Perhaps it was because of my new role within the company that I became more aware of situations beyond our control regarding less favourable aspects of business life. Unfortunately this is a part of my life and experience with wool which has continued to escalate.
Most of the Shetland yarns you are offered today will contain no Shetland wool from the Shetland breed of sheep. I have spent over 50 years of my life handling Shetland as well as pure Shetland yarns produced from the wool that has gone through my hands. According to our local trading standards, over 80% of the Shetland wool clip comes through the wool brokers so it would be fair to say I know where that wool ends up. In the early 1980s there was a marked increase in so called Shetland yarns and products made from foreign wools.
This situation is similar to Cheddar cheese and was summed up extremely well by my old friend Alistair McDonald who had spent many years in the Scottish textile industry, formerly of Hunters Wool Mill; I quote from his textile dictionary:
‘Cheddar cheese and Shetland now describe types of products which may be far removed in quality and substance from the original. The Cheddar and Shetland stories are both illustrations of the popularity and demand for a product outstripping any possible supply. In these conditions a different product with some similarities to the original is put on the market and the name is hijacked. Even if at first the new product is not accepted by existing customers eventually the entrepreneurs will assiduously work away at promoting it and eventually the new items will be accepted as the real article. The ultimate customer, perhaps never has known the original, can make no comparison and accepts the new product with the false name. In time the quality of the original can be forgotten. Just as cheddar is now ubiquitous to the supermarket so now Shetland is ubiquitous in the textile market place.’
Alistair, in his report, says he was on an Island in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius, hoping to interest the local knitwear producers in the Shetland yarn from Scotland which he was trying to sell. This yarn had the advantage of containing wool from the Shetland Islands.
Mauritius was at one time the largest producer of Shetland garments in the world supplying most of the U.K. chain stores. The main reason why he had no success was that they, the local manufacturers, were buying a New Zealand Shetland Type at half the price he was quoting. There was also a spinning mill on the Island making their own Shetland wool.
As if to confirm Alistair’s discovery, a few years after his visit I was approached by a local Shetland Islands councillor with a swing tag reading 100% Shetland wool garment purchased in Mauritius by a local lady on holiday there at the time. I told him to contact our local trading standards. The next week the Glasgow Herald contacted me about similar sweaters they purchased with similar descriptions, I said this was a disgrace and the situation was affecting the returns of the genuine Shetland wool producers. I told him to contact our Island’s council trading standards.
If this was not bad enough the company I work for, Jamieson & Smith had its name hijacked and a website appeared named Jamieson & Smith (substitutes). When the unsuspecting customer logged in to the web site they were redirected to another company’s yarns. According to an intellectual lawyer I consulted, this was highly unethical and could be legally challenged in this country with a successful outcome for us. As the perpetrator was based in Canada it would be an expensive and exhaustive process for us to gain a prosecution, which the people responsible knew only too well.
Back in the late 1990s, I was approached by two media sources; could I explain why I had a company called O. Henry co.ltd based in Japan, and which did not exist in any-countries companies’ house records or trade directory? At the time I was involved in working with a Shetland Islands Council department with the Shetland Wool Carpeting company project. I had to make the officials aware of this, I was told an independent investigation in to this company address in Japan had traced it to a run- down warehouse above a rice shop, the occupant of the rice shop said he never saw his upstairs neighbours! Intrigue indeed and best left alone, one can only summarise as to the activities.
This hijacking of a company’s name and product is most likely common place in business and was best described by my late boss Jim Smith, “they are piggy backing our ideas,” similar to his turnip invention perhaps!
It would be fair to say that this type of “Shetland” and dubious business practises has a detrimental effect on genuine Shetland wool producers and textile workers that use the real Shetland wool product. This is something I have always tried my best to combat, to protect all those who rely on the production and sale of their genuine Shetland wool – the crofters I have worked with all my working life.
What can be done – the end user of the Shetland product should be sure that it is from a genuine source and the product has genuine Shetland characteristics in the case of wool a soft handle.
As I said in a previous blog, unlike Harris Tweed and their Orb trade mark Shetland has no such protection. In the early 1990s I along with the local National Farmers Union president tried to make the point to the powers to be – sadly with no success.
There was a glimmer of hope in 2003 with the publication of a report commissioned by the two local authorities; Project Seilkie in which I took part. The aim was to brand Shetland and all its unique products, sadly this never happened which was a great shame as the report highlighted the need to protect our Real Shetland brand, be it food or wool.
At J & S we along with the parent company Curtis Wool Direct registered the Three Rams trade mark which guarantees the wool and its product came from the Shetland Islands. We also try to combat this false “Shetland” by telling our own unique story of our products made from one of the finest wools in the world.
Despite not being the most light-hearted of subjects; I feel very strongly about the preservation of true, genuine Shetland wool; not as a product to be sold, but as a vessel for our local heritage, culture and spirit of the Shetland Islands. It is vital that we support our local crofters and businesses as a way to preserve a way of life which is slowly being overtaken in such a fast-paced world where little heed is paid to authenticity. I hope that in my time with J & S I have done some good in helping to call attention to this as an issue – however, not wanting to step on any toes!- it is up to those who are purchasing wools, yarns and garments to be aware of the source.