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Tenth Wool Week a huge success

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shetland Wool Week is over for 2019 – and what a week it was! As the Shetland Amenity Trust’s Mat Roberts joked during the opening ceremony, it’s now the largest event in Shetland that doesn’t involve setting fire to anything.

The festival was conceived a decade ago on a relatively modest scale. However, its popularity has outstripped those early expectations and almost 1,000 textile enthusiasts took part this year, the vast majority of them from outwith Shetland.

The core of the festival was the Hub, set up in the gallery at the Shetland Museum and eclectically furnished with borrowed chairs, sofas, tables. There, throughout every day, scores of knitters worked their wires and chatted to friends old and new.

This was also the place to obtain information about the festival or about Shetland. A board with offers of returned tickets helped people, like the Dutch woman I spoke to, who had made their way here “on spec”, despite knowing that almost every event was fully booked. Lifts to the many rural venues were being offered here too.

Organisers plotted the origins of all those attending on a large map and there was a particularly large contingent from north America. In fact, this was almost certainly the first festival in Shetland – and probably one of very few anywhere – that featured participants from all seven continents, as the islands welcomed a knitter and writer all the way from Antarctica.

Pretty much every part of Shetland hosted events of one kind or another and it’s clear that the whole community is very much engaged.

The range of events – more than 400 of them – was extraordinary. There were talks, workshops, classes, tours and exhibitions, with something for everyone. Themes included Fair Isle, lace knitting, crochet, weaving, spinning, felt, dye, machine knitting, brioche and double knitting. There were all sorts of practical, problem-solving, creative and design led classes too. For those moving from hobby to business , there was a marketing and branding workshop.

Exhibitions included one in the Hub itself, featuring the work of Vivian Ross-Smith, who explores links between wool and craft, fine art and crofting. Another, elsewhere in the museum, displayed the remarkable work of Susan Pearson, who uses material immersed in cement to produce fantastic sculptural figures that embody a contrast between delicate lace and brutal concrete.

There was a fundraising aspect to the week, two. One group focused on raising money towards the cost of an MRI scanner for Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain Hospital; another launched an appeal for the Shetland PeerieMakkers, a project that teaches children to knit. Meanwhile, another fundraising effort featured a beautiful selection of scarves by Faye Hackers, a lecturer at Shetland College. Each was dedicated to a local figure in textiles, which were silent-auctioned for charity.

The tours available were wool-themed, but were also designed to offer something for those non-knitters accompanying their partners. There were croft tours every day, and, for the first time, the Shetland Flock Book Society hosted two tours, taking in stunning locations at Vementry and Lunna. Shetland’s two most remote islands, Foula and Fair Isle, also offered day trips: a real opportunity not to be missed. Other guided tours took in the other islands, including Whalsay, and the north, south and west mainland.

Uradale Farm, near Scalloway, was another popular destination. There, visitors could see native Shetland sheep up close and hear a talk on the breed, the history and the fleeces, followed by a lunch of soup and bannocks.

Tours were often themed, for example a local photographer, Austin Taylor, led a tour intended to show how inspiration could flow from the landscape. Another tour took visitors to the area where the Gunnister Man was found. The remains, buried in a peat bog, dated from around 1700 and his clothes were perfectly preserved. A permanent exhibit in the Shetland Museum tells his story.

This being Shetland, ponies were also involved. These two – Fivla and Vitamin – put in personal appearances outside the Shetland Museum and Archives to mark Fair Isle Friday, when hundreds of other people across the islands pulled on their Fair Isle jumpers.

There were opportunities to drop in at the workshops and studios of many local craftspeople; and, of course, there was no shortage of tea and cake. Talking of tea, one of the more unusual workshops, led by local medical herbalist Suze Walker, looked at some of the most common conditions associated with knitting – such as tendonitis and repetitive strain injuries - and how plants can be used to heal them through creating herbal teas.

In the evenings, there were all kinds of diversions, including a knitting quiz night, a film and dinner night, dances and traditional music. Towards the end of the week, there was a Makers’ Market, held in the Anderson High School, where local producers could display and sell their products.

The Wool Week Annual is an established part of the event. Packed with articles of interest to knitters, whether attending the festival or not, it’s always in high demand.

Every year, a Patron is appointed for Shetland Wool Week and he or she designs a hat. This year’s Patron, Oliver Henry, has spent a lifetime working with wool and his design was to be seen all over Shetland. It can be downloaded from this page.

It was an extraordinarily intense week, especially for those who enrolled in lots of workshops and attended the full range of other events. However, plenty of visitors took time out to look at the many other things that the islands have to offer, visiting sites such as Sumburgh Head and Eshaness. For many, though, the most enduring legacy will be the making of new friends or reunions with old ones.

For one young knitter from Shetland, a tutor during Wool Week, the international flavour of the festival will take on personal significance. As it drew to a close, Terri Malcolmson headed off to Tamil Nadu in south-east India.

Shetland forged a link with the region immediately after the 2004 tsunami, which devastated the coastal communities in that area. The Shetland Islands Council and an associated group of volunteers have been involved in a range of projects since then, including teaching exchanges and fundraising for a school minibus and equipment. A micro-credit scheme was set up, and mopeds were bought to enable administrators to visit clients.

Terri, a talented designer, will teach Fair Isle knitting to women in the Tamil Nadu province. The two-week trip is part of an initiative to provide women in rural areas with the skills to gain sustainable, well-paid employment. The province produces over 40% of all textiles in India and in fact it was during a volunteer visit to Tamil Nadu that the late Jimmy Moncrieff, former General Manager of the Shetland Amenity Trust, had the spark of an idea that eventually led to the creation of Shetland Wool Week.

Terri will be writing a blog throughout her trip and you can follow her adventures at

Next year’s Shetland Wool Week will take place between 26 September and 4 October. The programme usually appears online in May, and the demand for tickets is such that it pays to be ready when sales begin. It promises to be just as engaging and enjoyable in 2020 as it has been in 2019.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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