By Mary Jane Mucklestone
I fell in love with Shetland long before I visited it. I fell in love with Shetland through its wool, while re-stocking the shelves at the yarn shop in Camden, Maine, where I worked. It formed a glorious wall of color. I liked to sort the skeins, organizing them into color stories and marveling at the depth of color, the artful mix of various hues in the strands, and wondering how anyone could ever come up with such fantastic heathery colors. I loved the bounce of the fiber and its subtle sheen long before I attempted to knit with it. To tell the truth I was afraid to use it. I thought it was too fine, the needles required too thin. I thought that Fair Isle knitting was complicated. But I started to collect the yarn. Any ball in the sale bin, I’d nab. Sometimes I couldn't resist a color and bought it for full price, reasoning that it cost about the same as a fancy coffee. The day I started to knit with Shetland wool, a whole new world opened up and I knew that, someday, I had to visit.
Years later I ventured to Shetland and truly began to understand the deep connection of the wool to the place it is from. Those complex striking colors surround you on Shetland. They’re found on the same hillside in different seasons, or just a shift in the weather; they’re in the tiny plants and wildflowers beneath your feet and in the pebbles and seaweed on the shore—while up above, brilliant white seagulls cut across wispy pinky-grey clouds. Everywhere you cast your gaze are the colors you find in the yarn.
Only Shetland sheep, the breed native to these windswept islands, produce true Shetland wool. Shetland sheep are wild little creatures, able and hardy. They spend most of the year “on the hill,” fending for themselves grazing the heather hills and moorland, sometimes venturing down to beaches for a bite of seaweed. They are quite content to be left to themselves.
The wool of native Shetland sheep is something quite special. Very soft and finely crimped, the fiber is a result of the area’s unique climate and the animal’s unusual foraged diet, as much as it is genetics. Though white sheep are most common, there are eleven recognized natural colors of the breed, ranging from white through grays to reddish browns, fawn and black. It has been valued for its quality as far back as the 1700s when knitters on the islands used it to stitch stockings for trade. Today the breed is well established and the yarn, so closely tied to place, is a favorite of hand knitters the world over.
My love affair with Shetland wool led me to write two books about Fair Isle knitting and helped me follow my dream of traveling to Shetland. Now I’m lucky to visit every summer and fall, leading small groups of knitters with my friend and colleague, Shetland born designer Gudrun Johnston. Highlights of those trips include visiting various businesses involved in Shetland wool production. At Jamieson & Smith Wool Brokers Ltd., for example, you’ll be greeted by designers Ella Gordon and Sandra Manson, who can recite all 100 color numbers of their yarns off the top of their heads. The wool sold here comes only from the fleece of purebred Shetland sheep and comes in various weights from the finest lace to the chunky. The shop has worked with the Shetland Heritage Museum and Archives to develop the Shetland Heritage line, worsted-spun yarn that replicates the characteristics of the handspun wursit used in traditional Fair Isle garments. If you’re very lucky you might be fortunate to meet Oliver Henry, sometimes called the high priest of Shetland wool. Henry worked for J&S for nearly 50 years and probably knows more about Shetland wool than anyone else. He’s a wonderful storyteller who details the history of Shetland wool, J&S, and the process of hand grading fleeces.
Jamison’s of Shetland in Sandness, another favorite stop, has been in the Shetland wool business for five generations and is home to Shetland’s only spinning mill. It’s a sheep-to-sweater operation, with all aspects of the business done on the premises. Jamieson’s buys Shetland fleece from local crofters and makes over 200 luscious shades of knitting yarn in two-ply jumper weight and DK, including eight natural shades, plus a small range of gorgeous marled yarns. The color names reflect the Shetland landscape: peat, sphagnum, purple heather, and dewdrop, just to name a few. The mill weaves as well as spins; turning out tweed by the yard and gorgeous plaid blankets and throws. Jamieson’s also makes finished goods: complicated Fair Isle pullovers and cardigans as well as cabled sweaters, gloves, hats, and headbands. The tweed is made into amazing capes. If you time your trip right, you’ll be treated to a tour of the mill by Garry Jamieson himself.
Uradale Farm, run by Ronnie and Sue Eunson, is a working croft producing organic native Shetland lamb, beef, and wool. Their 100-percent-native Shetland wool yarn is scoured, spun, and dyed organically. The fleeces go off island to New Lanark Organic Spinning Mill for spinning and then to Paint Box textiles—the first dyers in the U.K. to receive organic accreditation—for dyeing. Uradale Farm’s naturally dyed organic yarns come in nine dazzling colors and three weights, DK, aran and chunky. The seven shades of undyed organic yarn are available in jumper weight. This is an artisanal product so supplies run out. You’ll have to wait for the sheep to grow the wool. During Shetland Wool Week Ronnie and Sue provide an entertaining glimpse of their flock of multicolored and skittish Shetland sheep, which would rather be out on the hill and not penned in and stared at by annoying humans.
If you’re as captivated as I am by the beauty of Shetland wool, I encourage you to come along on my next journey to the isles. You can find information about upcoming trips here.
Mary Jane Mucklestone is a designer, author, and instructor. You can find her patterns, books, and teaching schedule at maryjanemucklestone.com.