Textile Trade Depression and a Glimmer of Hope – Early 1990s

In May 1990 I received a shock phone call from Tom Simpson Managing director of T.M.Hunter of Brora (our spinner and major buyer of the wool we purchased locally). 

He informed me that they had called in the receivers mainly due to a dire recession in the textile trade and they were sadly left with no alternative it was a sad day for us all but especially the 90 employees at Brora. Eva was off at the lambing and I recall driving out to break the news to her Jim was away lambing in their Island Uyea off the coast of Unst. I was told she was up in the hills I eventually found her and told her the news she remained very cool told me to contact the receivers and ask their intentions.

January 1991 new owners were in place at Brora and the only change was the name now would be Hunters of Brora, we were assured things would return to normal we had a visit from one of the directors almost immediately and to our relief carried on with our business 

The recession which affected Hunters was fairly widespread in the textile sector and had an impact on wool trading. The rougher coarser grades of Shetland white and all coloured wools were without a market and were almost worthless.

The reason why there was no demand for the natural coloured wools was the wool mills preferred to dye the white wool into “natural” coloured shade. This was so that they could offer the end user of the yarns a definite constant shade in order to colour match.

Trading standards maintained the word natural could be used to describe the yarn as long as the mills didn’t call it undyed.

It was fairly obvious that something had to change and fairly quickly especially in the case of the native coloured Shetland sheep. In 1991 I was approached by the late Tom Balfour of South Ness Sullom. He said he was an inventor and had designed various machines especially for the offshore oil industry and he knew my boss Jim Smith. He had recently observed an elderly crofter dumping his wool over a cliff and Tom had an idea on how to help find a marketplace he had been given my name by a neighbour and one of J & S wool producers. His idea was to take the lower grades of wool and turn them into Shetland wool carpets, floor rugs, mats, and runners.

This seemed to be worth investigating and with the permission of Jim and Eva I became involved in the project. My role was to provide test samples of the grades and communicate with the spinner in Bradford. After a few months a yarn was produced from the lower grades of wool which the company Shetland Wool Carpeting purchased from J & S, the company was made up of 3 local farmers, a craftsman Tammie Irvine, me and Tom Balfour. The concept was supported by the Shetland Islands Council Development both in advice and financial funding. Rug making used to be commonplace in the 17/1800s; sadly this tradition died out in the early 1900s. It is difficult to find out when it was introduced into Shetland but it must have been a very ancient origin. The material that formed the foundation, called the “ grund “was made of very coarse wool; the “taats” or tufts were made of finer wools. These rugs were initially used as bed covers but many ended up as floor mats, the museum collection of rugs dates back over 100 years with little or no wear. On studying this it became very obvious that our lower grades of Shetland were perfectly suited for a flooring covering strong but soft.

Shetland Wool Carpeting Directors with SIC Officials, 1994

My initial role as well as identifying the type of wool and purchasing it from J & S, was also to assist Tom Balfour in marketing the finished product. In 1992, I attended the British Carpet fair at Birmingham’s N.E.C. a trip never to be forgotten. I said to Tom before the event what was expected of me at this event, “it’s easy” he said “I have been to some of these events you just sit in the corner and grin” exactly what he did while I, along with the manufacturer Johnathon Crossley, spoke to interested parties. The education and experience I gained from this event was invaluable in furthering my career in textiles a week spent with one of the foremost carpet manufacturers in Johnathon Crossley retired former owner and managing director of the world famous Crossley carpets.  Talking to carpet makers from around the globe and in particular meeting an employee of a textile company from Switzerland who was over for spell learning from the carpet spinner. He expressed a great desire to see Shetland and see it he did I invited him to stay with Catherine and me at the north road and I am pleased to say we have kept in touch ever since.

NEC Exhibition Centre Birmingham, 1992

After this expedition I was to present a report to the shareholders of the Shetland Wool Carpeting Company and the S.I.C. Development department on the reaction and how the idea was received by the trade and the general public. The result was the company invested further into developing the project and setting up a small scale manufacturing plant in Shetland. After producing some hand tufted rugs and flooring over a two year period I again travelled south with the finished articles to the British Craft Fair in Harrogate, gaining more valuable experience and contacts.

Hand Tufted Rugs with Norse Design at the British Craft Fair, Harrogate 1994

Returning back home we decided to attend local shows with the rugs and I would spend two nights a week attending the Islesburgh Summer Exhibition and over a two year period took orders for quite a few rugs from visitors.

Rugs at Islesburgh Summer Exhibition

Unfortunately for me in 1997 after collapsing with a heart condition I had to bid farewell to the carpets and “Tattit” rugs, leaving it in the capable hands of Tammie Irvine and now sole owner of the company Tammie Irvine.

Tammie Irvine Hand Tufting

Taking stock, we perhaps did not make huge piles of money however speaking for myself this was a great challenge for me and the knowledge and experience I gained from this project has been invaluable.

Also it may have been a coincidence but around about this type the lower grades of wool started to move and there seemed to be an interest in making rugs!

2 thoughts on “Textile Trade Depression and a Glimmer of Hope – Early 1990s

  1. Hello Ollie !

    What an interesting history! How wonderful that you were able to rescue the rougher grades of wool and the colored ones and help the crofters with a wonderful and beautiful solution! The rugs are so lovely ! Truly beautiful ! Well done !


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