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Published: 20 March 2021

By Andy Ross

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Shetland tweed research - Arrival

This week the story of Shetland Tweed continues with its arrival in the 19th Century. 

The words “Shetland” and “tweed” can reliably be linked by the end of 1849. In an advertisement from Freeman’s Journal published on the 10th October 1849, Shetland Tweed was available for purchase from Richard Allen’s two establishments in Dublin. Although the islands had been producing “wadmal “plaiding” and “claith” for centuries, the vogue for “tweeds” for sale to an international market was growing, fueled by the desire for country living and country pursuits by the middle classes looking for fashionable clothing, particularly in cities. This was because the merchants who sold on the fabric to end users primarily lived in Edinburgh or London.  

Linking an already-existing production to a new market through the coining of the word “tweed” helped to guide the development of the fledgling tweed industry in the isles as traditional cloths became fashionable. The industry's early development through fashion also led to constant change in the look of the cloths. Plaids, with their twill structures and natural colouring, would have been an ideal fit for that industry, and Shetland, with its native sheep producing the fine, naturally-colouredwool designed to be principally hand-spun had intrinsic qualities that would have satisfied the demand for unique tweeds.

The linking of tweed with the Romantic notion of authentic and real became a powerful tool, effectively marketing the fabric to take advantage of this search and this connection for the newly affluent classes was strong enough to act as a marketing concept for Shetland Tweed for decades.

A unique aspect of this was the idea of mixing colours to blend in with the Scottish landscape. By the 1830’s vivid colours were being used to create tweeds for menswear. These bright colours were different to the way in which they were used in tartans in that they were influenced by rural landscape. While it may not be possible to directly link Shetland’s tweeds to landscape, the influence of colour on the fabrics is clear by the move away from heavy wadmal to lighter claith and plaids, their characteristic colouring followed by tweed. It is possible that the vibrant fashionable shades, created by the trend elsewhere towards yarns and fabrics influenced by the landscape, in turn influenced Shetland manufacture. This trend towards colourful fabrics was further refined in use by the diversity of the naturally-coloured yarns made from the native sheep, a feature which, in the 1890s, became a significant driver in the design of Shetland cloths.

It appears that the economic opportunity arising by using the label “tweed” was also a significant driver for change in the weaving industry. By the 1870-80s, specialisation was occurring in different areas in the isles. Census records tracing the advent and rise of the fledgling industry reveal that in 1881 the first use of the word “tweed” was registered in association with an occupation, Mr. David Tulloch of South Yell being identified as a “Weaver of Shetland Tweed”. Before this date there are many permutations for weavers: “Woollen weaver”; “Worsted weaver”; “Hand loom weaver”. By 1901, the last census available in print, there are five weavers making “tweed” in Shetland and one of those is attributed to making tweed from “handspun” yarn.

By the end of the 19th Century, tweed weaving was increasing in Shetland and with it a consolidation, and consequent reduction in numbers, of weavers to certain areas. It is likely that this apparent contradiction of expanded output with decreasing numbers of workers came about because of the industrialisation of the industry for efficiency and economic reasons.