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By Toby SkinnerNovember 2nd 2020

Misa Hay is the founder of the Shetland Wool Adventures, running knitting tours of the islands and a beautiful new magazine. She explains her longstanding passion for the islands’ rich knitting culture.

How did you first become interested in Shetland knitting and textiles?

I’ve always had an appreciation for design and craftsmanship. And I love wool, as it is a wonderful natural material that we should be using more. It is very durable and it has excellent properties such as being renewable, biodegradable, breathable and brilliant for wearing in all seasons. Luckily, after falling out of fashion for several years, we’re now rediscovering this wonderful fibre.

In Shetland, we are very lucky to have the Native Shetland Sheep breed which was probably brought to the isles by Viking settlers. The native sheep are very hardy, and keeping them needs little human intervention. Ronnie Eunson described the uniqueness of this breed really well: ‘In essence; the Shetland sheep epitomises a sustainable system: It can get what it needs from its surroundings, as long as they are not overstocked. It can produce a lamb every year and a fleece. It can do all this and help combat climate change.’

How did you come to found Shetland Wool Adventures?

Many of my previous jobs were about promoting Shetland and what’s unique about it. For me, the local textile heritage has alway been an important part of this, and I’ve always been passionate about safeguarding and promoting this sustainable practice that has been passed from generations to generations. I had the privilege to be involved in organising Shetland Wool Week from its beginnings right until 2018, watching it become Shetland’s biggest annual event.

I’ve always been passionate about safeguarding and promoting this sustainable practice that has been passed from generations to generations.

Shetland Wool Adventures seemed like a natural next step. There were no knitting tours operators in Shetland in 2016, and I knew there was a demand there, so I decided to give it a go, launching just a handful of tours on the side of my full time job. Since then, the demand has grown fast, especially from North America. In 2018 I launched the Knitting & Hiking option which became particularly popular. It’s a real privilege to be able to meet people from around the world and make wonderful Shetland experiences for them.

What makes Shetland textiles special to you?

Shetland has something that makes it truly stand out – a rich, living textile heritage and a vibrant and creative textile manufacturing scene. In recent years the industry has begun revitalising its present and rediscovering its past. Whether it’s because people care more about the provenance of their clothing or are tired of mass consumption, Shetland is slowly rebuilding its reputation for creating outstanding, high quality and lasting knitwear. There has been a huge global resurgence in crafts, in particular hand-knitting which, for millions of knitters worldwide, is focusing attention on Shetland.

Shetland is a great place to get the right work/life balance, and to start a small business. Not only are there are many small textile businesses, but crofts are gradually diversifying and opening to visitors. Some of them, such as Uradale Farm, Foula Wool or Donna Smith even produce yarn from their own sheep’s fleeces.

It’s wonderful seeing many of the Shetland’s talented designers launching their own businesses and producing something that is completely unique.

There are so many amazing local textiles businesses. I’m inspired in particular by Donna Smith, Wilma Malcolmson, Nielanell, Ninian, Bakka or Mati Ventrillon. By no means is this a definite list. Running a small business requires many diverse skills, agility and willingness to constantly learn.

How did The Shetland Wool Adventures Journal start, and what was the thinking behind it?

In the spring, things unravelled over the course of a few days when the pandemic hit. I had been gearing up towards the busiest Shetland Wool Adventures season yet, with fifteen regular as well as bespoke tours scheduled to take place. But sadly it was not to be. Instead I was faced with the additional huge workload of trying to figure out what to do and how to keep my small company going.

But I’m a great believer in keeping positive and working through things. I had two options in front of me: become a victim of this harsh new reality we had found ourselves in, or take it on the chin, making some tough decisions and work even harder to get through this. And that was the beginning of The Journal.

Publishing and print have always been something I enjoyed immensely and for a long time I had been dreaming of starting my own publication. The pandemic was a catalyst for starting The Journal which is a combination of my passions – Shetland, the Shetland wool and textile industry, heritage, local produce, sustainable tourism, photography, publishing and beautifully produced print. I really feel very grateful for the opportunity to channel the anxieties of that time into something I’m absolutely passionate about – promoting what’s special about Shetland.

The Journal was created during challenging times, but working on it brought me joy and I’m very happy to have started a new creative project which will hopefully spread the love of Shetland, creativity and positivity further afield.

Tell us more generally about creativity in Shetland

What I love about Shetland is that on the side of a full or part time job, people often dedicate their spare time to developing their creative passions which often leads to starting a new business.

Shetland is a brilliant place to do this as there are many creative people here. I think the landscape and surroundings give people the opportunity to be creative. For such a small place there is so much talent and passion. Instagram is a great place to start looking as that’s where many people showcase their work, whether it’s visual arts, photography, writing or crafts. I cannot give a full list here but amongst some people that have been featured in the first volume of The Journal are Mike Finnie, Eve Eunson, Susan Molloy and Vivian Ross-Smith.

More pages from The Wool Adventures Journal