» Skip to content

Published: 07 December 2019

By Andy Ross

A tweedy family

Each week a little more of the story of Shetland tweed is uncovered in the research project.

Shetland tweed used to be famous. It was one of the luxury fabrics of Europe, and was exported to Italy, Germany, Belgium, all across the UK, and even to the USA! Yet this material has been in decline for decades. GlobalYell's studio, which opened in 2005, has been learning, and passing on that learning, so that the iconic name of Shetland tweed does not disappear completely.

In January this year I started a research Masters with Glasgow School of Art. The Masters degree is about the history and heritage of Shetland tweed, and I have been researching in the local archives as well as in national libraries such as the British Library and museums including the Museum for English Rural Life in Reading. It is gratifying, not to mention interesting and engrossing, to find out how widely known and highly regarded Shetland tweed once was.  

Now that there is a clear body of evidence for the fabric's history, it is time to move on and discover more about the people who were making tweed in the islands. We had previously conducted interviews with people who remember the tweed industry, which had its heyday in the 1950's, and I have done more interviews this year. I have spoken with people who have had deeply personal connections with the industry and some of those stories will be related once the project is completed at the end of 2020, but there are always more stories to tell. 

On Thursday this week I spent the day in the Shetland Archives, looking at the records to find out what people identified themselves as in their occupations. Unfortunately records only go up to 1911 after which the statistics become much more fragmentary and elusive, but it seems like the late nineteeth century was when tweeds began to be made in Shetland. 

Many of the records I have looked at identify people as "Worsted Weavers". If you know anything about spinning wool you will know that there is a difference between "worsted" and "woollen" spun yarns. Woollen spun leaves some of the fibres bent over in the initial preparation of wool for spinning while worsted has all of the fibres aligned. When it comes to actually spinning the yarns, woollen spinning results in a yarn which traps air for warmth and is fluffier when it is washed. Worsted yarns are flatter, smoother and, at least in Shetland wool, shinier. One crucial element of tweed manufacture is that Scottish tweeds are made from woollen spun yarns, not worsted, and as tweed, it is claimed, resulted from the industrialisation of already existing practices, this is somewhat problematic for Shetland!

However, all is not lost. Towards the end of the 19th Century the Shetland records show that some people were beginning to identify as "weavers of tweed". I think this probably relates to the industry moving into large-scale tweed production, driven by demand for the fabric from across the UK, Europe and America. Shetland moved along with the tide and the modern tweed industry was born. 

Where this left the worsted/ woollen argument needs more research. As Shetland was known as a soft, sleek and slightly shiny fabric perhaps this hints at it being worsted spun yarns that were used, in which case Shetland tweed becomes different to other Scottish tweeds. 

On a different tack, this week I uncovered something else of interest to Shetland weaving; a family of weavers from the North Isles which included women, and weavers in the North who were weaving shawls! As received wisdom is that women did not weave, such discoveries are rewriting our textiles heritage in the Far North. What a rich and fascinating history.