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The island knitters who ruled the fashion world and ignited a festive sweater craze

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From a draughty church hall, a small army of mostly women co-ordinated a knitwear empire that would see the rich and famous from around the globe clamber to be seen in their distinctive handmade designs featuring bold patterns, pictures and festive motifs.

For some islanders, the incredible rise of the Isle of Sanday Knitters, brought a jet set lifestyle; a chance to leave farms and offload children with relatives so they could fly to the world’s fashion hotspots.

While across the small island, Orkney and far beyond, nimble fingers clattered their needles at a furious rate in return for brown envelopes stuffed with earnings; often the first time in their lives they had made money for themselves.

The remarkable story of how the Isle of Sanday, just 16 miles in length and with a population today of 500, came to be a coveted fashion label – and kickstart the modern Christmas jumper trend – has been recalled in a new oral history project undertaken by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology.

The Herald: Isle of Sanday Knitters' work often featured pictures of animals and Christmas scenesIsle of Sanday Knitters’ work often featured pictures of animals and Christmas scenes (Image: Sandra Towrie)

Entitled Gaan Nort and led by Dr Tom Rendell, relief lecturer at UHI Orkney, it saw a team of researchers carry out interviews with almost 90 people in the isles, spanning a range of topics including memories of farming, changing dialect, heritage and culture.

As well as capturing thoughts on current challenges, the project captured moments in time in the voices of the people who lived through them, including the rise of the Isle of Sanday Knitters from fireside crafters to stars of the fashion world.

Sanday islander Sandra Towrie, 71, who was involved at the time and told the story of the Isle of Sanday Knitters to the project, recalls a hectic time when she was juggling her young family, designing knitted garments and jetting to fashion trade fairs in Paris and New York.

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There were also the challenges of co-ordinating knitters – including some as far away as Wolverhampton enlisted to help cope with demand – organising wool deliveries, writing patterns and liaising with agents in London. All before even a stitch was cast on.

“It was an incredible time,” she remembers. “It’s hard to believe now that what began as a small group of knitters would be so big.

“At one point we were taking orders for hundreds of garments at a time, for places in America.

“We supplied Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Hackett in London and various big stores.

“Looking back now you wonder how on earth did it happen?”

The Herald: Isle of Sanday knitwear became the 'must have' fashion knit of the EightiesIsle of Sanday knitwear became the ‘must have’ fashion knit of the Eighties (Image: Sandra Towrie)

The Isle of Sanday Knitters evolved after Mary Baker, whose husband, Ron, was headmaster at Sanday Junior Secondary School, spotted an advert in craft magazine for people to make crochet squares.

“There was a great fashion in the late 60s for crochet square waistcoats and bags,” says Sandra. “She must have known lots of people, so got them together to crochet the squares.”

Inspired by how their traditional skills could be monetarised, she devised an après ski collection, beautifully crafted using locally produced yarn.

“She approached House of Fraser in Glasgow, threw a pile of jumpers down and said, ‘can you sell these?’,” adds Sandra.

The small collection was an instant sell-out, sparking a dash from traders to the Isle of Sanday, including an influential London designer from Carnaby Street and others from New York.

It left the small community with the headache of finding enough wool and knitters to meet demand.

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Guided by Highlands and Islands Development Board, they formed a co-operative and invested £1 each. It gave them the capital needed to fulfil orders and plan their next venture, taking their goods to the biggest craft gathering in Scotland, Aviemore Trades Fair.

Their distinctive knitwear, with bold patterns and knitted ‘pictures’ often featuring Highland landscapes and in a vast array of colours, created such a stir that they had to close their order book within hours.

With around 130 local knitters, the race began to knit fast enough and find extra help to meet demand from all corners of the globe.

The Herald: Isle of Sanday knitwear samples were made in muted colours so buyers could choose their own coloursIsle of Sanday knitwear samples were made in muted colours so buyers could choose their own colours (Image: Sandra Towrie)

Mary, meanwhile, was thrust into the glitzy world of fashion design: twice a year she headed to London to examine French and Swiss fashion trends. In Rome, she studied Italian knitwear, while one Russian themed collection was inspired by a book she happened to be reading.

Before long, orders were being sent to Belgium, West Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan.

Sandra arrived on the island as a new bride in 1971 from Shetland, where she had learned Fair Isle and lace knitting skills at her grandmother’s side.

Her ‘knitters’ brain’ was quickly seized on by the Sanday Knitters. Before long she was knitting, designing and packing her bags to attend trade fairs around the world.

“Any time I needed to go off to Aviemore or New York or wherever, I would dump the children with my in-laws and head off,” she recalls.

“When I was designing the jumpers, my children were still tiny. I’d take them to the beach and let them play while I sat on a stone knitting like fury.

“I was due to go to a trade fair in Paris in 1982 and my son was still a baby at the time. I was desperately trying to wean this child so I could go; packing my bags at the same time as packing their bags to stay with their granny.”

The logistical challenges of ordering wool, delivering it to knitters and ensuring finished garments reached the high standards of luxury retailers, was co-ordinated from a small community hall.

Even local children became involved, delivering packs of wool and patterns to knitters, and collecting finished garments to return to the hall.

“We met once a fortnight in the hall, it was cold and damp, but we got it for free,” adds Sandra. “It was actually a wonderful social event with all these people coming and going.”

The Herald: Isle of Sanday knitters, Elspeth Sinclair, and Sandra Towrie (right) at Aviemore Trade Fair in the mid-1980sIsle of Sanday knitters, Elspeth Sinclair, and Sandra Towrie (right) at Aviemore Trade Fair in the mid-1980s (Image: Horne Archive)

Without today’s modern connectivity, running the business involved letters, faxes, trips to banks and, for Sandra, boat journeys to neighbouring islands to recruit more knitters.

And although they only earned around 30p an hour or £10 per jumper, a small fraction of their final price tag, knitters enjoyed their new income.

“For most, knitting was something they did in their spare time in the evening; they could knit with one eye on Coronation Street,” she adds.

“It was the first time a lot of women earned some money for themselves. 

“Suddenly this knitting came, they got an envelope with money in it. People were saving it up and using it to buy a bathroom or new kitchen units.”

Sandra travelled to Paris, Munich and New York, while on one occasion a deputation from Japan arrived on Sanday to see the knitters at work.

 

The Herald: The Isle of Sanday, the third largest of the Orkney Islands, attracted fashion buyers from around the worldThe Isle of Sanday, the third largest of the Orkney Islands, attracted fashion buyers from around the world

Their international scale, however, brought challenges: Japan sizes were smaller than American, some countries used metric and others imperial measurements, Germans were broader and liked heavier, looser knits compared to more slender Belgians, while there was even a difference in head circumference between nationalities.

Somehow, adds, Sandra, the business managed to feed  demand for their range of knits from traditional Fair Isle, to chunky patterned knits with bold picture designs – ironically back in fashion today.

“We had a short spell of notoriety when we did the crochet bikinis,” adds Sandra.

Eventually, orders dwindled as fashions changed, cheap imported knitwear took over and women who had started in the business, retired.

The Herald: Sandra Towrie was a director and designer with the Isle of Sanday Knitters companySandra Towrie was a director and designer with the Isle of Sanday Knitters company (Image: Sandra Towrie)

Sandra returned to her career as a teacher, but still holds many items linked to the knitting boom. She plans to write a book about the Isle of Sanday Knitters, and share the archive.

“Sadly, many of the women who were involved have now passed away,” she adds, “but it was such an important time for the island and deserves to be remembered.”

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