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Published: 24 April 2021

By Andy Ross

Shetland tweed research - putting the research into context

In this next chapter of the Master of Research project, the tweed industry in the isles is placed into context. 

Through this part of the research various themes emerged through analysis, each of which has been significant enough to merit further study because of its bearing on the making of cloth in the isles. These themes are:

Design, Economy, Personal attachments, Yarn, Qualities, History, Business and employment, Sheep and wool, and Reminiscence with the addition of Tweed as a catch-all term for aspects that did not fit into any of the other themes.

Some of these – yarn, sheep and wool and qualities – relate to the handle and look of the cloth, including colour. Others – design, economy, business and employment – speak to the importance of the industry in the islands. Personal attachment, history and reminiscence are linked to the nostalgia that the tweed industry evoked in writers and recorders of heritage. These themes informed the fieldwork choices, analysis and discussion elements of this research. 

In looking at the context of Shetland Tweed at the start of the project  it has been necessary to understand how other small-scale producers of Scottish goods operate. Shetland Tweed, with its small-scale production and its emphasis on manual labour and handmade provencance, can be compared to Scottish spirit production, such as whisky, from craft distillers, such as Edradour in Perthshire. This link has not gone unnoticed by the Isle of Harris Distillery, which has joined forces with Harris Tweed to create unique clothing, only available made-to-order. The collaboration serves both to reinforce the handmade aspects of the distillery’s products by linking them with handmade tweed, and to show the unique credentials of this production from the Island of Harris. The company also sends a strong social message in its education programmes and provides employment in a fragile area of Scotland. 

Small-scale producers in Shetland’s textile industry have been useful comparators in this research, particularly in Fair Isle knitwear. On the island of Fair Isle, producers of this highly-patterned knitwear, such as Exclusively Fair Isle and Marie Bruhat make by hand. The latter combines knitwear crafting with holidays on the islands so that visitors can see the products being made and can become part of the experience of its making. On the Mainland of Shetland small-scale producers use facilities at the Shetland College Textile Facilitation Unit to knit their products, or produce, like Ninian, in-store. Fair Isle knitwear has retained its island name and associations although it is made worldwide. In addition, Fair Isle made on the island may use  a “Star Motif” to indicate its origins and place of manufacture.

Accessories from Scotland provided a useful context for studying Shetland Tweed from the point of view of small producers hand-making their products far from urban centres and selling to a worldwide market. Brooches and pins made with feathers by Wendy Goode are marketed as ideal for those who value country pursuits. This marketing is very much like that of tweed, which also looks to the romance of the rural for its markets.  Ola Gorie in Orkney has been creating jewellery since 1960 in the islands, reinventing a forgotten craft. As Shetland Tweed has also been largely “forgotten”, albeit relatively recently, the jewellery business has been useful to the research, particularly in view of its success and longevity.

This overview of these companies has provided another layer of understanding from which to approach the contemporary version of Shetland Tweed. It has also offered a different viewpoint on the historic and heritage aspects of the research and its analysis.