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Published: 01 May 2021

By Andy Ross

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Shetland tweed research - context continued

Marketing of Shetland Tweed

The inherent challenge of protecting Shetland as a textile brand has resulted in confusion. There are different uses made of the name, each legitimate, and, with no protection for its use, the islands have been powerless to retain “Shetland” as a label for its own production from its native sheep breed. Nowadays Shetland can mean “made from Shetland wool which comes from Shetland sheep bred on the islands” but it can also mean “made from wool from Shetland-bred sheep, regardless of breed” or “uses wool from the Shetland breed which live elsewhere than in the Shetland Isles”. Even within the industry in Shetland there is confusion. Some local production uses wool from the islands, either from the breed or from sheep reared on the archipelago, while other manufacture trades on the association of the name “Shetland” with the name “wool”.


 The situation is even more muddied when it comes to national and international manufacture. In the UK, a “Shetland Type” yarn is being sold online with no Shetland wool in the product while a woven cloth is labelled as made from “Shetland type wool” despite being woven in Portugal.


It could be argued that this particular problem started once the native sheep were exported from the islands but the issue has been exacerbated in recent decades by globalisation. The availability of less-expensive labour overseas has certainly led to the decline of the Shetland Tweed industry but, along with the lack of protection for the name and the wool, it has been devastating. Once manufacturers and retailers realised the profitability of the Shetland name, it became impossible to keep control of it, as the 1981 court case in the United States has previously described. In China, a 50% merino/ 50% polyester blend is being sold as 100% wool under a label that includes the word “Shetland”. The softness and handle of the cloth, the romantic associations the name provides, and even the perception of Shetland’s inclement island weather lending a degree of hardiness and authenticity to jackets and coats have all been exploited for commercial gain, oftentimes without any thought about the damage such use is doing to the local industry.


With its cultural identity inextricably bound up with adventuring Vikings and remoteness it is not surprising that the marketing of Shetland Tweed has been a combination of mythology and romance, and is actually an artefact of the islands’ own making - Vikings are mentioned in a "Kays of Shetland" advertisement in “Punch” magazine of October 16, 1935. Another advertisement, this time for for New York-based Norman Hilton in 1964 goes further and rather floridly posits “handwoven Shetland” as “probably the most expensive tweed in the world”. Associating this “string of sea-battered islands” with “no trees… stark landscape… barren moors… lonely cliffs and beaches”, the advertisement speaks longingly of “the ruins of time and the elements” and the “rare breed of sheep” being the “source of all Hilton Norman Shetland Tweed”. Furthermore, “the cloth is woven on primitive hand-looms when the Islanders can spare the time from their farms or fishing boats”. This association of romantic ideas and hardship has become wedded to the quality of Shetland Tweed precisely because it is so evocative and picturesque.


This image of history, harsh island conditions and manufacture is not without its challenges. Bernat, an American company, in producing their “Real Shetland” yarn from the “rare sheep” waxes lyrical about the “true Shetland colours… soft as the sky above the Highlands” in an undated advertisement. Once again the colours of Shetland wool are a selling-point, even if, in this case, they are mistakenly linked to the scenic Highlands rather than the islands. The illustration for the advertisement with its strapline “From those misty, far away Isles where the shepherd is king” is of a man with staff, Tam o’shanter cap, and full Highland dress, surrounded by sheep. This does not take account of the fact that Shetland is not in the Highlands of Scotland, and islanders do not generally wear kilts, especially not when “caa’ing” sheep. By creating this picturesque image of a rural idyllic lifestyle allied to Scottish history, the island identity has been conflated with that of the Mainland of Scotland. Romantic, perhaps, but accurate it is not, and in the long run, this type of stereotype has done a disservice to Shetland Tweed. After all, if Harris Tweed and Shetland Tweeds are comparable, at least in the public’s mind, in colouration and patterning, and if Harris Tweed is competitively priced with a protected heritage and name and recognition the world over for specific fashion use in comparison with Shetland, why buy the relatively obscure, fine-textured Shetland with its narrower range of possible uses?