My first experience with judging Shetland wool was in the late 1960s, at J&S wool store, and it was an open fleece competition organised by the local shows. The judge was a prominent wool merchant, the late Mark Stewart. His company was Stewart Brothers, Constitution Street, Leith, Scotland, bought wool from J&S. The Stewart family originated from Levenwick in Shetland and the company was founded in 1878 by a William Stewart. They also had weaving sheds in Shetland and employed many Shetland crofters. The Stewart family moved down to the mainland in the first of the 1900s and carried on their business as wool merchants and weavers.
I had to unroll the fleece for Mark on the sorting table; I recollect there were quite a few entries, crossbred wool as well as Shetland. Mark Stewart used judging sheets which were on a points system covering eight wool points – Trueness to wool type, Conformity of length of wool staple, Soundness (strength), Handle (softness), Colour, Character (crimp), Fibre Fineness, and Presentation.
At the end of judging it appeared to me on the points allocated it was a tie for first place. A very fine Shetland and a fleece from a Pettadale sheep, a cross bred, 75% Shetland and 25% Romney Marsh. This breeding programme started in 1959 in Weisdale Shetland, the idea being was to combine the fine fleece quality of the Shetland with the body weight of the Romney to produce lambs that are heavier than Shetland lambs and a heavier fine fleece.
There was no joint first place! I was to find out that the total points scored was multiplied by the fleece weight and the much heavier cross bred was declared the winner. This was met with some dissent by purebred Shetland sheep breeders, in later years there were two separate classes of fleece, much fairer.
My first hands on experience of judging took place in the 1970s, when I took over from my boss as a wool judge. This meant travelling to local agricultural shows held in Walls on the west side of Shetland and Cunningsburgh to the south.
I had the honour of judging with local characters such as the late Benjie Hunter a renowned sheep and wool man who instructed me into the finer points of classing wool. Benjie would spend a lot of time inspecting the wool in particular looking for “kemp”, a coarse white fibre. He maintained if you were to find kemp hair this meant that there were a cross bred influence somewhere in the animal’s pedigree.
My most vivid memory of judging wool was at the Walls show in the early 70s with an elderly lady who came from a family of wool merchants. She had been a wool buyer for her family business. Half way through the judging she announced to the steward “we need a break”, where on we went out to her van and she produced a bottle of whisky complete with tumblers. I thought this was a bit odd but as the “junior” I should say nothing. She recounted tales of wool purchasing travels from the past and of her family’s business. I was totally carried away by her accounts and drams and was brought back to reality by the wool steward banging on the van roof, special memories.
In the late 1980s/early 90s, I along with two other judges, judged the Shetland Fine Wool project, the aim to produce a larger fine wool sheep crossed with the L’Est A Laine Merino ram to the Shetland ewe, which was called the Lomand. The end result was a sheep with a more marketable sized lamb, whilst retaining the fine wool quality in larger volume per animal. Although it produced a very fine fleece and, on average a much heavier fleece the finished carcass did not suit the market place and the project in Shetland ended in the early 1990s.