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An Interview with Mary MacGregor of BAKKA

To complement  ’20 Makers, 20 Objects’ showcase we are interviewing exhibitors to gain more insights into their work and practice. Here we talked to Mary Macgregor, founder and designer of the BAKKA knitwear brand, which is based in Shetland. Mary’s object is the TJ1 scarf and here she explains the complex techniques, research and inspiration for this work, and her unique workspace.

Design-Nation: Please tell us about your product for the ‘20 Makers 20 Objects’ showcase and how it came into being?

Mary Macgregor: The scarf which I presented for this project has wide bands of Fair Isle motifs in the 4 traditional colours interspersed by a narrow band of zigzags in blue and white. So there are 5 colours in total. I was inspired by a number of traditional garments which are held in the collections of National Museum of Scotland, the Shetland Museum and Archives, and the Shetland Textile Museum.

It is thought the narrow band of zigzags represent the waves in the sea. (Nowhere in Shetland is more than three miles from the sea.) The pattern used in the wide bands is commonly called the OXO pattern and the O is the same across the row. Here each individual motif varies over the row and over the whole piece, making it extremely challenging for the hand-knitter. It is a design which has always fascinated me ever since coming across it while researching in the oldest surviving Fair Isle garments in the archives of these museums some 15-20 years ago. This design was used for the first product to be produced for BAKKA’s launch collection in December 2016. The scarf which preceded this one, knitted in tubular form with loops on the back, has outsold every other product in my collections.

DN: How has your own background and training informed the development of the piece?

MM: I am a mathematical economist by background and training. My love of geometry and geometric design was instrumental in facilitating the positioning of the large O motifs over the surface of the scarf in order to create a harmonious whole.

DN: You’ve been in the Shetlands about a decade – what drew you there and what is your previous business? How did you become interested in Fair Isle patterns?

MM: I moved to Shetland in 2010 specifically to start a business in Fair Isle knitwear. I first visited some 10 years prior to that on a family holiday, because, as a knitter, I wanted to discover exactly how Fair Isle patterns were knitted. Having grasped that simple idea, I noticed that there were not many patterns in the public domain. So I returned alone the next summer to work in the archives of the Shetland Museum and Archives, photographing all the Fair Isle garments in their possession. Then progressed to the National Museum of Scotland to do the same with their rather smaller but very interesting collection.

I was not working in those days, living in Toulouse and bringing up two daughters single-handed. I spent much of the next two years slowly going through all the photos I had taken, counting stitches on the old fabric and painstakingly documenting all the designs. These were all on paper. There are around 3,000 of them. Then I had to decide how to catalogue them and store them for future reference. My aim was to publish a book, a ‘Source Book of Fair Isle Motifs’. Some IT friends came to the rescue and wrote me a programme which enabled me to enter all the patterns, one at a time, onto my computer. I published a subset of these patterns in 2009 in a book entitled ‘Fair Isle Knitting Patterns, Reproducing the Known Work of Robert Williamson’. This book has been very successful, selling over 5,000 copies to date. The complete ‘Source Book …’ is still waiting to be finished, and I will do this when time permits.

But this work made me realise that when my children left home, I could perhaps find my future in Fair Isle knitwear. Before I stopped working, I was working in business, and lastly in the financial markets in the City.  I could not return to that world since that world had moved on during my absence. I needed to find something else to do. Something which I would enjoy, which would be sustainable and which enable me to live decently.

It took me 5 years to find Bakka the place where I now live and work. I searched until I found my peace. As you can see from the photos, Bakka is totally remote. The views are spectacular and look different every day according to the weather. I have space and time to breathe, to think and to work. There is no mobile signal, and internet speeds are outrageously slow. Today it would be called ‘slow-living’ but it is simply life as it was not very long ago. The noises I hear are the waves, the wind, the bird song, my sheep and the occasional helicopter.

DN: How is the TJ1 scarf made and where?

MM: It is knitted on a 12-gauge Shima Seiki industrial knitting machine using a 2-colour tubular jacquard technique, meaning that 2 colours are knitted in a row. Normally this technique is only used for 2-colour work, examples of which can be seen on my website. However, I wanted to be able to extrapolate this to 4 or 5 colours in order to progress from the first collection with the loops on the back of the fabric, and so spent much of 2018 working out how it might be possible.

It is currently knitted in for me a small specialist knit form based in a unit in Hawick, Scottish Borders. The knit time is minimal compared to the finishing time and in particular to the time it takes to finish the edges to achieve a perfect selvedge.

DN: Does anyone else get involved in the process – colleagues or suppliers? Are there many stages?

MM: Yes indeed. I buy my yarn direct from Zegna Baruffa Lane Borgosesia in Italy who are the world leader in 100% superfine merino. They dyed the yarn to my specifications to replicate the natural dyes of old.

First there is the Shima Seiki programmer who adapted my computer generated design to the machine at Hawick. Then there is someone who finishes the ends on a linking machine. I do the rest of the work.

The various stages are: designing, programming for machine, knitting, linking, finishing edges, hand-washing, drying flat, steam-pressing, sewing on garment label, attaching swing tickets.

DN: How many do you think you have produced to date – or is it a one-off?

MM: This reversible Fair Isle version of the pattern has been made in a limited edition series of 30 scarves. However, once those are sold, it will still be possible to order one as a bespoke item.

DN: What is the trickiest thing about the development and making process, and what is the most satisfying?

MM: The trickiest part by far is the design; designing the piece so that it will be not only possible to knit on the machine but also able to be finished by the linker. Every stage is important, and I must think of how they inter-relate when drawing out the design.

The most satisifying, of course, is seeing the product once it is completely finished. Only then do I really know if it will ‘work’ as part of BAKKA’s collections or not. It is very hard to visualise exactly what it will look like at the design stage.

DN: Tell us about your workspace.

MM: My workshop is a large mezzanine area over part of a general purpose shed. It is about 120m2 and is nearly 4m high at the ridge. There are skylights in the roof and windows on all four outside walls, and the separating partition wall to the rest of the shed is mostly glass, making it a very light place for work. The shed is only about 200m from the coast and so the views are spectacular.

It is quiet in the workshop when there is no wind, but extremely noisy on windy days because the shed is designed to flex in the wind and so the structure creaks and groans. The walls are only sheathing ply (used for building material) and I painted them a strong pure yellow to stop the chemical colour from staining through a white paint. This has the advantage that it is ‘sunny’ on grey winter days 🙂 But unfortunately the yellow makes for difficult amateur photos and so I will re-paint in an off-white when I get time.

It is also liable to extremes of heat. Very hot on sunny days, and extremely drafty when it’s windy. Electricity is expensive, and I heat with a peat stove which is in the middle of the space with the chimney exiting through at the ridge, which creates a wonderful gentle heat.

The space is valuable. I can easily accommodate a bus load of interested tourists and/or knitters and can talk to them about my work, why I am doing what I am doing.

DN: Do you have a favourite tool or process, and is it/they used in the making of this object?

MM: I love watching the machine knitting the piece when I am visiting in Hawick, seeing the intricate movements of the colour carriers over the surface. My favourite tool (apart from the computer programme I use for designing) is a hand tool for finishing threads into the fabric of the piece.

DN: What ambitions do you have for the future of this product and work like this?

MM: My ambition knows no bounds! I am passionate about what I do, working long hours because I enjoy it so much. I do everything apart from that mentioned above in the production process: desiging and making, financial, social media, marketing ….

Contemporary Fair Isle textiles have their place in Shetland. BAKKA’s aim is to preserve Shetland’s textile heritage through this contemporary use of the patterns. The only way to preserve a tradition is to use it, to contemporise it. Also, many customers around the world are looking for a Fair Isle product in a 21C yarn, something which is easy to wear and easy to care for.

Going forward, the next step with this work and those like it is the design and development of reversible Fair Isle garments: cardigans, sweaters, sleeveless vests, and even dresses and skirts.

BAKKA was launched in December 2016 and was on a very high growth path until COVID-19 came along. I sincerely hope that I can get back onto this high growth path once a more normal normality returns to life around the world.

Living with COVID-19 has been difficult in that there have been no cruise liners of course, so no sales to visitors to Shetland. My revenues have dropped off a cliff. Online sales are hard given my poor connectivity. I can’t do videos, online talks etc. But psychologically it’s not been difficult at all, I’ve had no difficulty adapting to being here most of the time. And I have been working harder than ever, designing new reversible Fair Isle projects, and working on an exciting new project which will be officially launched at Dutch Design Week 2020 (17-25 October), more details of which are here.

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Laura Jacometti


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