Some of my Favourite Places & Connections With my Work.

When writing my blogs and detailing my life in Shetland wool and my work involving crofters and farmers, I found myself travelling back in time, in some cases over half a century! In this very sad and scary time which we are living in I have found myself again looking back through my photo collection- which reminds me of happier times- walking the hills of Shetland with my wife, Catherine. I would like to share some of these memories with you through my blogs.

I will start fairly close to home in the hills above Gremista farm in Lerwick. We were on the lookout for hares when we came across a random bus sign in amongst the heather on one of the hills. This brought back memories to us both, of when I used to deliver parcels of yarn to country buses which were to be found at the Viking car park in Lerwick still used at present, but alas no parcels of yarn to deliver. Most or nearly all the hauliers have now long gone, however the sign reminded me of all the rural districts in Shetland I used to send yarn to, as well as my work handling the crofter’s wool from that area.

Bus Stance Sign Gremista Farm

The next set of images is from Unst- the most northernmost island of the Shetland Islands. It is more fertile than its neighbour the Island of Yell, which is mainly heather and moorland. Unst has spectacular sea cliffs which include the magnificent Hermaness; a national nature reserve and home to thousands of seabirds, including the Gannet and puffin. I recall a visit Catherine and I paid to the reserve in the mid- 1990s to observe a very rare black-browed albatross, called Albert, who had been blown off course from its natural home in the southern hemisphere. The island has especially fond memories for me as we had a family holiday there in 1981, and discovered many of Unst’s idyllic hidden gems such as its sandy beaches and crystal clear waters.

Lund Beach
Norwich Beach

 Talking to the locals we found Unst had been a very progressive island in the early 1900s there had been a thriving herring industry, chromate quarries- which even had their own railway, and in the 1930s a wool mill operated for a short time. Unst has a very strong Norse presence with the remains of several Viking longhouses as well as a 16th century castle in the south of the isle. We discovered they appeared to have more amenities than other islands in Shetland. This was mainly due to it being the home of  RAF Saxa Ford, a radar station which is located on the highest hill in Unst (Saxa Ford). I came to know an elderly crofter who lived at the base of the hill; he told me it could be a very fierce and windy place to croft. One extremely cold winter he ventured out onto the hill to check on his sheep. He was caught out in a blizzard, above the roar of the gale he became aware of his dog barking. He came upon the dog which was standing barking at a “ fann”, a drift of snow up against a peat bank. As he came closer he could make out not what he was expecting a snowed in sheep, but the figure of a man partially covered. He set about getting the individual to his feet and supported him back down to the croft house, where eventually the man was able to talk. It transpired the serviceman was part of an exercise in carrying out a mock attack to test out the security further up the hill at the radar station. The crofter maintained they did not need much security in such an inhospitable place, nature took care of that! Many years later I had the good fortune to visit that area when a local crofter asked me to conduct a grading and fleece handling presentation to the local crofters. When I mentioned the story the old man had told me about the hill I was informed that indeed it could be a very inhospitable place- the highest wind speed in the U.K. had been recorded here!

Muness Castle
Loch of Clift with Burrafirth & Saxford

Although the radar station is no longer fully manned and all the service personal have left Unst the community continues to be positive and looking at new ventures. The former station staff accommodation have been changed into tourist lets, Unst has its own distillery and has a fledging space station, which will bring much needed employment to these remote islands.

Woodwick Valley
Loch of Clift

 The voe (inlet) of Burrafirth lies beneath Saxa Ford and at the head of the voe is a beautiful beach and flat grassy links, I recall playing football here in the mid- sixties, and if my memory is correct it was also the location of a small golf course. Situated further out the voe along the foreshore are a group of buildings which serviced Muckle Flugga lighthouse the furthest north part of the U.K.

Our Son Adrian, Burrafirth Beach, 1981
Our Daughter Claire, Shore Station in Background, 1981
Muckle Flugga

‘A Cut Above the Rest, Gala Cut and Yarn Counts’

Over the years I have been asked many times and quite recently at the Dornoch Fibre Fest, to explain the meaning of the term ‘Gala cut’ which was the yarn count measurement used in our yarns spun by Hunters of Brora. At Dornoch I was most fortunate to be in the company of one of Hunters of Brora past employees, who was better qualified as me to answer the question.

First Yarns on Hank
Our Old Yarn Shop

 Nowadays yarn counts are in metric which I have never been comfortable with having been from the pre decimal / metric era. In 2013 when asked by our local museum to help recreate a yarn to match their historic knitwear collection “wirsit” worsted spun hand knitting garments, I had to guess the thickness of the yarn used all those decades ago. I was unable to have a garment or even a thread to pass on to the spinner I took a chance and said in my opinion the yarn used in the garments reminded me of Hunters of Brora 2/22.5 cut. Perhaps someone working at the worsted spinner in Yorkshire would know about the Gala count used by Hunters of Brora. When I delivered the first batch of Heritage worsted yarns to the museum several weeks later, I was delighted to see the reaction of the textile curator to the finished article, and it was almost an exact match to the yarns used in the garments in their collection.

Heritage Museum Fair Isle Collection
Heritage Dyed Yarns
Heritage Undyed Natural Yarns

Gala Cut is a woollen spun count system still used by some weavers 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 Woollen Counts. In my early days learning the trade from T.M.Hunter I thought Hunter’s mill were the only people to use the Gala Cut. However as time went by I discovered that others used the same method with some variations, Hunters used their own special measurement in 24 ounces and in Hawick it was 300 yard hanks in 26 ounces. The other count was Yorkshire Skeins, however the situation is beclouded because some if not most woollen spinners describe their yarn in worsted or metric counts and more are adding the TEX value for good measure it can be very confusing.

How to describe the yarn: The answer was to say that a particular yarn had so many hanks to the pound. It follows that the more hanks to the pound the finer the yarn. So in this count system the count is the number of hanks (or yards) in a fixed weight of yarn.

Different areas made their reputation for their particular textile product and yarn or cloth from one area might be heavier or lighter, be softer or finer than that from another part of the country. Also in certain areas that the raw material might be of a particular quality, for instance the local sheep might be of a certain breed producing finer or coarser wools than those in another region. So yarn from a particular area would have its own characteristics, this would lead in time to separate count systems for different part of the country. When looking at the yarn fringes depicting a particular yarn say 2 ply jumper weights, all the fringes should have the same appearance, and all should be uniform to look at. If you see and unevenness in the uniformity of thickness of the shade fringes, it either means the spinner has got their count wrong, or it could mean the yarn was that of another spinner.

For instance there are quite a few comments about the difference between our yarns, counts, handle, and make up, from that of other companies selling so called Shetland yarns. I answer this by saying we at J&S hand sort our graded Shetland greasy wool to the same standard set by my old boss John ‘Sheepie’ Smith who supplied sorted wool, since the 1930s to T.M.Hunter. If the Shetland wool is not sorted; that is separating the short and longer staple you will get an uneven yarn that is thick and thin. Also if the coarser guard hair is not separated out from the fine wool you will get an itchy yarn. Imitators of Shetland yarn use Australasian wool that is even in both length and fineness, this saves a lot of work in producing a finished yarn and consequently costs less. Although this yarn can be of uniform length and fineness, its handle is flat and lacks the bounce and softness of yarn found from the wool of genuine Shetland sheep.

Fine Shetland Fleece
Sorted Fine Wool Staple

 It was interesting to see that when Hunters closed down and we switched to a small woollen spun mill in Yorkshire the yarn quality was much the same, although the yarn count was in metric. The reason being was because the sorted Shetland wool we were supplying them with to spin was the same quality as we had always used. The only difference being the shades did not totally match up to that of Brora as we did not have the original Hunters shade melange recipes.

2 Ply Jumper Weight

I found it very difficult to follow yarn counts and technical terms and still do, most of the above information was given to me by one of the most experienced Scottish textile people I ever encountered Alistair McDonald from the Scottish borders. Alistair was T.M.Hunter of Brora yarn marketing executive in the 1970s and 80s. Alistair created a ‘alphabetical’ textile directory which has been invaluable to me in my lifetime working with wool, yarn and textiles in general I will post further blogs related to his directory at a later date.

Thanks to Ella Gordon for the use of her photos and her very apt title for my blog.

Also Alistair McDonald for all his help and technical advice which has served me well over the years.

Lower Guddon Croft, East Yell, Shetland

Throughout my blogs, I have recorded my life with crofting from a very early age on the family croft at Roadside, Hamnavoe and throughout my employment, over 50 years working with crofters. In recent years I have witnessed a steep decline in crofting in our islands for a mixture of reasons. The island of Yell in the north of Shetland when I started work consisted almost totally of crofting. In our wool store archives, per head of population Yell had the largest number of crofters on our books and was primarily a crofting community. Nowadays people have been leaving crofting and especially in Yell, leaving to seek out employment on the mainland. It came as a great shock and surprise to me when our daughter announced that her and her partner, who was brought up in the island had purchased a croft and croft- house in Yell.

Lower Guddon Croft
Guddon Man Meets Catherine

I have been asked many questions over the years and recently in my blog series about crofting in our islands. I would like to portray modern day crofting life featuring their croft Lower Guddon croft throughout the seasons. Starting in the first of the year with the feeding of the animals and ensuring they survive the winter months which can be quite severe in such an exposed place.

Feeding Time our Grandson Feeding the Sheep

Lower Guddon is an owner occupied croft situated in Gossabrough a small hamlet of around nine households, a typical crofting community to be found throughout Shetland. The croft includes a croft house and adjoining outbuildings, and comprises in by arable land and a hill apportionment; that is an area of land fenced in from the hill. Which means they can put twenty sheep on the common grazing. It is set in an idyllic situation overlooking the Wick of Gossabrough with the island of Fetlar in the background. The land slopes down to a beautiful sandy beach called Swarister which is home to a resident common seal colony as well as many otters which inhabit the sea shore and Green burn which flows into the sea. There is an abundance of seabirds including Gannets which seem to stay around the shoreline even in the winter months, I was told these are older birds which are not able to venture far out to sea.

Swarister Beach Guddon in the Distance
Sawrister Seals
Guddon Hill

There are approximately forty ewes on the croft a mixture of Shetland Katmoget, Texel, Cheviot, Shetland Cross Cheviot and a Cheviot ram. The Katmogit sheep I bought last year from a local crofter. There are also hens and ducks which supply fresh eggs.

My Katmogit Sheep
Dosing the Sheep

The croft has excellent arable ground and has been well tended to over the years. The land would be divided into what is commonly known as a rig, an area usually a strip of land where different crops would be grown, corn, potatoes, turnips, and of course hay. The close proximity to the peat hill and beach meant there was a never ending supply of organic fertiliser. The peat would be spread on the soil and then the seaweed would be gathered from the beach and it too would provide excellent natural nutrients.

Guddon Peats
Warri Blades (Seaweed) on Swarister Beach

This method of land husbandry is summed up in an excellent Shetland dialect poetic description of gathering seaweed at the Guddon by a relative of one of the resident crofters of that time.

 The poem is titled Tarry Krook at Swarister Beach.

Tammie took & guid inta da warri bruk, Da sea cam in & nearly took Tammie wi his Tarry krook.

(Tarry Krook) – A fork with the prongs set at right angles to the shaft, used in gathering seaweed for fertiliser. (Warri) – Dialect name for seaweed. Bruck – a mixture of bits of seaweed.

Lambing time has arrived and life on the croft is very busy, due to these uncertain times our grandson is currently off school so is able to help out with all the required tasks. It is very satisfying for me to see such a young person happy and keen to be working on the croft.

Preparing Lambing Pens

OoieOllie – Summing up my Year as Wool Week Patron.

I was greatly honoured and humbled to be selected patron for Shetland Wool Week, especially being its 10th anniversary. I cannot believe how time as passed so quick since that first, short but sweet, email from my employer mid- September 2010, “I want you to set up a Shetland Wool Week, you have one month “. In my lifetime in the wool industry this initiative has had the single biggest impact on marketing crofter’s sheep & wool, textiles and the wider community of Shetland in general. We have been united as an island group to showcase ourselves at the highest level on the global stage.

I was very apprehensive and unsure of taking on the role of patron 2019 (which involved a social media presence writing blogs and Instagram posts as well attending the official launch at Edinburgh Yarn Festival and public speaking). I have had a great deal of help and support from Victoria Tait from the Shetland Amenity Trust organisers of the event. I would not have been able to carry out these tasks without the help and advice from my wife Catherine, and two very special people our granddaughter, Lynsey, and (someone I call my publicist) Leon Riise. I am indebted to them for all their hard work and putting up with me, it cannot have been and easy journey for them, thank you so very much. Also grateful thanks to my designer and knitter for creating my Roadside Beanie Sandra Manson and Ella Gordon for charting my design, also Wendy from Burra Bears for the special gift Peerie Olie o’ Roadside. I would also like to thank all the people who have followed my blogs and the support and good will shown toward me from around the globe, I appreciate this greatly. I would like to think I have shared with you part of the journey I have taken in working with one of the finest fibres in the world, Real Shetland Wool.

Below are some of the images from my year as patron, I will continue to have a social media presence perhaps but to a lesser degree. Thank you all once again.

Edinburgh Yarn Festival
Claire & Me at the Opening Ceremony
Opening Ceremony
Ailish & Victoria
Makkers Market AHI School
Me & Peerie Makkers
Friends at Flockbook Presentation
Dancing at the Flockbook Me and the Flea
Judging Flockbook
Teaching at Islesburgh
Me & Adrian with Mam’s Roadside Beanie Jumper
Ollie Meets Peerie Oli O Roadside
Harriet, Jarl & Me MRI Scanner Appeal
Roadside Beanies

Some of The Designers I Have Met & Worked With Part Two.

The new millennium saw a change in my workload with new owners in 2005 and staff changes outgoing and incoming; it was even more important to provide design. We were most fortunate to have a mixture of local design talent and established designers from further afield.

Felicity Ford – I first became aware of Felicity was in August 2013 when she visited the wool store while she was working on a project called “Listening to Shetland Wool “. She wanted to hear and record the landscape where Shetland wool grows. I remember it well as she would record the wool press noise packing the wool, and even recorded me shipping a load of wool. In 2013 Felicity was patron of Shetland Wool week and wrote a song which she played and sang along with on her trusty accordion about her Shetland experience. Felicity has featured our yarns in Knisonik: Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook.

Kate Davies- One of the leading designers in my time and a very good friend of mine, I could write a whole blog series on Kate and her contribution in marketing Real Shetland wool. Kate has produced so many designs in our yarns, too many to mention, however among my favourites are the Sheep Heid and Rams & Yowes patterns using our undyed natural yarns. Kate is not only a very accomplished knitter but also an author of some repute and has published books featuring our yarns. When I started writing the Jamieson & Smith book Kate was a great help in mapping it out.

Rams & Yowes
Sheep Heid

Elizabeth Johnson- from Shetland Hand Spun has been a personal friend for many years, and like many local women learned to spin and knit from the age of four. Elizabeth supplied us with her own design patterns featuring traditional lace garments, stoles, scarves and such like for many years. Elizabeth was the patron of Shetland Wool Week in 2018, and travels around the globe carrying out workshops in knitting and spinning.

Joyce Ward -Jamieson & Smith were very lucky to have multi-talented staff such as Joyce Ward who created one of my most favourite designs in 2002, the “Lynsey sweater” called after our grand – daughter, Lynsey. It is, in fact, two sweaters a child and an adult version. The yarns used are our 2ply Jumper weight undyed natural yarns, formerly called Shetland 2000, nowadays Shetland Supreme 2ply Jumper yarn.

Lynsey Sweater

Leslie Smith -Working alongside Joyce was Leslie Smith from Burra Isle; equally as talented Leslie produced patterns for very distinctive Fair Isle socks which along with design by Joyce featured in our first knitting pattern book Knit Real Shetland.

Wool Brokers Socks
Knit Real Shetland Book

In more recent times we again were blessed with another staff member Ella Gordon, a graduate from the Shetland Textile College with a BA with Distinction in Contemporary Textiles. It seemed very fitting that I met up with Ella and shared a work space, I found out that Ella was a great-grand- niece of my former manager at J & S, Gilbert Johnstone; she shared his love of textiles. Ella not only designs but is also our social media marketing person. Her ability to take my ramblings on sheep, wool, and textiles and put it into a superb blog format never fails to amaze me.

Sandra Manson – Last but not least, I admire all the fore mentioned individuals greatly but Sandra has a special place in my wool journey. I first came into contact with Sandra when she was five years old, a first cousin to my wife Catherine, we would meet up at their grannies house. Their granny and aunty both were avid knitters; Auntie Mary worked in Tullochs Mill and was a very highly skilled textile worker. It was fairly obvious from that very early age that Sandra would share their passion for knitting always busy on her knitting needles. It was only fitting that Sandra and I would meet up later on in life in the work place similar to meeting up with Ella it was if it was ordained. Sandra and Catherine are very alike very driven and they always have the last word! Similar to Kate I could write a blog series on Sandra (perhaps I will, what a good idea!) Sandra has produced so many designs over the years, again too many to mention, however it was her interpretation of my sketches for my Shetland wool week Roadside Beanie that has pride of place in my heart. Coordinator of Shetland Wool Week, Victoria Tait, when I asked her how can I come up with a design for a hat in my role as patron of Shetland Wool Week, she said “tell your story”. I need not elaborate any further the proof of the pudding is in the Roadside Beanie, which Sandra somehow created from my sketches. The Beanie depicts a simple but an essential way of island life, my journey and that of many Shetlanders of past times.

Roadside Beanie Elise
Roadside Beanie Bairns

Dornoch Fibre Fest 13th -15th March 2020.

I was asked by the Shetland Sheep Society to give a talk on wool; judging and Shetland’s past connection with the famous Hunters of Brora. After the meeting I was joined by a old friend of mine, Robbie Parkin, formerly of Hunters wool mill, to judge a fleece competition. The wool was of exceptional quality and was produced by members of the Shetland Sheep Society.

Robbie, Me & Winning Fleece Rena Douglas (Picture Hazel Syme)

We attended some of the venues in Dornoch which hosted the event and met new contacts, as well as some old friends; such as Julie of Black Isle Yarns who I had met on her fact finding mission to Shetland last year. There was a very interesting mix of classes and textile exhibitors attending the event.

Catherine & Me with Friends Dornoch
On the Sheep Society Stand (Picture Hazel Syme)

The hospitality and kindness of the organisers and Sheep Society toward us was beyond belief. Sally Wild and her husband Peter provided us with accommodation in their uniquely restored former blacksmith cottage. I had the great pleasure to meetSally’s flock of Shetland sheep, their look and appearance reminded me of some of our own peerie native Shetland hill sheep.

Blacksmith Cottage


Sally & Me With Some of Her Flock (Picture Hazel Syme)

As a former golfer I had heard stories about the famous Royal Dornoch golf links, although my golfing days were over I was taken by the layout of the course which ran parrarel to the golden beaches of the Dornoch fore shore. We attended the local history group film night where we saw an enactment by the Dornoch school bairns of the burning of the last condemned witch in Scotland, Janet Horne, in 1772. The bairns acted out a tale of misfortune, cruelty and bigotry toward an elderly lady suffering from dementia and her disabled daughter. It was very refreshing and heartening to see a folklore tale told through the eyes of local children.

Dornoch Beach
Janet Horne Burning Site Marker – 1722

This was not just about sheep, wool and textiles it was also an opportunity to visit the local landmarks and meet up again with friends especially from past acquaintances from Hunters of Brora. Our last visit to this area had been in 2010 on route to the Stirling Knit Camp. This time we were determined to travel in to the hills of Brora and view first hand its magnificent scenery. My old friend the late Tom Simpson of Hunters Wool Mill said I would have to come and see the magic of the mill and the surrounding hills valleys and lochs which Tom described as the true highlands of Scotland. After visiting with Bill Ballantyne and Ann both formerly Hunters of Brora employees we travelled up into the hills. Even at this time of year and with poor weather conditions we were not disappointed as we travelled further west through the hills and Glens. The only disappointment was we saw no sign of wild deer, plenty of deer fences and a few wild goats in the hills.

Loch Brora
Wild Goats – Hills above Brora

I mentioned this to a local lady attending the fibre fest who suggested we travel further west up into the hills and mountains and recommended Glen Cassley however it would be hard going and there was no guarantee of seeing deer. We set off following our Satnav instructions and soon encountered fairly tough driving conditions. Despite Catherine’s protests we ventured onwards narrow roads often flooded in places barely a single track. I had to admit I was getting concerned there was no sign of human habitat and sadly no deer, worse there was no place to turn around. After countless miles away in the distance we saw a solitary house tucked under the lea of a snow capped mountain. We reached the end of the track and were greeted by to our complete surprise a distinct yellow sign which said CCTV in operation and strictly no admittance, I noticed at least two cameras. Up at the front of the fairly large house was parked a modern looking four wheel drive vehicle. We managed just to turn and thought we had better not tarry to long as the message you are not welcome was loud and clear. We set off down the road and stopped a safe distance away and I took some photos of the Glen and made the comment to Catherine “this could be the film location for the James Bond movie Skyfall!” Googling the area it is a privately owned estate and is listed in an ordnance survey report as one of the most remote areas of Scotland. “Getting up there is only for the hardier of us “; I can certainly endorse that comment!

Looking up Glen Cassley
River Glen Cassley

A little further down the road we stopped off at the spectacular Achness waterfall tumbling down out of the hills. As we boarded the car we spotted in the distance a herd of fleeing white tailed deer, a fitting finale to what had been a never to be forgotten trip!

Achness Waterfall
Glen Cassley Deer

Some of the Designers I Have Met and Worked with Since 1968 Part One.

I have just finished archiving and recording our work with designers since we started retailing knitting yarns. Many who we have featured and worked with I have not had the privilege of meeting and talking to. I would like to mention a few who I have had the pleasure of meeting and sharing some time with on a personal level.

My first experience of a designer was with Sasha Kagan, one of the foremost up and coming knitting designers of that era. The design was first created in 1969 in Jamieson & Smith two ply jumper weight (4 ply) and was called the Silver Birch Scarf. Sasha produced in kit form and featured in Women’s Wear Daily. It was while attending a knitting show in Harrogate in the 1990s; I had the pleasure of meeting Sasha and talking about old times. If my memory is correct shortly after this meeting, Sasha was commissioned to produce design for us, latterly the Chequerboard Leaf Cardigan in our 2ply Heritage & 2ply Jumper yarns. Sasha and I met again at Knit Camp 2010 at Stirling University and she is still producing high quality design.

Chequerboard Leaf Cardigan

The first local designer of note I had the good fortune to meet in the mid- 1970s was Gladys Amedro. Of all the designers I worked with, Gladys, for me, was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of the company from a knitting yarn prospective. I have recently archived well over a dozen of her designs which featured in magazines in the 80s/ 90s and had an everlasting impact on J & S. It was our old manager, Gibbie Johnstone who recognised the need for pattern support in order to reach a wider audience. It was therefore with his passing in 1986 that we commissioned a design in his memory; the Gibbie Shawl.

Gibbie Shawl

Our first Shetland Fair Isle pattern was produced for us in the 1980s by a friend of Gladys and one of our crofters from the west side of Shetland Patricia Alderson. Her design was in our 2ply jumper yarn and was titled the Hamnavoe, called after my home village. This design featured in the ladies magazine, the Bella, and it would be fair to say was amongst the first of its kind produced by a Shetland knitter in this promotional format.

Hamnavoe Design

Another Shetland designer I have worked with in the 1980s/90s and got to know very well is Hazel Hughson from Shetland. She produced a range of Fair Isle patterns for us for hand and machine knitting the Noss and Gletnesss unisex sweaters. One other local designer I worked with at that time was Margaret Stuart, from the village of Walls, who designed for us ladies traditional openwork sweater hand knitted from our lace wool. Another local designer I have worked with since the early 1980s is Mary Kay from Lerwick; she produced a range of fine lace patterns for us. Mary played a key role as one of our main local knitters who tested our new “wirsit” worsted 1 & 2ply lace yarn spun from 100% Shetland wool.

Laebrack Design
Gletness/Noss Designs
Trondra Scarf