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Published: 27 February 2021

By Andy Ross

Shetland Tweed

The Shetland Tweed research has been ongoing for two years and was completed in February 2021. 

Each week the blog will feature some of the research, entitled "The Aristocrat of Homespuns: Reinvigorating Shetland’s “forgotten” tweed industry?" beginning with my own introduction to the craft of tweed weaving. The first part of the title came from a reference in a book that spoke about the tweeds from the islands as being very important to the textile industries of the UK in the past, while the second relates to that history disappearing, almost without trace, and the desire to bring it back. 

"Shetland lies in the far North of the United Kingdom, mostly Arctic-wards of 60 degrees latitude. The isles are peppered by sheep that graze on the peat moorland and seaweeds, thrown up by frequent winter storms. The Shetland sheep have traditionally been used for meat and for producing the yarns for which Shetland is known. For many centuries, since at least the 18th when islanders were noted, by the Victoria and Albert Museum in an online article as “trading hosiery” (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2020), knitting has been the predominant focus for yarn produced with this wool, however there is another industry that has largely been forgotten. The woven cloth from Shetland comes from an ancient lineage, as carved bone weaving tablets and loom weights found at Jarlshof archaeological dig and dating to at least 200 AD, attest. Possibly as old as the sheep and far older than knitting, weaving’s roots have been lost in contemporary discourse. This research focuses on “Shetland Tweed”, a comparatively recent designation, from the 1840s onwards, in an attempt to support the provision of income and employment, that links the oldest practices in the isles and the fabrics that are being produced in Shetland today.

 

My experience with the tweeds of the isles has been through work on the island of Yell where I established GlobalYell, a charitable company underpinned by education and training aims. In 2005 the original aim of the charity, music appreciation and education, was amended to include textiles. This change came about following a project at the London School of Economics to develop an innovation space for business: BOX.

 

BOX aimed to create a “new type of hybrid academic/commercial space that blurs the boundaries between the classroom, the laboratory, the office, and the club” (Harrison, 2006), and included artworks and cultural artefacts as stimuli for creative discussion. GlobalYell was a partner in this project and worked with the Ann Sutton Foundation to create a sculptural whirlpool, Maelstrom, made from Shetland wool and copper wire.

At the finish of this innovation project GlobalYell was gifted the weave equipment, a textile library and textile collection from the Foundation, which had announced its imminent closure. The equipment included warping frames and wheels as well as looms of varying sizes, most of which are linked to computers and use computer-aided design although the looms are hand- and foot-operated. The collection and library included tweeds with a small collection of the cloths and samples.

 

It is from these small beginnings that my interest in weaving began, and from that an interest in using research to inform cloth designs. Out of that interest has come an awareness of the tweeds from the islands. Finding out what makes Shetland Tweed unique has quickly become a passion, matched with an urgency for action, given the state of the industry. This is the driver for the current research."