Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 2

Continuing with the technical directory of Alistair McDonald and my working life with wool and yarn. I have been told this is a quite boring and lifeless blog series however I have tried to liven it up with some of my personal experiences and images of Shetland which will hopefully make it more pleasing.

Fleece. “Usually refers to wool; the complete woollen coat of a sheep which when sheared comes of the animal in one piece because of the fibres adhering to one another and the presence of natural oils and grease and dirt”. In the case of our native hill Shetland sheep because of the fineness of the wool part of the fleece can be shed in early summer, called locally “ hentilagets”, which in times gone by when wool was highly valued people used to gather it up. Over the years visitors to the wool store often ask how much wool have you handled in your working life. We had this discussion recently at work when one of my workmates and with more mathematical sense then me announced the figure of 13.5 million kilos from his calculations. I suddenly aged a bit more when I heard this as it goes a long way to explain my aching joints!

Fine Shetland Fleece

Gala Cut.” Woollen spun count system which was used by spinners in Scotland and Ireland. The count is the number of hanks of 200 yards in one pound of yarn. Gala is the local abbreviation for the town of Galashiels in the Scottish borders”. In 2012 I was asked by our museum to guess the thickness of the yarn used in their Heritage worsted spun collection of Fair Isle garments, I guessed 2/22.5 Gala, I was very pleased to say the museum was very pleased with the end result.

In 1978 I paid a visit to Galashiels to learn about wool grading at that time Galashiels was at the centre of a vibrant textile industry, a lot of our Shetland wool went to Galashiels to be processed. Sadly over the last decades there has been a downward spiral not only in Galashiels but the borders in general. However along with the highly acclaimed Galashiels Textile College at its centre and going from strength to strength there is positive signs that the area will once again become a world – renowned centre of a thriving modern textile industry.

Heritage Museum Fair Isle Collection


Shetland Museum

Guernsey. “A hard wearing fisherman’s pullover or the 5 ply worsted yarn from which it is made. The original Guernsey was tightly hand-knitted, seamless, with patterns not unlike the Aran” I remember this was the garment, we called a ‘ Gansey’ most often used by my father in his fishing years, in fact most of the fishermen in the village used to wear them, they provided warmth in our adverse weather conditions at sea.

Dad on the Family Boat


Rough Day for Fishing Boats

Hand Spun yarns. “As it says spun by hand there is no problem in machine knitting hand spun yarns provided they are strong enough, suitably packaged, of a suitable count and cost is of no importance”. Almost all my working life I have selected fleece for hand spinners, in fact this has been a great help to me in learning about wool from some of the most experienced spinners you could meet. I recall selecting 4 fleeces for a lady in the early 1990s, it was only after she had left that the staff informed me that she was a well- known TV actress from Coronation Street.

Natural Coloured Fleece
Hand Spinners & Knitters Knit Camp 2010

Handle. “The handle or feel of knitted fabric depends upon the yarns used, the stitch structure, knitting tension and finishing treatment. For a domestic knitter it is important that all these are controlled and continually checked to achieve continuity”. The handle, special softness/feel is the main characteristic in Shetland wool and to my mind is unrivalled in other breeds of sheep, it sets it apart. If this attribute is not there in the finished yarn/product it is most likely imitation Shetland these can be identified by a “dead” feel lacking in bounce and elasticity.

Superfine Shetland Lace

Hand Frame. “Hand knitting machine”.  Several years ago I was presented with such a machine to put on display in our store it turned out I had played a small part in its working life. Back in the 60s/70s, and even 1980s I would deliver yarn to the former owner in Lerwick. The machine was purchased in 1960 for £100.00 and throughout its working life helped bring up 5 children, typical of life gone by in Shetland. In the late 1960s early 70s I delivered cones of yarn to the Anderson High School where pupils were taught to use a hand frame knitting machine. Sadly the hand knitting machine was something I could not master as my garments would usually end up with holes in them, I was thankful when my better half told me “it isn’t for you your too heavy handed”!

Hand Frame Knitting Machines 1950s

Hank or Skein. “Loosely coiled length of yarn, the length and weight will vary according to the count and the idiosyncrasies of the spinner or merchant”. I spent many an hour in my childhood holding out my arms while my mam wound the yarn in a ball. In 1999 I had to again hank yarn this time on an industrial scale, on Hunters of Brora’s reeling machine. The reason being the new mill would only supply yarn on cone, the result was the reeling machine was sent to us and we put the yarn from cone to hank, a very time consuming job.

Hank Reeling Machine

Hosiery.” The first machine made knitted articles were hose and the industry which developed was the hosiery trade”. The term is still used in some areas as a synonym for knitwear”. This term was most commonly used for knitwear when I was a bairn, my first trip to Lerwick with my mam who told me we were going to sell her hosiery.

PT Robertson Hosiery Workers 1950s

Hand Knitting Yarns. “Most hand knitting yarns are supplied on balls or hanks in the case of hanks have to be re-wound before they can be used. They are more expensive because of the cost of balling, reeling, packaging and marketing”. The other half of my working life fond memories in the late 1960s delivering yarns to houses throughout the town, each with a knitting machine. Down to the harbour and locating Whalsay fishing boats and dropping of the parcels of yarn to the fishermen which you could easily identify by their colourful Fair Isle design swaeters. On the way back my final stop was at the Viking Car Park and delivering to the many buses which served the rural areas of Shetland.

Direct Mail Deliveries
Historic Bus Stances

7 thoughts on “Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 2

  1. What a nice post, as all of them are, of course. And there’s a photo of me in there, though you can hardly see me!


  2. I have really enjoyed all your emails. They have expanded my knowledge of the processes that take place from sheep to yarn. I also value the history and old photographs you have shown us. Never boring Mr Henry


  3. Hi Ollie, No it’s not boring at all to me, more fascinating and the photos break up the text well. I learned to spin as a child and my mother sent to Shetland for a fleece which arrived packed in a pillow case. My grandmother had great aunts in Lerwick where she was sent on holiday as a child and had to card wool before going out to play. This was in the early 20th century. Best wishes, Marion Rose

    Sent from my iPad



  4. I have enjoy this blog. It’s not boring. It’s extremely informational. I am always pleased to find it in my email. Thank you very much for all you have imparted over the last year or so. Cynthia Dilworth


  5. How rude of someone to describe the blog as boring! We all have something to learn and I’m enjoying your words and photos (although I’ll never get my head round ‘gala’ measurement!)


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