Floats the Raven Banner O'er Us: Roisin's Role in Fire Festival Celebrations

Up Helly Aa Fire Festivals take place throughout Shetland during the dark winter months of January to March to celebrate the culture and history of the islands. Lerwick Up Helly Aa, the biggest of the Fire Festivals normally takes place on the last Tuesday of every January. With the covid-19 pandemic, 2021 events are cancelled. To celebrate the occasion in another way, we spoke to Roisin McAtamney, Senior Textiles Facilitation Unit Technician to find out more about her role in the festivities.

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Roisin with materials for Bryan Garrick's 2016 Scalloway squad.

"Every January, the local population of Shetland gears up for the fire festival celebration to mark the middle of winter and the return of the lighter nights up here 60 degrees north.

There are 12 events in total, the second and the main one of them being the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, which attracts hundreds of tourists to the isles and is held on the last Tuesday of January. There is even a local public holiday the next day to allow people to recover from the night of celebrations!

Squads will spend years prior preparing for the big day and all outfits are handcrafted to unique, top secret designs. Throughout the years the Textile Facilitation Unit here at Shetland College UHI has worked on many Up Helly Aa outfits, designing and manufacturing cloaks, kirtle’s, dresses and trim to adorn the exquisite costume of each squad.

We can start initial design meetings up to three years in advance for some of the bigger festivals but have also had enquiries with only a few months before the event. Colours are normally an easy option to decide as the Jarls will have had a strong idea of their colourway years prior to planning even starts, however if the year before has used the same/similar, then a few adjustments may need to be made!

We draft up programs using the provided artwork to then load these into our industrial knitting machines (Shima Seiki) and we will knit several size/colour placement swatches. The client will feed back on these and we set to work on the first prototype. Once these are confirmed as correct, we begin the manufacturing and construction of the panels into the final outfits. These are then washed, pressed and finished ready for the big day!

For me it is a huge honour to be able to be part of these celebrations in such a unique way, making custom garments for a one off event, which communities have spent numerous  months preparing for. I get a real sense of pride seeing the final outfits on the day, friends and family of the Jarls and squads will travel hundreds (if not thousands, I have heard of people traveling from Australia!) of miles to come see their loved ones on the big day."