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Published: 25 May 2019

By Andy Ross

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The currency of cloth

Using cloth as a form of currency is an old practice. Could this be why we value some fabrics so highly?

Living in Shetland one cannot help but be aware of the value of textiles. Most people who live in the isles are at least conscious of the knitting traditions here, not least Fair Isle and lace. Fewer know about the weaving heritage but there is a growing awareness of this ancient craft, and some might know of nålebinding, an ancient technique which predates knitting and crochet. (Incidentally, I only found out this week that it was men who did the latter, at least originally. I don't know much about it but maybe someone out there in internet-land can offer some information?)

In Shetland we had wadmal which was used as a currency. If you have been following the tweed research currently going on, you will remember an earlier blog entry about this. Wadmal was used to pay rents in the isles, and lent its measurement to the laying-out and disbursement of land and this may be one of the reasons why textiles are still valued so highly here. 

Many visitors with a textiles bent who travel through the isles will agree that this a unique place. Is this because of the ancient trade in cloth which has created a respect for fabrics, or is it possibly because Shetland only became wealthy in the 20th Century and had been somewhat reliant on homemade textiles right up until the 1970s? Do we value knitting, weaving and the other textile crafts because of an ancient "trace memory" or simply because "mum knitted" or "grandad wove"?  If you know, or have an idea about this, please get in touch. I would love to hear your thoughts.