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Published: 15 May 2021

By Andy Ross

Shetland Tweed Research - What is Shetland Tweed? continued

Each week an extract from the Shetland Tweed research is summarised on the blog. This week the exploration of what makes a tweed "Shetland" continues. 

Shetland Tweed is made from wool but, unlike other tweeds, wool that is not similar to Cheviot in its qualities. Cheviot is harder wearing simply because it is a coarser fibre, and it has kemps in it which make it prickly and hard to wear next to the skin. Although some Shetland has similar kemps, it is by no means a characteristic.

 Shetland Tweed mainly uses structures and patterns that generally are some variation on a twill, one factor in common with other tweeds, and it can be found in many colours and hues. Crucially, however, it is understood that most tweeds feature two or more colours, the interplay of which is fundamental to their being defined as “tweed”. The majority of Shetland cloths and samples looked at during the research have this as a feature. They also seem more colourful than other tweeds. This may be because of the small-scale of the isles’ industry. One mill using bright colours in its Shetland Tweed production would have been, as a percentage of the whole industrial output of the islands, significant. It would be an interesting and useful project to ascertain the true extent of this difference in colouration, once the restricted access to collections and archives is lifted.

 It has also been noted during this research that Shetland Tweed makes use of small motifs in the patterning. While this may seem to be a defining characteristic it is most likely due to fashion and style and not to any island-specific tendency towards the diminutive. This is an open question though and requires future research.

Given the softness of the tweeds produced from Shetland wool, it is perhaps not surprising that the cloths are not particularly suited for formal wear. The cloth tends to sag in use, and does not retain its shape as well as other, more robust fabrics. In this, Shetland differs from other tweeds, which are used in formal wear.

The idea that Shetland Tweed is different from other tweeds is a little more complex than simply colouration and formality. It is also in the yarns themselves. The yarns used traditionally in the manufacture of early tweeds were homespun: threads spun by hand on the croft. Sometimes these fabrics were known as “homespuns”, the label beginning as a descriptor of cloth made from yarns created in the home by hand and extended to apply to coarse, or coarse-looking tweeds made in mills by mechanized methods.

The Shetland Tweeds were also differentiated from others by their soft handle, the way they feel to the touch. While softness may be a comparative term, Shetland as a natural fibre is softer with more crimp than other UK sheep breeds produce. It is this characteristic softness upon which the reputation of Shetland wool is built, and it is this that epitomises Shetland Tweed, making it truly an aristocrat of homespuns.