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Published: 19 January 2019

By Andy Ross

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A familiar cloth in an odd place

When looking for Shetland tweed or items from the Festival of Britain, it is not necessarily towards the Museum of English Rural Life that one would gravitate.

On a fleeting visit in December we popped into the Museum, which is at the University of Reading, simply for a look-see. It is a lovely museum, full of artefacts and interesting items from England, and great displays of tractors, baskets, posters, chinaware, etc neatly laid out and well explained. On a whim, typing "Shetland tweed" into the search engine of the Museum's catalogue turned up not one or two interesting things, but three! Three pieces of Adies of Voe tweed lengths which had been part of a travelling exhibition for the British Council in the late 1940's. The exhibition had been sent to New Zealand and Australia and somehow found their way into this collection. A return visit was definitely called for. 

Michael O'Connell hanging Michael O'Connell hanging In early January I made another trip out to Reading to see these pieces, and also to look at some other cloths and designs made by Michael O'Connell for the Festival of Britain. If you ever get a chance to see the latter, do take it. Huge resist printed depictions of life across the UK in the artist's unmistakeable style, along with drawings and designs for those pieces. The picture on the left is, I think, from the piece entitled "Kent". Have a look at Kate Gill's website. Kate is the conservator who worked on getting two of the hangings ready for showing.. On the page you will see a couple of images of the hangings but nothing compares to actually standing in front of them and enjoying the humour and craft that went into making these pieces. 

But it was Shetland tweed and the story of how they ended up in the collection that intrigued me. Much of my time was spent looking at the beautiful lengths which were simple twill, herringbone and plain weave, and reading the documents that went with them. Luckily the correspondence for the whole consignment was intact and it turns out that the pieces were bought from Scott Adie who had a shop in London's Regent Street (amongst other venues). He sold the pieces to The British Council for the show, as well as selling some Harris Tweed. I have not finished compiling the research but will report back on what I found when this is done. In the meantime, if anyone knows anything about Scott Adie, or the company called the Scotch Wool House in London, I would be delighted to hear from you. Email can be sent to andy@globalyell.org

Of course, this being the Museum of English Rural Life, Shetland tweed is not particularly relevant to their collections but it is wonderful that so much of the history of the UK is kept in these sorts of places, giving us all the chance to discover and enjoy unexpected pleasures. Huge thanks to the Museum for being so accommodating with their time, library and collections.