I now had the security of a job and I was able to see my family every weekend and soon realised Shetland was where I was meant to be. My social life revolved around playing football for Lerwick Spurs and my home island of Burra. I even played an unofficial game that year for Shetland against the Royal Yacht Britannia. I think the occasion was possibly the celebration of Shetland becoming part of the U.K. However due to the fact I could not spare another week night off from work in order to attend training sessions, I was dropped from the island football squad.
In May 1968 my life was to change forever when I met the love of my life Catherine Manson.She stayed in the big house on the corner just up the road from the wool store. My late mother in law told me she couldn’t understand why Catherine was spending so much time looking out the upstairs window: when she asked, she was told “there is a new boy come to work at the wool store and he cycles to work”! Of course when I asked Catherine if this was this true, she would not give a very straight answer: however I detect a very faint smile! Our first date was to go to St Ninians isle and walk the cliffs on the west side and watch the sunset over Foula, a never to be forgotten experience! We both were so carried away by the occasion that we did not notice the time and arrived outside her home almost an hour later than she had promised her father. He met us at the roadside, my first meeting, and he was none too pleased. The next time we met I asked how she was her answer; “I had a terrible job trying to get rid of the sand in my shoes!”
In June that year I travelled to the Faroe Islands with Lerwick Spurs and had a fantastic two weeks of football taking part in island life and experiencing their culture and heritage. I remarked at the time that their sheep are very similar to ours.
Back home at work in order to grow the company and also add value to the local wool clip we purchased, it was decided to have our own yarns commission spun. Similar to the companies we were currently supplying with sorted wool, and also crofters like my own family who sent their own wool to Hunters of Brora, we would now follow suit. The Shetland wool sorted by us would be held at Brora in a J&S “wool bank” ( meaning the wool always remained the property of J&S). When we placed orders for yarn the wool used would be from our Shetland wool stored at the mill.
The standards set in the handling of the wool were very high and followed on to the system that “Sheepie” had introduced when he started out. Firstly the wool had to be from Shetland sheep and not contain any cross bred wool as this would destroy the handle & the fibre would be coarser. At the start of each season we would have a visit from Hunters of Brora senior manager, where he would discuss the level of sorting and if things needed to change.
I fondly recall my introduction in 1968 to the late T.M.Hunter, founder of the Brora mill and his manager the late Tom Simpson, I was ordered to take them in over to the street with Mr Johnstone’s car, as they embarked Mr Hunter asked Mr Simpson to give the young boy two shillings! This was to be the start of a very long and lasting relationship between myself and the Highland “chief” Mr Simpson. Immaculately dressed in tartan trousers they would visit the Islands each year to meet their wool suppliers and users of their yarns. The terms of our association with the mill were set up and J&S wool bank was agreed the greasy wool sorted by us remained the property of J&S and finished yarn orders would be drawn from the wool bank stored at Brora.
Technical knowledge and yarn counts now became an essential part of my everyday life and with the help of Mr Simpson and his staff over the years I began to understand the complexity of knitting yarns and the various qualities of Shetland wool that went to make up these yarns. Due to the lack of uniformity of quality and staple length in Shetland wool hand sorting was the key. The coarser Britch and guard hair had to be kept well clear of the finer wool or you would end up with an abrasive itchy yarn. Mixing together the short and long staple would result in a thick and thin finished spun fibre. As we were dealing with hundreds of clips we encountered all qualities of and types of wool, cross breeding especially with Cheviot was becoming more common in order to achieve a larger more marketable finished lamb. This wool had to be kept apart from the Shetland, if not it would affect the handle, that is the softness of the Shetland which was one of its strongest characteristics and sets it apart from other so called Shetland spun from “foreign” wool.
The first yarns stocked by J & S were the “natural“ shades, Fawn, Moorit, Black, White and Silver Grey and were 2ply jumper yarns. These were the most popular used by the locals at that time and were used to make Fair Isle garments. The main part of the jumper consisted mostly of Fawn and the Fair Isle Yoke pattern was made up of the other natural shades. Once the word went around we were now stocking yarns the demand grew and in a very short time the amount of shades increased, and also other weights/types of yarn.
The list of woollen spun yarns supplied to us by Hunters of Brora was quite comprehensive and were yarns that the mill had been producing since 1901.
Yarn counts “the Gala count” we started with, it is important that each mill had their own version of yarn counts Hunters as our spinner had their own standards.
A cut was a hank of yarn.
1/36s 1Ply Cobweb = 16cuts = 1lb from the finest wool. Hand knitting equivalent = single ply.
2/36s 2Ply Lace = 8cuts = 1lb as above. = Hand knitting equivalent = fine 3ply
2/28 Spencer = 4 cuts = 1lb of the finest =
2/24 Hap = as above.
2/21s Jumper = 4 cuts = 1lb Fine wool. = Hand knitting equivalent = 4ply
2/18s Jumper = 4 cuts = 1lb Fine wool = Hand Knitting equivalent = 4 ply
2/9s Brora Soft Spun = 4 cuts = 1lb Fine wool= Hand Knitting equivalent = Hand Knitting Arran weight
3/ 18s = 3Ply = 4 cuts = 1lb Cheviot & Cheviot Cross wool = Hand Knitting Double Knitting
3/11s = “ Embo “Heavy = 4 cuts = 3lb. Coarser wool & Shetland Britch = Hand Knitting Chunky
4/7s = Unst Fleece = 2 cuts = 1lb. Heavier wool = Hand Knitting equivalent = Heavy Chunky.
I will talk more about the technical side of the above yarns in a later blog, and provide further explanations.