The Shetland sheep are the smallest of the British Breeds, it is said that they have Scandinavian origins, probably brought to Shetland by the Vikings over 1000 years ago. They are a small bodied, agile breed with bright eyes and woolly foreheads. Shetland wool is very distinctive, it has a very fine fibre quality and is soft and silky to the touch. The wool is mainly white in colour but there are some sheep with browny-grey variations in their fleeces.
The sheep themselves are hardy and agile to withstand the harsh weather conditions on the island. They can pick their way down steep cliff edges to get to the shoreline where they feed on seaweed left by the ebb tide. The ewes make great mothers due to their nurturing spirit and can live well into their twenties!
The unique landscape and climate of Shetland is what makes this wool so special
The flocks are limited in size due to the sparsity of grazing land on the island. Shetland has a barren landscape making it difficult to farm sheep on a larger scale. Although Shetland sheep are able to adapt to other mainland environments like traditional pasture land, their fleeces change and become more dense and less bouncy due to a change in their diet. It is for these reasons that the wool has become so highly sought after.
Over the past century “Shetland Wool” has come to mean a style of wool and spinning rather than where it actually comes from. Wool manufacturers have used the label “Shetland Wool” as a style of wool, rather than the authentic product and this has led to a misunderstanding of what is actually the authenticl product. The unique landscape and climate of Shetland is what makes this wool so special, together with the close ties with its history, culture and knitting traditions.
Shetland wool is sorted by hand.
Because of the nature of the fleeces, the stronger, coarser outer wool needs to be picked out, leaving the finer inner fibre which is used to produce high quality knitting yarns. The sorting is traditionally carried out after the wool has been graded and usually happens in the quieter winter months.
Jamieson and Smith Wool Brokers is the mill that I buy my Shetland wool from, they handle 80% of the Shetland annual clip (fleeces) and they are able to guarantee that their wool is genuinely Shetland Wool.
They have held an important position in the Shetland crofting community since they were founded by John “Sheepie” Smith in the 1920s. A crofter and sheep farmer himself, his family business has always had, and continues to uphold, a reputation for fairness and honesty when agreeing wool prices with fellow crofters.
The British Wool Marketing Board was founded in 1950
So the Shetland Wool Brokers decided not to join as they were concerned that their wool would become lost in the “multitude of mainland producers and breeds”. They have remained a separate organization to this day with their own wool week (Shetland Wool Week which is traditionally held during the last week of September) and museum; The Shetland Museum and Archive which documents the story of the Shetland Wool industry.
The colours palette used in the Shetland Wool archives originate from a collaboration with W.M. Hunter of Brora. Hunters were wool spinners and dyers who had been spinning Shetland wool since 1901. From where they were located in Sutherland on the Northernmost coast of Scotland, Hunters had gradually built up a vast colour archive to accommodate the many shades needed to knit the traditional Fairisle jumpers. Fairisles were commonly knitted by the Herring Girls from Burra and Whalsay who worked on the quay near to the spinning mill in Brora.
It is from these archives that I picked the “Burnt Mustard” and “Sky Blue” shades which I used to make the Harrison and Craske Norfolk Ganseys in the Charl collection.