Shetland Wool Week

Despite only spending about 54 hours in Shetland, there’s still too much information to jam into one blog post. I’ll skim through the highlights of my visit to Shetland Wool Week – if anyone would like to know about anything in more details, please ask in the comments!

Shetland Museum and Archives

I’m afraid words fail me a little on this one. All that is awesome about the Shetland Islands crammed into one building. Amazing examples of Shetland knitting (colour and openwork) and the history of the isles.

Shetland Museum and Archives

Just a few examples of the wonders of the Shetland Museum & Archives

Tablet Weaving Class

The first challenge of the Tablet Weaving Class was finding the venue. It was in the Lerwick Boat Club, which wasn’t on Google maps, but my host assured me if I headed down Commercial Street, I would spot it. I didn’t. I ended up much further around the coast, until I asked an older couple for directions.

‘Oh, that’s back away,’ the lady said. ‘Opposite the house with the trees.’

Anywhere else, this direction would be completely useless, but there are very, very few trees on the islands. I actually remembered the house they were talking about.

Class found (in the boat club overlooking Lerwick harbour, with a view so stunning it was a little distracting), I got down to the business of learning to tablet weave.

Tablet weaving consists of a series of strands threaded through four holes punched into a small square card. The cards are then arranged in the pack and manipulated to adjust which strands show on the ‘right’ side and which on the ‘wrong’. It’s an incredibly simple concept with an incredibly complicated application. The setting up takes up the vast majority of the process – once that’s done, the weaving itself is very quick.

Tablet Weaving Process

Preparing the tablets

Our teacher, Jane Outram, was very patient and interesting and had several gorgeous examples of her work.

Tablet Weaving Examples

Jane’s Tablet Weaving Examples

By the end of the class, I had a strip of weaving – a little rough, as I tend to be a bit impatient when learning new techniques, but I was assured it was pretty good for a first go!

Tablet Weaving

My weaving


The next day was my only full day in Shetland and I intended to make the most of it. Up early, I jumped on the bus south and headed to Jarlshof, an archeological site that displays ruins from  prehistoric times through the Bronze, Iron and Norse eras to the eighteenth century. An absolute amazing attraction – particularly as it was the off season, so I had the entire place to myself!


Iron Age brochs

My appetite for historic geekery sated, it was back on the bus and back to yarn.


Hoswick is a teeny tiny community positioned (as many Shetland towns are) between a hill and the coast. It has a small shop selling very modern Shetland clothing, an older factory shop selling more traditional clothes, and what is quite possibly the best community centre ever.

When I arrived there were two classes in full swing, a spinning class and another for whittling shawl pins. The smell was intoxicating, lanolin and timber and oil! I wasn’t participating in the classes, but had a wee peek in each, a look around the collection of historic radios, and, taking advantage of the honesty box canteen, settled down with a cuppa and biscuit to browse through the small library of textile and dying books.


Hoswick Community Centre’s Honesty Jar – well patrionised!

On the bus back to Lerwick, I certainly got my money’s worth (the fare was about two pounds), as we took a very scenic route and had the entertainment of the bus driver going the wrong way (much to the amusement of the school kids onboard), stopped for chickens to get out of the way, nearly hit a bird watcher, and saw many Shetland ponies.


Night was falling, but there was still plenty of yarn events to be getting along with! Back at my accommodation another knitter had moved in, so there was much knitterly chat over dinner. Later, there were two lectures: the first by Stella Ruhe on her research into ganseys from Dutch fishing villages, and the second a very informative and highly entertaining talk by Hazel Tindall on her mother and her hatred dislike of knitting, an essential part of her croft income.

Wool Shops & Restraint

And then came the day I was waiting for: yarn shopping day. I carefully prepared a ‘to buy list’ and headed over to Jamieson and Smith.

Now, I must stop here and explain about the Jamieson’s. I had assumed (like many people do), that there was just Jamieson and Smith and when people said ‘Jamieson’s’ they were just shortening it. This is not the case. There are two separate companies:

  • Jamieson and Smith are wool brokers, who purchase yarn from Shetland farmers, grade it, and then have it spun in Scotland
  • Jamieson’s of Shetland are wool brokers and spinners, with a mill in Sandness (which is on my to do list for my next trip)

There is an understandable rivalry between the two companies. I like to think, that being from a small community, this rivalry manifests in comedic fashions and perhaps forbidden love.

The first stop of Jamieson and Smith, whose yarns are greatly championed by designer Kate Davies – and indeed I had four of her patterns on my ‘to buy’ list. The range of colours in J&S is overwhelming. See:


One of the three walls of yarn at Jamieson and Smith

I’ll be honest – I had a mild moment of anxiety. How was I going to pick all the ‘right’ colours? But I calmed myself down and bought yarn for a cardigan, vest, and four pairs of mitts. I also included a colour chart in with my purchases, for perusal by knitters back home, and a project bag. As I left the shop into the light drizzle, I congratulated myself on my restraint.

And then continued shopping….

I hadn’t really intended to buy much at Jamieson’s of Shetland, just a couple of pieces of tweed for myself and a friend. Then I spotted a ten ply that was just perfect for an upcoming present and they had Addi Turbo needles, and, well, I spent a little bit more than I thought. But the lady in the shop was so lovely and helpful and really, when was the next time I would be back?  I reassured myself as I left the shop that I had still been reasonably restrained. I would have lunch and a beer to reward myself.

While having lunch, I had a glance at the Wool Week program and saw an advert for another place in Lerwick that had some yarn, from an local organic cooperative. I might as well have look, I thought.

Set up in the back of a fine art store, the cooperative had a display of Polish weaving in their yarns and were more than happy to discuss their farms, sheep, and what life was like for an organic farmer in Shetland. They also had the most gorgeous selection of naturally coloured yarn, which I am an absolute sucker for. So…. I bought more yarn.

I was now significantly weighed down by yarn purchases and, feeling mildly apprehensive about fitting it all in my backpack, removed myself from all yarn buying opportunities.


This is a picture of restraint. Honest.


In conclusion – 54 hours is no where near enough time to explore the Shetland Islands. Next time (and, believe me, there will be a next time), I’m booking out at least two weeks.


The view from the ferry as we left – how can I leave this pretty place?

Getting to Shetland Wool Week

My trip to Shetland Wool Week really began in a backpackers in Edinburgh. That’s when it first occurred to me to check the weather forecast for the twelve-hour ferry ride to Lerwick, capital of Shetland Islands.

Gale force 9 winds. Seas rough. Visibility poor. Oh.

I still had a day left in Edinburgh and I decided not to worry about it and enjoy my time. By nightfall the forecast was worse and Northlink (the ferry company) had sent out an email saying the sailing was ‘under review’. Oh.

No further news the next morning, so I packed up my stuff, checked out of the backpackers and headed to the train station, where I would catch a train to the ferry terminal a couple of hours north in Aberdeen. The moment I set foot on the train, the email came through – tonight’s sailing was cancelled. Fuuuuuuuck.

All through my trip, I’d been refusing to let anything mar my long-awaited holiday. I’d looked on the bright side of destroying my feet with Chucks in London, getting a cold in Liverpool, and driving for an hour to see an exhibition that wasn’t open yet in Scotland. But this was seriously testing my powers of positive thinking. I’d already been worrying that I wouldn’t have enough time in Shetland and now I was down another 24 hours.

Failing to think positively, I settled for second best – thinking practically. I rang Northlink, got myself on the sailing for the following night. Hopped on and got myself a good deal for a hotel right across the road from the train station. I let my host in Shetland know I would be late. And felt ever-so-lightly better.

Then I got to Aberdeen.


Aberdeen is grey…and this is after it stopped raining.

It would be easy to write off Aberdeen as a grey shithole with only two purposes: to get to the oil rigs and to get home from the oil rigs. It’s especially easy to think that when it’s pouring with rain, blowing a gale, and you’d much rather be in Shetland. But there are some quite nice things about Aberdeen:

  • the mall that’s connected to the transport hub has an excellent selection of food
  • the malls in general are pretty nice
  • there’s a wonderful wool shop called Wool for Ewe
  • everyone is very friendly and understands if you’d rather be in Shetland
  • there’s an amazing structure called the Aberdeen Market Cross, which is like a stone band rotunda with twelve portraits of Scottish monarchs

When the sun comes out all of that grey stone can be very pretty:


Aberdeen Market Cross – much improved by sunshine

But then the rain returned and I was very ready to leave for the ferry.

Unfortunately, the ferry wasn’t ready to leave. The weather was still driving a large swell onto the east coast, so the Port of Aberdeen was shut until midnight at least. Northlink, however, seem to be pretty used to such conditions. They got everyone on board, all the staff were polite, understanding, but not ready to take any bullshit, and they gave us food vouchers.

There was one upside of the delayed trip – I was on the same ferry as knitwear designer Ysolda Teague. Ysolda is incredibly interesting, an astute business woman, and passionate about yarn, knitting, and the whole industry in general. It was great to meet the person behind the famous Mystery Knit-a-long Cowl, Ishbel, and a myriad of other gorgeous patterns.

But if you ask me whether I’d rather have arrived in Shetland 30 hours earlier or met Ysolda – well, luckily I didn’t have to make the decision!

Especially when the cruise up the south coast looks like this:


Coming up the south coast


The Lerwick tug coming to see us

And this:


Docking in Lerwick – ready to hit Shetland Wool Week!

And this:

My little camera phone, mighty though it is, doesn’t really do the Shetland landscape justice. There’s an openness, a bareness, a rawness, that it hard to capture. And the colouring! It’s no wonder these isles have inspired such amazing colourwork…but more on that in the next post.