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Published: 27 March 2021

By Andy Ross

Shetland Tweed research - The 20th Century

By the early part of the 20th Century Shetland Tweed had ‘arrived’ and was widely recognised by tailors, fashion houses and the public across the United Kingdom and Ireland.

So rooted in the public psyche and culture had the fabric become that D.H. Lawrence used it as shorthand for somewhat precious middle-class preoccupations of the English in his 1923 work “Surgery for the Novel - or a Bomb”,  writing “Is my aura a blend of frankincense and orange pekoe and boot-blacking, or is it myrrh and bacon-fat and Shetland Tweed?”

The positioning of “frankincense, orange pekoe and boot-blacking” against “myrrh, bacon-fat and Shetland Tweed” perfectly delineates the town / country divide, the former, rarified and sophisticated suggesting drawing rooms and polite teas along with delicate scents, the other, somewhat more robust and down-to-earth, reminiscent of the countryside and farming life redolent with earthy smells, a distinctive feature of wool that visitors to the studio in Yell still comment on when encountering the scent. Shetland Tweed had succeeded, for Lawrence at least, in positioning itself as part of the land-owning gentry, particularly those who had, or wanted, links with the islands. With its “island tweed” derivation and designation, the cloth was ideal for those with wealth and those who aspired to emulate them. The industry was seen as potentially so successful that “The old-time industry of loom-weaving” was started again on Fair Isle by Mrs R.S. Wilson, paying for weaving by the yard of cloth in 1914.

It was also making its presence felt on the world stage. In the collection of the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, two lengths of cloth are preserved in store. Their accession numbers (60/779 and 60/780) include notes on the pieces and, with them, the detail that these two lengths were handwoven in Shetland by Thomas Adie and Son. Adies was the largest of the tweed producers in the islands, the original business, established in the 1830s, having been taken over by the son and the grandson and in 1945-6, when these two lengths were woven, they became part of a British Council travelling collection. This took handcrafts out to the former colonies of Australia and New Zealand to show “samples of traditional handcrafts which were then being practiced in the British countryside” after the Second World War ended (Museum of English Rural Life, 1961). Amongst the tweeds from Shetland were others from the Harris Tweed industry, Scotland, Wales and England, and a diverse array of artefacts, from rabbiting spades to woven baskets. Shetland Tweed was considered to be one of the handcrafts that epitomised the British Isles.

It could be surmised that the Second World War helped catapult Shetland into the eye of the general public. A most-likely apocryphal story has it that one of the first sets of bombs dropped onto British soil was over the isles, the only casualty being a rabbit or two. The event was captured in a song “Run, Rabbit, Run, Rabbit” that became popular with a public full of nationalistic pride. The idea of the remote islands being the first land hit by enemy bombs may have led to a greater appreciation of their strategic, national importance even if the story was fabricated. It certainly helped to engender a pride in, and a desire for, goods made in a postwar-constrained Britain. Celebrations signaling the end of the conflict included hand-made articles from Shetland, in light of this perceived and actual importance, a recognition of the islands’ contribution to the war effort. In 1947 the young Princess Elizabeth celebrated her twenty-first birthday and was presented with lengths of hand-woven Shetland Tweed to select from as a gift from “the Shetland people”. One of the pieces the Princess chose was hand-woven for her as a “suit-length” by “Mr James Hawick, Nibon, Northmaven”, while the second was made by an unknown weaver in “pink and moorit herring-bone pattern”. The lengths went along with knitwear, not a particularly unusual pairing at the time because matching or co-ordinating knits were a natural combination to skirt lengths of cloth, often manufactured and sold together. Colourful tweeds were once as important as knits for the islands’ textile economy.