Weave - A Long Tradition

by Andy Ross -

Shetland is best known for its wonderful knitwear, in particular, its lace-knitting with the finest yarns making the lightest weight fabrics. But an even older traditional skill is making a comeback in the islands. Weaving, the interlacing of warp and weft threads to form cloth is once again becoming popular, in small scale, high quality, hand made production with highly skilled makers creating vibrant colour and pattern to delight the eye.

A Potted History

We are not exactly sure how old weave is in these islands. Cloth is very fragile and does not last long in cool and moist conditions such as we have in Shetland. However, at the Jarlshof excavations on the South Mainland, loom weights were found which indicate that woven cloth was made on an upright loom. Loom weights are generally made of baked clay or stone, in various shapes, with a hole drilled or bored through the weight so that a warp thread can be tied on. The warp threads would have hung from a bar with the weights keeping the warp tight.

Gunnister Man

Another intriguing clue about cloth in Shetland is the clothing that the Gunnister Man was wearing when he died. Gunnister Man was found in 1951, in Northmavine, in the north of Mainland. The jacket that was found with the body has been well preserved and shows what archaeologists believe is a typical working class outfit from the late 17th Century. The coat is made from undyed wool in a simple weave called 2/2 twill. A 2/2 twill is created when two warp threads are raised and the weft thread goes under them, and then over the next two warp threads. On the next weave line (called a pick), the pattern is offset so that the weft thread advances a step. The resulting cloth has attractive parallel diagonal lines running through it, is dense and warm and, because of the way it is made, drapes well.

Adies of Voe

One of the most well-known names in weave from the past in Shetland is Adies, a company based in Voe on the Mainland. Adies produced cloth from their factory until the late twentieth century, over a hundred years, and the records, sample books and pattern books can be seen in the Shetland Museum and Archives. At the moment, there is research on the material being undertaken and this will add considerably to the understanding of weave in Shetland.

Contemporary weaving

If you are looking for weave, now is a good time to be finding quality woven pieces. This is not an exhaustive list and it is worth spending time talking to people about textiles to find those unexpected pieces from people quietly making cloth in their homes. Recommendations are however, to visit the Sandness business of Jamieson's Spinning to see the looms working, producing cloth which goes all over the world. The Wool Brokers in Lerwick has been working hard to produce woven cloth from natural fleece, and supports local makers through selling and displaying their products. Aamos Designs in Scalloway is worth a visit to see the exciting patterns and colours used by Emma Blain, and the North Isles have a few makers and outlets producing vibrant, interesting and innovative work. In particular, Janet Holt who creates subtle cloth from her studio in Unst inspired by the landscape, and Tim Hardin who uses specialist techniques to create masterful images in weave, also from Unst. If you want to learn more about the past and see how people are interpreting it now, pay a visit to the Shetland Museum, and contact the Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers who run the Textiles Museum in the Bod of Gremista. Our own organisation, Global Yell, supports design from a studio in Yell, and we welcome visitors.

It is a very exciting time for woven textiles in Shetland. See if you can find your own woven heirloom!