Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles

Shetland Sheep: Rich in History, Rich in Textiles! Our farm mission is to enjoy and promote the wonderful diversity of the Shetland breed by fully utilizing to the best of our ability all they have to offer historically. We believe the best preservation and management of this breed includes it's full spectrum of history. We encourage old and new shepherds alike to join in the fun by engaging in fiber arts, especially spinning and knitting, as this breed is so intimately linked with those aspects of the arts.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Shetland Textile Myth

Is all Shetland yarn used to make very delicate shawls? Are delicate shawls THE garment that made Shetland sheep famous? Are delicate shawls what all the speed knitters spent hours and hours and hours working on...including the time they spent walking to market, gathering peat, or caring for their flocks? Is providing fiber for delicate shawls the primary goal of the Shetland sheep breeder?

The answers to these questions are frequently answered incorrectly. It's really neat to have textile history in a breed of sheep, and I've been excitedly stating that for years, for not many breeds of sheep can brag about such inclusive history with a closeness to the people who cared for them. Shetlands are one of the few breeds in the world who can stake such a claim. I tried to get the previous board of NASSA excited about connecting to the textile history, but they weren't interested because the ACTUAL textile history reveals too much about the TRUTH of the fiber, a truth you seldom hear them talk about (and certainly not positively!!) and would rather you don't know about. I also created Shetland Showcase to help reconnect the textiles to the animal. ( I had some success there, for even though my idea was stolen and renamed, it DID put my connection together.)

When looking back at life in the Shetland Islands, something emerges that is very interesting. Control. There is much history in control over the land, waters, and it's people. The majority of that issue is a topic for another time. However, that control extended a firm grip over knitting that is hard to believe in our modern knitting lives. It must have been miserable for those Shetland knitters who worked such long hours to create items to sell, only to have to face inspections of their work before a sale could take place! You see, Shetland garments were hot! Very hot! Ships came into the port of Lerwick from all over, looking for Shetland garments. The biggest sellers were: socks, gloves, bedcaps, and sweaters (known there as jumpers). Before a knitter could trade or sell certain garments, they had to pass inspections. Hence, we have records of how many of what types of garments were made. While this did not happen over the entire history of Shetland knitting, it did take precedence over a lengthy period of time.

This inspection history is diligently and well documented. Today, we can be grateful for that, even if it was perhaps not so good in it's day. Why? Because the TRUTH has been recorded. The truth is, the majority of the Shetland wool clip was NOT knitted up in delicate lace shawls, but rather, it was knitted up into everyday working clothes...common, everyday stuff. The fiber used for those garments needed to be sturdy and soft. From the local women of Shetland in their working "hap" shawls, to the men at sea wearing their Shetland jumpers, to hats, gloves, and foot coverings! You name it! Shetland wool was the work horse of many centuries!

So where do those lovely delicate lace shawls fit in? Well, they were certainly produced, and they were(are) certainly famous. However, it is well known and recorded that few women achieved the skills needed in making them, and that those women were fortunate enough to be excused from the harsh daily work the others engaged in to support and raise their families and manage their farms (crofts), so that hands remained fine for such delicate work. Making the shawls was NOT the work of walking to market in the wind, digging for peat to heat the home, or while searching for a lost ewe on the exposed hill. The lace shawls were a minority, specialty item...knitted by extremely skilled and practiced knitters in nearly all cases, and the work took a lengthy time to complete, despite the efficiency and memorization of the knitter and techniques. (If you knit lace, and want to be fascinated in a hurry, learn how it was done!) It is also well known, and the women of Shetland speak of this today, that the fiber for those lovely shawls was extracted (almost always roo-ed) from near the chin and down the neck of the sheep, rarely if ever from anywhere else. The rest of the wool was used for faster knitting to construct everyday clothes, that could be turned over for money or trade quicker....while walking, tending gardens, feeding the chickens, telling stories, and shooing pesty cats away.

(For those of you who might have seen the movie of a Shetland spinner...remember the kitty? I do! It sure made me laugh to see that. I've got one just as persistent right here. It's amazing how some things stay the same...)

So what does all this mean? It means that Shetland sheep are responsible for a vast amount of garments, by very industrious people, who were able to multi-task. It means that it is well documented that the items most in demand were everyday work wear for fishermen, crofters (farmers), and their families. It means that for centuries, the majority of the wool clip went into normal, everyday that had to last to be useful. Today we have written records documenting numbers of garments produced per year back then, or you can go to the Shetland Museum and view old photos to see what people wore for yourself. (see link at side of blog)

It is a myth that Shetland sheep were famous for just the lace shawls. It is a myth that breeding was for shawl fiber. The truth is, the sheep were famous for a fascinating array of textiles that PROVE the diversity of the breed, and that much more of those textiles were produced than lovely shawls. It proves that Shetland sheep are much more about popular everyday clothing than beautiful, delicate shawls. There are some out there that don't want people to realize that.

I've created a slogan just for this myth about the shawls. It's at the top of my blog. It says "SHETLAND SHEEP: RICH IN HISTORY, RICH IN TEXTILES". The last board didn't like it. Neither did the owners of the chat list! I like it. I think it clarifies what makes our breed stand out from nearly all the others. We have GREAT fiber, and soooooo much more!

If you are looking for a breed of sheep that can bring you a full, enriching experience, genuine Shetland sheep are IT! If you want an animal that might provide a little income, but you have no interest in the history of a culture and faraway places, Shetlands might bore you, and you might not ever see the value in these sheep. But if you love fascinating history, faraway places, outstanding clothes, and a very useful little sheep with a sweet personality to bring joy to your day, Shetlands are the breed for you...and that's no myth!

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