Bush Bouquet (Prince William’s) shawl

Bush Bouquet Shawl
Image courtesy of Christchurch Star

Of all Margaret’s works, Bush Bouquet is the most famous. Commissioned for the birth of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s first baby (Prince William) in 1982 it provided her with an opportunity to design lace that reflected New Zealand’s native flora and indigenous symbolism. The wool was hand spun from a very fine micron, award winning, merino fleece and, once completed, the shawl was fine enough to pass the test of being pulled through a wedding ring.

Influenced by the Shetland tradition of creating lace elements to reflect the local environment, the shawl included motifs inspired by native New Zealand flowers and a deep border incorporating a stylised kowhaiwhai pattern. While not perfect, for it’s time it was a significant step in transforming an immigrant craft tradition into an embedded New Zealand representation.

Why there will never be a pattern

There have been numerous articles written about Bush Bouquet – a recent one by Anne Merrow at Interweave  is a lovely example.  It is also the shawl that we are most frequently asked about, in particular if there will ever be a pattern. There never will be for several reasons.

1. First and foremost – it was a commissioned design for a specific purpose. None of her commissioned designs have patterns that are for sale as they are works of craft art and designed to be unique

2.  She never wrote it down. To a large degree it was designed on the needles, although the proportions were checked on the Bush Bouquet Christening Coat she created first. Even the motifs she used have  undergone several iterations since.

As an example recently Margaret decided to write out the pattern for the Rata Shawl having found her original notes. She gave it to me (Sonja) as a Christmas present and said “its not quite the same – when I started knitting from the notes I found a better way…”

3. A key aspect of Bush Bouquet is the lace elements themselves are original – you will never find them in a stitch dictionary. In writing and teaching about it since, her primary purpose has been to encourage knitters to design their own elements – not copy hers.

Bush Bouquet as a point in knitting history

Aside from these practicalities there is another reason why Bush Bouquet will never be knitted again and thats to do with where it exists in her journey as a spinner of fine lace merino, as a lace knitting designer and as a craft artist.

In some respects Bush Bouquet was a pivotal moment in the modern history of knitting. From where we are today, its difficult to imagine how unique this project was when it was created over 36 years ago.  This was before the internet, the Berlin Wall had only just fallen and access to Eastern Europe was only beginning to open up. The knitting traditions of Shetland while admired, were seen as quaint throwbacks to the past and  the  lace of Estonia and Orenburg were largely unknown to Western knitters. Added to that, while spinning was in the process of being rediscovered as a craft, it was using raw fleece as the starting point, not the scoured, carded roving we have today.

In that context, a relatively inexperienced New Zealand spinner decided to find a way to spin raw Merino fleece ( a fleece with a reputation that it could not be used for hand spinning) into a fine enough yarn to knit a shawl that could be pulled through a wedding ring. Having achieved that, she proceeded to design a lace shawl creating new lace motifs that had never been seen before, using flowers and symbolism from a country on the other side of the world from all those existing traditions.

Craft as art

In the New Zealand of the  1970s there had been much discussion about the interface of craft and art. When did a craft (pottery, glass blowing, woodwork, weaving, jewellery ) become more than something with a practical use and become a work of art. Typically this involved taking existing skills and knowledge to use them in interesting and unique ways. Bush Bouquet was created in that context and became the beginning of a series of works by Margaret that explored the idea that in knitting,  craft could also become art as a unique piece of design.

While now we have access to a huge library of lace designs from across the world – when Margaret designed Bush Bouquet she was working within the constraints of a limited range of patterns and stitch dictionaries largely sourced from the United Kingdom and Europe.  Inspired by the stories of Shetland knitters developing stitch patterns that reflected the environment around them she utilised her detailed knowledge of the structure of New Zealand flora gained during an earlier venture designing embroidery patterns, to create new lace elements. Her initial design notes are actually a series of pencil sketches that can be used to underlay a chart to experiment with stitch combinations. Those elements have continued to evolve as her knitting expertise has progressed.

Today, when a search of Ravelry identifies over 23,000 lace shawl designs – the number of those designs where the lace elements can not be found in a stitch dictionary will be miniscule.  While some of the elements of Bush Bouquet  may have started with an existing stitch they were transformed into a uniquely New Zealand form.  And that is part of its mystique – there never has been, and there never will be another shawl quite like it.

What happened next

For Margaret, Bush Bouquet was the beginning of three decades of being invited to teach fine lace Merino spinning and how to create your own lace knitting patterns internationally. Her sharing her own learning contributed to the renaissance of interest in fine lace knitting in Shetland and Europe.  Along with her own investigations into the history and development of lace knitting she has built relationships and encouraged the exploration and sharing of lace spinning and knitting by skilled knitters not only from Shetland, but Orenburg, Estonia and Haapsulu.

She continued to develop new original lace elements in her commissioned work as well as working with the freely shared design elements from other lace knitting traditions. It was 25 years before she finally agreed to release any written patterns based on the Bush Bouquet elements (Wrapped in Lace) because she had originally wanted to maintain them as family patterns.

Respecting indigenous heritage knowledge

One of the aspects of Shetland lace Margaret loves, is the notion of families passing on patterns through generations, and aspects of patterns being unique to each family. She has occasionally expressed disquiet about the re-engineering of historic shawls based on photographs, as when she was researching Shetland shawls some older knitters did not want their patterns written down – choosing to maintain the oral and sampler traditions within a family even if it meant the pattern was lost.

While our family is pakeha (European) Margaret had strong relationships with Ngā Puhi iwi from living in the Hokianga. Her use of Māori elements in lace work,  typically those that reflect some of the shapes of kowhaiwhai and tāniko weaving, is done in a way that is mindful of the cultural significance found in textile arts. Replicating a woven motif in the softness of knitting and yarn is challenging and Bush Bouquet kowhaiwhai border has edges that are not as crisp as they should be and which are found in her later work.

If you would like to see a more close up photo of elements of the design – her test piece for the shawl was the Christening Coat she knitted for her eldest grandchild who was born two months before Prince William. The skirt in particular helped her develop the stitch count and understand the impact of needle size on the overall design.