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Published: 09 March 2019

By Andy Ross

The Importance of Pure Materials

This week, I have been reading about colour in tweeds and have been particularly drawn to this...

The new library book Colour in Woven Design is proving to be invaluable. It was bought on a whim, mainly because of the beautiful plates and colour drawings which are scattered throughout. However the author makes a Very Important Point and that is to do with purity of material.

Written as this was in 1911/2, synthetic dyes were being used in the textile industries but were affected by the "low materials used in some of the woven goods." The author goes on to say that Scotch mixtures will always excel in brilliant tinting so long as fibres of a mungo, shoddy and extract class are rejected by manufacturers north of the Tweed." (The terms "mungo", "shoddy" and "extract" refer to what we would now term recycling. Old clothes and fabrics were shredded, ground or unwoven to create fibres which could then be reused. Generally speaking these fibres were inferior to the originals because they had already undergone processing once before, but these were thriving industries, with tonnes of material created each year.) 

I have long felt that Shetland has a unique place in textiles history because of the quality of the wool and the colours that we produce from processing or dyeing that wool. Along with the natural colours of the sheep which make grey, brown, white and black yarn, all of which can be intermixed to produce different shades of cloth, there is a large array of dyed yarns available.The author of this book talks about "freshness of colouring" and "quality and softness of handle", bywords for what I think of as "Shetland".

Even more interestingly, last week we sent down some samples to a friend in England to test for softness in various woven structures and finishes. The samples came back with observations to different questions we had posed. In response to the question "Which of these cloths do you think of as 'Shetland' and why?", our correspondent replied in terms of colour, not in terms of handle! This gives us a real insight as to what some people may be thinking where Shetland weave is concerned. Our friend interpreted this question as one of a relationship between landscape and colour, not structure, nor handle, the latter being one of the qualities most prized historically about Shetland wool. The observation is not wrong. It is just a different way of looking at the question. Maybe we need to do some more education around the softness and lightness of Shetland wool. 

So, you can see that a simple sentence or two in a book has led to a great deal of thinking to go with the research degree. Don't you just love to learn new things like this?