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Published: 06 March 2021

By Andy Ross

The prehistory of Shetland Tweed

The tweed research, a Master's Degree at Glasgow School of Art, was completed in February and the findings are being summarised each week in the blog. 

6,000 years ago people were weaving in Shetland. We know this because spindle whorls and loom weights have been found that can be dated to then. We also know that Norse occupation of the islands brought weaving because, as this photograph in the National Museum of Scotland shows, looms weights of steatite have been found. It must be quite something to find these; the long warp threads that held the weights would rot and each stone would be lying, in a line, where they fell centuries before being uncovered. 

The oldest cloth we have in Shetland dates to the 13th Century. The pair of woollen gloves is in safe-keeping at the Shetland Museum and Archives Store and was found on the island of Papa Stour. The archaeological dig in The Biggins uncovered what were described as "tweed-like fragments". It is impossible to tell if the gloves were made in Shetland but the find does prove that woven articles of clothing were familiar to the islands. The gloves feature a twill - a series of diagonal line running through the fabric - and this structure will be familiar to lovers of tweed. Twills are a diverse family of structures that lend particular qualities such as stretch and strength to fabrics. Many tweeds feature twills. In fact, the name "tweed" probably comes from an old Scots word "tweeled" meaning "to have a twill". It is most likely that an enterprising merchant realised the marketing potential of a clerk's mistake regarding the shortened version of the word; "tweel'd" and "tweed" was born. However that is in the future. For now we must return to the pre-tweed centuries. 

It is sad that the gloves' colour has not survived. Most ancient fabrics lose their colour because the dyes were natural and faded over time. It is possible that they were coloured but we simply do not know and cannot tell what they originally looked like. 

Up until at least the 1840s the islands were producing wadmal. It was noted that girls in Quendale, Central Mainland of Shetland, were wearing petticoats made of scarlet wadmal in 1842. The cloth came in blue/ black and red and it was used not just for articles of clothing but also as packing material in the days of the Hanseatic League fishing. It was also an article of trade and used to pay skatt, the rent due to the Crown on land. 

As the quality of wadmal declined - it was sold by quantity so that may have contributed to that decline - so imports of cotton and linen were increasing. It was noted that wadmal was still being worn as skirts in Foula at the end of the 19th Century but the days of the cloth were numbered. These imported cloths were made up into clothes by tailors and seamstresses across the islands, as shown by advertising in the almanacs of the day. They were also expensive. In 1829, a manufacturer in Galashiels avoided taxes by ferrying his cloth on a fishing boat to the Northern Isles where he sold it for “twice the price” of its southern sales.

There was, however, a different sort of cloth being made at home. Woven claith and plaiding, made using dyed, home-spun yarns, for everyday use contributed to clothing for the household. In 1766, Lady Mary Mitchell wrote to Arthur Nicolson in Lerwick about a weaving loom for the “North part of the country”, asking for the equipment to be sent and used to train men up in Fetlar, Unst and Foula to weave cloth and provide employment. In much the same way that Harris Tweed was linked with a seemingly-benevolent aristocracy, so, it seems, was Shetland. In 1808 it was noted that “Vanity characterised the Shetlander” and that everyday dress was made out of home-made cloth, “claith” in the island dialect, and home-spun yarn, while Sunday formal dress was either “Scotch or English”.