Herring Girl Knitwear was established in Autumn 2019 with the first showing of its inaugural CY range at The Royal National Mod – the Gaelic language’s premier cultural festival.
Five handknitters on Barra are producing high-quality clothing such as guernseys (fisherman’s jumper), scarves, shawls, hats and gloves as well as cushion covers and bed throws for the home.
The luxury handknits have gathered a healthy local following with demand growing since its launch. Herring Girl has now secured orders from all over the world and is now working in partnership with some retailers across the west Highlands and Islands to stock the woollens.
Herring Girl Knitwear is the brainchild of Founder and Designer Margaret Anne Elder in the Isle of Barra.
“The Herring Girl Collection is inspired by a collection of knitting patterns that my granny passed down.
My granny taught us to knit when we were young, she was always knitting. It was a skill that she was determined we would grow up with just as she had. For many years I’ve been determined to bring the story of the Herring Girls to life in some way, to honour those brave girls and women who had such a hard life and spent their time off creating such gorgeous gifts for their families. And what better way to do that than recreate the beautiful patterns which have such a strong cultural link to both past and present Hebridean communities. Each pattern has a story that relates to our island heritage and I am proud to ensure those patterns and styles live on and can be passed on to future generations.
“The history of patterns is fascinating, with each island having its own identifiers. If you met a fisherman wearing a handknitted guernsey you’d be able to tell his home port just by looking at the pattern. As well as remaining true to the unique patterns, our hand knitters remain true to the colours used by our forebears with the traditional, greens, blues and browns forming the basis of the range.”
Until the outbreak of the Second World War, the herring industry was booming. The herring girls – those employed in the industry – followed the shoals of herring from port to port up and down the British Coastline, sending money home to their rural communities.
Many girls would knit in their spare time, curing the catch by day and knitting by night. Despite the hard work and poor living conditions, these women were standard bearers for the culture and traditions of their communities. Their time off would be spent talking, singing and knitting. Their knitting would use skills and patterns handed down over generations and learned as they grew up. Very often their completed garments would be sent home for family members to wear.
The Guernsey had particularly unique patterns and would be worn by the fishermen, identifying them to their home ports. Each garment has its own place of origin, the knitters having an affiliation with a specific herring port, and sometimes a specific boat.
Another unique quirk of Herring Girl brand is that the knitters are not known to the purchaser by their name – instead each knitter chooses the name of a fishing boat which is historically linked to that community. Herring Girl founder, Margaret Anne Elder – is known as ‘CY Grian nan Oir’ to her customers.
Castlebay (CY) has a special significance for Margaret Anne, who hails from the crofting and fishing township of Bruernish in Barra.