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Published: 16 March 2019

By Andy Ross

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Tweed research update

We have a fantastic archive of textiles in the Shetland Museum and Archive Store and there is a comprehensive tweed collection which is proving to be Very Useful.

The Archive Store is out of Lerwick and an appointment is necessary if anyone wants to visit. This week I was lucky enough to be able to spend a whole afternoon with Carol Christiansen at the Store, looking at woven textiles from Shetland. The breadth of collection is huge, reliably dating from the 11th Century, although there may be some pieces even older. As usual though, the amount of material is far too large for one person to catalogue and work with it and so the tweed collection is waiting to be worked on in a few years' time. 

In the tweed research project, part of a Masters Degree with Glasgow School of Art that I started in January this year, one of the consistent findings from all the reading and conversations is the idea that Shetland wool is soft, drapeable, luxurious and silky. Certainly the wool that comes from the isles nowadays is all those things but there is a piece in the collection which has blown all my preconceptions out of the water. A woman's checked suit in black, white and fawn (pictured). Dating, we think, from the 1920's or 30's, this piece has recently entered the collection in Shetland, and comes from a local family. Although it is impossible to be completely certain that the wool used in the suit is Shetland, (after all, wool is wool is wool in technical analysis terms), what is absolutely crystal clear is the handle and the softness of the cloth. Very different to anything I have felt before, this wool is silky with a soapy feel to it. The shine of the cloth could truly be described as "silky" and the soft feel is apparent as soon as it is compared to any other tweed in the collection. 

Shetland, it is said, has a tendency to "bag", to lose its structure more easily than other wools. Now I can understand why people have said this. Such a fine cloth would indeed tend to bag. In this case, the skirt of the suit has also rubbed and the fluffiness has increased where the fibres have been brushed by contact with other surfaces. 

Handling pieces like this, or any of the other more run-of-the-mill tweeds in the collection, or looking at gloves from centuries ago which have lain in peat, gives a very different experience to research. No matter how much reading one does, actually seeing and touching pieces means more than a thousand words. Having handled this suit I can honestly say that real Shetland is a truly luxurious fibre, worthy of its historical fame, and that Shetland tweed IS different to other tweeds precisely because of this luxurious quality. Here is the crux of the argument that my degree is attempting to make. Long live research!