» Skip to content

Published: 17 April 2021

By Andy Ross

Recent articles

View all stories

Shetland Tweed research - The 21st Century

By the beginning of the 21st Century, Shetland’s local tweed industry had largely disappeared, with only one mill left. Jamieson’s Spinning had moved their production from a base at Aith to Sandness, keeping production within Shetland, and was the last of the industrial producers. Still in place though were producers outside the islands. England, primarily in Yorkshire, and Scotland, mainly in the Borders, were weaving tweed with Shetland wool, and the United States was using this production, not that from the islands. These producers recognised the uniqueness of Shetland as a type of yarn and of cloth, as well as Shetland as a geographical designation with world-wide recognition for its textiles heritage. Much of that recognition though was based on knitting - the ubiquitous Fair Isle and the delicate lace knitting in particular - and gradually Shetland Tweed made in the islands was fading from memory.

In 2005 a new attempt began in Shetland, on the island of Yell, to revive weaving. The gifting of assets from the Ann Sutton Foundation in Arundel, England to a charitable organisation, GlobalYell Ltd, resulted in there once again being a weaving studio in the North Isles. GlobalYell commenced teaching and training using the equipment for residencies for weavers and artists, and textiles education as a community development tool. In 2007, the first tour dedicated entirely to textiles in Shetland was delivered by the charity and quickly became the main income-generator for the organisation, running alongside educational and training activities. The charity’s residency programme resulted in a collection of woven fabrics for sale to support GlobalYell. 

By 2015, it was obvious that tweed weaving in Shetland was declining fast. The last remaining mill in the islands, Jamieson’s Spinning on the Westside of Shetland Mainland was still producing wool and tweed made from that wool, but the industry was a fraction of what it once had been. 

The solution to the problem of the decline of tweed manufacturing in the islands with the loss of employment and opportunity lay in establishing a new production studio, one that replicated the “cottage industry” aspects of traditional practice yet took advantage of technology and other advances such as new colours of dye for yarns. In 2015 an industrial production loom was sourced from the USA by GlobalYell Ltd for the purposes of reinventing the traditional weaving model.

In 2016 The Shetland Tweed Company was established to make tweeds on the island of Yell using GlobalYell’s facilities. In 2017 a scoping project was undertaken into Shetland’s tweed history and heritage by the charity, with The Shetland Tweed Company as weaving partner to make contemporary cloths based on the research. The following year The Shetland Tweed Company was weaving contemporary cloths in its own right with an apprentice training on the industrial loom, and that company continues today. The business specialises in colourful fabrics, basing them on the availability of highly-coloured yarns from the islands and on interpretation of the land and seascapes of Shetland. In this way it takes its cue from the traditional, colourful fabrics and brings Shetland Tweed into the 21st Century, just as others have brought the industry up to date through the bold use of colour in the past.

As the last weaver of traditional Shetland Tweed retired in 2020, it was, in retrospect, a timely moment to begin a new company; Shetland could have lost its tweed weaving traditions completely.