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Shetland Wool Week 2014 / Wool Week: A garment to last a lifetime

A number Shetland Wool Week workshops took place on board the Swan.

Wool Week has taken visitors to some exciting locations over the past week, but as venues go, restored sail-fishing vessel the Swan takes some beating, writes Genevieve White.

Friday’s sky is grey and uninspiring, in sharp contrast to the cosy and colourful goings on below deck, where nine expert knitters have come together to learn to knit traditional Dutch ganseys.

The atmosphere around the table is celebratory as workshop attendee Catherine Walker shows off her Shetland hand spun engagement ring and announces her engagement to fiancée, Jed. There is just time to offer congratulations before the workshop begins.

Workshop leader, Stella Ruhe, is the author of Dutch traditional Ganseys. She opens the session by describing how she learned to knit as a three year old using steel needles and cotton.

“It was a hard way to learn, but probably also quite good, because it gave me practice in learning how to overcome difficulties.”

Ruhe’s love affair with ganseys was first kindled during her time working as a publisher. A manuscript about ganseys found its way onto her desk: having never heard of the garment before, she developed a keen interest in them.

Ruhe worked hard towards ensuring the publication of this manuscript, which met with success.

However, 1980’s consumerism meant that knitting fell out of fashion. Worried that ganseys might be forgotten forever, Ruhe started writing and researching her own book on the subject. She collected patterns and had the ganseys reknit using modern yarns.

Ruhe is keen to point out that traditional Dutch ganseys were not just a fashion item.

“The ganseys were beautiful and there was so much skill involved in knitting them. But first and foremost they were functional.

The strings and pom poms around the collar were to pull tight and protect against biting winds. The t-shape helped them to dry faster. Ganseys were never thrown out – they were repaired and reknitted.

And the greaser and dirtier they got the better – this made them more waterproof and provided an extra layer of insulation. When they couldn’t be worn anymore they were used as deck cloths – that’s why so few original ganseys are with us today.”

As I leave the Swan, the assembled knitters are already handling their wool and looking at patterns. It sounds as if they will be knitting a garment to last a lifetime.