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Published: 21 September 2019

By Andy Ross

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Shetland's tweed history... and future

The woven cloth of Shetland has been at the forefront of innovation and the industry has gone through cycles of popularity and decline. Now its future is in jeopardy.

As regular readers of the bog know we are passionate about Shetland tweed. Its softness, handle, lightness and colouring is second to none, and in its current form has been desirable for more than one hundred years. At the moment though, there is only a small amount of traditional tweed being produced on the islands. Only Jamieson's Spinning Mill makes to the old colours and patterns on the islands while our own production in The Shetland Tweed Company is contemporary, based on the traditional colouring and patterns of "island tweeds". It seems a shame that this historic cloth may go the way of the dodo... unless we do something about that future. 

The research we are doing in the studio is showing that the desirable characteristic of Shetland tweed is not the patterning or the colouring, but the raw material. The fleece of the Shetland sheep has give the cloth its drape, lightness and warmth, as well as its luxurious feel. While Shetland cannot possibly compete (and nor should it) with the likes of alpaca in terms of softness and wearability-close-to-the-skin, it can compete in terms of warmth and drape, and in its antique provenance.

Production of tweed in the isles has always been diverse. On-island, off-island, Shetland fleece or fleece from sheep bred on Shetland? In which of these does the true Shetland tweed identity live? Thus we have the crux of the problem.

So how do we retain Shetland's reputation for this beautiful cloth? It is a real conumdrum. If you have any ideas as to how to help in the race to save Shetland's tweed heritage I would love to hear from you.