Real Shetland Wool – Part 2

In this part of our blog series which will cover all the yarns we produce at J&S we are going back again to Oliver’s childhood and his first experiences with Shetland Wool. In the next part we will cover some of the things we look for and the processing of the raw wool before it comes back to us as finished yarns.. but for now its back to Oliver:

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Shetland Sheep are renowned for their exceptionally fine wool, and over the centuries played a huge part in Shetland’s rich culture and heritage. They also provided a much needed source of income for the native crofter / fishermen who lived on the small sparse crofts, in Shetland most crofting areas are hilly with poor grazing. Most of the fishermen / crofters, worked for the local laird, in most cases manning the fishing  ‘sixareens’ –  open boats, that fished the unpredictable Northern waters. The laird made sure he kept control over his employees and working conditions were harsh to say the least and financial reward from their master was meagre. The income from the croft was minimal, most of the sheep providing much needed sustenance in providing mutton for the table. Often due to the inclement weather that Shetland experiences, sometimes the open boats would be unable to go to see to fish the far ‘haff’ – fishing grounds. It was the income from the knitter that kept the family from starvation during these tough times.

Fethaland Haaf Station, sixareen and foureen boats. Photo courtesy of the Shetland Museum and Archives
Fethaland Haaf Station, sixareen and foureen boats. Photo courtesy of the Shetland Museum and Archives

The extra income necessary to supplement the family’s existence came from the hard work and skill of the lady of the croft, and of course their hardy sheep. The wool from their sheep especially the neck and shoulders was exceptionally fine, and when hand spun into a fine yarn, it was the perfect fibre and coupled with the skill of the knitter to produce high class fine lace garments. Each crofting district would have at least one local shop, and it was here that the knitter would sell or exchange her knitting for every day goods to be used in providing for their family.

Teenie Gear, Jeemie Umphray (Ristie), Nurse Margaret Davidson. Teenie is knitting the border for a Shetland knitted lace shawl and using a knitting belt. Photo courtesy of the Shetland Museum and Archives
Teenie Gear, Jeemie Umphray (Ristie), Nurse Margaret Davidson. Teenie is knitting the border for a Shetland knitted lace shawl and using a knitting belt. Photo courtesy of the Shetland Museum and Archives

When I look back at my childhood I am only now aware how this was the way of life for my family and most of the other families on my native home Burra Isle. My first memories of visiting Lerwick was travelling with our mother by the ferry ‘Tirrik’ and then by bus to visit the capital of our Islands. The main reason for this journey was to sell her hosiery (knitted goods) little did I know then the importance of that brown parcel she carried. I remember visiting this shop Adams on the street where the transaction was done. After tasting my very first ice cream at Sollottis on Commercial Street, we then travelled out the North Road to Irvine’s Wool shop (near to where Jamieson & Smith stands now). It was here that I first set eyes on a large quantity of Shetland wool, lying in colourful piles on the floor of the back shop. In the front of the store were shelves of vibrant colours of ‘wirsit’ – knitting yarn, some of it was purchased and we began our journey back home. Irvine’s was one of many such businesses in the 1950s; raw wool was bought from the crofters or exchanged for yarn. The greasy wool was shipped out to Hunters of Brora in the Highlands where it was spun into all types of knitting yarns. Individual crofters would also send their own wool to Hunters, and receive back their own yarns, this practise only died out in the mid-1980s.

The Burra ferry, the Tirrick. Photo courtesy the Shetland Museum and Archives.
The Burra ferry, the Tirrick. Photo courtesy the Shetland Museum and Archives.

As in days gone by these knitting yarns were knitted into all garments, but now it was mainly on the knitting machine, there was hardly a fishing cottage that did not echo to the sounds of the machine. The only difference in the life of the fisherman from days gone by was the boats were no longer open but decked in larger boats. The weather in the long winter months was often stormy and could keep the boats tied up for long spells; again it was the female of the house that provided the income to keep the family in provisions.

My next experience of Shetland wool was after coming home in 1967 from Agricultural College and taking a summer job at J & S to pack wool, you could say it has been a long summer.

Oliver in the middle store
Oliver in the middle store

We are the main buyer of the Island’s wool clip purchasing around 80% from between 600 and 700 crofters and farmers. There only another 3 companies who handle the rest of the wool, changed days from the 1950s and beyond. Our wool is marketed with our 3 Rams logo registered mark which guarantees the user of our wool is the genuine article and not imitation ‘Shetland’ wool that the textile world is unfortunately awash with at present.

Olivers Coloured Sheep 023

we will be back on Thursday for the next part in the series. til then, happy knitting! x

7 thoughts on “Real Shetland Wool – Part 2

  1. Laurie Weinsoft April 13, 2015 / 4:04 pm

    I I am continuing to love your historical stories. As a spinning teacher I will be sharing your history to encourage American spinners and sheep breeders to keep their herds pure and to know the wools they buy.

  2. Susan April 14, 2015 / 12:21 am

    The history is as interesting as it is heart breaking. I ken.

  3. KerryCan April 14, 2015 / 12:07 pm

    Wonderful history and the photos add so much!

  4. MoniqueB. April 15, 2015 / 4:59 pm

    I’ve heard the story about ladies knitting for income before, but this makes it more ‘personal’. Having been on Shetland twice, I can ‘see’ that it’s good to save what you have. You never know what will happen and then it’s good to have some savings.

    I’m spinning my very first Shetland Supreme AA quality Silver Fleece. (bought during WoolWeek 2014) And it works like a dream, even for a newbie spinner like me. And because it’s from the fleece and in the grease, after washing and knitting it is even more beautiful.
    I’ve knitted with the Gossamer lace weight yarn and am wearing it as my favorite shawl. And ready to knit some more!

  5. Nancy MacMillan April 21, 2015 / 8:04 pm

    I’m so enjoying these blog post! I am curious about Oliver’s veeeerrry long summer job… Do you ever take on trainees in the sorting room. And curiously is it all up to Oliver to sort the fleeces, as its seems an overwhelmingly large job?

    Our local Wool Co-operative used to offer courses in wool sorting but alas there hasn’t been any on offer for quite a few years. It is a skill I have always wanted to learn from a master.

  6. Banbha Knits April 24, 2015 / 10:31 am

    Reblogged this on Banbha Knits and commented:
    Part 2 is up. Loving this blog series!

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