Patterns and Programs: Replication and Creativity in the Place-Based Knitting of Shetland and Ireland

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Styles of knitwear associated with places, such as Shetland’s “fair isle” and Ireland’s “aran” knitting, are viewed through the lens of “tradition” by many consumers and makers. The creative process which results in such textile products is widely recognized as a communal one and set within centuries-long (real and imagined) historical contexts. This popular understanding includes a valorization of hand skills, particularly the improvizational fluency of expert hand knitters of the past. Their remembered ability to work and re-work inherited forms into innovative objects with minimal or no written instruction is an example of the “improvizational dynamics” which make “copying and reproduction…part and parcel of the creative process”. During the twentieth century, Shetland “fair isle” and Irish “aran” knitting experienced commercial success fueled by both hand and machine making practices, part of their industrial heritage which influences production today. With the increasing globalization of the mass market apparel industry, “fair isle” and “aran” knitwear styles have been absorbed into an international design lexicon that is drawn on by a wide range of producers. Contemporary commercial producers of knitwear in Shetland and Ireland distinguish themselves from their international mass market counterparts by emphasizing their enmeshment in a living, longstanding, communal creative web of hand and machine-making practices. This article explores the relationship between creativity and repetition in contemporary Shetland “fair isle” and Irish “aran” knitting, drawing on interviews and observations from two studies, one about “skill” in the knit industry of Shetland and Ireland funded by the Carnegie Trust (2018–19) and one about the value of Shetland hand knitting (2016–17).The article argues that repetition (including that enabled by “traditional” hand knitting patterns and the designs programmed into automated production systems) and the mutually disruptive interplay of hand and machine processes are key to creativity in place-based knitting practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalTextile: Cloth and Culture
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Dec 2022


  • creativity
  • knitting
  • improvization
  • manufacturing
  • craft
  • Shetland
  • Ireland


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