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Published: 02 November 2019

By Andy Ross

The arrival of tweed in the islands

The research on Shetland tweed continues to surprise and delight...

As part of a Masters Degree at Glasgow School of Art, a two year part-time research project, I am looking at the history and heritage of the isles with regards to tweed. Shetland is well-known for its knitting but not for its tweed, and weaving predates knitting by a considerable length of time. I want to understand why this is, and what can we do to raise awareness of the public to the plight of traditional tweed from Shetland, now in its final days. 

Yesterday I went to the Shetland Museum and Archives, which is always a great place to sit and work through ideas while reading fascinating documents. I intended to make a start on the research after the busy summer when there has been no time at all to do such work. Now that the days are shorter, the nights are extending, and work needs to be done indoors because the weather is turning, it is time to pick up where I left off in the Spring. 

I read a small book of poems, written by a weaver from Scalloway - Mr Hunter. While a little sentimental, there are some lovely verses which are crying out to be read by more people. It was obviously with a sense of pride mingled with nostaliga and regret that these verses were penned. Mr Hunter was writing in the 1936 or thereabouts, and he must have forseen the decline of the industry because of the way he writes about it. 

I also made a good discovery. At least, good for us at The Shetland Tweed Company. Ever since we started weaving at the Company, I have maintained that we use two ply yarns because a greater range of colours is available in the dyed threads than in the single ply yarns that are specifically made for weaving. Now I have documentary proof that two ply yarns were also used, as well as the singles, and that Shetland tweed is known for its colour, amongst other qualities. Excellent!

Lastly, I have also started to trace the move of weaving from home looms to factories, and from hand looms to pedalled and then power looms. A fascinating set of findings which brings the arrival of tweed in the islands ever closer. These findings will be Very Useful in informing the research and the final publication.