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By Chris DyerMay 19th 2022

With the lambing season complete and an array of fruit and vegetables growing in the yard and polycrub, the ever-lengthening days of June are a special time as Shetland approaches the Simmer Dim. It’s a busy time across the islands, as Garths Croft Bressay owner Chris Dyer explains.

The abundance of coastal wildflowers and perpetual call of moorland breeding birds provide a daily visual and audible companion as we approach the Simmer Dim in Shetland.

With good luck, thick woollen jumpers and blankets can be packed away although the impending shearing, or clipping season, provides a crucial link to the start of the annual cycle of woollen production.

From croft to farm and from hill to island, quad bikes, off road vehicles and boats will be put into use, alongside working dogs and many people – all involved in the gathering of sheep flocks through the summer months in advance of shearing.

Whilst some will work independently, contracting teams are engaged and families take part in the various stages including separating or “racing off’ ewes from lambs, shearing, rolling, packing, and transporting fleeces. With over 150,000 sheep within the islands – compared to a human population of approximately 23,000 – a colossal number of fleeces from a variety of breeds of sheep are produced each year.

Climate and grazing are conceivably the two most significant influencing factors concerning the fine quality, strength, and warmth of Shetland wool. A raw product with an array of benefits, from a national perspective within Britain, wool became fundamental to the development of the medieval economy with landowners and ecclesiastical institutions defining their wealth and status through sheep.

Until the Industrial Revolution, no form of manufacturing had a more significant impact on the socio-economic development of the United Kingdom than the wool trade supplying the foreign looms of expert weavers in the Low Countries and with the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords, to this day, seated on “the woolsack”.

From a contemporary Shetland perspective, the development of wadmal (derived from the Old Norse ‘vaðmál; “cloth measure”), a coarse, thick and often undyed woollen fabric for outer garments and working clothes became synonymous across the North Atlantic region from the medieval period into the eighteenth century. Wadmal was used as a means of payment, rental and exchange and woven on a warp-weighted loom throughout areas of Scandinavian influence.

The discovery of loom weights on archaeological excavations across Shetland indicates the importance of sheep as domesticated livestock and textile production. These loom weights were often made of steatite, a soft naturally-occurring rock referred to by the dialect term kleber. That usage derives from the Old Norse klébergi, meaning loom weight stone, and is referenced in the Shetland landscape by places such as Clibberswick, in Unst and Kleber Geo, at Fethaland, Northmavine.

As a primitive breed, having evolved to not just survive but thrive on poorer quality hill grazing, Shetland sheep would naturally shed their fleece each year, leaving the new growth underneath.

Before the advent of electrical motors, handpieces, drive shafts, cutters, combs, and all of the accoutrements of 21st century shearing, Shetland sheep would be gathered in stone crøs and rooed by hand, separating the old and new growth of fleece and providing the best wool for hand- spinning.

Visitors should not be alarmed if a walk in the hill at this time of year leads to encounters with ewes with only half a fleece!

As the summer continues and sheep benefit from ambient conditions, they are more liable to shed their fleeces. Visitors should not be alarmed if a walk in the hill at this time of year leads to encounters with ewes with only half a fleece!

Fence lines, posts and peat banks become favourite areas to rub against, naturally divesting the fleece and leading to the beautiful dialect term hentilageats – a tuft of wool fallen from a sheep's back which is gathered from pasture or hillside.

Shearing at Garths Croft Bressay begins in June with rams, gimmer lambs and hoggs, the latter two being just over one year old and producing the finest quality first clip lambswool.

Of course, the act of shearing causes the ewe to feel a little colder which can impact on milk production as greater energy goes into producing bodily warmth. For this reason, I do not begin to shear my ewes until July and even August, when I am confident that the lambs are now grazing and fully ruminant animals.

Alongside the principal woolbrokers where most of the Shetland clip is destined for knitwear manufacture, weaving, carpets and mats, an encouraging number of farmers and crofters are producing their own yarn.

Together with the burgeoning number of textile visitors that are engaging with Shetland and the success of events such as Shetland Wool Week, the humble sheep fleece remains the dynamic catalyst it was many centuries ago.

Inspired to visit Shetland? Start planning your trip today.

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