Knitting superstition

In my old Shetland dictionary, “A glossary of the Shetland dialect” by James Stout Angus, the word Amos appears.

Amos, a noun, is explained as “a dole promised to some indigent person on condition that some hoped for good comes to the person who promises.”

An amos boddie: a person deserving of charity; a person capable of winning an amos.

“To lay on an amos” means to promise an amos or reward.

I wonder if it originally came from, or is connected to the word “alms”, and originally was a way of giving something to a person in need of charity while allowing them to keep their dignity.

An elderly friend, a keen knitter, used to give me a gift if I had come upon her starting a piece of knitting and it turned out well. She was born during WW1 and like Shetlanders from that time, always had a knitting project on the go.

Starting a piece of knitting

Starting a piece of knitting

Chrissie Henderson

Chrissie, who was full of old superstitions, used the old superstition to “laid on amos” on knitting projects

She would suddenly appear with a packet of tea, or biscuits. When I asked why, she would say “you were a good amos on my knitting” (in fact that she had laid on an amos on her project and found I had brought it luck.)

Certain people were thought to be lucky in this respect. You weren’t meant to tell of the amos till the project was finished.

Recently on a local (Shetland) social media site concerned with dialect words, I asked if anyone still “laid on an amos”. I was rather astonished to find that many people still did, as well as remembering the previous generation doing it. Someone mentioned a niece getting a “peerie hansel” (small gift) often when a project went well.

It is interesting how these customs linger on, and it also make me wonder where it all started.

Knitting belts

Knitting belts

Countryman Magazine

In a recent Countryman magazine, a reader asked if anyone could identify an object found in Norfolk.

It was a knitting belt.

knitting belt

My own knitting belt

I have always wondered how widespread the use of the knitting belt was.

Prior to the commercially produced knitting belt, a straw version, a wisp, was used by tucking it into the waistband, and knitting needles could then be stuck into the end.

wisp - early knitting belt

A straw wisp – an early version of the knitting belt

These and wooden versions were used in many areas of the UK.

Apparently, it is thought that although other devices were once used to support the right needle in the UK and elsewhere, the knitting belt is perhaps unique to Shetland, where they are called “makkin belts”.

However, they were possibly also used in the north east of Scotland. I know I have seen one in a museum in Nairn, near Inverness.

Knitters in Shetland wore their belts everywhere, walking home with a “kishie” full of peat, gathered with other knitters around the fire, the belt would still be in use because there was still knitting to be done.

Two women carrying kishies

Two women carrying kishies.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

The “makkin belt” consisted of a leather pad stuffed with horsehair and attached to a belt. The technique requires the use of double point needles.

Shetlanders still use them.

So, how did a knitting belt  come to be found in Norfolk?

I wonder if  gutter girls from Shetland, who followed the herring all down the Scottish coast and as far as Great Yarmouth, gutting the herring, (taking their knitting with them to work on when off duty) introduced the knitting belt to others as they traveled.

Gutter Lasses

Gutter lasses knitting in front of barrels.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

If anyone has any information about knitting belts used elsewhere, I would love to know!

Finishing a knitted garment

The last two days have been busy with two cruise ships coming to the island and visiting the Unst Heritage Centre.

Cruise ship

Ocean Nova Cruise ship at the Baltasound Pier

When visitors come and I chat to them, I never know what their interests will be.

This time, one group was interested in some of the displays about finishing and dressing; stretching knitted garments into shape.

Nana's mum Betsy with shawl

Morag’s great-grandmother Betsy with shawl being stretched

Large boards for dressing shawls would be put outside to dry, especially since the houses were small and room was limited.

One old lady told me of a incident when a shawl was put out to dry and then “da grice gaed trow da middle an dat wis a winter’s wark geen”

(The pig went through the middle of the shawl, and that was a whole winter’s worth of knitting gone!)

Wood shaped for stretching socks, gloves, jumpers etc was used for the various garments. Since wood was a scarce commodity in Unst, any source of wood would be gratefully recycled into the shapes needed.

I still have a jumper board and use it to keep our woolen jumpers in good shape.

Adjustable jumper board

My adjustable jumper board – still in regular use!

I am currently knitting hats, so I need a plate of the correct diameter for stretching those!

Some visitors were interested in the knitting belt that we still use here in Shetland. It fits around the waist and helps the knitter steady their knitting and keep the tension even.

Knitting Belt

My knitting belt

I have always wondered how widespread the use of the knitting belt was. I would be interested to know if anyone has researched this subject.

Peerie Knitters Visit

Recently the young knitters from the island of Whalsay came on a visit to Unst to meet our peerie knitters.

Map of Shetland

Map of Shetland showing the island of Whalsay in the East, and Unst in the North

They were accompanied by adults who help and teach in the two groups.

People in Unst Heritage Centre

Some of the ladies from Whalsay who came to help.

The day was arranged in such a way that the children moved round in small groups with children from both islands in the each group.

Activities included spinning, dying wool, finger knitting, crochet, knitting.

Members of Unst spinners and knitters group were there to help the groups.

Peerie Knitter dying wool

Having an opportunity to dye wool proved popular.

The children could also see the fine lace knitting on display in the Heritage Centre.

They especially seemed to enjoy the school section of the Heritage Centre displays!

Children using the Unst Heritage Centre school displays

Trying out schooling, the old fashioned way

Lunch was supplied from the nearby tearooms and enjoyed by all.

Group photo of all the Peerie Knitters

The whole company.

Thanks to everyone who made it an enjoyable day.

Authenticity in Culturally-based Knitting

On Saturday 5th March 2016, Shetland Museum and Archives hosted a study day on the topic of Authenticity in Culturally-based Knitting.

Rhoda Speaking

Rhoda Speaking

One of the speakers on the day was our very own Rhoda Hughson (my mum). In her presentation she talks about the box of knitwear found in the Uyeasound shop (which is what kicked off my research on James Moar) and how they got replicas made to display in the Unst Heritage Center.

James is getting quite some air time, with both mum and me giving presentations that include him, in the space of a few days!

She also talks about the traditions of knitting, and passing down the skills to the next generation, and mentions the Unst Peerie Knitters that she wrote about on this blog. Watch her whole presentation in the video below – she is the first of three speakers in that video.

She’s mentioned in a couple of tweets on the day too.


You can read more about this event at:-

Presentation at Genealogy Group

I joined a local genealogy group, and today I gave a small presentation about James Moar, the man who turned to knitting when he do no other task to support himself. I’ve written about him in a number of blog posts before.

I created the presentation from the material I had in the above blog posts, using some of the photographs as illustrations as I talked. I also used old maps to show where they lived, and showed the various census records and birth and death records that I had discovered when researching James’ life. I also talked about getting his Death record updated so that he was finally recorded correctly, which seemed to be met with great approval.

Aberdeen Show Newspaper Cutting

Aberdeen Show Newspaper Cutting, from Dundee Courier, Wednesday, July 25th 1894

I had one new piece of information in the presentation that is not in any of the previous blog posts. As you’ll know if you’ve read the others, James turned to knitting when he was invalided, and while he had a slow start, he did clearly get better. In the 1901 and 1911 census he is listed as a Shetland Lace Knitter, which shows a certain skill as that is a complex and delicate knitting style. Well he, must have been quite good because he won first prize in the Aberdeen Highland show (held on Tuesday, July 24th 1894) for a Fine White Shetland Shawl, beating another lady from the same village, Uyeasound, into second place.

I brought along my copy of the Unst Heritage Lace book for the group members to look at as well, since James is also mentioned in there.

I think the presentation was well received, and I hope to maybe do another subject at a future meeting.

Correction – James Thomas Irvine Moar

I’ve written a number of blog posts about James Thomas Irvine Moar, the invalided man who taught himself to knit.

Register House, Edinburgh

Register House in Edinburgh

The last post ended with me sending off the details to the Correction of Errors Section at New Register House in Edinburgh to get his Death record updated to include his parents. My evidence included the above blog posts where I’d gathered everything I knew about him.

They replied fairly quickly to let me know that the correction had been accepted, but that it would be a number of months before the amendment would appear in ScotlandsPeople for everyone to see.

Before we can correct an entry in the Registers, we must establish that an error has been made & therefore ask to see some form of documentary evidence.

Before we can correct/insert a person’s parentage on a death entry we would require to see their statutory birth entry.

As we have James Moar’s statutory birth entry I can add the parents’ particulars no problem & also insert James Moar’s middle names (Thomas Irvine).

RCE Marker

RCE Marker on James Moar’s Death Record

This week I was back in Edinburgh at the ScotlandsPeople Centre where you can view all the records (and purchase and download any that you wish to keep a copy of), so I looked up the Death record that I had previously found. And there it was, the marker to note that a correction to this record exists in the Register for Corrected Entries (RCE). The system I was using to view the record in the ScotlandsPeople Centre also provides a link to the RCE, so I clicked on it and there were my corrections.

Registration District of Shetland Islands
Register of Deaths District of Lerwick ( 5/1 ) Year 1919 Entry No. 132
James Moar – Correction of name in column 1
Insertion of parents’ particulars in column 5
Annotation of the entry
Annotate the margin of the above-noted entry as follows:- R.C.E. 118/2014/13

Issue of extracts, special-purpose certificates and, where applicable, abbreviated certificates of the entry
In column 1 for James Moar substitute James Thomas Irvine Moar
In column 5 for parents’ particulars insert John Moar Fisherman (Deceased) Margaret Moar M.S. Robertson (Deceased)

It was great to see James now properly recorded for posterity, only 100 years late!

Unst peerie knitters

The Peerie Knitters group at the Baltasound School in Unst is an after school club that has been meeting for the past 15 years or so.

Peerie Knitters Group

Unst Peerie Knitters at work. Running for the past 15 years.

Unst’s knitting history

Knitting in Unst in the past was an economic necessity. Many women were living on a croft, which was seldom large enough to provide a living for a family. Out of necessity too, most of the men were crofter/fishermen, leaving the womenfolk to tend the croft and knit in every spare moment to support the family, for the fishing too could be very uncertain, especially with the Truck system in operation.

Mothers and Grannies have always taught their bairns to knit, as they too could contribute to the family as well as helping with croft work.

Until recently there were knitting teachers in Shetland Schools, till the Education Authority in their wisdom decided to cut this vital service.

Peerie Knitters Out and About

Over the years the Peerie Knitters has taken part in a variety of activities.

One year a group was invited to the Royal Highland Show and demonstrated knitting to other young folk.

Peerie Knitters stand at Royal Highland Show

Our stand at the Royal Highland Show.

Peerie Knitters Demonstrating

Showing others how to knit.

Peerie Knitters with Edinburgh Castle in the background

Enjoying the visit to Edinburgh.

Unst Heritage Centre fashion show and book launch

A Stitch In Time Book Cover

“A Stitch in Time”, a book about Unst Lace knitting created by the Unst Heritage Centre, was published and launched at the Fashion Show event.

The children made jumpers and took part in the knitwear fashion show “One hundred years of Unst knitting”.

Unst Knitware on the Catwalk

On the catwalk.

Fine Lace Bridal Shawl

Fine lace shawl for a bride.

It is interesting to see that, when the local Care Centre has a Knit and Chat evening, the range of ages of knitters attending ranges from a lady of over 100 years to a child of 7 years of age!

Maima Jean

Maima Jean, a lovely lady of over 100 years of age.

It is to be hoped that the special knitting skills for Unst’s fine lace live on in the next generation now learning to knit.

An unusual breed – a male knitter

I wrote about James Moar in a previous post, an invalided man who turned to knitting (even though he thought it to be women’s work) in order to support himself. We know him to be invalided due to a letter he wrote along with his first delivery of knitwear but we never managed to work out what had caused it, the recording of his former occupation being indecipherable.

I felt the need to complete his story in the hope that finding other records might shed a light on his condition.

James Thomas Irvine Moar was born on the 22nd July 1856 in Sandwick, North Yell, to parents John Moar, a sailor, and Margaret Robertson. He was the youngest of John and Margaret’s seven children, with quite an age gap between himself and his oldest sister Christina, who was 19 when he was born, and trusted with the job of registering his birth on the official register.

Not long after James’ birth, the family moved to Unst and were living in Underhoul in 1861 and 1871. His father, John, dies at the age of 68, on 20th February 1875. This is likely the trigger for the family to move to Uyeasound, and for James to consider how he can help support the family rather than be a drain on them.

Cugg, Uyeasound, Unst

The White House is Cugg, Uyeasound, Unst.
Photo by Rhoda Hughson

In 1876, when James writes the letter, he has had some occupation, but something has happened to cause him to become invalided. In the 1881 census he lives with his widowed mother and two sisters in Cugg, Uyeasound, Unst, and has the indecipherable occupation listed that he was formerly employed in.

Map of Cugg, Uyeasound

Map showing the direction the photo of Cugg was taken. Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

Fine lace Shetland shawl

Fine Lace Shetland Shawl
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

Soon after this he started knitting, and continues to live in Cugg with his sisters and his widowed mother, who dies on 15th December 1896. His sisters spin him wool to knit with, and he keeps at this new occupation, as we see him recorded as a knitter in 1891, and as a lace knitter, a more complex knitting task, in 1901 and 1911.

I had hoped that finding his death record might shed some light on his condition even if nothing else did. I finally located him with some difficulty. He died in the Combination Poorhouse in Lerwick on 10th November 1919. His death was registered by the Governor of the Poorhouse who didn’t know who James’ parents were, so his death record does not record his parents. He is noted as having had Chronic Bronchitis for the past 30 years, which is not really long enough to have been the cause of his invalid condition back in 1876, although it is possible that the Governor is guessing at the duration.

Combination Poorhouse, Lerwick

Combination Poorhouse, Lerwick
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

However, it is easy to tell that it is him none-the-less, the record shows him with a usual residence in Uyeasound, Unst and an occupation of Lace Knitter. There is only one!

We’re still no closer to finding any additional information about his former occupation that might help with the indecipherable text on the 1881 census, but now we know a bit more about James.

A book of lace knitting patterns from the Unst Heritage Centre

A book of lace knitting patterns from the Unst Heritage Centre

James is being immortalised this month in a new knitting pattern book produced by the Unst Heritage Centre. It is available to purchase from the Unst Heritage Centre website, having been launched during Wool Week at the Unst Heritage Centre.

Now that this post is published, I have sent the details to the General Register of Scotland corrections so that James’ parents can be recorded.

EDIT: The corrections I submitted are now live.

Knitting is women’s work?

West Side Shop, Uyeasound

West Side Shop, Uyeasound
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

The West Side shop in Uyeasound, Unst, was adjacent to my paternal grand-parents house as I was growing up. When it closed there was, of course, a lot of clearing out to do. A box of knitwear was found in one of the cupboards along with a letter from 1881.

The letter was written by a man named James, who was learning to knit.

I am an invalid & have been so for 5 years. I have a widow mother unfit now for the duties of life & have sisters which is my only support. So I began to think with myself what can I do to make me less bothersome to them & I began as they thought the tedious task for me of knitting & although it was female work I could do nothing else.

This discovery made us curious to find out more about this gent. This fitted in very well with my, then, recently started project to make a complete Unst family tree.

Shetland Knitwear

Shetland Knitwear
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

He wasn’t too hard to find in the census and sure enough he was listed with an occupation of Knitter in 1891. He lives with his sisters Robina and Catherine who are Wool Spinners, spinning Worsted, a smooth, strong, hard wearing yarn.

My sisters has spun the worsted & I have sitten up in bed & knitted it. I was over two months or rather nearer the third before I got it finished.

He clearly stuck at it, after this slow start, and improved, since in 1901 and 1911 he is listed as a Lace Knitter, a more complex and delicate knitting task.

One thing we haven’t managed to find out yet is what his previous occupation was, that resulted in him being invalided five years before the letter was written. In the 1881 census his occupation is listed as “Formerly …” but we can’t work out what it says (see Reading Old Handwriting for more details).

UPDATE: Further research led to me writing An unusual breed – a male knitter.