Shetland tour with focus on indigenous sheep and wool

Report Shetland 2013

VikingGold Research trip

The aim of the trip was to study how indigenous wool and local traditions are used today, and how this is the base for business-models and tourism. How is the use of raw-materials – and how are local crafts part of daily life, established and emerging businesses – and how are these presented to tourists and other visitors?  The trip’s participants visited some key sites for wool / knitting. The journey also gave room for discussions on further developing projects with wool, both the use and direction of local products and new opportunities.

On the trip: Ingun G. Klepp, Tone S. Tobiasson, Lise Skov, Joanne Turney, Kate Fletcher, Helle Frogner, Oda Klempe, Dagfinn Skoglund, Ulla Ræbild, Ingvild Espelien and Karin Flatøy Svarstad (tour organizer).  A good mix as there were researchers, designers and a spinner on the tour.

This report mainly reflects what we were told and observed, along with some additional material that was made available. In addition we made observations how people used Fair Isle knit in everyday clothing out and about. We have not included this in the report. A full report on the discussions is also not included.


Doreen Brown

Our first stop was a local set-up for selling Fair Isle sweaters and some of the very fine lace-knitting that was a big luxury export in the past. Her “hand-knitters” (those using knitting machines for the sweaters, mittens, hats, etc) and those who cob-web lace-knit by hand were a disappearing “breed” as the economic situation in Shetland was rapidly changing because of the oil and gas fields, which was affecting both the tourist-trade and the local wages.

We saw examples of several traditional patterns, both with colorful patterns and in natural hues. Doreen told us that the natural pigmented wool – if grey – did not fade, but the browns do. The Shetland wool is exceptionally soft, as the breed – which is a short-tailed relative of the old Norse wild sheep which was mixed with the breed that was already in Shetland before the Vikings arrive, the Soay. But they had bred them so that only the soft bottom-wool remained and the coarser cover-wool has been bred “out” of the fleece to a certain extent. This makes for wool that the Shetlanders compare to merino as they claim it is the finest, lightest and warmest wool in the world, jokingly saying that merino is a Shetland wool imitation. The wool also has more shine than merino. However the crimp and the durability of the fiber is not as good as the Norwegian knitting-wool, and the sweaters do not last forever, Doreen told us.

Several local patterns were named names like “Sanqua” (a Scottish pattern for mittens), “negirow” and “Norwegian star”. Heather colors are very common, as the local light and nature is a big inspiration. Doreen’s main outlet, beside tourists who come to the store, is the internet. She cannot supply wholesale, because of lack of hand-knitters, and is struggling to keep up as it is.

The whole idea behind the Shetland ponies dressed in sweaters was Visit Scotland’s idea; and the campaign has been hugely successful and created a lot of buzz.

There is still hand-spinning on Shetland, and Doreen told us she learned to knit as a very young girl in The Orkney Islands – where each family had their own pattern in order to identify the dead. When she was a young girl she knitted in exchange for food. Until the 1930’s all wool was naturally pigmented and un-dyed.

Karin explained to us about an EU incentive to slaughter the old breeds, because of a potential danger of Scrapie – so that for the first time there was not enough of some shades of pigmented wool available. These breeds are outdoors all year around and can stomach a diet of heather, which the imported breeds cannot. The imported breeds are mainly meat-sheep

Niela Nell Kalra in her atelier Nielanell in Hoswick

Spins and dyes the wool, does not knit, but has the cut and sew/design. The Shetland clip is generally below 20 my, around 18 and may be a little too weak for industrial machines. The fabrics are knit at the Shetland College on their Shima Seiki machines. Been thinking about export and expanding. Here we saw the Shetland spinning wheel, which is markedly smaller than a typical Norwegian spinning-wheel.

Croft visit to Mary and Tommy Isbister/Burland

In the 1800s there were competitions on spinning the finest yarns where Mary’s grandmother had competed with her yarns for the cob-web lace-knitting (the shawls were supposed to pass through a wedding-band). They keep Foula sheep from the island of Foula, chosen when there was a lot of Scrapie in Shetland and because this breed did not have the sickness. Almost all the Foula sheep are colored. The breed is more primitive so the wool quality varies a lot. They have more guard hairs, which keeps the rain off. Many have a hairy ridge over the back – a skadder – which is one of the older traits of the breed. Foula are considered the most original of the Shetland breeds.

Mary sheers the sheep herself, and this is done when the fleece “lifts” (is close to falling off), and this is her “yoga” as she does a few at a time. Quality time with the sheep… the flock is also determined from how many sheep the land they own can actually support. The sheering scissors is somewhat smaller than the comparable Norwegian one. They felt their husbandry was more or less organic as the sheep graze outdoors and are not dipped; but the cost of being certified was prohibitive.  The demonstration of the herding by the two farm dogs was quite impressive.

Karin expanded on the indigenous breed’s wool breeding, as the coarser cover-wool was represented in a very strong gene and therefore “broke through” – generally more so on the pigmented sheep than on the white. There was a theory that the pigmented sheep were “more original” or “wilder”; and that was why this happened.

Burra Bears/Wendy Inkster

The company was 15 years old and had started out because the owner had been working with pillow covers, but thought teddy bears could perhaps work better. She started out with old jumpers, but soon needed to find more raw-material. Next step was using excess from factories (like Jamieson). Also uses virgin knit material from the college. By putting the material in the washing machine, it felts slightly and doesn’t fray or stretch. A lot of her current customers send her or come with old sweaters or shawls they no longer use (also the cob-web lace knit) that they want her to transform to a bear – to keep the item alive in another way. Sometimes it pains her to cut up the fantastic products, but she respects the customers’ wishes. After all, they would never wear it again. All scraps get cut up and end up as stuffing. Jamieson’s excesses also end up as stuffing. And of course they do tweed bears, and their entire value-chain is within a 30 mile radius. On average, they produce 15 bears a week, many made to order. (When we visited stores and outlets we found a few bears for sale.) Each bear is named and in an envelope on their back the new owner is asked to send emails to update Burra Bears about their new home. “Just this morning we had two emails!”

Jamieson Spinning Mill LTD

The only remaining fully integrated spinner/weaver/knitter. Weaving was a recent addition, but as tweed had been a big local industry, this was to pick up this dying industry. The mill is a family run business and the father decided to try out weaving and it had proved to be economically viable even if the output is only about 10 meters pr hour. They also had some challenges that the very soft Shetland wool did not always withstand the harsh machine-weaving. They generally (for woven fabrics) work with classic herring bone and “simple” patterns. Their market is more and more geared towards Japan. Italy used to be their main market. Jacketing and women’s wear is main up-take for tweeds/woven.  

Jamieson uses 40 tons of wool pr year. They buy 30-40% of the Shetland clip. All in all he estimates around 30-40.000 Shetland sheep. They hand-grade everything. If the wool is too coarse, they return it. In Shetland the farmers are a little happy-go-lucky with their fleeces, so they do not separate them by eg paper as in Norway.

About 2-3 years ago they doubled the price for wool, hoping that the farmers would take better care of their wool.

In the “wolf” they shake out all the shit so that when they add water the “shit” does not become mud, because then it becomes more or less impossible to get out. They do not resell the lanolin. The main reason is that it is too costly to cool down the machines to separate the fat – and it doesn’t pay enough with the whole cleaning process that needs to be integrated. They add vinegar/citric acid to make the wool so that it keeps. What they don’t use themselves, they send to Curtis Wool Direct.

They see that in the current trend for cross-breeding, to enhance meat, the wool is the first to go.  They pay the farmers after the fleeces have been graded. They prefer to dye pigmented wool black and brown, starting with white fleeces was not something they would go for. It made little sense for the environment. When it came to their own processes they had a rather “hap-hazard” view. “These chemicals are probably terrible.”

They could not sell the hand knitting-yarn with out putting it through the balling machine, because of EU regulations about labelling, and using a screwdriver to twist the skeins – which had been the old method, was too labor-intensive. (We later learned this is the part that “holds up” the production at Hillesvåg, who do skeins and not yarn balls.) They weight the finished wool and the scale is so fine they can tell the thickness of the yarn down to 0,1 gram.

Shetland College/Textile department: Angela Hunt

Until two years ago all Shetland school children were taught knitting in school at age 5.

The ties to local industry and the museum are very strong for the school, for the latter they make souvenirs. There is lace-knitting, Fair Isle knitting, felting and weaving. They do not make clothes from the woven fabric, only with the Shima Seiki knitting machines. 6-8 fulltime students and 4 part-time. They feel a very strong link to the Nordic region and would like to work closer.

The students are able to use the facilities for half price for a year in order for them to be able to establish themselves. The young tend to leave for the bigger cities, while older students start up small businesses. It struck us that the projects emerging from here were not really very advanced and needed a lot more work to tempt an international audience who are not purely looking for tradition (both wovens and knits); one exception was a scarf-designer (Joan Fraser), but her chosen material was merino and not local wool. Also saw products that had a nice twist of old designs. Rather costly products too, which is not the case with a lot of the traditional things that are probably too cheap. Lace-knitters are very hard to recruit, so the art is partly dying out.

They tend to avoid doing organic production, as the machines have to be cleaned thoroughly and they cannot use oil as lubricant.¨ Only 5-6 farmers are organic in Shetland.

We were also explained how the industrialization had forced farmers off the land, as the lairds would rather have the sheep crazing than the farmers farming the land. Amy also told us that because of the lairds owning the labor of their surfs, women’s knitting was a very important income. The lace-knitting was a luxury export and gave the women economic freedom. The oil business is changing the economic power-structure as women no longer have their own earnings.

Oliver Henry/Shetland Wool Brokers

From their web-site:

“Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers Ltd. purchase Shetland wool from over 700 of Shetland's crofters and farmers, and transform it into high-quality Shetland wool products including yarns, knitwear, blankets and carpets. A 2009 trading standards investigation revealed that we purchase over 80% of the wool produced in Shetland.Shetland wool is an incredibly natural and sustainable fiber, and is world renowned for its fineness and warmth. The sheep graze on the islands' hills and beaches eating wild heather and seaweed. This diet, along with the not-so-great weather, makes Shetland wool soft, strong and warm. Shetland Wool is also very diverse: it's perfect for hand-knitting both Shetland Lace and Fair Isle, as well as for knitwear manufacture and weaving. We hand sort and grade our wool and, to make sure that we do not waste anything, the coarser parts of the fleece are used in carpets and mats.”

Also from the web-site:

“The number of sheep in all the Shetland Islands, is calculated to be between 70,000 and 80,000, though this is considerably above the real number at present (Present day values are approximately 150,000 breeding ewes).” Shetland has 22,000 inhabitants.

Jamieson & Smith have been around since the 1930s, when it was founded by the Smith family of Berry Farm in Scalloway, on the east coast of Shetland. In the 60s, we re-located to our current premises overlooking the harbour in Lerwick. Our little cluster of buildings on the North Road includes our wool sheds, a renovated church - which is now our yarn store, and a 1920s police station (complete with two cells) - which serves as our carpet store and showroom.

When Jim and Eva Smith retired, it was sold to Curtis Wool Direct. According to Curtis, they were supposed to say their wool is 28,4 my on average, but Oliver insisted the neck and shoulder were as fine as 14 my. In the book “Shetland Textiles” the my-range is said to be from 15 to 30. “Merino is imitation Shetland…” The handle is exceptional, it has more luster and the wool is full of life and bounce. Some of the Shetland sheep have coarser “guard” hair (more like the Villsau) and some have only the softer fleece and a well-defined crimp.

The wool is graded into five grades and where superfine is the best, the others are numbered from 1-4. Each fleece is hand-sorted and will be divided into different grades, (to separate out the finest part) as opposed to the Norwegian system of classifying where the whole fleece goes into one “class”. Oliver complained of bad animal husbandry and fleeces that were full of debris.

Oliver claimed that the Vikings had taken the finest sheep and the finest women with them back to Norway… Oliver is from the island of Burra and started working for Jamieson & Smith when he finished Agricultural School.  At this time crofters shipped their wool to several different mills, some in the north of Scotland (like Pringles).

In 2005 the local wool market was quite depressed with little demand for Shetland wool, so Curtis bought most of the clip and changed the pricing. “He is a hard businessman and knows marketing.” He made the Shetland wool label and branded the wool with the three rams.  The prices range from £2.20 to £1.30 pr pound, but should be even more.  They also sort on colors, and the Shetland sheep have a great variety of colors. Jakob Jakobsen is cited in the Shetland Textiles book as having collected 57 words in the Norn language specific to patterns or colors in sheep, although he laments that “the old names of the chief colours are lost”.

They generally sort 250 kilos in 3-4 hours.

Traditionally the sheep molted once a year, and they were plucked rather than sheered. As the wool becomes finer and finer as the food gets scarcer, the fleece naturally molts in the spring and the whole fleece “lifts” off more or less in one piece when sheered. This is due to thinning of the fibers in the spring, as food is very scarce. The “new” fibers that appear in late spring are coarse, as the animals are grazing on new grass. As winter rolls around the fibers get thinner as the nutritional value sinks in the plants the sheep graze on, with the low point right before the fleece is ready to molt. “Hetrotype” fibers (they are not called dual-coated in Shetland) can vary from 100 my during summer growth to 25 my or lower during winter.

The original Shetland sheep did not have wool with long staple (Soay Sheep) only 4 – 7 cm, but the Villsau the Norwegians brought had a staple of 14-35 cm. The current Shetland breed has a staple of 6-20 cm (easier to handle for the industry). Shetland differs from eg Iceland and Greenland which were not settled prior to the Norse arrival, where the local hardy breed had already established itself and could survive on the scattald (common area used for grazing and digging turf) with little intervention from humans.

Oliver was not aware that Curtis Wool Direct had been sold to Nortura, as he referred to Martin Curtis as his current boss. In spite of his respect for his “boss” he was also proud of having withstood one of Curtis’ business propositions: A wool coffin.

Olivier explained how they have lost a lot of shades, but use all the grades – and the Shetland carpets were the start of the positive trend for getting a better price for Shetland wool – also the lower grades. Perhaps interesting to know how that has affected the Curtis view of Norwegian wool as carpet-wool and the whole Viking Wool labelling. Shetland wool’s label is the Crafters’ wool. But in the book Shetland Textiles, there are many labels presented, also one with a Viking ship, interestingly enough.

Shetland museum

The museum had opened up in 2007 and was modern with interactive exhibits and a nice café overlooking the water. Our guide, Kathy Hallet, spoke Norwegian and demonstrated to us how similar the languages actually are by reciting a poem. The close ties between Norway (as Bergen is the closest city) were in a way severed, when in 1469 Christian I gave Shetland (which was called Hjaltland under the Norwegian reign) to the King Jakob III of Scotland as part of the dowry when Queen Margrethe was married. But because of the Shetland “buses” and World War 2 the link is still strong.

Stockings and mittens were a big trade for Shetland as early as 1580’s, and in the book they are presented as knitted items, not woven. This means that knitting was widespread earlier in Shetland than in Norway. It was mainly the Dutch fishers who came to Shetland each year in droves (as many as over 2000 vessels in a season), who bought these items – or rather traded them for other goods. This became such an important trade for Shetland that if the fishing-fleet for some reason did not arrive (political or weather reasons) it was a major crisis for the local community. The amounts exported are not easy to assess, but according to one record a merchant has sent 10,000 pairs of socks (registered in 1780). As the trade with the Dutch waned, the truck system took over as local merchants took over the trade. Both coarse and fine knit is part of the heritage.

The fine lace knitting developed as a trade later, and it blossomed specifically after Queen Victoria received a pair of stockings. The wool that this very unique craft is based on, is sorted from the neck-region of the fleece. The preparation the lace items is also a very time- and labor-consuming process, which involves not only the sorting and spinning of the very fine one-ply yarn, and a knitting technique that uses the knitting-belt and very fine needles; it also involves a process of bleaching which involves brimstone, a closed barrel and smoke, and afterwards the item was “dressed” which is a stretching process which could result in breakage and thus a need for repairing. The result commanded high prices, as the finesse for shawls and under-wear, along with Christening gowns and other items was superb. There has recently been a revival in this craft, as yarns have been developed by Jamieson that match the finesse of the yarns that were originally used.  The island of Unst was widely known for delivering the best lace knitting.

When it comes to their Fair Isle knit tradition (which is a generic term for two-colored knitting), the oldest item in the museum’s collection is from 1860, but the tradition is mentioned in a written record in 1832. The back-ground for the colorful patterns, originally in yellow, red, blue and natural off-white and darker shades from the sheep – is not known, but local lore traces the pattern influence to a Spanish Armada ship-wreck of El Gran Griffin on the Fair Isle where 300 soldiers and sailors were stranded in 1588. This demonstrates in a way how Shetland was very much in the “path” of trade and other ships, and therefore early on received influences from far-away places, so that for example indigo was available as dye-stuff. While the patterns from other parts of the North Sea were family-related in order to identify the fisherman if they died and washed ashore, the Fair Isle patterns have no symbolism tied to them. The fact that the patterns trapped air was one reason for the basis for the popularity of the gloves, mittens and hats. The latter were also folded in a double layer at the bottom, which gave double insulation.

Wikipedia: Fair Isle is a traditional knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colors. It is named after Fair Isle, a tiny island in the north of Scotland, that forms part of the Shetland islands. Fair Isle knitting gained a considerable popularity when the Prince of Wales wore Fair Isle sweaters and vests in public in 1921. Traditional Fair Isle patterns have a limited palette of five or so colors, use only two colors per row, are worked in the round, and limit the length of a run of any particular color.

Interestingly mostly men wore the bright colors, women wore more muted and the yoke-patterned sweaters. But already in 1867 the Handbook to the Zetland Islands indicated the popularity of the knitwear from the Fair Isle and this marks the moment when “Fair Isle” became a brand in its own right, according to Shetland Textiles. This predating “Norwegian Sweaters” by quite a few years.

Every girl had her “pattern book” where she copied her mother and grandmother’s patterns and developed her own. One used to be able to tell where the patterns came from, but this is no longer the case, as the inspiration is more generic.

Weaving also has deep traditions in Shetland, and the Opstad loom in Shetland is called Steiny Loom and it is usual to find a lot of stones with holes in them on local beaches.

Wadmal has been a principal way of paying taxes and was the basis for local currency. The main producers of Shetland wadmal were women, using warp-weighted looms – house-wives and servants made a vital contribution towards fulfilling the household’s and communities’ fiscal obligations. The women walked the cloth in the sea. Many places along the coast are called Tuvvakuddis, which means “basins for fulling”, derived from Old Norse. Shetland vadmal did not have a reputation for high quality… even though they created miles of it, according to Shetland Textiles. Much was exported to Norway. But once they started buying coarse materials from Holland the export stopped up, the Norwegians had been complaining about the deteriorating quality of the Shetland wadmal.

Shetland tweed has its own history which is described in detail in Shetland Textiles, and to summarize a rather long and complicated story in comparison with Harris Tweed; the industry in Shetland today is very limited – though they hope for a revival. While Harris Tweed has developed a strict code for the actual weaving of the cloth (not for the wool), Shetland struggled for many years with a label that could both cover the origin of the wool and the actual local value-chain for production. As there was no local Shetland mill for spinning (originally the tweed was hand-spun and hand-woven and of exceptional softness), this complicated the whole structure of developing a “local” label. As one also mixed in certain cross-bred wool, and it was considered “a trade secret” how much actual Shetland wool was used. (Interesting to hear Amy Lightfoot say a few weeks later: Jamieson (the mill) import merino and blend in – everyone sees the trucks come in, but it is not official and the finished products are sold as Shetland wool.) Early on when the woven industry was being built up, concerned voices addressed that the local raw materials might not be sufficient for both knit AND weaving as viable industries. The tweed materials were sought after in the American market and just as one finally had a label in place, the US protected their own local wool industry which severely hurt Shetland import. Today only one tweed facility remains operative.

The variation in natural colorings in the Shetland wool, along with the softness, sheen and lightness, makes it different from Harris Tweed. Once the local industry went from mainly woven (when part of the tax paying system to the lairds as wadmal until the early 18th century) to mainly knit, the demand for softer wool changed the breeding regime. For woven fabrics they need a strong/coarser warp thread, for knitting they wanted something softer. The change happened from the 16th century onwards.

The Truck system was mainly a barter system where the merchants (first German, later local) who in the beginning offered cash in advance for fish quotas, but who later became the major outlet for local knitters to sell on their products but the merchants ensured that they bought rather “frivolous” clothes and unhealthy food rather than paying cash. There are many stories of how families almost starved, but the knitters themselves were extremely well-dressed. The whole system was challenged on several occasions, backed also by the knitters partially (who felt in debt to the merchants and were afraid to rock the boat), but it was World War 2 that broke the system finally, as servicemen bought directly and paid cash.

Our last visit was to a local knitting-producer who also sold wares for others. What is evident is that the knitting (and weaving) traditions of Shetland have had a big economic impact on the local community, and even during the “truck system” years women contributed significantly to the economy. Also, they handicraft was highly skilled and valued, as both the lace knit and the Fair Isle knitting became fashionable in the Common Wealth. According to the Shetland Textiles book the local knitters were exceptionally good at anticipating the fashion changes and thus made an impact. For some reason they have not been able to uphold this edge. Also the book states that the demand for hand-knitted Shetland craft coincided with a reaction to mass-produced apparel, which is interesting in light of the current development of craft. We discussed our impressions after the trip and as a group agreed that the Shetland artisan community, in spite of many initiatives, are not harnessing their unique traditions in a modern and relevant way. They are also under-pricing themselves when it comes to finished products.

“The traditional stuff is very traditional” was a comment. “Made by grannies for grannies.” “Shawls are a limited market.” There is a need to look at the silhouettes, refinement, etc. “The crafts community are doing what they like themselves rather than tweaking it for an international market.” “Perhaps they are too focused on their craft and need someone to see it from the outside?” The lace as an inactive, very feminine life-style was also addressed, yes a very beautiful craft – but what did it represent?  Helle suggested engaging the young in the tradition of “pattern books”, developing color-in books. To revitalize an interesting heritage. The museum liked this idea a lot.

There were also discussions how climate change would affect Shetland and sheep farming. Was there over-grazing? How did climate, landscape and memory actually bond and inter-weave? What is the local resilience on different levels? Yes, they are fiercely proud as islanders, but do they need governing bodies who traffic the wool, the processes, the patterns, whatever?

Wool Week in Shetland has attracted international attention, but is mainly a craft-driven wool week. The talk is mainly of craft and not of design. Japan was mentioned as a market repeatedly, and at Jamieson we noticed Japanese orders linked to the knitting-machines in operation. But what are the end-products actually? Are they relevant in a modern world?


We also registered a fierce pride for their Viking (and Nordic) heritage, but the “Viking” products were just as hideous as those one finds in Norway and the rest of Scandinavia.  The landscape was very much part of the heritage, as sheep have grazed so that there are no trees. The museum was eager to develop new products to reflect the history, but cleaning-cloths for eye-glasses were perhaps a little far-fetched as relevant items…