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Shetland Wool Week 2011

by Deborah Leggate -

Jordan Ogg reflects on Shetland Wool Week 2011 and previews this year's event, which is shaping up to be the best yet.

If you want to experience the real essence of Shetland then forget Vikings, forget fishing and forget the fiddle - wool is where it is really at. Look close enough and you will find the stuff almost everywhere in the isles. Turn to the hills and it is there in a dizzying range of natural colours on the backs and bellies of the diminutive native sheep. Or head into town and walk along Commercial Street where locals and visitors alike can be seen dressed in Fair Isle finery all year round, even during the rare balmy days of Summer.

Wool played a pivotal role in the development of Shetland's modern history. The crofting industry was founded on the native breed of sheep, and from there came knitting - a poorly paid, yet necessary form of domestic toil, usually done by women to help supplement the income of the typical pre-oil age family. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the legacy of the isles early wool industry has gifted contemporary Shetland with an international reputation for excellence in knitting and textiles.

Developing this reputation is at the heart of Shetland Wool Week. The annual festival began in 2010 under the stewardship of Jamieson & Smith Shetland Woolbrokers, the Lerwick-based company that has been buying most of the isles wool clip from crofters for over sixty years. Jamieson & Smith got involved with the national Campaign for Wool, a five-year project spearheaded by The Prince of Wales to champion wool and reinvigorate the global wool industry. From there Shetland Wool Week was born.

Following the success of the inaugural festival, interest from other organisations soon followed. Shetland Organics, for example, got on board in 2011 by creating a pop-up shop in the grand premises of Vaila Fine Art on South Commercial Street. There, proprietor and Shetland Organics member, Dorota Rychlik, brought together several fleeces, along with knitted and felted works, all produced using organic Shetland wool from a handful of local suppliers.

That display was just one of many wool-related events and excursions that saw visitors from across the UK and as far afield as America, Japan and Germany converge for a week that covered the entire spectrum Shetland's wool industry. These included a visit to the Shetland Museum and Archives to explore the vast collection of historical woolen treasures in storage; a talk on how to follow a career in textiles by renowned American designer, Mary Jane Mucklestone; and an exclusive Fair Isle masterclass by all-round knitting expert Elizabeth Johnston.

The 2011 festival culminated in the announcement of the winners of The Real Shetland Stories competition. Up for grabs was the top prize, a Vi-Spring hand crafted bed worth £11000, complete with a mattress made entirely from Real Shetland Wool. The competition was run by Shetland Amenity Trust, Jamieson & Smith and Curtis Wool Direct, and received over 100 entries, each one a story framed around a memory of wool, sheep and textiles. Forty runner-up entries were selected to appear alongside Shetland crofter Drew Ratter's winning story in a book to be published later this year by Shetland Heritage Publications.

Shetland Wool Week 2012 is set to continue in similar fashion, only with an even bigger programme. Again, workshops will be a key feature. Patron of the festival, Kate Davies - writer, designer and keeper of one of the web's most visited textiles blogs at - will host a session on how to become a designer and publish patterns. Another writer, Susan Crawford, who is currently working on textiles book tentatively titled Vintage Shetland, will also run a session based around her research.

A new edition to this year's festival will be a makers market, where local knitters will demonstrate their skills and sell their work. This development is a marker of how Shetland Wool Week is giving the isles many gifted knitters and designers a new platform to promote their craft.

Aith resident Outi Kater is a prime example. One of her designs, the "Leaves Tam", was spotted in a Kate Davies blog post from the 2011 festival. Davies soon received a flood of enquires on the tam, which in turn led Jamieson & Smith to commission Kater to produce a knitting pattern for launch this Spring.

Kater, a native of Finland, designed the cap around the Scandinavian knitting tradition she grew up with: "The open book motif in the body comes from the coastal areas and islands of the eastern Gulf of Finland, and has probably been known elsewhere in the Baltic region. Traditionally it would have been knitted in black and white, but I decided to give it a modern twist by using six colours, plus one more in the rib and the crown. The tropical reds, oranges and greens definitely turn your thoughts away from the dark northern winters."

Being recognised as a professional designer means a great deal to Kater: "Designing knitwear is one of the most satisfying and exciting things I have ever done. It lets me combine my interests in ethnology, folk art, and art in general." She also points to the importance of developing traditional crafts in a contemporary context, an ethos that is central to the idea behind Shetland Wool Week: "Traditional crafts deserve to be preserved, and one way to do this is to renew them. It is wonderful to be able to draw inspiration from a diverse set of traditions to reflect the multicultural world in which we live."

Another unexpected benefit to come from Wool Week 2011 was the appearance of a 19th century Fair Isle cap, bought on eBay for a mere £7.39 by Masami Yokoyama from Japan. She had attended the festival and decided to donate the cap, which was uncovered during a house move in Palmers Green in London, to the Shetland Museum and Archives. Textiles Curator with the museum, Dr Carol Christiansen, said she was delighted to receive the donation: "I would say that this piece is now the oldest item in our knitting collection... It's really in super condition and it's just fantastic that Ms Yokoyama found it on eBay and generously donated it to us.'

With preparations now well under way for the this year's festival, one could be forgiven for thinking that Shetland Wool Week 2013 has a hard act to follow. However, with more producers, designers and organisations on board than ever before, it is likely that 2013 will only lead to further new discoveries, and help forge new connections within the bustling world of Shetland wool.

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