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Shetland Wool



July 1935


SHETLAND Wool has long been famed for its very special qualities. It is a curious thing that the finest of British Wools come from the two ends of the British Isles . South Downs from the rolling smooth hills that end in the cliffs of the English Channel , and the wools of Shetland - that wind-swept, treeless, rugged group of rocky islands that almost touch the region of the midnight sun. The Shetlands form a fairly compact group, about seventy miles from north to south, and about half that distance from east to west. Besides the main group there is one detached island to the west - Foula - and then to the south the famous Fair Isle, which forms a sort of halfway house to the Orkneys, which, in turn, are only separated from the northernmost point of Scotland at John o' Groats by the narrow and dangerous waters of the Pentland Firth.

It is a matter of opinion what constitutes an island. The inhabitants of Bermuda claim they have one for every day in the year. Some authorities might make out a like claim for the Shetlands; but, anyhow, there are twenty-nine inhabited by people, about seventy more inhabited only by sheep, and unnumbered thousands inhabited by seals and cormorants and innumerable hosts of sea-fowl. There are also countless spiritual inhabitants - spirits of the dead and spirits of the deep, giants and trows, elves and fairies, mermaids, seal maidens, water-horses, finns, and ghosts and devils - who inhabit the wild precipices, caves, reefs, and skerries that make up the group. It is a terrible sea in which the islands are set, where the Atlantic and the North Sea war together. It was not for nothing that Scapa Flow in the Orkneys was made the base of the British Fleet during the Great War.


As one writer says of Shetland: "It lies amidst boiling seas. Terrible tempests rage round its coasts. There is scarce a feal-thatched cottage within its bounds from which the cruel sea has not taken toll of its inmates." The shortest day is only five and a half hours, but the summers are almost nightless, and in summer calms its wind-swept bareness takes on that tender and wistful loveliness only to be found where life has a hard struggle to maintain itself against the elements.

This northern outpost of Scotland was another of the parts of his native country discovered to the world by the genius of Sir Walter Scott, for before the appearance of "The Pirate", Shetland was indeed an unknown land. The climate is not cold. It is damp and mild. There is rarely either frost or snow, and this to a great extent accounts for the lovely softness of the native wool. In times not yet so very remote, the almost incredible ignorance about these Islands can only be suggested by an anecdote.


About 1810 the C ommissioners of the C ustoms refused to pay the herring bounty on some winter herrings caught in the Shetland waters. The Islands , they said, were surrounded by ice at that season of the year, and obviously no fish could possibly have been caught there! After all, the Shetlands are only between two and three hundred miles north of Edinburgh - reached in a short flight of the Highland Airways service from Inverness, or a little more from Aberdeen .
In early days the Shetlands, like most of the islands off the Scottish coast, belonged to Norway , and the name is derived from the Scandinavian, meaning Highland - Hjaltland - Zetland - Shetland.


Up till the fifteenth century, Scotland had for long paid a sort of blackmail to Norway for the Hebrides , but various difficulties had been accumulating on the Scottish C rown, and in 1468 matters had come to such a pass that Parliament decided, like many a modern assembly, that something must be done. The Norway dues were long in arrears, and the "something" that emerged was the marriage of the young King James III. with Princess Margaret, daughter of King C hristian of Norway . In turn, King C hristian found he could not pay his daughter's dowry, and gave the Islands in pledge. Two years later King James III. bought them, and so another step was taken in the consolidation of the rising Kingdom of the Scots. The little Princess - only twelve years old when she was married at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh with "unusual magnificence" - proved the most valuable part of the bargain, for, according to Hume Brown, "her prudence and virtuous living were to endear her to every class of her subjects." For a thousand years before, and some hundreds after, the history of the Shetlands was as rough and tempestuous as these wild seas, dim, unresting, only vaguely seen through mists. Under these ages of government, or ungovernment, the life of the Islands went on pretty much unchanged, leaving its trace in land tenure, place names, the northern flavour of the dialect, and the clear influence of Norse blood in the people.


The preamble is not so irrelevant as may appear, for it is this isolation that has, to so marked an extent, preserved the characteristics of the Shetland Sheep - little brisk beasts almost as ill to confine within fences as deer. Whether they are truly native, or whether they were original Norse, is seemingly still a matter of dispute. It is pretty definitely believed that the little Shetland Ponies and the small, silky-haired cattle were introduced by the Vikings. In 1790 the Highland Society of Scotland - the ancestor of the chief agricultural organisation of Scotland, now popularly known as "The Royal" - appointed a C ommittee to report on Shetland Wool, and to suggest means of improving it. Their little old report lies on the table as we write. Printed at Edinburgh , "anno 1790", and sold by Burns' friend and first publisher, William C reech, amongst others. It is a beautifully printed clean old job with " f's " for " s's " in the old manner. We suppose it would be described as foolscap octavo.


To the eye the chief characteristic of the true Shetland Wool is a curious mixture of coarse and fine long and short fibres mixed all through the fleece. The general length of the wool is medium. Its touch is curiously soft and silky, reminiscent of fine Alpaca, or even of C hinese C ashmere - much softer than its appearance suggests. It felts well, and a quaint footnote in the report says "there can be no doubt of its answering for hats, which even the women in that part of the country might wear, with advantage to their looks and appearance." We wonder if the ladies "in that part of the country" really set more store on quality than on fashion in these days!


We suspect it was the Reporters, and not their wives, who put down that sentiment. Thereafter they tell how the C ommittee "directed to be purchased" in Edinburgh some stockings sold for about 5d. per pair! Had them "reduced again to wool" and got them made into hats "very obligingly by Mr Izet, the hatter." However, that development was never followed up - or, at any rate, no Highland Hat Industry ever came to life.


They are on surer ground when they say "it is certainly preferable to any other for stockings and probably for all light woollen manufactures, as shawls, waistcoats, etc." The hand knitting of most beautiful shawls has long been the pride of the Shetlanders. They still knit a great variety of articles, and the finest Shetland knitting is still unrivalled, but the industry is still almost as unorganised as when our report was printed.


"Shetland" is a description that has been sadly abused. As a lecturer at Barrett Street Trade School in London said the other day - he was describing the making of underwear - "This misrepresentation is to be deplored. Most of the so-called Shetland is woollen or shoddy mixture, and has no relationship to actual Shetland wool." One of the difficulties is that the total available is small. Our report suggests 100,000 as the probable number of sheep, and the very small fleece weight of 1½ lb. This weight of 150,000 lb. is about the maximum probable amount at the present day but, though the total weight of wool is still thought to be the same, the sheep now carry between two and three pounds of wool, so that the number of sheep is probably much under 100,000. Exact estimates are not possible as the animals are sprinkled about amongst small peasant proprietors - crofters as we call them, udallers as they call themselves. Much of the wool is used up by the owners for their own requirements, or hand spun for their knitted goods for sale. The probable clean weight of the wool would seem to be about 100,000 lb., and the curious may start and calculate what yardage or how many articles that might yield, and if they would stretch from here to the moon if disentangled, or any of the other intelligent methods our journalists use in their efforts after vividness. Moreover, only a small proportion of that wool is really fine, for there has been much crossing of the sheep with coarser breeds.


In the finest of the gossamer lace shawls, the best of which are worth from £20 to £30 each, the hand spun yam runs from 30,000 to 50,000 yards of two ply to the pound. This may seem almost impossible to the mere manufacturer, but our Reporters say that they "exhibited to the Society a specimen of the singularly fine woollen yarn spun by Miss Ann Ives of Spalding in Lincolnshire, which, though strong, is drawn to such a fineness that a pound weight of the yarn measures no less than 168,000 yards in length, which is equal to 95 miles." That same young lady says she thinks she could do still better with Shetland Wool, and the Reporters resolve that "it shall be sent."


Research suggests that Shetland Wool for its weight gives 50 per cent. greater warmth than any other wool, excepting such wools as C ashmere , which the purist might claim to be fur rather than wool. Such a figure must not be looked upon too critically, because there is great variation amongst the true wools, and there is no true standard on which a percentage may be based solidly, but there is no doubt at all about its quite remarkable warmth.


Shetland sheep are not all white, but the individual sheep are not dappled like the alpaca and the llama. There are wools of various shades of brown, fawn, grey, "moorit" or "murat", etymology unknown as the dictionary says, a sort of warm, middle toned brown, and the so-called black, which is really a very dark brown. Most skilful use is made of these natural colours in the native knitted goods. The colours are not very fast to light, but they have a beautiful softness, not often attained by dyed shades of the same colours. Just wherein their superiority dwells is not easy to say. Probably the comparative unevenness of the shade has something to do with the subtle charm.


Nowadays, the larger flock-masters clip their sheep, but the crofters still pluck or "roo" theirs, driving them off the common lands or "out-runs" about once a fortnight to take off the wool that is ready to fall. This gives the crofters' sheep a most mangy and untidy look during the month or two - June and July - when the sheep are shedding their fleece, but it is not really a bad system so far as the wool is concerned - or the sheep - the fault is the time and labour wasted, and the obvious fact that the wool is less easy to classify when it comes to wool sorting.
And as a last word on our subject - the fine woolled sheep go by the pleasant name of "kindly" sheep, a quaint name curiously suited to the chief properties of the lovely, warm, comforting garments that are made from their wool.


Note; It is very difficult to arrive at definite figures for the production of wool in Shetland, for the first and principal source of statistics, the wartime Wool C ontrol, did not extend to the islands. The Department of Agriculture for Scotland suggests that the best we can do is to quote the C ouncil of Industry's Report, paragraph 76:- "On estimates generally current in Shetland it is thought that the annual clip of wool of the pure Shetland breed is some 150,000 to 200,000 lb. The total clip from sheep of all breeds in Shetland is estimated at some 550,000 lb."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E.S. Harrison

 

 

One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

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