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Published: 03 April 2021

By Andy Ross

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Shetland Tweed research - the 20th Century continues

The middle of the 20th Century was the heyday of Shetland Tweed.

 In the years after the Second World War, from the late 1940s and into the 1960s, Shetland Tweed experienced a rapid increase in demand, an increase that resulted in more production. Records, such as a graph of production and sales from 1946 to 1948 by Pole Hoseason in Mossbank, clearly indicate the upward trend as well as seasonality. This business was making island tweed for sale in London at 112 Jermyn Street (pictured) and the manufacturing and selling trend was echoed across the isles.


It was during this period that vibrant colour became a feature of the cloth produced by Adies of Voe and L J Smith in Hoswick. Prior to the advent of colourfast artifical dyes the cloths in both collections are not much different to other Scottish tweeds, although they do offer a range of colourings that did not rely solely on dyeing because of the native sheep colours. However, in the middle of the 20th Century, when designers such as Bernat Klein were creating vibrant cloths for the fashion industry, the Adies collection shows a marked increase in the use of bright colour. The L J Smith collection at Hoswick also shows more use of bright colour, although applied in a more naïve way. The image on this page is of a sample "gamp" and shows the brighter colours that were being used. As Shetland Tweed had been well-known for its natural colouring because of the variation in the native sheep and wool, the introduction of dyes allowed for more experimentation at a time when post-War Britain was experiencing high demand for these more vivid hues, particularly from the fashion industry.


Famous fashion houses in the post-War period such as Chanel and Dior often used the fabric in fashionable clothes, creating coats, two-piece suits and skirts from the material for women. Dior’s show was covered by the Kensington Post on Friday 27th June 1958 for the “Exclusively for Women” section, with a photograph showing Miss Marty Jane Batten modelling a skirt and shawl, available in “pure wool Shetland Tweed”. Also in 1958, Chanel and Pierre Cardin used Shetland Tweed in their collections.


The romance with which tweed was imbued was exploited for national and international markets, particularly in London and New York. Shetland wool lent itself to menswear including jackets for the United States market, as can be seen by the advertising for Norman Hilton. “Gentlemen” who wished to appear sophisticated were encouraged to wear tweed overcoats with the vague promise of romance and sophistication.


The rise of the tweed industry was swift. Just as sudden was its decline brought about partly by a decline in the quality of the wool itself.