For this week’s blog, we look at a lesser-known knitting tool, the wiska, which was widely used by fisherfolk to aid knitting speed and stitch consistency by easing the weight of the knit.
A previous blog post by Carolyn Cluness highlighted the demanding role of fisherlasses in the fishing industry. Knitting became an important means for fisherfolk, both men and women, to generate additional income. Knitting was often carried out by lasses in between jobs, in low light and by feel, or while they were on the move. Key to this practice, was a tool known as a wiska.
A wiska (also whiska, wisker, or wisp), or makkin’ belt in Shetland, is a belt that acts as an anchor for the knitting needle to take the weight of the wool off the knitter’s hands.
The wiska provided an extra “arm”, offering less strain and movement per stitch, enabling them to knit for longer and faster – it has been recorded that fisherlasses could knit 200 stitches per minute (Pearson, 1984, p. 15)! It also allowed them to knit while carrying out other tasks, such as carrying creels from A to B. Wiskas comprise a leather belt attached to a pouch with holes to anchor one of the needles. The belt would be fastened around the waist with the pouch typically over the right hip (Thomas, 1938). The pouch was also stuffed with horsehair, which helped keep the needle in place.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence behind the name wiska, but it might have been in reference to their resemblance to cat’s whiskers when needles were placed in the holes (Scottish Fisheries Museum, n.d.).
Knitting a Gansey
Wiskas were particularly helpful for knitting ganseys, which were knitted in the round in one piece, as it would otherwise become increasingly difficult to support the weight of the garment (Pearson, p. 15). Using a wiska also allowed the knitter to keep the right hand free to control the tension in the stitches.
Tension was incredibly important as ganseys needed to have very tight stitches (Gilpin and Greenwell, 2021, p. 19). This was to ensure the durability of the garment and reduced the chances of the fabric getting caught on anything. Evenly knitted stitches in the finish also helped the overall aesthetic of the gansey patterns.
Variations of Knitting Anchors
Use of a knitting belt has mostly been recorded in Scotland in Northern England, where the tradition is still being passed down in some communities. Variations of anchors included a sheath (also stick or wisp) made of bundled straw stuffed into a sock or a rolled-up sailcloth (Harvey and Compton, 1978, p. 11), which was pinned to the waist. A more intricate version was a wooden knitting sheath, which had a bored hole on one end for the needle; the wood sometimes came from old boats, and the sheaths could be highly decorated both by amateurs and professional cabinet makers, who saw a market in producing them (Hansen, 2017).
Kathy Donaldson, Learning and Engagement Officer