All About Shetland Yarns – Beautiful, Colourful, Versatile
Shetland yarns are famously lovely, a sheer delight to knit. And humans have been using the wool for a very long time indeed. Archaeological evidence reveals people on the islands have been raising sheep for their fleece on the islands for at least 4500 years. The remains of primitive Soay sheep kept by early Neolithic farmers prove the point, found during the excavation of the prehistoric site at Jarlshof on Shetland itself. So why is Shetland wool so popular, and what's the history behind the islands' long history of textile-making?
About the Shetland sheep – Small yet beautiful
The Shetland sheep is a small, slow-growing breed that actually originated in the Shetland Isles, a Northern European short-tailed type that's related to the Scottish Dunface, sadly now extinct. Its fine, super-soft wool isn't the only product that makes the Shetland sheep a unique animal. The meat is delicious, and being so resilient it's also a great choice for conservation grazing projects designed to revive and protect rare indigenous grasslands.
Shetlands are particularly hardy and tough. They lamb with ease, are adaptable to all sorts of conditions, are used to a poor diet and live longer than the average breed. Because many of their natural survival instincts remain intact thanks to a lack of cross-breeding, they're hardier and easier to look after than most contemporary breeds.
A distinguishing feature of Shetlands is their short tail, fat at the base,tapered to a point and hairy rather than woolly. But it's the colour of their wool that's the most magical thing. It comes in many different colours and patterns, most with their own ancient names dating back millennia. Moorit wool, for example, is a rich, red-brown shade. Emsket wool is a dusky blue-grey, Musket wool is a pale grey-brown, Shaela a dark steel-grey and Mioget honey-coloured. There are many more, whose quirky names also come from the islands' ancient Norn language.
There are also 30 unique markings, which often appear in a combination. Katmoget, for example, means badgerface, a pattern involving a dark tummy and shading around the nose and eyes, with lighter wool elsewhere. And a Yuglet is a light coloured animal with dark rings around its eyes. Our favourite, though is Sokket, a fantastic name for sheep with white socks on its legs and obviously marking the origin of the modern word 'socks'.
The coarser wool from Shetlands is used to make Tweed, the softer wools for mullti-coloured knits in beautiful Fair Isle patterns, plus wonderfully soft knitted lace shawls. These shawls are so very fine and delicate that you can actually pass one through a wedding ring, just like a fairy tale.
In late 2011 the Shetland wool actually produced on the islands themselves was awarded protected geographical status with a protected designation of origin classification of Native Shetland Wool, the first non-food product to achieve the honour.
The history of textiles on the Shetland Isles
The Shetland isles are known and loved all over the world for their splendid textiles. They've been weaving and knitting the wool for man centuries. But it wasn't until the 1800s that the industry really took off, allowing women to play a valuable part in earning income for their families. The islanders soon responded by inventing all sorts of new products, and importing and adapting special tools from around the world. But one thing didn't change: the traditional ways of hand production and finishing.
A large and successful cottage industry sprang up in no time, knitwear being the most popular product. Plain knitting was perfect for socks and stockings, hats, winter underwear, thick traditional shawls called haps, scarves, mittens and gloves, and these formed the core of the industry.
Fair Isle knitwear is what the islands are best known for, originally worn by fishermen and later sold to tourists. Fine lace was once another, an expensive luxury including some of the most intricate garments you can imagine, as delicate as spider webs and patterned to perfection. Costly items like this were restricted to the rich, and the royal families and aristocracy of Britain and beyond into Europe couldn't get enough of them.
These days the industry carries on, but cheaper mass-produced alternatives have taken their toll and the islands' weaving industry has disappeared. Luckily today's knitters have formed groups to promote their unique craft, which is celebrated every year via a special Wool Week. This year the event runs from Saturday 23rd September to
Sunday 1 October 2017, a wonderful celebration for anyone with a passion for knitting and a respect for the ancient roots of the Shetland sheep.
Buy Shetland yarns from our own sheep and other local breeders
We sell superb Shetland yarns from our own sheep, and from our favourite local producers. If you'd like to knit yourself something sumptuous, luxurious and deliciously soft, it's perfect. Here's a link to our Shetland Wool page.
Knitting for victory - How knitting helped us win WW2
If you've ever heard a modern-day fighter plane roaring over your village, town or city at low altitude, you'll have a basic idea of how utterly terrifying it must be to live in a war zone, a place an enemy is hell bent on destroying. Multiply that incredibly loud and frightening roar and you get a little closer to what it must have been like for the British people during World War Two. No wonder they knitted. But knitting in WW2 was about much more than 'making do and mending'. Here's an insight into why our ancestors knitted their hearts out as Hitler's bombs rained down.
Unpicking and re-knitting
It's tricky to do with modern knits, often impossible. But back then you'd be able to unpick a jumper, tank top or cardi, roll the wool into a fresh ball and use it to knit another garment.
It's interesting how things have come a full circle. Back in the 1930s and 40s waste was not tolerated. Out little island was cut off by U-boats and warships, determined to sink vessels bringing in supplies and prevent exports of fighting men and the machinery of war. Clothing was strictly rationed, and a woolly jumper was a precious thing. Today, once again, we're realising the real worth of seemingly simple items, thinking about extending their lives or changing their purpose rather than just chucking them in the bin without a second thought.
Knitting for Victory
Knitting was a lot more than a hobby during wartime. It was patriotic, almost a duty. Literally millions of people across the UK, Europe and outwards into allied nations like Canada and Australia, knitted socks, mittens and more for the troops abroad. Back then, if you weren't fighting, knitting needles were your deadliest weapon. Men knitted, children knitted, the Royal Family knitted, everyone knitted.
Trench foot was a dreaded enemy in the trenches. It could result in limbs being amputated, or even death from infection. Dry socks were the answer, and the British public sent literally millions of hand-knitted pairs over the channel. We also knitted jumpers, special sea boot stockings, woollen vests, balaclavas, scarves, helmet caps and – distressingly - amputation covers to protect the stumps left behind. Many knitters wrote little notes to stuff into the socks and hats, to encourage the soldiers and cheer them on.
Servicewomen were also in need of warm gear. They wore hand-knitted hats, gloves, socks, jumpers, cardigans and even all-in-one knitted underwear.
Being bombed? Keep calm and carry on knitting
As you can imagine, it's pretty stressful being bombed and even more stressful waiting for your loved ones to come home from the front... or not. The alternative – a dreaded telegram from the War Office – didn't bear thinking about. So we also knitted to relieve the awful, constant, nagging anxiety of waiting for a letter from a loved one fighting abroad, to shut out the terror that they might not come home. Worries that the war might carry on for another year, another five years. And concerns over what would happen if the allies lost the fight and the Nazis took over.
Knitting as therapy
There's something about the rhythmic, calm click of the needles and the need to concentrate on a complicated pattern that distracts the mind from concerns and helps get them back into some kind of perspective. Many soldiers returned home to 'Blighty' with appalling physical and mental injuries. They were also taught to knit, as a form of simple yet effective therapy.
Secret codes – Knitting as espionage
At one point Britain's Office of Censorship banned people from posting knitting patterns abroad, worried the patterns may contain coded messages. It may sound odd but knitting was actually used by the Belgia resistance, who recruited teams of old ladies whose homes overlooked railway yards. The ladies let the allies know how many trains were coming and going by using very simple code, things like knit one for one kind of train, purl one for another, drop a stitch for yet another.
Here's a great example. As the Atlas Obscura website says:
"Phyllis Latour Doyle, secret agent for Britain during World War II, spent the war years sneaking information to the British using knitting as a cover. She parachuted into occupied Normandy in 1944 and rode stashed bicycles to troops, chatting with German soldiers under the pretence of being helpful—then, she would return to her knitting kit, in which she hid a silk yarn ready to be filled with secret knotted messages, which she would translate using Morse Code equipment."
And another example from the same source:
"British Secret Intelligence agents hired spies in occupied areas who would pose as ordinary citizens doing ordinary things, which sometimes included knitting. Madame Levengle was one such woman, who would sit in front of her window knitting, while tapping signals with her heels to her children in the room below."
Knitting - Enjoying a dramatic contemporary revival
Roll time forward to today and knitting clubs are held on the Brighton to London commuter train, enjoyed by work-frazzled people who want to chill out on the way home. Plenty of men are taking up knitting. The worldwide recycling/re-purposing revolution means we're wasting less, creating more. The world might change, but knitting remains the same – a sure-fire way to relax, express your creativity, and make something genuinely useful.
There's something about the rhythmic, calm click of the needles and the need to concentrate on a complicated pattern that distracts the mind from everyday concerns and helps you grab back some perspective. If you fancy getting into knitting, explore our knitting wool suppliers website to discover some of the most beautiful, inspirational yarns in the nation as well as fibre and felt, haberdashery, gifts and more.
Knit for Peace
I get daily requests from charity knitters and interns and as a small company it would be impossible to support all but who do I choose. It always makes me feel unhappy to turn people away. This year I have decided to support Knit for Peace a registered charity that matches knitters with good causers. Many keen knitters need outlets, so their distributions service is a much needed resource. Knitting is good for the knitter and their outputs keep vulnerable people warm. Therefore its a win win situation.
For advice on what to make and to download free patterns visit their website
You can send them all your left over yarn and they will find it a good home. You can also join them on Knit for Peace holidays in India and other interesting places. for instance this year they are going to Venice. These are all led by famous designers.
We're also popping a Knit for Peace bookmark in your order. It doubles up as a handy 8" ruler as well.
Knit For Peace is an organisation with a variety of charity campaigns, including knitting for premature babies, and raising funds for knitting shops affected by recent floods.
Knit For Peace began as an initiative which encouraged people from different, sometimes hostile, communities to come and knit together.
A representative from the charity said, "Based on our experience of developing Knit for Peace over the last few years, we have learned that knitting is extremely important as an activity that can be carried out right into extreme old age and helps improve long-term health."
There are several different projects and campaigns on the go [LINK: ]http://www.knitforpeace.org.uk/projects-and-patterns/], so you will have no problem finding a pattern to suit you! The organisation is currently taking donations of handknitted layettes for newborn babies, including those who are born premature.
The clothes are never sold, but are sent direct to wherever they are needed most, with tens of thousands of items delivered each year to refugee centres, homeless shelters and hospitals.
6 new free PDF downloads at The Little Wool Company
We've put 6 new free PDF downloads in the Free Patterns section and they are just perfect for keeping warm and snug this winter. They will make great gift ideas and will knit up quickly as they are designed for Roosteryarns Almerino Aran. However you could choose any of our lovely aran yarns.
The Fair Isle Scarf above is knitted in a simple pattern and is suitable for intermediate knitters. The scarf also has a garter stitch edge that helps to stop the sides from curling. You will also see that the model is wearing a Fair Isle Beanie and this pattern complements the scarf well.and also goes with the wrist cuffs pattern. Also in the pattern range is a quick and easy headband that is great to finish off all of those little leftover bits of yarn.
The cable beanie is a unisex pattern that will keep the wearer lovely and warm on a chilly day. The pattern comes in two versions, one is with a turn up rib and one is with a single rib. To keep you super warm there is also a matching Cable Snood in this lovely set of accessory patterns.
For the Fair Isle patterns you will need size 4.50mm and 5.00mm needles and for the cable patterns you will need 7.00mm and 8.00mm needles. We sell them here at The Little Wool Company and so you can just add them to the end of your order when you order your lovely Rooster Almerino aran yarn. We also stock a range of other Aran weight yarns that would make good substitutes.
Welcome to the New The Little Wool Company Website
We hope you like the new site! There's lots of new features to make your shopping experience even better. For instance you can now create your own Wish List. There is also a Compare List so that you can draw comparisons between prducts on the site. It doesn't matter which device you use there is a view for you so it is even easier to shop on the move.