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Published: 07 May 2021

By Andy Ross

Shetland Tweed Research - What is Shetland Tweed?

What is Shetland Tweed?

Towards a definition

In February 1944 a pamphlet was produced by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers entitled “What is Tweed?”. Its writer, Edward S. Harrison, Chairman and Managing Director of Johnston’s of Elgin, concluded that a description rather than a definition was the best way to categorise the cloth because of tweeds’ wide variations. His description includes the weight (“medium”), texture (“not very smooth… tending towards Cheviot qualities”) and colour (“tending to broken effects… either by pattern or by blends”) and he was also emphatic about the wool being spun on the “Scotch System”, i.e. woollen, not worsted, spun.


In the 1960s the British Wool Cloth Sample Book was published which linked tweed with informal suits and overcoats, and sports wear. The book states that many grades of wool are used to manufacture tweed, and so the term “refers to the colour and design of the cloth rather than to the material and weight.”


It seems that defining tweed has been causing confusion for nearly two centuries and with those difficulties characterising tweed of the Shetland variety is also elusive. Yet there is an implicit understanding of the constituent and inherent qualities of tweed, including colouring, as is evidenced by Lady Denman during the Second World War. “Lady Denman…was overheard expressing shock that an interviewee…would arrive from London by train in Sussex wearing pink. Lady Denman, sure that pink was a city colour, drove to collect the woman in a cloud of cigarette smoke and concern, only to greet her warmly as she stepped down from the train, saying “What very smart pink tweed”.


Nowadays there are the variety of cloths described as “Shetland Tweed” but not only do these cloths make use of different manufacturing techniques, colours and patterns, they are also made on and off-island. They may use wool from the native sheep, or simply feel like they do. Mentioned as a “Named Variety”, it has been noted that the majority of “Shetlands” (sic) have not been made from pure wool from the islands, although also noting that in 1929 a manufacturer from the Scottish Borders considered a real Shetland Tweed suit “distinctly a luxury”. The seemingly insurmountable issues around the name “Shetland” are legion.


One way to understand what makes a cloth “tweed”, and what makes Shetland Tweed different to others has become clear through this research: a comparison of colour, pattern, handle and intrinsic qualities such as softness, linked to the complex history and economy of the cloth. This comparison and compilation would help to make the argument for the uniqueness of island cloths.