Handknit artisan Maureen White is one of several talented creatives we partnered with in our Kindred Spirits series. We reached out to individuals and brands who share our values of quality craftsmanship, heritage, innovation, and community and collaborated on meaningful projects to reflect these shared ideals. Maureen’s very Limited Edition collection of exquisite, traditional Fairisle knits, raised £2,400 for essential Orkney charity, the Longhope Lifeboat Station. The RNLI station has been saving lives at sea for more than two centuries. The entire knitwear collection sold out within 48 hours, purchased by customers around the globe.
Maureen, who runs a bed and breakfast on the island of Hoy, Orkney, has been married to her husband Tam for 36 years. Maureen’s son, Ruaridh, was wearing one of her own handknit pieces when Johnstons of Elgin visited the island to shoot our Autumn Winter 23 campaign. Our collaborative project was born from here, with proceeds going to Maureen’s chosen local charity as a thank you for the warm reception we received during our trip. We sat down with Maureen to discuss the lifeboat charity, her craft and life on one of Scotland's most beautiful islands.
How did you get into knitting?
‘I have always been connected to knitwear. My mother and grandmother did handcrafts and things. My granny was always knitting, and from when I was about five years old, she taught me to knit. When we stayed over with her, she would give us little bits of wool to knit up little dolls’ clothes and things like that. Little play bits.
‘During the seventies, everybody on the island had knitting machines; most had little domestic knitting machines that they could use to make a bit of extra money. At school, we used to knit little coat hanger covers and teddy bears.’
How did you get involved in the Johnstons of Elgin project?
‘My son Ruaridh was out and about wearing a jumper I had knitted when the Johnstons of Elgin film crew were up here. They seemed quite impressed by the jumper and took some pictures.
‘They sent me lots of lovely yarns to play with and see how I got on. I wasn't used to using such fine yarns, but I knitted up three jumpers in different styles. Knitting with the Cashmere was a challenge because I usually knit with Shetland yarn that’s twice as thick, so I was a bit cautious. After trying a few different things, I really enjoyed it.’
Tell us about the Fairisle Knitwear you created for us.
‘They were traditional designs with modern touches, such as pops of bright colour, for example.’
What inspires you when you’re knitting?
‘To knit a Fairisle, I usually use what they call the X and O pattern. I look at the colours around here, changing through the seasons. Sometimes, I'll take a picture and use that as a guide. I would say you need a lot of patience and a bit of creativity to get the colours and patterns to balance. You just keep at it until you can get it the way you want it.’
How relevant is knitting for today’s generation?
‘I think a lot of the primary schools now have gone back to teaching knitting. It’s good to keep traditions like that going, and it would be great to see knitting an official part of the curriculum.’
What’s it like living in the village of Longhope?
‘I was raised in Longhope, and I like the peace and quiet. I like the community. Enough is happening on the island to suit a lot of folks. The community hall just along the road does lots of different activities. Most days it's open for exercises or food for people at lunchtimes, craft classes, computer classes, all of that, to get folk out and meeting together. We've also got a good little theatre on the island that's well-used. They do different things at the school at night in the fitness centre there.’
What’s life on the island like in winter?
‘Winter on the island isn't as harsh as folk would think it would be. You just adapt to it. You're prepared for poor weather, so if the ferry doesn't go, you're not distraught; you've got enough supplies. We probably take a lot for granted, but being here is peaceful. I don't think I would like to be anywhere else.’
You are clearly passionate about knitting. Is it a hobby or a job for you?
‘Knitting is my hobby. Sometimes, I would like it to be more than a hobby, but it's just finding time. You need to have a lot of time to be able to create things. I have a creative space upstairs, which I love. I go up and shut the door, and I can spend many hours up there, although I often feel like I haven't done much by the time I come down. It's a little haven.’
How important is the lifeboat service to the local community?
‘The Lifeboat service is a huge part of the community. We're just by the sea, so it affects everybody, from the young kids playing on the beach to folk out paddle boarding and swimming. It's not just local shores that they're looking after. It's the whole of the North Sea as well. Pentland Firth is a very bad area; the rescue boats are often out there.’
Maureen knitted jumpers in Cashmere, Lambswool and Shetland Lambswool, along with headbands and hats, all in the most intricate Fairisle patterns. The sell-out collection was purchased by customers in Germany, The Netherlands, France and the USA as well as in the UK. 100% of profits from Maureen’s knitwear will go to her chosen charity, the Longhope Lifeboat Station, which has operated an all-weather lifeboat since 1874. Over the years, the crews have been honoured with an incredible 26 awards for gallantry. Sadly, the station witnessed terrible tragedy in 1969 when eight crew members lost their lives saving others at sea.
Longhope Lifeboat Station is part of the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute), providing a 24-hour search and rescue service around the UK and Republic of Ireland's coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of the Coastguard and the government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.