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Published: 22 May 2021

By Andy Ross

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Shetland Tweed Research

This research was complicated by the pandemic but, as luck would have it, before the lockdowns happened most of the interviews, book and document research, collection research and the making of cloths was complete. 

It was fortunate that we had undertaken some interviews and research before this project started. In 2017 GlobalYell did a scoping exercise, looking at Shetland's Tweed industry, and some in-depth interviews were conducted with retired weavers. I was able to use these interviews in this project for two reasons; the first being that lockdowns stopped visits and access to people in the industry, and the second being an awareness that, in the islands, a small number of people are involved in any industry and these people are constantly asked for opinions, interviews and information. To overcome both the issue of access and oversampling, Glasgow School of Art allowed the use of these previous interviews. 

Along the way I interviewed people who had some sort of connection to tweed, either through family or through being involved in the industry itself. These were fascinating insights into island lives before and just after the oil came to Shetland. One of my interviewees told a story of a scarf made for her by a brother recently returned from the Second World War. The scarf was a treasured possession; a reminder of a sibling who had died very young. A simple and moving testament to the memory that such things hold. 

In the interviews I also spoke to factory owners, the last weaver of traditional Shetland Tweed, a son of a weaver, and others. Each told me a little more about the conditions in which work was undertaken, and each enriched this research. It was a real privilege to have these insights and little by little a picture of weaving tweed in the isles began to form. 

At the same time I was looking at tweeds in collections across the islands. Sometimes these were just a couple of pieces; sometimes much more. I compared patterns, colours and styles, and kept notes that were cross-referenced with the interviews and the documentary research. Once again, luck played a part. In the research I photographed each piece and, when the pandemic closed transport off and stopped visits to archives and collections, I was still able to use the images to build-up a database of cloths. 

Alongside the interviews and collection research I was also doing research in archives across the UK. The British Library was a good start with the 1791 document by John Tulloch about Shetland wool, and the Museum of Rural Life in Reading, England was another, more surprising source. In the collection the Museum holds are some tweed lengths from Adies of Voe, collected as part of a trade mission to Australia and New Zealand post-War. The documents that went with those tweeds were very helpful in helping me to understand the role that the lengths played in the recovery after the War, spreading the word about craft and the importance of hand-made items to the identity of the UK at the time. 

Lastly, all this research was gathered together in a database and analysed. Out of that analysis I was able to draw out useful information about Shetland Tweed, its look, characteristics and history. It was from this distillation that I was able to begin to create the cloths that I felt epitomised the island tweed in this day and age for my company: The Shetland Tweed Company.