Changing & Challenging Times Through 1980s

Although the company was doing well with increased yarn sales the wool trade it was very depressed. The lower grades of wool including the natural coloured fleece were not in demand, the rougher Shetland which featured the outer guard hair was unsuitable for knitting yarns. The native Shetland natural coloured wool again had no market value. Wool mills preferred to dye up the white fleece and make it look natural, the reason given was so they had a constant shade to supply the end user and guarantee uniformity of shade.

Native Shetland Coloured Sheep

We did see an increase in the so called Shetland yarns made from foreign wool and passed off as the real thing. The genuine Shetland brand name was being hijacked and unlike Harris Tweed and the Orb trade mark, Shetland had no protection to halt this. The local farmers union and crofters unions tried unsuccessfully to fight this but to no avail. This was having a severe negative impact on local wool prices.

Fine Shetland Fleece

In the early eighties due to ill health Mr Johnstone retired at the age of 73 and sadly passed away in 1986. I had worked with him for nineteen years he was a hard task master, a business man fully committed to the company and extremely loyal to his work force. He was a very private man not exactly a people person. For instance he would reprimand me for talking to visitors saying “do not depart of your knowledge”.

It was while attending his funeral in his home island of Yell that I learned of his past life. At the age of 14 on the death of his father he took on the family business part of its activities being hosiery, in Sellafirth in the north of Yell and did so until the mid-1950s before moving to Lerwick. He also was a decorated chief petty officer in the Royal Navy in the Second World War which explained to me his ruthless efficiency.

As I said earlier when asking Mr Johnstone for more time off at nights for football he gave me a choice, your job or football. So it was a great surprise to me that when visiting his family after the funeral his sisters told of how they had to go with him to Seafield to watch me play my first official game for Shetland against the Faroe Islands, 5 goals to 1 in favour of Shetland. They said he hid behind a parked van, watched the game and told them I was not to know he was there!

I learned a lot from him not only wool and yarn but of life in general and at times you had to become very firm and stand up for what you believed in and never forget your morals and your scruples.

Shetland Football Team, 1974

In 1983 we had a visit in the wool store from two high ranking Shetland Islands council officials who were being shown around by J & S owners Jim and Eva Smith. I started to take an interest in the conversation when I heard the older official say “we will spin all the Shetland wool in the islands and pay a premium price to local wool producers”. Eva asked, “What happens to our company?”  “Firms come and firms go” was the reply. Eva asked “what happens to our staff”. Pointing at me the official asked what does he do “He, Oliver, is our grader/sorter” she replied. “He will get a job in our wool mill out in Sandness,” was the answer!

I made one mistake that day, I told my wife Catherine, who was born in the village of Walls; close to the mill and said. “It looks as if you will get your wish and we will be living in your birth place Walls”.

Sadly this was not to be and over a period of time she stopped asking when we would be moving. We still are living next door to the wool store and still handling the bulk of the island’s wool clip.

One could not have blamed the Smith family if they had decided to cut their losses and wind up the business, losing their driving force Mr Johnstone. Perhaps they were taking the council official at his word and the inevitable would happen and this would be a way out for them?

Jim and Eva advised us they would carry on with the business and Eva would take charge I would be manager of the wool-store, as well as some of Mr Johnstone’s work.

I now needed help to fully understand all aspects of the business. It was at this time that I took up the offer from Tom Simpson, general manager of Hunters of Brora, “you must come and see the magic “and visit the wool mill”. My wife Catherine and I travelled down and had a very memorable visit indeed. Hunters were the major employer in the village and surrounding district and were prominent globally. Hunters Tweed cloth was supplied to most of Scotland’s country estates; the perfect hard wearing apparel for outdoor life, game keepers, gillies and estate workers.

Front Gate at Hunters of Brora

I now had to learn more about textiles as well as the basic raw greasy fleece.  Mr Johnstone had been the point of contact between J & S and Hunters and this role now became my responsibility.

Hunters’ Bill Ballantyne, spinning mill manger, and his staff helped me understand all that was necessary in producing Real Shetland yarns. However the person who gave me the most help and information was Alistair McDonald a yarn salesman for Hunters, Alistair had previously been in charge of his family textile business in the Borders covering all aspects of textiles and especially knitwear. His technical information helped me greatly over the decades and helps me understand all the relevant points concerning Shetland wool, yarns, weaving and knitwear. His information has been invaluable in helping me to understand the complexity of Shetland yarns and it was an eye opener in more ways than one. I will go into more detail regarding the textile information regarding Shetland wool and yarn in later blog posts.

Yard at Hunters of Brora

The introduction of the new wool grading system helped the producer have a better understanding about their returns on their clip. On its down side meant it was very demanding on the grading staff. Each fleece had to be inspected and classed each grade kept apart and packed accordingly as far as possible each clip identifiable in each bale for traceability. Not all the wool we bought was used in our own yarns as we had to sell a lot on, meaning we had to stick to the standardised grading system set up at the beginning. We had to guarantee consistency of grading to the buyer as well as the producer.

Our main market place for our wool was still Hunters of Brora and Stewart and Ramsden of Galashiels, formerly Stewart Brothers who purchased wool from us in the early years.  At this time a company from Bradford took an interest in buying smaller lots of wool and would play a much more integral and important part of wool handling in the future.

In my next blog I shall deal in more detail regarding some of the threats encountered into marketing Real Shetland product and adding value to the wool clip.

3 thoughts on “Changing & Challenging Times Through 1980s

  1. Very, very interesting , Ollie ! Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge on all of this history !
    Can’t wait to read more !


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