‘shetland wool’

this post is not meant to bash either to the company or the person that contacted me, I just thought it was interesting to share and sparked a train of thought within me..


I was recently contacted by quite a large clothing brand, based in the UK wondering if I would write a piece for them about Shetland as their new collection featured a number of designs knit in Shetland Wool. The piece was to give people a feel for the landscape, lifestyle and culture here. I was interested but asked if they could tell me where the Shetland Wool came from in their collection. As you know I work for one of the only Shetland Wool companies – Jamieson & Smith, and most definitely one of the only ones in Shetland itself. The reply I got stated that the wool wasn’t going to be from Shetland so they understood if I didn’t want to write a piece.

What bothers me about it is that if I hadn’t asked about the origins of the wool and just written the piece that the people reading it would feel ‘wow, this is where the wool in my cardi/jumper whatever comes from’ when obviously it won’t be. Even without writing it, if it say’s on the label ‘Shetland Wool’ while that might not mean anything to some people, to others they will know about Shetland and the connotations of the wool. This made me think about the day I went to at the Shetland Museum a few months ago and reminded me of a phrase..

handwritten note of unknown date found at the bottom of a typed letter by A.I Tulloch in relation to Shetland knitting
handwritten note of unknown date found at the bottom of a typed letter by A.I Tulloch in relation to Shetland knitting

Now times have changed since this was written (there was no date on it but it was a long time ago) but it still holds true in some regards, and I don’t blame companies for calling the fibre they use whatever the manufacturers have called it. I know enough about this industry to make a guess at the mainland company probably responsible for the fibre that will be used in this companies products. The unique landscape and climate of Shetland is what makes the wool the way it is, Shetland Wool even from mainland UK feels different – not in a bad way, it just does. Usually those makers of Shetland Wool not from Shetland are specialist breeders and indie spinners, Unfortunately, the phrase ‘Shetland Wool’ has come to mean a style of spinning and type of fibre rather than origin of fibre which I can be pretty sure that’s what this will be.


Perhaps I am a bit touchy, as a Shetlander involved in the textile industry, I understand how fragile it is. We don’t have the amount of knitters and sheep that Shetland had at one time. Our industry is strong, thanks to things like the internet, Ravelry and Instagram to name a few but it is fragile. We rely on people wanting the real thing and coming to us for it.

Those fibre manufacturers using and in my opinion abusing Shetlands name are relying on the strength of the word ‘Shetland’ and the connotations surrounding it. As knitters and makers I think it is our place to ask questions about where wool and fibre comes from, I don’t like doing it (I’m not a fan of confrontation or arguing) but there are ways to do it without being an arsehole about it, On a wider scale wovember does a brilliant job of celebrating wool – all wool throughout November, and asks the questions in an educational way, have a look at their website here.

Preaching over… back to the knitting and on a cheerier note I got an email yesterday with a very exciting picture – the cover of this year’s Shetland Wool Week Annual!

thumbnail_SWW Annual vol.2_cover

Yes – I had one more Crofthoose design in me! And they made it into the cover!! I cannot wait to see this year’s Annual and I know I will treasure my copy forever, pre-orders begin next week and I’m sure this page will be updated soon. Very excitingly too, my lovely pal Vivian is the model for the annual so I can’t wait to see all the pictures.

Speak soon, xx

40 thoughts on “‘shetland wool’

  1. Good points, well made. And yes, it’s a pity that they weren’t entirely up front with you at the beginning. (Flattering that they asked you, but still…) Lovely cover of the SWW Annual. I’ll be pre-ordering mine as soon as I can, though i don’t know when I’ll ever get up there.

  2. I have ideas about how to answer the question I’m about to pose (or at least what approaches I would take), but just as a thought exercise: how would you choose to describe (or alternately, how would you like companies/marketers to describe) wool that comes from Shetland sheep raised outside of Shetland?

    (My first instinct would be to say something along the lines of “wool from Shetland sheep raised in X place” to make the breed/origin distinction explicit, but I wonder if there’s a better way to go about it.)

    1. Hi Dianna, I agree and most of the producers of Shetland Sheep from out with Shetland do do that, probably to benefit from the positive connotations of Shetland Wool (as they should) the problem is the company which I’m pretty sure this is (no proof of course) isn’t using Shetland Wool at all, just 100% wool spun in the ‘Shetland’ style! Xx

  3. Thanks for sharing this. My first question was whether anyone has tried to obtain Protected Designation of Origin status for Shetland wool, in order to protect its name. However it seems that Shetland wool DOES have PDO. So that makes me wonder how the company are able to use the name “Shetland Wool” if it’s not from Shetland. Wouldn’t that be in breach of the PDO status?

    1. Hello, their are issues with the PDO Shetland Wool has, such as that some Shetland producers in Shetland can’t even use it. Unfortunately the politics of it have caused more problems than it has solved! Thanks for your comment :)

  4. I’m curious to know how your refusal was received. Were you able to explain your position to them & make them understand how important it was? Do you think that they might think twice about labeling in the future? I think you should write about this for Wovember, and maybe even the Shetland Times.

    1. Honestly Kathy, I didn’t reply when I got the answer it wasn’t Shetland Wool. I don’t blame the person that contacted me, they were very understanding. I can’t imagine a company of that size would care too much about the labelling, wool is wool to them!

  5. Well said… Although I can’t help noticing that the price of the annual has gone up… Why is that? £14 is a bit pricey, to my humble opinion…

  6. Nicely written piece Ella and good to read the comments too. The Tullock quote says it all doesn’t it? As a spinner I don’t think there is any / much similarity in spinning wool from Shetland Sheep from Shetland and spinning wool from Shetland Sheep from mainland. I know some people will disagree with me…. But I think it is the conditions – climate, vegetation that make Shetland Wool from Shetland Sheep the special fibre that it is. Looking forward to reading more comments. Perhaps if more questions are asked as you asked about the source it would help to get the message across.

    1. Agreed. The other day I was knitting a lace pattern with Icelandic wool in the foyer of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh (it’s a long story!) and someone asked me if it was Shetland……….The Icelandic lace yarn has a very different texture from the Shetland, because although the climate and environment are SIMILAR, they are not identical.

  7. Interesting post. So Shetland wool can mean:
    – wool from sheep who live on Shetland (I assume from the Shetland breed, although maybe that’s technically another category)
    – wool from the Shetland breed of sheep
    – wool spun in a ‘Shetland’ style, involving no Shetland sheep nor Shetland itself

    Is the last of these really a recognised category that this clothing company could claim was generally understood, in a ‘Greek style yoghurt’ kind of way? Most people did not believe Greek yoghurt solely came from Greece and didn’t really care which way it was labelled, because they liked that style of yoghurt regardless. I don’t think the term is generally known, and so I think the company is straying rather close to the line in terms of marketing. Someone will no doubt write their brochure for them and customers may even think they are helping the Shetland wool trade as a result.

  8. It is all really amazing and in many ways horrifying, that wool that has nothing at all to do with either a Shetland sheep or The Shetland Islands can be spun in a certain way to increase the profits by using the Shtland buzzword. Apart from anything else it degrades the fine original product. Lovely front cover on the Woolweek Annual you must be delighted. Well done.

  9. WOW, good on ya!! You did a great job and ‘we’ are proud of you!!!! Nice comments from others and I WANT those ORANGE mitts…or whatever they are :) Fabulous. Take care!

  10. so wish I could come for Shetland Wool Week! One of these days! LOVE the crofthoose mitts and can NOT wait to cast those on! Thank you, Ella for all of the food for thought in this post. Stay the course, we are counting on you!!!!!

  11. well put, someone from marketing decides that shetland wool conjurs up images for the consumer of something special (which it is) but, they don’t feel they have to use the real thing.

  12. Very interesting piece – it seems the marketing dept see the value in being connected to Shetland, however tenuous the link!
    Just yesterday, I read mention of ‘Arranmore’ yarn on the Fringe Association blog. I made the assumption that the yarn must be Irish, and looking on the company’s website it was difficult to find info – seems to be a US/UK brand, but not made in Ireland, which I felt their sales blurb would like you to believe it was!

      1. Dianna, thanks a mill for clarifying that – I’ve just had a better read of their blog. The other day when I looked at the yarn description ,it mentioned a mill that traced its roots to donegal tweed – I didn’t understand that as literally being ‘made in Donegal’ – I thought the mill owner/worker had links with Donegal mills. I think I was having a fuzzy-brained day! I’m actually really pleased to hear the yarn is being made in Ireland, so appreciate you setting me straight :)

  13. It’s about time the UK legally protected names such as ‘Shetland’ (and Cheddar, Wensleydale and the like) in the same way ‘Champagne’ is commercially protected. Well done, Ella, for being so protective yourself

  14. Hi Ella
    I can agree with you and share your concerns. Unfortunately a similar thing has happened with Merino. Here in NZ most of our Fibre is exported and primarily to China. Then companies import clothes with the brand ” Merino and are sold at the reasonable prices”.By experience I have learned that th se clothes are certainly not of the quality of Fibre that we know merimo for. I guess we can only say ” buyer beware ” and continue to live with integrity in our own lives and with our products. But it does feel like betrayal and deception.

  15. I work in wine so know a little about the ups and downs of PDO’s and their equivalents, it’s also a trade where this kind of behaviour would get short shrift. You’re very right to call attention to this, if they want to market their product as ‘Shetland’ it should be just that for exactly the reasons you describe. It doesn’t matter how high the quality of their product is, if they’re suggesting a provenance it doesn’t have it’s misleading. The Shetland name needs to be protected to celebrate the unique qualities of the wool produced there and the yarn made from it, because it really does matter!

  16. This is interesting. I’ve often had conversations like this –
    – Where do you get Shetland Wool from?
    – Shetland
    – Well, there’s no need to be sarcastic!

    A lot of people don’t know WHAT Shetland is, let alone WHERE it is……They think it’s just a logo. There is a similar problem with Fair-Isle……sometimes any woolen ( or even acrylic) garment with patterning gets labelled ‘Fair-Isle’. It ought to be labelled ‘Fair Isle TYPE’, or something that makes it clear that it is not Fair Isle.

  17. Very interesting post, Ella. I have knit a lot of things with J&S yarn, and love the feel of it in my hands and when I wear the finished item. This year I used some Shetland yarn sourced from sheep in England and it was definitely different than the yarn from Shetland. I wonder if part of the problem is the breed name of the sheep vs. the location of the sheep themselves. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to make a distinction.

    The cover of the annual is gorgeous! I love the Crofthoose mitts. Please let us know when we can order copies.

  18. Keep true to you and your values and heritage and you will always be on solid ground. Too bad they could be up front but I like how you handled yourself and stated your position on you and your heritage. I love learning about it and supporting it as a knitter and a love.

  19. Good on you Ella for your article. If the French wine makers can protect their wine names and make it illegal for others to use them, why can’t it be made illegal to claim the Shetland name for products and wool not from Shetland? I am a babe in the woods with all this legal stuff be it seems totally false, misleading and wrong to use a name that is not yours.

  20. I think it’s a very valuable debate. I breed Shetland sheep in mainland Scotland and sell my wool online. To me there’s no other way to describe or brand my wool other than as Shetland wool (because it’s wool from Shetland sheep) Provenance/traceability is a huge part of what people want, and they are able to see clearly from branding and website that this is Shetland wool from the Lammermuir Hills. People love to hear about the flock, the landscape and our care of this amazing breed.
    I think it’s a shame that there is no ‘native’ PDO description for wool from Shetland islands Shetland sheep, in the same way as there is for meat? We can describe our lamb and hogget as Shetland lamb etc but not as native Shetland lamb. Rightly so.
    I have no idea what sort of wool it was this firm was going to end up producing! Odd indeed.
    Definitely looking forward to trying those crofthoose mitts (I might have to miss out the fingers though!) and planning to do it in my own wool using undyed shades of white, moorit, black and shaela. Although the colours are great…. Perhaps I need two pairs!

  21. I thoroughly agree. I always ask where the wool comes from. Not where it is spun or dyed. People need to ask.

  22. I think these companies know perfectly well what they are doing – marketing things as if they come from a scenic part of Scotland when in fact they could be produced and made in China for all we know. I just recently came across a company in Germany selling “British” clothing via a catalogue. They also liberally use the terms “Shetland” and “Fair isle” because they are deliberately selling an image of a place rather than actual items from a place. Asking you to write about Shetland in this context would appear to be a cynical attempt to make the products sound more genuine.

  23. I agree with your article completely. With that said, to turn the thought around to the positive, at least it is still in our current language and not lost to history. As a knitter it intrigued me but when I became a spinner it caused me to ask more questions if those were actually from Shetland, of Shetland wool, or if it was styled as a Shetland sweater. As with Marino sweaters I concluded this just can’t possibly be. When discovered my recent obsession, fleeces, I learned not all sheep are the same even within a herd. Now after doing a few breed studies (rare breeds of US, Canada and Britain) I understand so much more but it all began because of a Shetland sweater at TJMAXX. I hope this helps you feel more content. Thanks for your article. It is a good reminder.

Leave a Reply, i'd love to hear your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.