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Published: 16 February 2019

By Andy Ross

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Challenging received wisdom

This week the tweed research has taken a new turn and challenged some perceptions.

Two days in Lerwick at the Shetland Museum and Archives, and at the Shetland Library, has turned up some more material for the research project on tweed from the isles. Gradually out of the murk a picture of manufacture is growing, and it is becoming ever clearer what the influences have been on the creation of Shetland tweed and how history affected the cloth. One of the most interesting things directly related to the research was the discovery that Bernat Klein, the Serbian-turned-Scottish designer, used Shetland wool in his fabulous pieces. The National Museum of Scotland has a large collection of Klein's designs and art, some of which you can see here. Isn't that timeline fun?

This is not the only interesting thing though. Although it seems not to be related directly to this research, an intriguing discovery was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science last year and it may be relevant after all. The paper discusses how a new technique of washing oil out of fibre samples has altered our idea of the spread of weaving in the ancient world. Received wisdom has it that the Vikings taught spinning and weaving as they travelled across the world, including in the Canadian Arctic. This new technique has proved that fibres which show evidence of spinning and weaving among the Inuit were actually created before the Vikings arrived. A long time before, in fact. Possibly almost 1000 years previously! Musk Ox and Arctic Hare fibres were spun and woven, it seems, long before the two cultures met.

While this may not be exactly the case in Shetland, it does seem that the Vikings may not have introduced weaving here either. The Picts had sheep; Shetland's sheep are descended, as far as the literature is concerned, from the more primitive breed still found in Orkney. The latter archipelago has one of the oldest textile pieces discovered in the UK, a hood which predates the Viking arrival in the islands. Shetland's sheep were bred to make the fleece finer and there is no reason to think that we were not doing the same here as our neighbours. So it may be that the weaving tradition in the isles is much older than we have thought! Perhaps it is time we took advantage of the new washing technique and re-evaluate our textiles history.