My Introduction to the Wool Trade

When I began at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers in July 1967, my place of work was the main wool store part of my job was to carry in wool sacks from the crofters and farmers who would park their vehicles outside the front door on the main road. At this time of year it was the start of the wool season and clips came in most days, including my first day so it was hands on immediately. The sacks were weighed in on a large scale situated inside the door and the clips recorded in a purchase book. Each bag was numbered with the crofter’s identification number which was kept in a wool producers log book. On completion of weighing the clip the producer was taken in to the office, the price agreed and paid by cheque. This prompt payment suited the crofter it was their first produce sale of the year and a boost to their finances, it was also a day out in the town. Some were very vociferous having called in at a number of hostelries on their way home. Two brothers from up in the north of Shetland, travelled in with their wool clip in a small three wheel van. Returning home later on at night only made it to the first turn off out the North Road where they capsized. Nearby residents met them exiting the vehicle unhurt but confused as to why they were still in town. They said they had been in selling their wool clip!

The method of arriving at payment was fairly straightforward the customer had the previous year’s transaction kept on record under their allocated number which was recorded on an index card stored in a metal fire proof box. Details of the previous years’ purchase number were kept there and it was a case of finding last season’s clip and the price paid. There was also a report on how the clip had graded out. At the start of a new season a price was agreed with the merchants who bought the wool from J & S. If the wool price had changed the price would be added or deducted from the previous year’s price. Some of the sacks were sewn up and were shipped as they had come in with the identifying number shown. When the wool was sorted at the other end a report was then sent back on how the clip had sorted out meaning an accurate valuation of the wool could be applied. Very straight forward with one flaw you- were working one year behind. Not all the wool was sent away a lot of it was kept to be hand sorted by us and sold on to various mills and textile companies and knitting manufacturers in Shetland as well as mainland U.K.

Wool Grading

If a new customer should arrive their wool would be evaluated. I recall one instance where a crofter came in and his clip was to be examined and a price set. The boss Mr Johnstone went through the sacks emptying out the wool on the floor and then announced what he was prepared to pay.  This was met with disdain by the crofter who demanded more, this was met with a firm “No”, where by the transaction became “heated” to say the least. The upset crofter said he would take his clip away and said, “You dumped my wool out, you pack it up” and another argument ensued at this point I risked going in between them and packed up the wool myself then helped the crofter carry out his sacks and went back inside where I was met with a firm “If you are going to work here you will need to toughen up with these crofters“, that same crofter came back a few months later sold his wool and all was well!

The classing system was fairly straight forward; the bulk of the wool was from Shetland sheep and so was called Shetland, Cheviot and Cheviot Cross Shetland, Heavy & Blackface, and Rough Shetland. Coloured wool grades were Fine & Rough.

Sorted Shetland, where we hand sorted each fleece separating the various qualities was divided into No 1 Shetland & No 2 Shetland, and Strong, that was the Britch & guard hair we separated.

Lamb on a Rock at Symbister, Burra

The sorted wool was kept in bins/enclosed areas along the wall and then packed into jute bales which were hung inside a wooden scaffold. One of my tasks was to pack the wool pressing as much wool as possible into the bales as possible. This practise thankfully ended in 1970 with the arrival of a new wool store and mechanised wool press.

Wool Press at Workplace

With the introduction of wool bales my workload changed, especially the shipments. The smaller wool sacks were of different sizes and each bag had to be labelled, indexed and sewn up. Stowing the sacks on a flat-bed truck for its journey of about a mile to the harbour and securing was a nightmare; it was seldom a load would reach the quayside intact. Unloading the truck the sacks were shifted directly into a cargo net and winched aboard the ferry, quite a few sacks would slip into the water and be returned to us. Mr Johnstone would vent his anger on the stevedores and P&O Ferries shipping manager.

Shipping Wool Bales in the Early Days

I found the job to be hard work, but it was very interesting meeting the crofters and listening to their stories from the length and breadth of Shetland. There were many special characters my first meeting with such a person was unforgettable. I was on my own when this crofter came in the store saying he had a message for a crofter up north and could he leave it with us. I agreed to this and accompanied him out to his vehicle a small van. He went into the back and handed me out a rope which I was most shocked to see was attached to a fairly large horned Shetland ram. I was left speechless standing on the road with my new friend, the crofter said before driving away, “He will pick it up after 5pm, no name.” I tied it alongside the store to a telegraph pole and when Mr Johnstone arrived and saw the animal, he was none too pleased. The ram had gone when I arrived for work the next morning!

Young Ram and Dog

The wool season passed by fairly quickly and the wool came to an end, I was preparing myself for being made redundant. Thankfully I received a pleasant surprise from Mr Johnstone. “You are not to be paid off. The old boss, ‘Sheepie’ wishes to keep you on. You will work on Berry Farm during the day unless you are needed here and you are to work some nights at the sorting table with me and learn about wool.”

I was quite delighted by the news as was my family, I would not be returning to the U.K. Mainland. That was not the end of the good news I had the use of our family’s summer caravan in Lerwick and had just passed my driving test and had the use of our family car. What more could I ask for!

I will deal in more detail about wool in future blogs.

Moorit Face

5 thoughts on “My Introduction to the Wool Trade

  1. I am so glad I have found this blog to follow such an interesting life journey. I used to work for Betty at Yarns International and every so often I would answer the phone when you would be on the other end. Always made my day. Thank you, Oliver for the gift.

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  2. I just wanted to let you know how much I love reading your blog, My Life With Shetland Wool.
    As a fairly basic knitter myself, no-where near the level of the beautiful Fair Isle knitters I must add, but equally passionate about the texture,smell and colour variations of 100 % pure wool. Your blog gives a real insight into the workings of wool and the photographs add to it, giving a glimpse into the not so distant past.
    My passion also for the Scottish landscape comes from deep inside me. As a child we would spend our summer holidays camping on Mr McDonald’s farm in Arisaig on the West Coast. There was no fancy toilet block or pot wash facilities or sewn in ground sheets in those days. There was however, plenty of rain, midges and travel sickness from my sister on those single track roads as we travelled overnight, lying like sardines all four children, in the back of my Dad’s work transit van! And I loved every minute of it! So much so that as an adult, now working in a primary school as a teaching assistant, I still spend my summer holidays heading up North, cheering as I cross over the border and weeping on my return. So much so that I can conjure up the smells of the sea shore and visualize twists and turns in the roads without having to be there.
    I have travelled as far North as Durness to drink pints with Colin the caveman and watched puffins at Faraid Head and have visited most of the Islands on the West Coast. Not, I hasten to add, as an Island bagger but because I am passionate about the area, it’s people, heritage and wildlife. Scotland makes me feel like I belong.
    One day I hope to come to Shetland but until then, long may your blogs take me there in mind and spirit. Thank you.
    Helen Hennerley

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