Shetland wool, traditionally produced from Shetland sheep from the Shetland Isles, one of the most distant and remote parts of Britain is famous for its very special qualities. The wool, soft, strong and warm is a unique product which owes in part its particular characteristics to the exceptional location of its island home.
The Shetland Islands, are a windswept, treeless, group of rocky islands so far north that they almost touch the Land of the Midnight Sun. The Shetland Islands originally formed part of Norway and retain even now elements of their Norse heritage. King James III of Scotland bought the Shetland Islands from Norway in the Fifteenth century and they then became part of Scotland.
The desolate location of the Shetland Islands meant that for hundreds of years the Islanders lives remained unchanged. The climate and the sea having a greater impact on their existence than distant governments who took little interest in this far flung archipelago. Improved transport links and the discovery of oil in the Twentieth Century have made a huge impact on these islands but for much of their history the production of Shetland Wool has formed an essential part of the economy of the Shetland Islands.
The isolation of the Shetland Islands and the importance of Shetland Wool to the islands survival have resulted in a unique set of circumstances which make this product world class. The distant location of the Shetland Islands has helped preserve the unique characteristics of the native breed of Shetland Sheep. Shetland sheep are small and hardy, survivors. Worthy inhabitants of their Islands. A breed which has survived for centuries in inhospitable conditions. One of the marvellous aspects of the Shetland sheep is the diversity within the breed. A small spinners flock can produce ultra fine Shetland yarn for hand knits, as well as courser but equally gorgeous yarns suitable for heavy socks and warm outer garments or remarkable tapestry yarns.
Shetland sheep come in a wide variety of colours and often their wool can be used undyed. There are eleven main colours given to the sheep’s wool and a further thirty names to identify the principal variations of markings available. Many of the colour names have Shetland dialect names which derive from the Norn language formerly spoken in Shetland and similar to other Nordic languages. With names like “shaela” to describe a dark steely grey colour, you are constantly reminded of the unique origins of Shetland Wool, emphasising that Shetland wool is an experience not just a product.
In addition to the main colours there are thirty principal markings of the breed. Imagine the colour of for example’ katomoget’. the name of the markings of a sheep which has a badgerface, a dark belly and dark shadings around nose and eyes with the colour dark elsewhere or ‘yuglet’ the name for the markings of a sheep which has generally light colour with dark panda patches around the eyes. Shetland sheep are one of the few breeds of sheep that can produce a solid black colour so dramatic that it can be used undyed. The particular softness of the wool is said to be attributable to the mild climate of the Shetland islands which rarely have frost or snow.
The importance of the wool industry in the Islands has resulted in the development of a wealth of skills available within the native population to ensure the continuation of this industry. Shetland Wool is used for a variety of products, many of which continue to be home produced by crofters or udlers in ways that have changed little over the centuries.
The hand knitting of most intricate lace shawls has long been the pride of the Shetlanders. The finest of these are made from one ply wool and are so fine they can be passed through a wedding ring. The shawls, soft and warm are perfect for gifts for new born babies and quickly become family heirlooms.Fair Isle sweaters are another item for which the Islands are famous. Fair Isle is the most southerly of the Shetland Islands. An island three miles long and a mile and a half wide, situated midway in the stormy seas between the Shetland Islands and the Orkney Islands, has given its name to beautiful multi coloured sweaters traditionally knitted in geometric patterns. Fair Isle designs are world famous. A remarkable achievement for such a tiny island. Until you appreciate the skills of the knitters and the beauty of their designs, developed and passed down through families over centuries. It was inevitable that the uniqueness of the product would be recognised.
An experienced knitter can take twelve hours to produce a pair of gloves and an adult sweater will require one hundred and ten hours. The garments are hand knitted in intricate traditional patterns utilising two colours in each row of knitting. There are an endless number of variations of the patterns but they include peeries, seeding and waves. The colour not being used is threaded along the reverse side of the garment. This results in what is essentially a doubling which adds to the warmth of the clothing produced. So not only are Fair Isle garments, warm and time consuming to produce. They are beautiful to look at. Traditional designs utilise the natural subtle colours of the landscape of the Islands to produce garments which are truly an art form. There are a variety of garments available and items in vibrant colours and more modern designs are also available. Shetland wool is also used to produce tweeds, and yarns.
So whether it’s a traditional Fair Isle sweater, a knitted shawl or a more modern design , we can be sure that Shetland wool in its many varied forms will continue to make regular appearances on the catwalks around the world as its unique qualities continue to be recognised and enjoyed.