Notice: We will be updating our site in preparation for the 2014 season. Our apologies for occasional disturbances but DO keep us in mind!
Shetland Wool & Knitting- a Legacy
Flung out between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea are the Shetland Islands. A remote, chilly, cloudy and wind whipped gathering of open, peat-clad, rocky scattering of islands. For centuries, the inhabitants learned to carve out a livelihood through fishing, crofting and wool. Knitting developed through either domestic needs or to barter and exchange with.
Evidence points to the islands having a stock of primitive Soay sheep during the Neolithic era some 4500 years ago. Later, during the 9th century, Norse settlers came to Shetland with their native breed of sheep; inter-breeding with the Soay and developing a hearty native sheep having a low protein diet and living off grasses and seaweed. The wool was first woven, then, kneaded into a cloth called Wadmal. However, being soft, light and warm, it was soon recognized that this exceptional wool was most suitable for knitting. Knitting developed and soon became a key handcraft of Shetland and a significant part of its economy.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Hanseatic merchants from Germany and Dutch fisherman established a trade in stockings with Shetland. Debts were once paid in knitted stockings to the Bishop Holar of Iceland and this practice matured into a Shetland hosiery trade.
When their men were battling the sea as fisherman, the women stayed behind to take charge of the home and family, the croft and enhancing the family’s income by knitting. It was commonplace that a woman would be seen trudging from the peat beds with a “kishie” full of peat, a knitting belt around her waist and her hands busily knitting while on her way back to the croft house.
Fine Shetland lace shawls and stockings were world-renowned and products that Victorian high society ladies jealously wanted to own. Among many was Queen Victoria, herself wearing lace stockings or a lace shawl made in Shetland. Another traditional form of Shetland knitting, which developed and became popular during this time, was Fair Isle knitting and famous for their brightly colored patterned knitwear, having been dyed with local plants and lichens to produce rich and lasting natural colors.
One seldom known fact, which propelled Shetland knitting to high peaks, is that of Edmund Hillary, together with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, was clothed in specially ordered handmade knitwear from Shetland in his successful pursuit in conquering Mount Everest in 1953.
Through thousands of years, Shetland wool and Shetland knitting skills have been handed from one generation to another creating a unique knitting and textile heritage identifying Shetland for true quality.