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Published: 07 March 2020

By Andy Ross

Sloppy Jo

Shetland may be responsible for another of the world's fashion items: the Sloppy Joe.

A few weeks ago, two boxes of papers from Mossbank, a small settlement on the East Coast of the isles, came into the archive in Lerwick. As Mossbank was a centre of tweed production the boxes were thought to be of interest to me and were set aside. This week I managed to get to Lerwick to look at the them.

There are a few items of particular use in the research, the most important being the production figures and income for the middle of the last century. This was the height of tweed production and so these figures are very useful because they show a massive increase in income; the equivalent of £450,000 was made in the early 1950s from sales of cloth! An impressive achievement after fewer than ten years in production. 

There are two other items of interest, although not related to tweed. The first is a dispute that arose between the company in Mossbank and a French company which bought their garments. The dispute seems to be about supply and payment, and involved a national organisation which oversaw exports. All the paperwork appears to be in the box but, sadly, there is not enough time to follow it through. That is one of the problems with research - interesting byways cannot be followed!

The second though is tantalising. The first twelve or so years of the company's history in Mossbank has been typed up and the notes state that the company invented the "Sloppy Jo". This type of knitted pullover was not shaped at all and became a craze in the USA where the loose fit suited a more casual lifestyle. The Sloppy Jo (now spelt with an "e" at the end) was made in Mossbank, the only manufacturers in Shetland, and gradually the name was given to what we would call "sweatshirts" and "fleeces". (In Australia, apparently, the name is still in use. Can any of our Australian readers help?)

The Mossbank company, which had started out as a small business in North Yell before moving south, had a singular link with London. The eventual owners of the operation were based in Jermyn Street, and fine Shetland lace knitting was popularised by this particular company. Tweeds and knitwear were sold from the premises in the capital, and of course exported to the USA. Who knew that this small, quiet settlement had such an important international and interesting history!