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Published: 29 September 2017

By Andy Ross

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An industry talk for Wool Week

Well, we have reached the end of Wool Week for 2017 and what a Wool Week it has been!

Lots of visitors have made their way northwards to the studio and we have seen small groups of knitters and wool enthusiasts gathering on the street, in shops, on benches,... all knitting and chattering away. It was a Whole Lot of Fun and the best news is that Wool Week is safe for the future with sponsorship agreed by Loganair. 

Thank you to the fashion show people who showed my scarves beautifully, and also to the Wool Week organisers and committee for all their hard work. 

This year I was asked to give the industry talk for the opening ceremony. Since then people have asked if they can have a read of the talk so here it is. Congratulations on another successful event everyone. Here's to 2018!

Good evening everyone,

It is a great privilege to be asked to give the industry talk at Shetland Wool Week and lovely to see so many people with a passion for all things woolly here.


My own journey into textiles started when I was very young. At school in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe our class was asked to do a project about the local cotton industry. My research took in many aspects of the industry, from cotton plants in the fields through to screen printing of the fabrics. I was well and truly hooked, and continued to be enchanted and in thrall to fabrics throughout my schooling.


In Secondary School I coerced my mother into teaching me to make my own clothes, and I spent many happy hours sewing the bright African fabrics for shorts and shirts. It was not the done thing for a Zimbabwean male to be doing but I persevered and  ultimately sewing led me into my first textiles career, making animal toys out of Java printed material for sale in the hotels where I was working. I am proud to have one of my toys in the Teddy Bear Museum in Stratford on Avon!


My father’s screen printing business provided another creative outlet. It was a small production studio, located in a tiny corner of his engineering company where, surrounded by the smell of welding and the rattle of metal conveyor rollers which his company manufactured, I drew and had ties screen-printed by hand. Little did I know that this type of work would engage me later on in life!


When I emigrated to the UK in the early nineties I rekindled my love for fabrics with visits to the amazing markets in London where I started to collect the textiles which became part of something you are all familiar with – the Stash! This started me on another short-lived project; making waistcoats to order, and I still wear some of the creations of those years. It was a useful way of utilizing the Stash while still keeping the fabrics in my possession and also sharing them with the world.


At the start of this century I moved to Shetland where I rediscovered textiles, specifically tweed, through a very convoluted route of tourism and music, and now I am very lucky to run my own company, The Shetland Tweed Company as well as my charity, GlobalYell, which works in education and training in textiles on the island of Yell.


The industry in Shetland, as you probably all know, is based on knitting but it was not always like that. Until the middle of the last century Shetland tweed was highly desirable because of its handle and versatility. Shetland exported to America and Europe, and in the UK, to Savile Row where the fine fabrics were used in suiting and outerwear. It is not a coincidence that the tweeds were called the “Aristocrat of Homespuns”. The industry however had very nearly gone by the latter part of the 20th Century, and it was only Jamieson’s of Shetland who started and continue to make traditional tweeds that stopped these fabrics from disappearing completely.


In 2006 we started to work in the industry, teaching and training through the charity in Yell following the gifting of assets from the Ann Sutton Foundation. These assets included looms and a reference library and gradually we have been working to create our own take on Shetland tweed fabrics. Two years ago we bought a semi-industrial loom and now we produce fabrics for the interiors market, making short run cloth and limited edition throws and blankets, and one-off products such as cushions. This year we have been trading successfully, selling to visitors to the studio and it is gratifying to have sold many of our cloths to Shetlanders; people who know about textiles and appreciate the time it takes to make beautiful things.


The industry is returning to Shetland. There are knitters and handweavers across the isles now, few in number but growing, and the interest in Shetland and its tweed industry is also flourishing. Last year and this we undertook the beginnings of a research project which looked at the tweeds from Shetland. We viewed collections including the Adies of Voe archive held at the Shetland Museum and Archive Store, and the Hoswick Visitor Centre and have been gratified to see the breadth and depth of knowledge and heritage embodied in the collections.


In fact, it is through research that I believe Shetland Tweed can once again be an important part of the industry of the UK. A homegrown colour-filled fabric with a unique handle is much in demand from consumers who want something different. Wool, being easy to care for, forgiving in its qualities of stretch and memory, flexible, supple and drapeable, versatile…  It is ideal for interiors and fashion and, being relatively unknown and yet with a significant body of work from the past to be explored, the tweeds from the islands have the potential to be the Next Big Thing. We in Shetland, at least those of us who cannot spin, are lucky to have two sources of yarn from the islands – the Wool Brokers, Jamiesons and Shetland Organics. Each has a unique product which produces unique results in our weaving, and I believe that our role is to test, understand and experiment to create new looks for these materials.


Any products though that really work are understood in the context of their locality and heritage. It is through research that we have made a link between structure and colour in Shetland tweed. It is important now that we share that knowledge because it will encourage the public to value these fabrics and to understand that we are not making cloths on a whim but basing our choices of colour and pattern on something that has had a significant impact on lives in Shetland in the past.


It is because of our passion for these fabrics that we run our residencies and stays. People can come to Yell for a period of time and work alongside us, learning, creating and producing. We gain because we get new patterns and colourways to produce cloths while our residents benefit because they gain experience, knowledge and understanding about, not only wool and textiles, but living on an island and what life is like in a place such as Shetland. I am sure you can see the benefits of spending an extended period experimenting and playing with yarns. In fact I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this hall involved in the textile industry who does not do this!


So, what is the future of Shetland tweed? Well, I believe that we are poised to become a highly desirable source of fabrics for discerning buyers across the world. Where else can one buy short runs of cloth, bespoke in their availability, with a matchless heritage and history, relatively unknown and hidden but rewarding in its qualities and colours? Shetland has the chance to do well by its tweed industry, and support a new generation of weavers who honour the past and look to the future.


In order to make this happen I believe that we need investment into the industry, supporting weavers and weaving to develop ideas and products, and through that development to open up new markets. Investment can take many forms; financial, time, assets… All are needed to make sure that the industry in Shetland can grow and thrive in the present day.


More people working as weavers are also necessary. Sadly we are losing our weavers of yesteryear and with them goes the experience of making a living through cloth during what must have been a comparatively tough time in the islands, no matter what romantic notions time puts its gloss on. But that knowledge lives on in recordings and books so it is essential that we work with people across the islands to provide the information and technical expertise that they need and want in order to produce the best possible weavers and designers for the future.


Training and education is vital. What use is a weave designer who cannot make a length of cloth? Similarly what use is a weaver who does not understand structure and colour? In my own learning I am constantly finding out new things and the more I know the more I realise how very little I actually do know. Weaving is a vast and consuming subject, involving many disciplines and industries, and we need to train people to be flexible enough to transfer their skills to engineering, to fashion, to interiors, to aeronautics… just some of the industries which use weaving as a core part of their activities. That is why we must invest in education and training, in resources and materials to innovate and ensure that the industry thrives.


We must educate the public. Many people do not realize the significance of weave in everyday life yet we are surrounded by it. Lives depend on it – woven articles are used in surgery – and our clothes and homes, our cars and our trains all put weave to good use. By highlighting the contribution that Shetland tweeds have made to the islands through fashion in the past, we can start to tell people about the potential that the modern industry has, way past anything that past weavers could have dreamt of. We need to explore and tell stories so that people can get excited about weaving and thus ensure that we have the support to enable the industry to grow.


We also need to be cautious of growing too quickly, or not quickly enough. We need to make sure that we can get the raw materials we need to weave. We need to support our woolen industry and invest time and money in making new things which innovate and illuminate. We must work with others to find new ideas and new directions so that what happened to the old industry in Shetland does not happen again. In effect, we must be proactive not reactive.


If we can do all these things and if we can allow ourselves to dream of what could be, the tweed industry in Shetland will be in rude health, confident that Shetland tweed is a quality fabric created in these beautiful islands from beautiful yarns. I firmly believe that we have that opportunity and I am looking forward to continuing the tradition in the isles, alongside others in the industry, of Shetland Tweed.