Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 6

Wool – Dyed. “Yarn which the fibre has been dyed prior to spinning, often in the production of mixtures. At one time wool dyed yarns and garments or fabric made from them were considered to be piece dyed articles and thought to keep their colour longer. Perhaps the source of the expression dyed – in – the –wool”. Our first dyed shades of yarn at J & S in 1967 /8 were naturals which were Moorit, Black, Fawn, Silver Grey, Medium Grey and Dark Grey the reason given was why dyed and not undyed yarns was that the end user required a definite colour shade to match up to when placing an order further down the line. In 1997 we along with Yarns International and Hunters of Brora introduced undyed natural yarns.

2 Ply Jumper Weight
Fitful head in the Snow

Woollen Spun. “In this system the fibres can be of widely varying lengths, are arranged as far as possible to lie in a random criss cross manner. This is the process usually employed for short fibres and typically for Cashmere, Lamb’s wool and Shetland. A woollen spun yarn need not necessarily contain any wool”. Woollen spun yarn has been a major part of my working life in order to sustain employment all year round since we had our own hand sorted Shetland wool spun into hand knitting yarns at T.M.Hunters of Brora.

Hunters Mill Information
Loch Brora

Worsted.”  Yarns which are combed to remove the shortest fibre or fibres and in which the fibres lie parallel to one another. Worsted yarns are stronger and smoother than woollen spun yarns”. One of the most defining moments in my working life not only for me J & S, crofters and knitters and Shetland in general when the late Jeemie Moncrieff from the Shetland Amenity trust asked me if we could help supply the Shetland museum with “ Wirsit “worsted yarn to be used in their museum heritage collection of lace knitwear, and also to try and safeguard the future of lace knitting in the islands. As they say the rest is history I tell more about this subject in my blogs, if it were not for the Amenity Trust and museum and their request for a worsted yarn I sincerely believe Shetland Wool Week and all its positives would not have been the success it is today as this lace project brought us at J & S as the main buyers of Shetland wool together with the aim of marketing Real Shetland wool to a wider global audience. I am very proud to say our new Heritage worsted yarn was used in our 2014 Jarl Squad suit.

Jarl Squad 2014
Whalsay Peerie Makkers 2012 at J&S

Yarn. For textile purposes a continuous strand of fibre or fibres which is capable of being used to produce cloth. The introduction of yarn and the marketing of it not only help employ me in the wool clip off season it created more jobs at J & S from 1969 through the 1970s, staffing levels went up to  eight full time responsible for retail and direct mail sales.

Heritage Yarns
Culswick Sheep

Yorkshire Skeins. “Yorkshire, England woollen spun yarn count system in which the count is the number of 256 yard hanks to one pound weight”. In 2000 with the sad demise of our spinner Hunters of Brora and their Gala count yarns, we were fortunate enough to discover a small Yorkshire wool mill 5th generation spinners who could carry on the mantle of producing high quality Shetland yarns from our own hand sorted Shetland fleece bought from Shetland farmers and crofters.

Mallan Cove
Yorkshire Canal Boat

2 Ply, 3 Ply, Double knitting etc. “These terms used to describe the thickness of hand knitting yarns. The terms are not exact as count numbers, there being slight variations between one spinner and another. The terms are not terminologically correct. For instance a four ply yarn is not necessarily four ends plied together.

Approximate hand knitting equivalents to the metric system are:

2ply — 2/14.nm

4ply — 2/9nm

Double Knitting — 3/7nm

Chunky — 2/3.5 nm

Aran — 3/4nm “

In my early years with Hunters of Brora we were able to supply a very wide and comprehensive range of yarns sadly more than half of them are no longer available, due to fashion changes and managing realistic financial stock levels. From a purely nostalgic view point I miss these shades however with the introduction of several worsted yarns, starting with the Museum lace and Heritage yarns and the possible introduction of other yarns are a positive way forward to add value to the Shetland wool clip we handle.

J&S yarnGala countNew metricHand Knitting equivalent
Cobweb36s 1ply1/14.5 nmSingle 1 ply
2ply Lace2/36s2/14.5 nmFine 3ply
2ply Jumper2/22.52/9. nm4/ply
2ply Jumper2/21s2/8.4 nm4/ply
2ply Jumper2/18s2/7.25 nm4/ply
3ply3/18s3/7.25 nmDouble knitting
3ply Embo3/11s3/4.5 nmChunky
Unst Fleece4/7.54/3. nmHeavy Chunky
Brora soft spun2/9s2/36 nmArran weight
2 ply Spencer2/28s  
2 Ply Hap2/24s  

Unavailable Produce would be marked in red.

At the beginning of his technical directory, Alistair begins with a note of caution!

“In an industry which has evolved from various crafts it should realise that the meaning of some textile terms may vary from company to company, area to area, country to country.

 I am very grateful to Alistair for the use of his technical descriptions of textiles this is only a small part of an extensive directory compiled by Alistair from a life time in the textile world. I have enjoyed revisiting Alistair’s writings it has brought back pleasant memories of my work with wool and yarns throughout my working life. I have been very fortunate  to have come in contact with people such as Alistair for providing me with my limited knowledge of the textile world, sad to say there aren’t many of us older wool people left, I can only hope that these blogs on Alistair’s directory is has been of some use.

Lerwick Harbour


Flock Book Open Day & Return to Tingon

Just recently I received an invitation from the Shetland Flock book Society to attend their annual open day, a day and night event visiting Islesburgh Farm owned by the Doull family and Tingon Farm owned by Robert & Gladys Ramsay culminating with a dinner in Sullom Hall.  Both farms were located in the north of Shetland, I had previously enjoyed a visit to Islesburgh farm earlier in the summer and knew what to expect regarding the excellent hospitality and livestock on show, I am pleased to say it was every bit as successful as my first visit, even more so with the amount of young crofters and farmers attending the event which bodes well for agriculture in Shetland.

Islesburgh Sheep
Islesburgh Visitors

I had been to Tingon twice before the first time over 20 years ago and recently celebrating my 70th birthday with a day out exploring this rugged remote headland with stunning views of Ronas hill and the surrounding cliffs. On our previous visits we travelled the 3 plus mile by car and then by foot, on this present day journey, thanks to the skill of our driver by coach, the road is in good condition although quite narrow. We were welcomed by our hosts the Ramsay family and once again we were treated to bountiful food and refreshments. I met up with some old friends of the same age which heartened me somewhat amongst all the younger participants.

Tingon Natural Coloured Sheep
Tingon Visitors

Once again on display were the Ramsay family sheep an impressive looking mixture of Rams, ewes and all in the various natural colours a fine looking flock of hardy animals well suited to the surrounding area which could be extremely harsh in the long winter months. It was not just the sheep that took my interest there was a display of Shetland Flock book images some of which was so long ago I found it difficult to identify myself. However In a quiet corner of this huge shed I discovered a picnic table and on it the answers to all my questions on Tingon in the form of a historical research document compiled by the Ramsay family. It told the story of the former occupants of the area and I suppose similar to many areas affected by the clearances quite brutal, sad and harrowing accounts. I suppose the fact I had travelled through their former land and visited their now derelict houses I could feel a sense of connection to the plight of these unfortunate souls, perhaps heightened by knowing that some of my ancestors had also been uprooted from their homes to be replaced by the laird’s sheep.

Sumra Croft House Remains


I was very fortunate that the Ramsay family gave me a copy of their research and gave me permission to use some of it in my blogs and for that I am very grateful. I will use parts of their findings and my photos to tell a small part of the story of life in Tingon all those years ago. In the research Samuel Hibbert a well-known English geologist and incidentally the son of a yarn merchant visited Shetland in 1817/ 1818 and writes of Tingon “it is a place devoid of smallest degree of interest “. It was very obvious he could not have explored Tingon as we did on our visit going by the remains we saw of derelict crofts, dykes, water mills and fishing lodges, it had to been a thriving crofting and fishing community supporting 15 crofting families, the census in 1899 there was a population of 99. There has also been a chapel or church and burial ground which was looks as if it has been deliberately destroyed in the distant past; it is marked on a recent map as a pile of stones. There was an abundance of wildlife the moors was alive with, several species of birds, as we reached the cliff top we were met with the warning cry of the peerie hawk (Merlin), and the distinctive sound of red throated divers on the Tingon lochs.

Ocran Croft House Remains
Tingon Cliffs
Tingon Seals

Along the shore at a place called the Hellya Lodges you will find the remains of fishing lodges, the only place around the rugged Tingon coast line where you could land a boat and it had to be fine weather. We came across the ruins of small buildings down near the sea which possibly be former lodges. The bulk of the crofters would also be fishermen no doubt working for a laird or fish a merchant who could afford to build sixareens (six oars) wooden boats. These boats would most likely have been kept at Steness a sheltered beach a few miles away. The lodges would be used to store fishing equipment and a place for the crew to rest up when waiting on the sea tide to be favourable for their fishing, the fishing grounds of this part of Shetland were teeming with all species of fish.

Fishing Lodges Hellya

It was the stories of the crofters being cleared from their homes and lands which made sombre reading with eviction notices demanding people were to leave with only a few days to pack up all their belongings. This was sadly a very common occurrence in the 1800s crofters being displaced by unscrupulous lairds more interested in making money from sheep than the tenant crofter. However this was not the case in Tingon it was people within their own community that served eviction notices on their neighbours 14 crofting families. Two brothers who had been born in Tingon returned from the gold fields of Australia in 1865 with plenty of money and were in a position to offer a high rent to the Tangwick Estate for the whole of Tingon a sum double the total rent paid by each individual croft at that time. The offer of the rent would have been made to the factor of the estate and the owners who resided in Edinburgh it would appear were unaware of the evictions which were carried out by the brothers, the last crofters were cleared by 1866. After the evictions the brothers built the house Newton which is very well built and most likely built by professional stonemasons, the house was and still is roofed with Welsh slate.

Tingon Farm House

On our return journey from Tingon somewhat later than planned and in the pitch black night I became aware of a bright flash of light every few seconds, further along the coast to the south west and realised this was the Eshaness Lighthouse with its warning beacon making sea voyagers aware of the rugged rocky coastline. The joyous sound of my fellow passengers singing in the bus was somewhat different to the dire circumstances of perhaps some of their crofting predecessors so cruelly and unjustly forced from their homes all those years ago.

Eshaness Lighthouse

I enjoyed my trip immensely and am very grateful to the Shetland Flock book Society the Doull  and Ramsay families for their hospitality  on the day and special thanks to the Ramsay family for the use of their research in my blog thank you for the opportunity to tell a small part of our crofting past.

Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 5.

Continuing my journey with wool & yarns and quoting from the directory of Alistair McDonald which is highlighted in bold print. I have also added in my images of places we have visited over the years.

Staple.” A lock or tuft of fibres.” From the staple of the sheep’s fleece one can tell many facts regarding the life and well- being of the animal. The outer part of the wool staple is similar to a thatched roof its layers helps repel the weather especially rain sleet and snow while the lower part of the wool staple provides warmth to the skin of the animal. I was told that in a really cold frosty winter the sheep would produce more soft inner wool for warmth.

The staple is made up of tightly packed fibres which vary in thickness and style depending on the breed of sheep. As I am discussing my subject primarily Shetland wool I shall endeavour to pass on some of the facts I have discovered in my time with Shetland wool. My first instruction in 1967 on how to gauge Shetland wool was on the look of the wool staple, the fineness of the fibres plus the staple must be of a uniform length, a certain amount of crimp even and well defined, the staple had to be sound a tender weak staple was a sign of the animal having had some health issues most likely around lambing, not to be confused with the break closer to the base of the staple caused by the rise of the new wool growth. I learned from one crofter in particular to look out for a “bird’s beak” effect at the tip of the staple where the wool turned inward and downward on itself, I was told this was how to identify a younger animal most likely a first shear, an older animal shorn a few times tended to have a flatter staple, also he said look for slightly more open fleece. “Pink staple” the points of the staple have a pink appearance to it and the actual staples are tender and brittle with a distinct tearing noise when you break it. I asked a vet about this who tested a sample I sent to him and the result came back that it was a cobalt deficiency, however just lately a shearer told me this pinkness was caused by really wet weather leading up to shearing. This wool season has been the worst cases I have ever seen and considering our exceptional wet summer could add substance to the latter explanation.

Very Fine Wool Staple
Fine Wool Sheep

Staple length. “The average length of fibre in a particular sample”. When I started out as a wool grader and sorter I was told an extremely important part of determining the grade of wool, was not only by the fineness of the staple but also the uniformity of length throughout the whole fleece. I was to discover that it was possible to have the finest fibre staple throughout parts of the fleece however a coarser longer guard hair could appear hence the need to hand sort the fleece separating the different qualities. This lack of uniformity was probably because of the introduction of Scandinavian breeds brought over by the Vikings who settled here beginning in the 9/10th century. That is the popular theory however I personally would like to think before the Vikings arrival there was a smaller native sheep with fine wool and with the introduction of the foreign blood the original Shetland had lost its identity to some degree. When first judging wool on the hoof in 1995 I was told if the britch on the sheep or fleece could not be covered in the palm of your hand then it was excessive and a reason to down grade the sheep or fleece. However there is another theory which has merit that a ewe needs a heavy britch to protect its udder when lying on the heather. Yet another belief that if a ewe has too much wool around the udder area it prevents the lamb from suckling I know some crofters shear the belly wool prior to lambing.

Coarse Wool Sheep
Coarse Staple

Tweed. “ Term sometimes used for knop or fleck yarns, now synonymous with Donegal. The derivation of the term has been attributed to the area around the River Tweed in the Scottish borders once renowned for the production of woollen textiles, and also, more credibly, the miss-reading of the term twill on a hand written note”. When we first became involved with knitting yarns we had several of these knop yarns spun for us by Hunters of Brora.My personal knowledge of the term tweed is quite different, in past years we had close contact with Hunters of Brora and TM.Aidie of Voe and their products woven from wool we supplied them apparel such as jackets, waistcoats and kilt lengths.

Little Ness with Colsa Isle
Uradale Organic Farm

Twist. “It is the twist that holds the fibres together in spun yarns. Measured in turns per unit length. A tightly twisted yarn will be stronger and harder than a yarn with less twist. Twist is either described as a either “S” or”Z” depending on the direction of the twist. Excess and irregular twist is used in the production of fancy yarns. This can lead to difficulty in controlling the yarn in the knitting process”. My only experience of twist was in the “ wirsit” worsted lace yarn in 2008 when we recreated a 100% Shetland 1ply yarn for the museum lace collection it took some time to master this.

Fladdabister Shetland Ponies
Derelict Croft Sandsound

Washing. It is quite amazing how many garments end up looking like used dishcloths when every item sold have washing recommendations attached. What is going wrong? There are two reasons the washing has not been carried out properly or the garment has not been made properly. As to the first, rigid adherence to the instructions is essential and I would suggest that most people were washing correctly they do not take the same care with drying. Most instructions say “dry flat” and this is the instruction which is the most disregarded perhaps because of lack of space. If a garment which is hung up to dry the weight of water in the fabric will pull down on the fabric and it will stretch. Even in yarns with a high degree of elasticity the stretched material may not recover its previous shape. With cottons and some synthetics, especially if they have been hand knitted at a loose tension, recovery may be possible. Washed garments keep their shape when dried on a jumper board.

Jumper Board Staney Hill 1980s
Jumper Board Courtesy Ella Gordon
Pointataing Walls

Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 4

Scouring.” A washing process which removes dirt and spinning oil from garments. Do not confuse this with milling” Shetland white hill wool which has a grey look to it caused by rubbing into peat banks while sheltering from weather is very difficult to wash and often leaves a natural white yarn looking like a “off white”, in fact I heard that one spinner of Shetland wool had said up to 50% of the fleece weight can be lost. I also remember a spinner say that to produce 1 kilo of yarn you require 2 kilos of wool.

Burn in Full Spate
Hill Sheep
Peat Hill

Shetland. When tasked by my employer to set up aShetland wool week it was obvious the first port of call was to approach the Shetland Flock Book Society who since 1927 safeguards the well- being of the true Shetland sheep. I have judged the society annual show and sale since 1995, the event and was delighted when the society was in agreement to host the event. Shetland wool week is such a positive lucrative experience highlighting our culture and heritage its aim is to raise the profile of Shetland sheep and its wool and bring it to the attention of a world- wide audience. In my life with Shetland wool handling over 80% of the local Shetland wool clip annually for 55 years, I have seen it is also as the most maligned name in the textile trade both near and far. I highlight the issue in a previous blog imitation Shetland wool and yarns in that post I refer to the research carried out by Alistair McDonald. I once again quote below from Alistair’s technical directory.

 “No doubt the real Cheddar owes its flavour to different conditions and ingredients. Because of the local grazing and the particular breed, the local cows must produce milk just a little different from others. The process is special; it is a farm craft. The other so called Cheddar cheeses are made throughout the U.K. & Ireland from milk collected from a host of farms and made in an industrial process.

The comparison between Cheddar and Shetland cries out to be made.

The Shetland yarn you are offered by most suppliers today will contain no Shetland wool from the Shetland breed of sheep. It is somewhat similar in type to the original Shetland which was spun from wool grown in the isles.

 Since writing the blog on imitation Shetland I now have been made aware of a technical testing procedure that can identify the true origins of the fibre used in a particular yarn or textile product. Although this procedure is costly it would be a way for our island’s council to apply it to their brand operation Project Selkie, which was a very good marketing strategy, unfortunately for some reason it was not applied to Shetland wool. In my opinion it would be a worthwhile investment to safeguard our iconic Real Shetland Wool for future generations. Meantime I shall continue to use my social media opportunities through my blogs to tell the Real story.

Judging Wool on the Hoof 1995
Wool Week 2019 Opening Ceremony
Three Ram Logo, Our Registered Brand
Crofter with Selkies (Seals)

Singles. “One ply yarn. If strong enough there is no particular problem in knitting single yarns if they have been produced for the knitter, and are wound properly although there will probably be some wale superagility in the fabric”. Our first singles yarn at J & S was a woollen spun Cobweb yarn supplied by Hunters of Brora in the 1970s. We now stock 100% Real Shetland Supreme single & 2ply lace a undyed worsted ( wirsit) yarn.

Rough Seas Burra Isle
West Sandwick

Skein. “Another name for a hank”. In 1968 when we were supplied with yarns spun from Shetland wool we bought from local crofters my job was to twist 4- 2oz or 8 hanks of yarn into what we called a head which was the most popular method of selling the yarns.

First Yarns on Hanks

Spinning. “Spinning is the production of a continuous length of material suitable for conversion to fabric – woven, knitted lace or braid- or for other industrial uses”. As I have said throughout my blogs on Shetland wool I have never been involved with spinning however I have been closely involved for over 50 years with the mills that have produced our yarns.

Fine Wool Sheep

Spun yarns.” Yarn spun from loose fibre as opposed to continuous filament”. Throughout my working life I have only had experience of spun yarn from our own Shetland wool; however I can distinguish the difference between different wool mills spinning especially from yarns spun from non-Shetland wool.

Hand Spinners Knit Camp 2010

Descriptions or Meanings Used in my Work with Wool & Yarns. Part 3

The terms and meanings in this part of Alistair’s directory I have found it difficult to find an image to describe some of the terms so I have used some of my images from our life time of travelling throughout our beautiful islands.

Saint Ninians Isle

Lambs wool.Yarn made from the first clip from sheep up to 8 months old, but the term has been used for soft woollen spun yarns from short staple”.

A very rare commodity in Shetland due to the fact that there is little accommodation in order to in winter the lambs, I recall one season collecting about 700 kilos of Shetland lamb’s wool out of approximately 260,000 kilos, not enough fibre to create a unique product, so when there is a product for instance knitting yarn entitled Shetland grade 1 & lamb’s wool the latter is usually Australian.

Shetland Lambs

Lanolin. “The grease which is in the wool when it is on the sheep. In commercial spinning one of the first operations is to remove this wool from the grease so there is none in in spun yarns”. Lanolin is the base for certain ointments and cosmetics to improve skin softness for instance over the last 50 plus years, I have often been asked by visitors of the wool store can I feel your hands a task that I never tire of!

Hands on Wool

Merino.Breed of sheep mostly found in Australia and New Zealand producing one of the finest wools of 24 microns or less, however it cannot compare to the soft handle of Real Shetland wool”. The Merino produces a much heavier fleece, in the 1990s I became involved in a project to produce a Merino Cross Shetland sheep which would carry a heavier fleece with a softer handle unfortunately the confirmation of the animal did not meet the standards required.

Busta Sandness

Metric Count. “A length per unit weight system based logically on kilos and meters”. I found it difficult to make the adjustment traditional Gala count used by Hunters of Brora our spinner since the 1960s. When asked to provide a metric count for the Shetland Museums Heritage collection, I said 2/22.5 Gala which I am pleased to say proved to be correct.

Micron. “Measure of the width of a fibre, 1/1000 mm”. I always quote the average measurement of our finest grade of 24 microns, it is possible to have a finer fibre from the neck and shoulders of a Shetland fleece, and however this is in the minority. I recall in the 1980s an old friend a retired geologist with an interest in sheep and wool told me he had measured on a microscope, the neck wool of a Shetland sheep to be 18 microns. Our main wool buyer at that time a company from Bradford sent 4 of his Japanese textile customers to visit us unaccompanied it was my duty to take them around and explain about sheep and wool. When asked the finest micron count of Shetland wool I unwisely told them my friend’s findings however it was impossible for us to source that, who would take the rest of the fleece. My boss called me to the office a week later and said our main buyer was furious with me and suggested I be sacked. I asked why, when the Japanese visitors arrived back in Bradford they had asked for 5,000 kilos of neck wool! My reply was in future I suggested you accompany your customers or at least send a translator that understands the Shetland dialect!

Supreme 1 Ply Lace

Milling. “A washing process which brings up the handle on garments usually knitted from woollen spun yarns, such as cashmere, lamb’s wool, and Shetland”. In times long gone Shetland weavers used to take their woven cloth down to the sea fasten it to a flat rocky shore and let the incoming waves and tide work the cloth.


Mixture. The most common definition is a yarn made up of fibres of different colours such as black and white fibres to produce a grey yarn, or, blues greens for lovat mixtures. The term is also used for a yarn with mixed fibres in the blend. Woollen spun yarns, Shetland in particular, lend themselves to the production of mixtures”.

Heather Hills from Burra

Natural Yarns. Yarns made from animal, or vegetable or mineral fibres. In recent years the term Natural has also been used to describe undyed yarns or yarns dyed with natural as opposed to chemical dyes”. In 1997 we along with Yarns International and Hunters of Brora produced the undyed natural yarn Shetland 2000, now Shetland Superior. To the best of my knowledge we were the first to produce an undyed Shetland in larger quantities.

Supreme Natural Yarns
Flock of Many Colours

Oil. Spinning oil is added to woollen fibres in both the woollen and worsted manufacturing systems to assist in the spinning process; this has to be removed at some stage in the production process. Worsted yarns are often scoured on the cone after spinning and the oil in woollen spun yarn is normally removed from the finished garments or the cloth. Oiled wool sweaters are usually knitted from an undyed worsted yarn”. The range of cones at J & S is all supplied in oil to make it easier to knit on the hand frame knitting machine.

Sullum Voe Major Oil Port

Packages.” The most usual package for machine knitting is the cone. Yarns on balls or hanks have to be rewound into a suitable package and the small hand winder is the only implement available to the knitter. In spinning yarn the final process is usually coning if the yarn has to be used for machine knitting. If the same yarn is to be sold for hand-knitting then it has to be made into balls or hanks. These are very expensive operations and the cost is added to the yarn. Buying hand knitting yarn for your machine is therefore both costly and time consuming”. At first in 1968 we at J & S started with 5 shades of woollen spun yarn made from our own Shetland wool and processed at Hunters of Brora.

Hand Knitters at the Guild
Stacks Hillswick

Ply or Fold. At its first stage a spun yarn is only one ply. Thereafter this one ply or end is twisted or plied with one another to produce a two ply or two fold yarns and so on to three-fold and four-fold. Plied yarns with different coloured ends produce marl yarns. Our first sample spin of our worsted spun Shetland 1 ply was 20s worsted one of our local highly experienced lace hand knitters test knitting for us said “It is an excellent yarn however it is as fine as the hair on my head it would be to fine for the average knitter “, so we took her advice the count was increase to 16s.


Wirsit Stole Mary Eunson
Dale Walls

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

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

Since beginning my blog posts on my life with Shetland wool I appear to have concentrated more on sheep, wool and crofting. I would like to share with you more about the yarn and textile side of the business which began in the late 1960s I received a lot of help and advice from our spinners at Brora, in particular  Alistair McDonald sales executive at the mill. Alistair had a wide knowledge and a lifetime in textiles in the borders of Scotland. Alistair had composed an alphabetical list on the various textile meanings and most of my working life been guided by his writings, over the decades I have been asked many questions which I have been able to answer by referring to his text, perhaps this will also clarify points that are more difficult to understand. I spoke to Alistair a few years ago when I started blogging and asked permission if I could make use some of his descriptions in my blogs. I am pleased to say he was in agreement with this; I have used his description and added in what context it has and in some cases still is used at J & S, also some of my memories at work involving the subject. Alistair’s original description is in bold letters. I have added in some of my images from around Shetland.

Burravoe Sheep

Aran.The original Aran yarn and sweaters probably originated in the Aran Islands of the North West coast of Ireland”

 Catherine and I were very fortunate to meet up with a crofter from the isle of Aran who had his own wool spun into genuine Aran yarn. He explained to us in great detail how the vast bulk of so called Aran yarn flood the market and is made from foreign wools which have never seen Ireland, something I told him we had in common with the misuse of the name Shetland Yarn. At J & S we do have a 100% Real Shetland Aran type which is worsted spun but does not have the characteristics of the original Aran woollen spun weight, but is still a very high quality product. When I showed the crofter our Aran type yarn, his response was “to be sure you’re as bad as the people who imitate Shetland yarn! Having never been to Ireland I would imagine Aran as an island group similar to the islands below where my ancestors came from and are mostly flat and exposed as in my image below.

Isles of the West Coast of Shetland

Batch number or Lot number. “Each batch of yarn made should have a distinct batch number because each batch is different. Even with sophisticated spinning and dyeing machinery and techniques in use today colour variations do occur”.

 This fault used to be fairly common when we sold our yarns on hank there was no way of labelling each hank so I remember very well more than once receiving an unfinished garment from an irate knitter with an uneven strip across the garment. With the introduction of balling and labelling the yarns this fault more or less ceased.

First Yarns on Hanks

Blend. “The mix of fibres at the commencement of spinning. This may be different fibres, for instance wool and synthetic, or different qualities of one fibre perhaps wool with lamb’s wool, or different colours of the same fibre, for instance a grey mixture made from a mix of black and grey fibres”.

 When asked to create Shetland 2000, now Supreme jumper yarns, we had to blend some of the natural yarns together due to a lack of some of the historic shades such as Gulmoget.

Shetland 2000 Undyed Yarn
Coloured Shetland Sheep

Branding. “Is the process of giving a meaning to specific organization, company, products or services by creating and shaping a brand in consumers’ minds. In my mind one of the greatest mistakes made regarding Shetland wool of all time failure to protect what is a precious commodity, I shall expand on this as we go through Alistair’s textile directory.

Carding.” A teasing out process used on wool and cotton fibres prior to spinning”.

 In times gone by Shetland ladies would have carding evenings where they would gather and have a night of carding, drinking tea and of setting the world to right, this would while away the bleak winter’s nights.

Rolag – Shetland Dialect (Rowers) Hand Cared Wool
Rowers Shetland Yoals

Chunky.” A bulky heavier yarn”.

  In the 1960s we had two such yarns woollen spun at Hunters of Brora used to construct heavier hard wearing garments. Unst Fleece which was 4/7.5 Gala count equivalent to a heavy Chunky. Embo 3 ply yarn, Gala count 3/11 this was the original “Harris Tweed” yarn Hunter’s suppled to Western Isles weavers before the onset of the “Orb” mark which stipulated the yarn had to be spun in the Western Isles. The name of the yarn Harris had to change and so was renamed to Embo a small village not far from Brora.

Viking Tunic in Chunky Yarn by Sandra Manson

Combed Yarns. “The purpose of combing of fibres in cotton and worsted spinning after carding is twofold; short fibres are removed are removed and the remaining fibres are left in a roughly parallel order. The result is a stronger even yarn”.

 We introduced natural combed tops in 2004/5 this followed on from a visit to a knitting and stitches show in Harrogate. We were unable to take greasy fleece with us due to environmental reasons, I remember one lady saying why you not supply combed tops do, and the rest is history!

Shetland Combed Tops

Cone. “The yarn package most familiar to the machine knitter”.

 With the introduction of  yarn on cone in the late 1960s and with little storage space available meant I had to carry huge heavy cartons upstairs where they were stored in the balcony area of what had been the North Roadside church our only building of note at that time. I do not think the language would have been approved of by past congregations as I struggled to carry boxes of 100 cones upstairs approximately 50kilos today, than goodness for the maximum weight limit of 25 kilos today.

Cones Today

Dyeing.” Yarn can be dyed after spinning either in cones or in hanks. Loose fibres are dyed prior to spinning typically in the woollen system. Garments can be knitted in undyed yarn and piece dyed after manufacture. Today in most yarns colour is reasonably fast. If you knit with yarn in “oil” when you wash the garment to remove the oil there may be a great deal of loose dye which colours the water. You must wash and rinse until all this is removed, before wear. The washing often lightens the colour of the garment so the colour of yarn on this cone does not always give a true indication of the colour of the finished article”.

I had no experience of dyeing our yarns as it was a highly skilled procedure, one of our heather mix yarns had as many as six colour combinations in order to get the finished result.

Heather Mix Cone
Autumnal Heather Hills

If you want more details or on how to order any of the above yarns please contact  I will continue with Alistair’s’ directory in another post.

Blog One Hundred

I could scarcely believe it when Leon, who publishes my blog, told me your next blog will be your hundredth. I remember well when the coordinator of Shetland wool week Victoria Tait said I would have to have a social media presence something I knew nothing about. Victoria suggested I tell my story of my life with sheep and wool. Our grand-daughter Lynsey was a great help to me as well as introducing me to her friend Leon Riise who offered to publish my blogs. I cannot thank him enough for all the excellent work he has done for me over the last three years bringing my journey with Shetland sheep and wool to a global audience. I was very pleased and surprised by the reaction of people from around the world who have followed my story, thank you for all your support and comments on my life with Shetland sheep, wool, yarn and textiles.

I thought it only fitting that I pick out some of my favourite blogs to help celebrate my 100th posting.

Blog 1, Island Life

Island Life

Blog 5, My Early Years with Wool.

My Early Years with Shetland Sheep & Wool

Blog 8, ‘ Sheepie’ My First Employer.

John “Sheepie” Smith, My First Employer

Blog 8, New Directions at work.

New Horizons at Work and My Personal Life

Blog 28, Natural Undyed yarns.

Natural Undyed Yarns 1997

Blog 30, Papa Native Shetland sheep

Papa Native Shetland Sheep 1999

Blog 40, New Owners

New Owners

Blog 42, The Gunnister Man

The Gunnister Man

Blog 43, Jeemie Moncrieff And Wirsit Wool

Jeemie Moncrieff and Wirsit Wool, 2008

Blog 47, Wool week 2010

Wool Week, 2010

Blog 62, Real Shetland Yarns

Roadside Beanie – The Beginning

Blog 79, My Shetland Wool Week Experience

OoieOllie – Summing up my Year as Wool Week Patron.

Crofters at Work

Continuing with my life with crofters, I would like to add more detail of the work involving working on a croft. I have spoken about this in previous blogs however I feel it is important to have a closer look at some of the tasks the crofter has to undertake. My own experience of croft work was as a child on our family croft of a few acres of in by land and later on my holidays on a small croft in Vidlin. This period of crofting to me was more like a holiday the weather appeared to consist of glorious stress free sunny days. It wasn’t until my working life began at J & S and my daily contact with crofters that I began to understand and appreciate the commitment and sacrifices made in order to survive on a croft.

Ronas Hill Cliffs

I will begin with the round up for the annual shearing, of the Shetland sheep on Ronas Hill the highest in Shetland at over 900feet and one the most remote and wildest parts of our islands. Situated in the north of Shetland it and the nearby Collafirth Hill dominates the surrounding area its rugged steep slopes help form Ronas Voe a sheltered inlet of water in past times home to whaling stations it also help shelter fishing boats escaping the stormy seas of the North Atlantic. On the opposite shore and at the mouth of the voe is an area of land called Tingon in times gone by home to fourteen crofts and their families who worked the land and fished the rich fishing grounds to the north west of Shetland. Walking this coastline you come across the remains of fishing ‘bods’ booth where the crofter fishermen would shelter and store their gear.

Ronas Hill Courtesy of Alex
Fishing Bod Ruins Tingon

My first venture climbing Ronas Hill was in 1988 a group of us camped on the beach at the head of the voe and at first light began our ascent passing by the ruins of a former fishing station there were several along the seashore sheltered by Ronas Hill. As we travelled upward through the rocky terrain I recalled a tragedy which my grand-father witnessed in the 1930s, his fishing boat along with several other vessels were at anchor in the Voe. It was a Sunday morning and the Sabbath respected by the god fearing fishermen of that era as a day of rest. Some of the crews took advantage of the fine weather and made the arduous climb up Ronas Hill sadly for one crew member this proved too much for him and he took ill and passed away on the side of the hill.

Looking Up Ronas Voe
Ronas Hill Climb 1988

 On that climb we witnessed the wild sheep they reminded me of mountain goats with their ability to run up the rocky slopes. I remember thinking how is it possible to gather these sheep in such a difficult terrain. With the help of photos courtesy of local crofters and photographers Kathleen Anderson and Alex Williamson one can appreciate the difficulties the crofter face. Their images aptly sum up one of the most arduous tasks of the “ caas” {gathering} up the Shetland sheep from this desolate landscape.

Caaing Courtesy of Alex


Gathering the Sheep Courtesy of Alex

 In order to carry out this task it required many hands it was as in times gone by a community event each crofter would have a particular of hill to cover with their sheep dogs in order to drive the sheep to their final destination the sheep ‘ cro’ sheep pen this could take up to six hours to accomplish. Ronas Hill was divided up at one time into five separate ‘caas’ {gatherings}, Burrisness, Feal, Outer Feal, Clifts and North Shore.

Success Courtesy of Alex

Sheep numbers have been greatly reduced for various reasons my first recollection of handling the wool from this area, while it was all Shetland sheep the fleece had distinct characteristics it was fairly small around about one kilo in weight, The wool staple was a fairly long guard hair with a very fine under wool the handle the handle was surprisingly soft despite the coarse outer wool. I would say it resembled some of the small sheep I had seen in the west coast of Norway the Vilsau it is possible that they were brought over by the Vikings in the 8/9 th century when they settled here.

Alex Shearing Courtesy of Kathleen
Tea Break Courtesy of Kathleen

Once the sheep was shorn came the labour intensive task of conveying the wool bales and sacks down the cliff face to the seashore and then on to the boat which was the only means of transporting the cargo to the transport at the head of the Voe. Quite a laborious task all told and not for the faint hearted a way of life that has carried on for centuries and is testimony to the crofter and their hard work and dedication.

Dangerous Work Courtesy of Kathleen

It has been a great privilege for me to have known these crofters for over fifty years and have the greatest respect for their way of life we hope it continues in years to come with a younger generation of crofters. I would like to thank Kathleen and Alex and for their images and information on how they carry out this unique part of their crofting life.

Waiting on the Boat Courtesy of Kathleen

I would like to thank Kathleen Anderson and Alex Williamson for the use of their photos also the information they gave me on their work in Ronas Hill, much appreciated. My next blog on crofting will be the role of the family cow and what it contributed to crofting life.

Crofting and the Impact it has had on My Life.

It would be fair to say my working life has revolved around crofting, after all at the end of the day they in fact pay my wages. Working at J & S since 1967 we have been responsible for the marketing of well over 80% of the annual Shetland wool clip so it stands to reason we have to strive hard to improve results for all concerned.

 To get a better understanding of crofting life I would like to add more detail to my work with the crofters some of their stories also how life was and still is on a Shetland croft. Over the decades I have learned of life on the croft and hardships involved first hand from the people who work the land. I will endeavour in my own way try to pass on some of the challenges, stories and way of life they have had and still face in crofting life in general.

Modern Shetland Croft

In order to have a better understanding of crofting life in our islands I will explain what a croft really is. This is a question I have been asked many times over the years by visitors calling along my work at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers. It is best to go back in time to help best understand the basic set up of crofting life.

Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers

After Shetland became a part of Scotland in 1468 the lairds land owners put in place by the King of Scotland often his family or friends, were ruthless with the crofters who worked the land and living off the rent paid by the crofter which would mainly be salt fish, butter, and knitted garments, they then sold these goods to the German merchants who established trading posts in the isles known as Booths. The lairds also received income from the Dutch fishing fleet which harvested the bountiful seas around Shetland.

Fishing Booth Whalsay
Whalsay Harbour Booth in the Background

 A major change took place when the Dutch fishing fleet departed around 1700 the laird lost out on revenue in order to reduce this financial shortfall  they became merchants in their own right building shops and renting fishing boats “ sixareens” six oars, to the crofter who had now become a crofter fisherman. They could only sell their products croft produce and fish to the laird who made sure they were always in debt to him. I discovered only recently that in the past my family ancestry from the Walls area were in fact merchants who most likely obtained their wealth from the hard toil of the crofter fisherman.

Lairds House Windhouse Yell
Salt Fish Drying

Crofts were small tracts of land a typical size would be around 12 acres although they could be much smaller as was the case with the croft I grew up on as a child. The land was owned by the laird usually powerful cash rich merchants. When I was really young I remember walking down the road towards the pier with my grand- father, we stopped at the small building which was the milk shop where we would take our milk container each morning to collect the milk we required. With the absence of cattle in the isle all the milk would arrive on the small ferry Tirrick. I asked him what we were doing here without our milk pail he replied, “To pay Cussons for living on the Island “. For many years I thought this was some distant cousin who was the landlord, not the true owners Cussons Group the largest independent soap manufacturer in Britain!

Croft Layout in the Past
Traditional Shetland Croft House

 The crofter would improve the barren ground and turn it into rich green pasture the laird would then evict them from their croft, many were forced to leave the isles others tried to settle on impoverished land along the seashore or on the side of heather clad hills. I was told some of my ancestors were cleared off the land at a place called the Garths Banks at Fitful Head in the south of Shetland by Bruce the laird and travelled north settling in Burra Isle. They just had time to gather up their belongings and had not left the area before the smoke from their burning homes darkened the sky over Fitful Head. The story goes before the people left they gathered together in a group and one elderly person put a curse on the laird, that his line of the family would bear no children to carry on the lairdship and in fact the laird died barren of a successor. As you travel around Shetland you will see many ruins of croft houses many with a sad story to tell.

Croft Ruins
Fitful Head
Croft Remains Fitful

These clearances were common practise amongst lairds throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and after decades of abuse and evictions this came to an end after seven years of fighting for crofters rights to be improved by the formation of the Land League movement. One of the main protagonists being John McPherson ‘ The Skye Martyr’ a crofter from Glendale in the island of Skye who took on the establishment of lairds, church leaders, sheriff officers and even the military, his vision and efforts brought much needed change in the crofting way of life throughout Scotland.

Oliver Shearing with Skye Crofters 1981

My next blog on crofting will show the arduous tasks involved in shearing one of our most remote and highest hills Ronas Hill.