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Published: 30 March 2019

By Andy Ross

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Tweed research update

Over the next two years I am doing a Masters Degree at Glasgow School of Art, looking at the history, practice and future of Shetland's tweeds. The research took a turn this week...

Shetland is known for its knitting but we used to be celebrated for our weaving, and particularly our tweeds. As you will know, the research I have been doing has been uncovering a lot of useful information and nuggets which have led to some unexpected finds and discoveries. This week it has been the sheep of the isles which have been the focus of attention. 

Islands are wonderfully strange places to live. Things happen spontaneously and chance events often lead to unexpected consequences, mainly because there are few people and we all know someone who knows someone. When there was a plumbing problem at home we had to call a friend in to help us with it. Problem fixed, we sat down in the kitchen and had a coffee and chatted. The conversation turned to, as it often does when people who are interested in the crofting life, sheep, and a chance comment by our friend, who has Shetland sheep, piqued the interest.

We are used to calling the sheep on the hills, the smaller ones which run wild across the moorlands, "Shetland". Lots of them are mixed-breed now because the market for wool was so low for such a long time but there has also been a desire to preserve the breed. At the start of this research project, I read an abstract which called for the preservation of the breed and that was written in 1791! During the conversation our crofting pal said something about Shetland sheep AND katmogget. Now, anyone who knows anything about Shetland sheep will know that they are coloured and that the colours and patterns are named, one of which is katmogget. I have, though, never heard katmogget mentioned as a separate breed to Shetland! 

Further digging has revealed that the katmogget colouring/ patterning may actually be a direct descendent of the original Scandinavian breed which came across to Shetland with the Viking settlers. It is only a possibility but a pleasing one to contemplate. If we can ascertain that this is true and if we can find some of those sheep fleeces, we may be able to compare what kind of tweed their wool produces as compared to the Shetland. These ancient sheep may be the key to what makes Shetland wool so soft and supple. 

Of course, this is highly subjective at the moment! There is lots more research to do and conversations to have, but each week that goes past, a little bit more of the puzzle emerges. Gradually the picture of the tweed industry in the isles is growing clearer and each time another element comes to light and the project moves ahead, a new pathway of enquiry opens up. Of course, this leads to some sleepless nights as thoughts intrude but sleeplessness is a small price to pay when there is so much excitement in discovery!