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Published: 27 April 2019

By Andy Ross

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Myths and legends of Shetland

A recent discovery of advertising from the 1960's highlights Shetland's importance to the USA menswear industry.

In the 1950s and '60s, Shetland exported a lot of tweed to America. This was one of our biggest markets and there were weavers across the isles making tweed specifically for this export. An important part of the economy of the isles because it helped to diversify incomes, lightweight Shetland tweed was noted for its colouring and softness and one of the companies purchasing this fabric for use in tweed suits and jackets was Norman Hilton.

Norman Hilton will be a name familiar to a lot of our readers stateside because of his eponymous menswear branding, creating those classic looks for those who wanted to be seen as leading the way and trend-setting in an understated style. Shetland fitted that bill remarkably well because of its handle and lightness, its informal formality, and mostly because of the origins of the cloth: the islands themselves. 

In the middle of the last century advertising was undergoing a revolution. Magazines and newspapers were using colour and the idea of branding was in its infancy. Part of this change, Norman Hilton was very good at marketing, using models, lighting, and clothing to suggest lifestyles that readers could aspire to. Alluding to the mystery of the islands was also a significant selling-point. Shetland with its "stark landscape", "barren moors" and "lonely cliffs and beaches" conjured up images of exploration and derring-do, apt for a time when commerce was seen as the saviour of the human race, bringing a sense of optimism and drive to business. Shetland was very much part of that, with islanders still dwelling in the past using "primitive hand-looms" when weavers were able to spare time from fishing and farming. Anyone purchasing a tweed jacket made from Shetland wool in Shetland would be able to feel that link with the past and be part of a traditional way of life yet completely modern at the same time. 

This week I listened to an interview conducted a few years ago as part of a research projct which we co-ordinated at the studio. This interview was with a weaver from an area of the Mainland of Shetland called Mossbank, and the weaver spoke about how, in the late 1950's,  the owners of the business were based in Jermyn Street in London and how the lighting in the weave shed was flourescent tubes which were deisgned to closely replicate daylight! Isn't it curious how the marketing of the tweed dwells on the romantic notion of these ancient isles with their unchanging way of life while the reality is of a national company with international trade, and tweed made using the latest technology in lighting? Shetland tweed is Very Interesting, indeed!