From criminal law to contemporary Shetland knitwear
Niela Nell Kalra introduces her design philosophy, her multicultural background, and tells how leaving behind a legal career led her to found Nielanell—her Shetland knitwear label.
I am a designer and maker based in the Shetland Islands, whose main practice is knitwear.
Since founding Nielanell in 2008, my knitwear has become known for its intriguing design narratives, and an artistic approach to colour and pattern.
My studio in Hoswick is actually a cluster of historic sheds and small croft houses. We’re in Shetland’s South Mainland, and the village looks out over a south-facing bay, or wick.
Hoswick, Shetland is home to the group of buildings that make up the Nielanell studio.
Alongside my peerie team, I work in this wonderful rural location. We design and finish garments in-house, and coordinate with the skilled Shetland manufacturers who knit for us.
An incorrigible maker, I don't restrict myself to knitwear
It seems that I’m always making something, or thinking of making something. Hand-spinning and dyeing fibre for yarn, printmaking... glass! These practices all feed into my knitwear collections, as well as standing on their own.
Some of my hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn.
My mission and approach to knitwear
The relationship that somebody forms with a piece of knitwear is the pinnacle that drives my making.
Byre capelet: part of a collection inspired by the work of Scottish artist Karlyn Sutherland.
I don’t much follow mainstream fashion or trends. Rather, I think about how people live and how clothing makes them feel. And how and where that clothing is made. Mostly, I work in my own style—but I am at times influenced by Shetland’s knitted heritage and other forms of simple, traditional dress.
Between the skin and the knit
Through the work of Japanese clothing designers (including Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto) I discovered ma—the negative space between the fabric and the skin. This space is almost more important than the garment, or the body that it clothes.
How the knit touches us, how it doesn’t, how it drapes, hangs, falls, and becomes an integral part of us both consciously and subconsciously—all these things underpin my design.
Designing for feeling
I don’t design something with the view that ‘here, try this on—you will look better’. I’m really only interested in how you feel when you are wearing my knitwear—and I leave the rest to nature.
'Fishing' with my father on the shore of Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada.
I was born and brought up in Ontario, Canada. Both my parents were immigrants: Mom from Scotland, Dad from India. We lived in a multicultural area: only one person in my primary school had two Canadian-born parents.
Mom and me
My mother is a weaver, and I grew up helping to warp looms. From her Weavery, Mom sold yarn, looms and tapestries.
My schooling took place in Canada and then in Scotland, and I repeated this pattern at university—starting in Canada before changing course, and crossing the Atlantic to study law in Aberdeen.
From law to textile design
After qualifying, I worked for many years as a criminal defence solicitor in northern Scotland. I really did enjoy (almost) every minute of lawyering. Despite the public perception of what a defence agent actually does, I felt that I was being useful. And contributing in a very small, but crucial, way to society.
Hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn.
Away from work, I spent time hand-spinning and dyeing fibre. In the early 2000s I took a part-time textiles course and came up to Lerwick with my tutor, who wanted to visit the facilities at Shetland College. I was really just coming for a jolly!
However, when I saw the knitting machines, looms, and print room I knew in an instant that I had to study there.
I had to become part of that. In that place.
Lerwick lanes, Shetland.
Discovering my approach to textile design
In 2004 I moved to Lerwick and spent the next few years studying for my degree in contemporary textiles at Shetland College, where I developed an artistic approach to design.
This allowed me to start from a conceptual idea or inspiration, rather than a visual one. The concept was investigated through iterative stages of research and making.
I still use a version of this process today.
During the conception of my Rani collection, I explored the idea of ‘home' by manipulating childhood photographs to give a disrupted version of the peerie patterns used in Fair Isle knitting.”
Designing my first knitted garments
After graduating, I realised that my obsessive textile swatching had been enormously valuable—it gave me the foundations of a knitwear design business.
My huge cache of textile swatches, created at college, provided a basis for my knitwear collections.
I had never made garments before this. On reflection this was a good thing: I didn’t know about the rules, never mind how to break them! And my interest in traditional dress in different cultures greatly influenced the beginnings of my knitwear collections.
The Rigg cape—one of the very first garments that Nielanell launched with in 2008—has become a classic, and is still a best-selling piece.
I have found that I am fascinated with the need for function and form that you encounter with wearable objects. I do seem to need to embed meaningful making in some kind of reality—rather than making purely art textiles.
A knitwear label emerges
A spell of travelling in India after graduation gave me further inspiration. I reacquainted myself with the familiar clothing worn by members of my family. Other sources were more unexpected!
Marlet wrap: an early design, which I recolour in a cornucopia of colourways. This is my favourite Nielanell piece.
An elephant’s ear gave me the shape of a shawl, and the speckled markings that would form a distinctive pattern for a collection of garments. Initially called Elephant Ear, the Marlet collection is still current and evolving.
Did you know that Indian elephants develop markings as they age?
The Hoswick studio shop opens
I started working in Hoswick, with a studio in my garage. Having made several thousand pounds worth of sales (a lot of money, especially to a fledgling designer!) at a fair in Glasgow, my neighbour convinced me to put a Knitwear for Sale sign on the door.
That was the beginning of the studio shop—June 2008.
The Nielanell studio shop today
The garage-studio has gradually been transformed, becoming the diminutive studio shop that you can visit today. Vintage shop units, artwork by Shetland artsists, tactile artefacts…and of course increasing stacks of knitwear in every colour that you can imagine. And some you definitely can’t!
Over the years we have welcomed visitors from all around the globe, made friends, and had conversations on all manner of topics. The orange velvet couch has rested the limbs of many weary partners, while ‘just another colour’ has been tried on.
The development and evolution of Nielanell
The shape of Nielanell has gradually changed in a metaphorical sense, growing in confidence and in reputation.
Friends tell me that my knitwear has become more refined. It’s difficult to make observations about your own work: to me it’s just a long continuum.
Hand-spinning during the 2020 lockdown, in Hoswick
My yarn and art glass become part of Nielanell
I pivoted to working with my hands during the 2020 lockdown, to further develop collections of my hand-spun yarn for my online shop. I was also able to get into in my glass studios, making a new body of work which was exhibited by Shetland Arts towards the end of 2020—I’ll be introducing this online, soon.
My hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn: native Shetland wool blended with Polwarth wool and dyed with natural indigo.
Working with young people
Young people are a valued part of studio life at Nielanell, and we’ve always had school and university-age assistants working with us. It’s such a privilege to see them grow and mature into lovely, creative individuals. I have also been lucky enough to collaborate with arts organisations, including V&A Dundee, on projects for young people.
Workshop materials from the Scottish Design Relay, a national programme for young people, on show at V&A Dundee
That brand word
I have a bit of an aversion to the word ‘brand’, but have realised building a brand does not mean sacrificing integrity. Indeed, the Nielanell brand is an expression of my life as a creative person, who has discovered a different path…and might inspire others to do the same.
I collaborate with talented graphic designers, photographers and branding specialists, who have helped me to clarify and communicate my design ethos, vision and brand. It can be difficult to get this right, and it is an evolving process.
Sticking to the creative path
This path I’ve chosen—or which has chosen me—hasn’t always been easy. Any type of manufacturing brings its own difficulties, and sleepless nights. Selling what you design yourself is stupendously difficult: you open yourself up to such acute scrutiny (real or imagined!), which is not a very comfortable place to be. I have frequent crises of confidence.
That said, I am still here, still designing.
Since 2013 Nielanell has been supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which has made such a difference to the business.
Nielanell is a member of Shetland Arts & Crafts Association, which does so much to promote the work of makers in the islands.
I couldn’t keep going without the talent and support of my team, both internal and ‘external’. My friends, family, and neighbours are just as much a part of this little business—which only exists because of them all.