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Published: 01 February 2020

By Andy Ross

Shetland tweed update

The second (and final) year of tweed research has just kicked off.

The Masters degree is now more urgent than ever before. There is only one weaver making traditional tweeds in the islands, a far cry from the hundred or so that were weaving just over a century ago. My own studio, The Shetland Tweed Company, makes tweed but they are based on the traditions and do not attempt to replicate the lovely fabrics of yesteryear. Traditional Shetland tweed can still be purchased from manufacturers outside Shetland and that is part of the reason for the decline in local fabrics. A long time ago the native sheep were taken to other parts of the UK and also sent overseas to places like the USA. So those places can legitimately make Shetland tweed because the wool comes from Shetland sheep.

Since that unfortunate oversight, which was caused by a myriad of reasons - lack of recognition of the fleece qualities, the understanding that spinning and knitting were "women's work", and the chance to make some money at a time when the islands were not wealthy, all of which led to lack of protection for the sheep - the island tweed has gone through a number of changes. 

One of those was the decline in the quality of tweed; its handle and drape. You may have heard that Shetland wool is "itchy" and "scratchy". These qualities can be traced back to the loss of the name. Now, however, attempts to bring back the softness are bearing fruit, as we can attest with the latest cloths that are coming back from the finishers for The Shetland Tweed Company. Long may that trend continue. 

The tweed research is fascinating. This week all the data, references and information went onto a very big piece of paper and it was astonishing to see how much there actually is in the documents. Now the hard work of putting it all into a paper starts. I hope that this will encourage people to value the island tweeds more. We do not want to lose this industry, an industry which grew out of the millennia of weaving, first for necessity and then for extra income. Without tweed on the islands the textile history and heritage of Shetland will be much the poorer.

Over the next two years I intend to exhibit at trade shows in the UK and am researching a trip to the USA to speak about Shetland tweed. Ideas as to how to promote and support this important part of Shetland's textile identity will be gratefully received.