The story of Rani

Monday Sep 21, 2020

I have been thinking about home, and what that means. Where has been home, and where is home now?

The Rani collection being worn in Hoswick.

This short film tells the story of one of my latest collections—Rani.

The film premiered at Shetland Wool Week 2020. Everything was of course very different this year, because of Covid19, but the SWW team organised a really wonderful online festival of wool and making.

You can also read the story of the Rani below.

Black and white photograph of young Niela converted into halftones to become a knitting pattern. Niela wears a patterned dress with sailor collar and flowers in her hair
A photo is made up of dots, here in two colours. Dots (stitches) and mini pattern in two colours are what make up each row of Fair Isle knitting...

Bringing the past into the present

The photo above is a wee Niela, when she was growing up in Canada. Looking through old childhood photographs brought the idea of bringing this past into the present.

And so my childhood in Canada is brought into a very different present: my life as a knitwear designer in the Shetland Islands.

Detail of Rani jumper showing cowl neck and textile design
Rani cowl-necked jumper

This was the starting point of Rani, my new collection of knitwear now available online—and a personal interpretation of the Fair Isle tradition. You can read the full story of the design process below.

I will be so interested to hear what you think.

Gospel Hall in Hoswick, Shetland. A small, old wooden building with a corrugated tin roof. The tin is worn, with a jagged edge. Behind a view to the sea and Levenwick

Hoswick, Shetland. The village is home to the Nielanell Knitwear studio.

An exploration

Question: WHY on earth have I chosen to live on a big, cold, hard rock located somewhere between the Atlantic and North Sea? Horizontal rain, regular gale force winds. Hardly a tree in sight. Many ask, why would you do that?

The weather? No.

The scenery? Not enough.

The folk? Maybe…

Thinking about this led to yet more questions. What is home? Is Shetland home? Is home where you live, where your forebears come from—in your heart, in your future? Is it real or a memory, a dream, a spiritual place? Is it a house, a country? An island?

I am fortunate enough to say that I choose to live here in Shetland.

But what of the millions of people who must dislocate, who are forced to seek refuge, or are deported. Or those whose home has changed into something unrecognisable, or indeed no longer exists?Such extreme displacement is a reality that members of my family have lived through, during the Partition of India. 

I realised that I would have to go backwards in order to try and resolve this internal issue of home—and it is an issue, in a strange kind of way.

A father and his young daughter play at fishing on a beach. They sit on a log using a stick as a log and are dressed for summer, both wearing hats

'Fishing' with my father on the shore of Lake Huron, Ontario.


Born and brought up in Canada, by two immigrant parents, my childhood was spent in a beautiful and wonderfully multicultural environment. So many would (and do) seize any opportunity to live in such a place.

Out came my box of family photographs. Thoughts percolated. I decided that I needed a way to bring my past into the present, in an effort to try and resolve my question. I wanted to see my past self in my current environment, to see how it felt. 

Simply by going through so many photographs, I began to realise that I wanted to translate them somehow into knitting.

And there was the clue!

Knitted fence by Anne Eunson at the Shetland textile museum, Lerwick. Lace pattern knitted large with fishing twine

Where else but Shetland would there be a knitted fence? Anne Eunson for Shetland Textile Museum

Life in a community of knitters

Why is it that I actually live in Shetland? I live here so that I can knit. I live here because the intrinsic and deep-rooted culture of knitting in these islands encourages and makes my knitting possible.

Shetland is best known for its lace and Fair Isle knitting. Nevertheless I have found that the Shetland folk who are fundamentally involved in knitting—including traditional knitting—desperately want to see the whole culture of knitting continue. Islanders encourage knitting in every shape and form.

Contemporary knitting, such as my own, is not eschewed in any way. Instead it is positively encouraged, and indeed celebrated. 

Black and white photograph of a young child's feet, with white socks and buckled shoes - the picture is converted into half tones

A childhood photo, converted to halftones, begins to look like a knitting chart.

Linking past to present

In order to link my past with my present I began by digitally manipulating some of my childhood photographs. Through this process I developed a method to work with them—and work them into the gauge of the knitting.

I also felt that I needed to connect myself, through the design, to the culture of knit. This needed to be more than simply knitting a picture of me! I had long harboured an idea to try and design my own version of Fair Isle...

A prototype piece of Rani knitwear in the knitting room, experimenting with pattern and layout of photographs

An early Rani prototype: disrupted peerie patterns make up a larger image.

Personal history translated into knitting

I think of Fair Isle knitting as being two colours in a row, with the colours forming a pattern. These patterns are then repeated, and organised in such a way to make a rhythm. Here it was! 

By using only two colours in a row (albeit not forming a series of traditional, organised, repeated motifs) the series of mini patterns formed a larger pattern in an entirely different way.

I had my Fair Isle—disrupted collections of peerie patterns, which went on to form a bigger picture.

By this time, the design was working…to a point. I had an element of Fair Isle. But—who would want to go around wearing a picture of me? In any event, I wanted to go further still in joining me up with knitting.

Rani knitted cape in abstract pattern in inky blue and antique white. Shown on a vintage mannequin against a whitewashed rustic stone wall

Rani shorter cape: the darker areas are taken from a piece of Shetland lace knitting, overlaid on the main design.

Layers of lace, and friendship

My thoughts turned to Shetland’s other, famous style of knitting: lace. My friend Mavis knits the most exquisite Shetland lace—could I somehow incorporate that into my design?

By playing with scale, I decided to layer an image of Mavis’s lace over my knit. This obscured the image of me, and also illustrates my appreciation of another form of traditional knitting, and Mavis’ skill and friendship.

With this addition, the design joined up (in my head, anyhow) me, my past, traditions of Fair Isle and lace, and my future—all in a collection of knit.

Rani knitted wrap on a vintage mannequin. The wrap flies out as the mannequin spins, to show the pattern

 Rani wrap, showing the paler reverse of the textile.

Wrapped up in thoughts of home 

I designed the individual pieces in the collection to feature different sections of photographs. By knitting in reverse jacquard (a double-faced fabric) the reverse of each piece reveals ghostly, ethereal images—not unlike the original photographic negatives.

The wearer is immersed in history. The pieces themselves are large, encompassing, very wrap-up-able in, and intended to help you feel safe and secure.

As if you were home.

Black and white photograph of young Niela, standing in front of a car with her dog - a spaniel

If you are wondering about the name of this collection...Rani was my first dog. Rani is the Hindi word for Queen. You can spot her in some of the photographic imagery used in the collection. I remember her as being a very precious part of the family.

Ways of seeing 

Did this design help resolve my issue of defining my home, or what home actually means?

Well, it’s still a live question—and it’s one that I suspect will take me a lifetime to untangle. It’s not a notion that can be unravelled and then simply knit up into just one piece of design.

As an aside, one of the benefits of working through the process of design, is that ideas evolve and new themes percolate. One element became quite clear as I worked through the Rani design process. If looking at the final piece at close quarters, there was no discernible image within the ‘pattern’ of the textile. From a distance, however, it was easier to lock on to the photographic imagery. Indeed, in photographing the knitwear the original imagery is immediately apparent.

In fact, I worry that in photographing the collection we’ve stolen its soul, as the imagery is not immediately evident when the pieces are seen in real life!

This journey of designing this collection led me to reflect about on the process of looking. What we see (or think we see), close up is not necessarily the truth (or the whole truth). Sometimes, you need some distance—in order to see the reality, or wholeness, of a situation.

Home is not a simple, easily grasped concept.

At Hoswick, Shetland, a view across fields to sea with a glimpse of Levenwick headland. A sunny day with spring grass growth and a fence post in the foreground

At Hoswick, looking south.


I’m now, as so many others are in the world, having to re-evaluate my definitions of ‘home’ and the importance thereof.

I feel the stirrings of another investigation: I wonder what that process will bring?

  • Helen Witham, knit technician, who helped me with the technicalities and prototyping of this complex design.
  • Mavis Ross, spinner, dyer and knitter, who allowed me to incorporate a piece of her knitting in the design.
  • Collection photography is by Austin Taylor, and was shot in Hoswick in August 2020.
Tagged with: design process

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