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Published: 10 April 2021

By Andy Ross

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Shetland Tweed research - The Shetland sheep

Shetland wool had been bred to be particularly fine, probably for hand-knitting purposes. As knitting yarns do not need to be under the same amount of tension as weaving yarns do, it was desirable, and possible, to breed for the finer fibres. However Shetland sheep only produce one to three kilogrammes of wool per animal, some of which is lost during processing. When the market for wool fell away in the middle of the century because of the influx of man-made yarns such as rayon, viscose and acetate, crofters started to breed larger lambs by cross-breeding with, for instance, Blackface and Leicester breeds. This introduced coarser fibres such as kemps into the coats of previously-pure Shetland flocks. John Tulloch’s warning from two and a half centuries before was still relevant.

Given that this threat existed to the sheep of the islands in spite of a flock book that had been established with the intention of maintaining the sheep standards, any use that could be made of the wool was necessary. Tweed is often thought-of as a hardwearing cloth, suitable for outerwear and even shoes. Shetland Tweed did not fit into this category. It was not robust enough for heavy use but it had found a ready market in travel and sporting coats, informal jackets and suits. With its drape and its soft handle, and its colouring, Shetland Tweed was considered a luxury cloth but gradually the reputation of the fabric as a soft and desirable product gave way to the notion of Shetland Tweed as “itchy and scratchy”; a direct result of the intermixing of sheep breeds. Folk wisdom has it that a fleece is only as soft as its hardest part; if a thicker and less supple hair is in a fleece it is that one which will be felt, no matter how soft the rest of the fleece. The intermixing of breeds brought the brittle and hard kemps, and thicker fibres into the flocks.

At the same time as this deterioration in quality was continuing, Harris Tweed was rising through the ranks to become the well-known brand that it is today. In 1993 the Harris Tweed Act was enacted by Parliament in London and became enshrined in law. This Act outlined the methods of production of the cloth and required that only tweed made by this certified method could be stamped with the famous “Orb” mark. Harris Tweed is, according to the 1993 Harris Tweed Act, only to be “made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”, mainly with wool from “Blackface, cross bred and Cheviot sheep”. This means the cloth is harder wearing because the fibres in it are coarser and tougher, unlike Shetland Tweed with its softer handle because of the native sheep wool. The Harris Tweed Authority, taking over from The Harris Tweed Association Ltd. that had created the Orb in 1910, came into being in 1993 and continues to protect against copies, copyright and trademark infringement.

 This triple threat to Shetland Tweed - wool quality, artificial fibres and the rise of Harris Tweed with its protection from the Authority - was not the only obstacle facing the Shetland Isles’ cloth. As manufacturing moved away from the UK to other areas of the world, it became less and less desirable and economic to produce on the islands, and, having already lost the breed of sheep to mainland UK and America, Shetland found itself in the position of having its name used on textiles that had nothing to do with the islands. In 1981, a court case in the United States of America took place that pitted an American “importer of 100% Shetland wool full-fashioned ladies’ sweaters from the People’s Republic of China” against the United States Government with regard to quotas. The islands themselves were not mentioned despite the 100% Shetland wool designation of the garments in dispute.

In spite of attempts over the years to create a “Shetland“ brand and trade mark, the islands’ producers have never been able to agree what they were trying to protect and officialdom has not either. In 1952, the Minister of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland, Jo Grimmond, asked for Government support for knitwear and tweed by giving protection to the name “Shetland” and to the manufacturing processes and wool which, it was suggested, should be in and from the isles. The response to the speech was given by The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, Mr. Henry Strauss, who was in favour of protection but not of the name because it was “wholly geographical”. The loss of the name was, and continues to be, devastating to the textile industries of Shetland.

Shetland weaving once again came before the House of Commons, this time in 1956 when Jo Grimmond implored the House to treat the islands of Foula and Fair Isle, and the whole of Shetland and Orkney, as radically different to the rest of the UK. His proposition was that support for “some effort…to be made to organise better the knitting - hand or machine - and perhaps weaving” be forthcoming from the Government. Once again though the response was not encouraging albeit it was sympathetic to the idea of a Trade Mark.

 By the end of the Century, there was only one tweed mill remaining in Shetland of the eleven or so enterprises from the previous seventy or so years that had been in existence.