My 2019 Shetland Wool Week Experience Part 2

Sunday is normally my day of rest; usually spent writing my blogs, a Sunday run or occasionally watching a live game featuring Chelsea. Not this Wool Week Sunday! Our first visit was to the Museum and Archives, the various exhibitions and, of course the hub; focal point of Shetland Wool Week. We began with the hub and met up with Victoria and the rest of the hard working staff. They had seen a record number of people pass through the museum door on the first day. I met up with several old friends from previous wool weeks.

The Hub

We visited the various interesting exhibitions on show at the museum; the Nottingham – Shetland Knitted Lace research project, Lace Knitting from the Sea, Exploring Wool and Craft, Reconsider Wool, and Of the Land: Icelandic Wool.

We made our way into the centre of the town and on the way stopped to browse at the various wool related windows on display. We met with loads of Wool Week participants on the way to the hub and stopped for photos. Two in particular were old friends of mine, Mary Henderson, the designer, who was attending her tenth wool week, and accompanying her was Victoria Wickham who was on her 9th wool week visit.

Oliver and Friends
Smith and Robertson Fair Isle Window Display

 Our first stop was to visit Jamieson of Shetland’s shop in the centre of town and to have a chat with the person in charge of the shop, they were extremely busy so we did not take up a lot of her time.

Oliver at Jamieson of Shetland

Our next port of call further south along the street was to Vaila Fine Art and home of the Shetland Organic producers. We spoke with the owner and chatted to some of her helpers. One gentleman in particular had been chairman of the Amenity Trust and had been involved with the late Jeemie Moncrieff in developing Shetland Wool Week through the years.

Oliver at Organics

We then travelled home stopping first for lunch at a local café called the Dowry, we were very fortunate as most of the tables were taken up by wool week visitors! Fairly obvious proof that it was not just textile shops who were benefitting from all our visitors.

I went home for a short rest before travelling to the Clickimin Leisure Centre and the venue for the opening ceremony; this is our main leisure centre and the only establishment in the islands that could seat 500 guests! Catherine and I were seated with past wool week patrons and quite near the stage. There were a few speeches until I was called to the stage, Victoria and I had prepared a short speech and an introduction to HRH the Prince of Wales so I felt fairly confident. That was until I stood on the stage and saw the mass of Roadside Beanies; I was totally at a loss for words, extremely unusual for me.  I experienced a mixture of emotions apprehension, realisation and pride, the fact that so many people had knitted my Beanie in such a vibrant mix of colours, telling the story of my childhood crofting, fishermen that played such a huge and important part in the way of life in our islands.

Before my introduction of HRH the Prince of Wales, I explained briefly about the work of the Campaign for Wool and its role in setting up Shetland Wool Week. Who better to further elaborate on the work of the Campaign for Wool then its patron and founder HRH the Prince of Wales? This was a great honour for me and I had a sense of fulfilment as I had, in fact, carried out his orders all that years ago.

Claire and I at My Opening Speech

I will post a separate blog on the Seasons of the Crofter competition, Jamieson’s story competition and the Textile Charity Auction initative later on.

My 2019 Shetland Wool Week Experience Part 1

I had a mixture of emotions regarding this Wool Week, apprehension, the fact I was the first male patron and if anyone would knit my Roadside Beanie, were uppermost in my thoughts. Could I cope with the opening ceremony and the fact I had to make a speech? I also had to introduce a video message from the person ultimately responsible for Shetland Wool Week and our patron HRH The Prince of Wales in his role as convenor of the Campaign for Wool, of which our Wool Week was part of. I was to give a powerpoint presentation on my 50 + years working with Shetland wool, before a very knowledgeable crowd of people. I was most apprehensive of the fact the conveyor of Shetland Wool Week, Victoria Tait, had asked if I could give two classes on my subject, Shetland wool handling. I also had a great sense of pride and gratefulness that I had been part of this highly acclaimed event and had played a role in its beginning. A sense of sadness and appreciation of two of my friends no longer with us who also had played such an important in establishing our event on the global stage, sadly no longer with us. Jeemie Moncrieff of the Shetland Amenity Trust, who was the driving force of our wool week and Pete Glanville of Shetland Organics, a loyal and dedicated individual who was also one of the everpresent supporters of wool week.

I will begin my journey which started in the wool store on Friday 27th September giving an afternoon talk and demonstration on Shetland wool to a group of textile enthusiasts from Sweden on a Shetland wool adventures tour.

Visitors on 27th September

On Friday at 6pm, I judged the Shetland Flock Book Sheep Association’s fine fleece competition held in the local auction mart. It was an extremely difficult task as the wool quality was of a very high standard. The two classes of white and coloured comprised of 3 fleeces per entry, 60 fleeces in all. This was a very challenging and time consuming task, lasting 3 hours.

Fleece Judging
Overall Winning Fleece from the Island of Yell

Saturday morning at 8am I embarked on one of my favourite tasks; judging the Shetland Flock Book wool on the hoof, it was to be particularly special this year as I was not only the patron but it was also my 25th year at the event. When tasked to set up Shetland Wool Week, the first people I contacted were the flock book, custodians of the finest wool Shetland sheep since its beginning in 1927. My fellow judges this year was Derek and Charlie and between us we picked our final 6 animals in 4 classes; Ram lamb colour, Ram lamb white, Adult ram colour and Adult ram white. The final decision made in the ring was left to me, and as always wool is left till last and I had to move fast in order to finish before the auction starts.

Wool on the Hoof
Audience Viewing Judging

Auctions were on Saturday at 2.30 pm; I always wait until the wool champion is sold to see if, in fact, I have made the correct choice of winner. A previous year my Supreme champion judged from the 4 classes a black ram lamb sold for a paltry £50! I am pleased to say my champion fared better this time selling for £750.

Auction Sale
Sale Ring

I was glad to get home and have a rest before facing the rest of Shetland Wool Week and the opening ceremony on Sunday night.

Isle of Man, 2017

Catherine and I attended the 7th North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference on the Isle of Man between 12 – 15 October 2017. The purpose of the conference, held annually was to celebrate the native short tailed breeds of the North Atlantic. I was looking forward to visiting the beautiful Isle of Man and giving a presentation on Shetland and its crofters, sheep, yarn and the virtues of our islands. I unfortunately had missed the visit to Iceland, the Lofoten Islands and Faroe Islands due to unforeseen circumstances.

The aim of the conference was to promote the fleece of these sheep, in particular discussing how to add value and interest in these rare sheep.  A series of lectures, farm visits, craft workshops and fairs were included. This year it was the turn of the Manx Loghtan sheep’s story to be told in its native setting.

Majestic Master

Approaching the islands by air, one could have been forgiven for thinking we were off the coast of Shetland as the similarities were very obvious; breaking sea on rugged cliffs. Travelling to the town of Douglas we passed through abundant green pastures which are a very rare sight in Shetland. We arrived at our hotel (aptly named the Mannin Hotel), conveniently situated close to the waterfront and with picturesque views out over Douglas harbour. We registered our arrival with the organisers of the event and were introduced to our fellow delegates. Attending the event were people from the North Atlantic; Norway, Sweden, Aran Islands, Ireland, Faroe, Iceland, Orkney and the Western Islands of Scotland, as well as visitors from the U.S.A., Texel Island, Australia, France and Germany.

Poor Weather in Douglas

A series of visits and lectures took place concerning all things wool, a visit to a weaving mill, a fashion show showcasing products from the attending delegate regions and three farm visits. We began with a visit to a local sheep farm, and this was my first sighting of the native breed and their wool. The similarities between our own Shetland Moorit sheep and that of the Loghtan breed were very obvious, especially the characteristics of the wool.

Loghtan Flock
Loghtan Wool Similar to Our Moorit

Our spare time was spent discovering the Island. In order to do this I hired a car which helped us seek out hidden gems of the landscape, however I found driving extremely stressful, the roads windy and not easy to navigate, I could only guess how spectacular and dangerous the annual Isle of Man TT motorcycle race would be!

The unique culture and heritage of the islands Viking-past was wonderfully preserved in the museums and visitor centres. We visited Tynwald Hill, one of the island’s most distinctive landmarks and a signal of the Isle of Man’s independence as a self-governing dependency. The hill hosts an opening ceremony once per year and was established by Norse Viking settlers over a thousand years ago, he place where the Vikings held their parliament. Shetland’s ancient Viking Assembly was supposedly held on a small island situated on a loch in a valley called Tingwall.

Tynwald Hill

At the time we both remarked on the close similarities of our islands, however a closer personal link appeared earlier this year when I was contacted by a researcher looking into the origins of the Castlemilk Moorit Sheep. The group has been conducting research of the Castlemilk Moorit sheep since its development at the beginning of the 20th century at Castlemilk Estates near Lockerbie in Scotland. During their investigations they had found letters, dated March 1929, from the Castlemilk estate to none other than my old boss John “Sheepie” Smith who appears to have sold two Moorit Rams to the Castlemilk estate. Reading the Manx Loghtan story, which records the decline and revival of this primitive breed, there is no doubt a strong definite link to, Castlemilk Moorit, Manx Loghtan, and Shetland sheep. I had always known we had similarities with the Isle of Man, both island groups were part of the ancient Viking Principalities of Trondheim. Shetland and the Isle of Man are the only two areas in the U.K. that are not in the British Wool Marketing Board. Our Moorit sheep and wool are also very alike, and with the discovery of a direct link to my old boss “Sheepie”, I feel even closer to the Isle of Man and its vibrant Loghtan sheep.

John “Sheepie” Smith With Moorit Ram on His Left

I shall post another blog later on about our visit to this beautiful part of our British Isles.

Personal Challenge, 2013-2014

At this time in my personal life I was a member of our local Up Helly Aa fire festival; a community event which celebrates when the darkness is replaced by light. The event has Norse connections in that the main squad of men, the Jarl squad, dress up as modern day Vikings complete with burning a longship.

 The jarl squad, composed of 50 men and boys, do most of the work in completing the suit. During 2013 we were shown the prototype suit that the Jarl, chief Viking, had chosen. When I saw the kirtle, the garment worn next the skin, I took hold of it and asked the Jarl what it was made of. “Australian lambswool” was the reply, “No way,” I said “I am not wearing that! Do something about it!” At the time we were having the museum Heritage worsted yarn made so it was an easy task to add a black shade to the collection. The yarn was perfect; being worsted it had advantages over a woollen spun yarn. It was not itchy and it tailored well. It was also very adaptable as it wove well and we used it in creating our pouch for our belt, the weaving was carried out by Andy Ross of Global Yell.

2014 Jarl Squad

Toward the end of 2013 our suit was nearing completion and I was looking forward to the festival when fate took a hand, in November I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and told I would have surgery on December 17th. My life changed completely. A serious mixture of emotions took over and I was indeed struggling for the first time in my life. The morning of my operation my surgeon, Ms Webber came to talk to me. “We need you to focus; we need to aim for something.” I suggested our son was to be a father for the first time in March. “We need something sooner.” was the reply”. “I am in the Jarl squad in approximately 6 weeks- time I don’t suppose I will make that now”. Her reply was very straight to the point, “See you in the hospital canteen on Up Helly Aa day.”

I now realise this was her way of helping me to come to terms with my illness, a distraction from my plight so to speak, a positive thought going forward. I was released from hospital 6 days later; the best Christmas present possible thanks to the staff of our hospital. I was confined to bed for a period of time and now struggled to come to terms with my situation. I needed another focus which I believe helped me greatly; I began writing the history of J & S. When Jim Smith wrote 4 pages for the Royal Bank case study of their dad’s business dealings I suggested to him you will have to write a book someday. “Only when I take the boiler suit off,” he replied, sadly shortly after he passed away. At this point in my life I now realised suddenly that we are not immortal; not only will all Jim and Eva’s information be lost, so perhaps will mine. 

I discussed this with Catherine who agreed but with certain conditions. I contacted Eva and asked her permission. She agreed and said she would send in archive material relating to her dad’s business interests including J&S and with that, I began my journey.

 Thanks to modern computer technology this was not too arduous and I was also able to do work from home. Gradually I was able to leave my bed and managed to walk. A nurse would come once a day and tend to me, and also give me much needed support and advice.

After a few weeks I was able to go for short walks and as time passed gradually a bit further each day.

J&S Book

On Up Helly Aa day as Ms Webber had predicted, I met with her at the hospital and managed to take part in some of the festival activities. It was only later on I realised how fortunate I had been. Some people said it was down my positive attitude, that may have been part of it but the medical staff and my wife, family, work mates, and members of the Jarl squad, were at the forefront of my recovery. Of course, a great help was my journey through the decades, writing the story of my life in wool and my employers, the Smith family of Berry it gave me another focus. Last but not least my dog, Jo who had to put up with walking miles in order for me to regain my strength, my best friend, I owe him so much, and I miss him greatly.

I would like to say thank you to Ms Webber and all the medical staff that took such good care of me. I would take this opportunity to mention the MRI scanner appeal, which would be some important for the wellbeing of Shetland Islanders.

Ms Webber and I

In the summer of 2014 I was again given a task by my employer to make sure Shetland wool featured in a publication, In Search of the World’s Precious Wools. The photographer and author was travelling the world in search of the finest wools. Again I was given a very short time frame to achieve our aim. With the help of several Shetland sheep producers I am delighted to say we were selected in the book along with seven other countries around the world. I am very proud to say we not only were the only UK breed represented but also the only European breed. This publication is up there with Shetland Wool Week as one of the most successful projects in my life with Shetland wool. The book was published in 2015.

Precious Wools

North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference Norway, 2012

Attending the event from Shetland was Pete Glanville, of Shetland Organics, Meenie Mouat from Unst demonstrating Lace Knitting. Oliver Henry of Jamieson and Smith. Other delegates present, were from Iceland, Faroe, Norway, Orkney, and the Outer Hebrides.

Meenie, Pete and I

Two delegates from each area gave a 40 minute presentation on their company’s activities, also the cultural aspects and environment for their particular area. They also had goods for sale which was in the centre and open to the public, two afternoons. Each area had products in the Sheep and Wool around the North Atlantic exhibition which will travel around various countries. This is an excellent marketing opportunity for us; we have never been able to access these areas. Our products in the exhibition road show included a Real Shetland Throw, Knit Real Shetland Book, two of the new Supreme Lynsey scarves, one large stole and some yarn samples. The lectures were held in the cultural centre at Strilauent, which is in the district of Northhordland, which is well known for its crofting and farming.

Oliver on Our Stand

At the conclusion of the visits, traditional folk dance, music and singing took place, followed by a buffet consisting of local produce with no strong drink, water only.

There were demonstrations of hand spinning and knitting. There were two visits, first to Hillesvåg Wool Mill, where I caught up with Gunnar and his family.

Hillesvåg Mill

On the way to the mill, we visited a typical Norwegian croft, where the farmer, a member of Norturo, which is a cooperative of crofters & farmers, he showed us his Villsau sheep and talked about his work on the croft. At this farm I met an employee of Norturo, a young wool classer, blonde and stunning. She and two colleagues, one a senior person, were part of the conference; we spent a lot of time together. I was of the opinion all wool classers/graders were grumpy old men like myself, I was delighted to have been proved wrong!

Wool Classer and Crofter

Second visit was a visit to the Heathland centre, which consisted of a two hour walk with a guide who explained how they maintained the land by controlled heather burning. Lunch was also included. We also visited a weavers studio at Nordhordaland Arts and Crafts Centre. Two lectures took place here. We also had a visit to a deer farm, which I personally had mixed feelings about; my vision of deer is running wild through the hills and forests.

Norwegian Heathland Visit
Norwegian Sheep on Heathland

Delegates, 15 of them, all stayed together in one guest house, which meant lots of interaction on various subjects, all very good natured. I shared a small room with the late Pete Glanville of Shetland Organics, which says a lot for community togetherness!

Conclusion – Everything we had with us sold, the blanket kits, almost all of which on the first day. It is vital that we were involved in such a highly acclaimed event; after all we are part of the ancient Nordic countries. Guest countries also included were Sweden, Denmark, Finland, England, and South Africa. It was important that as region of the North Atlantic, we have a presence at this prestigious event. The fact that our exhibition products feature with all the other countries was also a great opportunity for us and costed us nothing.

Very worthwhile, hard work, made easier by a beautiful blonde Norwegian and her two colleagues, they asked me if they come and help out in our wool season!

RSY Book Launch 2012 and Heritage Yarns 2013

Following 2011s successful ‘Real Shetland Stories’ competition, the book launch event took place at Shetland Museum and Archives on 9 May 2012.

Real Shetland Yarns Book Awards

“Real Shetland Yarns” includes the forty final winning entries, along with the images, in a striking volume to be treasured and enjoyed.

Real Shetland Yarns Book Winners

Included in the publication was a fitting tribute to Jim Smith o’ Berry Farm who sadly had passed away in February 2012 and a piece he wrote about the family business of Jamieson & Smith. Were it not for the effort and vision of his father John “Sheepie” Smith none of this would have materialised.

From Left: Martin Curtis of C.W.D, Sarah Laurenson of J&S, Chris of Vispring, Janet Curtis of Vispring and Andrew of Vispring

Representatives from each organisation involved in the competition and publication attended the event.

Sponsors

Vispring, founded in 1901, was the first bed-maker to produce the pocket sprung mattress, revolutionising the way beds were made. Vispring has exclusive use of Real Shetland Wool to create its luxurious range of all wool beds. The Shetland Collection.

Vispring Bed

DNB is a Norwegian banking corporation which promotes sustainable development through responsible business operations; emphasising environmental, ethical and social considerations. They generously provided sponsorship in the form of Real Shetland Wool throws which were awarded to each author included in the book.

Partners

Curtis Wool Direct Ltd is suppliers of the world’s premier wools and parent company of Jamieson & Smith. Based in West Yorkshire, the company buys and processes the best quality wool from all over the world.

Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers Ltd, the main buyer of the Shetland wool clip purchasing over 80% produced in the islands.

Shetland Amenity Trust are the agency responsible for celebrating and championing Shetland’s cultural and natural heritage, and actively promoting greater public access to, and enjoyment, of the full heritage resources and services within Shetland.

Shetland Museum and Archives is the gateway to discovering Shetland’s unique heritage and culture.

Promote Shetland are the local organisation contracted by the local authority to project Shetland on the world stage as an authentic, creative and highly desirable place to visit, study or do business with.

Shetland Wool Week was first held in 2010 as part of the Campaign for Wool drive to promote wool as a sustainable and quality product.

The Campaign for Wool organisations have joined together to identify and promote the comprehensive environmental and product benefits which accrue to mankind as a direct consequence of sheep farming and the resultant products, of milk, meat and wool.

Heritage Yarns

In the summer of 2012 I was asked by Dr Carol Christensen to visit the Museum store, up the hill from us, to look at the museum knitwear collection. A collection of garments was laid out for me to look at dating back, in some cases, 100 years and most looked in mint condition. The handle (softness) of the garments, even with gloves on was exquisite. The reason for my visit was that the museum would like us, along with C.W.D.to recreate the “wirsit” (worsted) yarn used in the garments.

I had told them that this was possible however I would need threads or a garment to find out the weight of yarn. “Not possible,” Carol replied, “you will have to guess and we can photograph the garment with the shades we require” I said that was putting me on the spot as I had never worked with worsted yarn other than the Supreme lace range. I also had little knowledge of metric weights; however I would say this is similar to the Gala count 2/22.5, which was a range of Shetland yarns produced for us by Hunters of Brora.

Heritage Collection (Courtesy of Shetland Museum & Archives)

The wool we would use would be the finest hand sorted Shetland and would be of the highest quality similar to the wool we used to supply T.M.Adie of Voe in their Everest garment collection.

Carol approved of this and we supplied all the information to Curtis Wool Direct and in 2013 we had received all the 9 original shades required by the museum. I went down to Jeemie’s office with the “wirsit” (worsted) shades, and showed him and Carol the finished yarns. Their reaction was very favourable; the weight of yarn and shades was very similar to the garments in the museum collection. The new yarns would be called “Heritage” a suitable title as it was a very important part of our islands textile history.

Combed Tops and Heritage Wirsit (Courtesy of Curtis Wool Direct Ltd)

Another successful venture into Shetland textiles past recreating another iconic yarn which had been so important to the knitters and craft workers of Shetland.

Thank you again to the Shetland Amenity Trust for providing the other images.

Wool Week, 2011

I paid a visit to the headquarters of the Amenity Trust to see Jeemie Moncrieff in early January to discuss his suggestion of how we were to turn wool week into a major event. He told me, “We discussed how to achieve this the night of Wool Week 2010, do you remember?” I replied, “Vaguely, I cannot recall a lot about what took place that night!”

I said, “I agree; although there are a few major problems. We at J&S do not have the staff or experience to develop this and even if we did, all the relevant parties would not engage with this if we were at the helm. Also, in my experience of Shetland textiles they have never been united and never could be.” His response was to hit the desk with both hands and shout, “We will make it happen!”

If my memory is correct there were four of us at that first meeting. In his role as general manager of Shetland Amenity Trust Jeemie looked after the museum and visitors centres throughout Shetland as well as environmental projects such as recycling and the like. Promote Shetland was also the responsibility of the trust, and as the name suggests the body promoted all aspects of Shetland life including its culture and heritage.

Promote Shetland undertook the organising and promotional activities of Shetland Wool Week along with its other marketing work with other sectors within the Isles such as food and drink. The Trust was an independent group, however part of the Shetland Islands Council who financially supported the various trusts responsible for developing Shetland and its products.

In early 2011, Martin Curtis, joint managing director of our parent company Curtis Wool Direct, wanted to hold a story competition which would record a collection of memories and traditions of individuals involved in Shetland sheep wool and textile crafts. This was to be a joint venture between Curtis Wool Direct, Jamieson & Smith and the Shetland Amenity, the end result was a very favourable turn out of over 100 entries. Stories depicting everyday working life in crofting, knitting and textiles maps out what is distinctive about Shetland’s culture and natural heritage, a fantastic response from the people of Shetland! The winners would be announced at Shetland Wool Week 2011, the event would be held in the museum’s boat hall. The sponsors of the event were a mix of public bodies; Shetland Amenity Trust, Shetland Museum, Shetland Wool Week, Promote Shetland and the Campaign for Wool. Private business sponsors were Vi Spring, the main sponsors of the event: supplying a hand – made Shetland wool bed to the winner Drew Ratter. DNB bankers supplied Shetland Wool Throws to the other entrants chosen to be in the book, Curtis Wool Direct and J&S were also involved in the publication. Similar to Shetland Wool Week this was another highly successful event involving Shetland wool and showed the strength of public bodies working well with private enterprise for the wellbeing of Shetland wool producers and knitters.

Shetland Wool Week 2011 was launched on Monday 10th October running for one week and consisted of events and classes held in public venues; Shetland Textile College, Shetland Textile Working Museum, Shetland Museum and Archives and several local companies involved in wool and textiles took part.

The Shetland Flock Book society show and sale concluded the main part of the event at the Shetland Rural Centre where I judged the wool inside the ring on the live animal “Wool on The Hoof”; the winners received prizes from the main sponsor, again Vispring, makers of premier handmade beds using the finest Shetland wool. The Shetland Flockbook Society also has a fleece competition on the Friday night before the annual show and sale. Vispring were also the main sponsors of this event.

Judging the Wool on the Hoof
Flock Book Wool on the Hoof Winners
Judging Fleece Competition
Shetland Flock Book Society Fleece Competition Overall Winner

All images courtesy of Jim Nicolson from Cunningsburgh.

It was a fairly exhausting week but the beginning of something special that would put Shetland sheep, wool and textile firmly on the global map.” It could only get bigger”, said Jeemie. All the pieces just needed to come together and even I started to believe this would happen. It was a first, nearly all the people in Shetland involved in textiles were coming together, even if it were for one week!

Below is the 2011 catalogue of activities and shows the total amount of companies, events and classes available, quite a good selection which could only get better.

Thank you again to Jim Nicolson for providing photos of the event.