting certain Fair Isle motifs and take inspiration from the things I enjoy, which are probably different from the knitter sitting next to me, who may like knitting lace and nothing else.
Anyway, I knitted up a little cuff in North Ronaldsay yarn, and then added steeks to it so I can turn it into a needle book. I have a horrible habit of losing my tapestry needles, and I'm also interested in trying nålbinding, so I need something to keep the needles safe (I'll probably make some nålbinding needles from Fimo clay, since I don't have any tools for shaping bone or wood). I'll take some photos of both the needle case and the nålbinding needles when they're finished.
I also took a trip to the local craft shop, which also doubles-up as the post office. Inside is a cave of wonders for the yarn enthusiast - I bought some Manos del Uraguay lace yarn and am crocheting it up into beautiful cowls (again, it's another thing to share when they're done). I spent much of my free time spinning, as I took my Hitchhiker wheel with me, and learned to do do Peruvian plying! It's perfect for when you have some left over singles on one bobbin that you don't want to waste, but isn't enough to mix in with something else. I can't seem to find any good videos detailing how to do it, so maybe it's something I can make in the future? Who knows - I have so many dominoes in my head at the moment and they're all chapping!