Discover the World’s Finest Wool – Shetland Wool

The Shetland Islands and their precious wool

The Shetland Islands are a subarctic archipelago located 170 km northeast of the British mainland. They form the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east.

Shetland not only offers breathtaking scenic beauty but is also home to the famous Shetland ponies as well as the Shetland sheep, which are the suppliers of one of the most renowned and valuable wool varieties in the world.

Many of the small islands are not inhabited and therefore hardly developed, but the inhabited islands also bear witness to unspoiled nature. Each island is unique and worth exploring.

Follow us on a little journey of discovery.

Shetland Wool

The magical landscape of the Shetland Islands, former fort of the Vikings!

The Shetland Islands are situated in the northernmost part of Scotland, and there are more Vikings’ sites there than any other place in the United Kingdom. The islands are in the Northern Atlantic, between Great Britain, the Faroe Islands, and Norway.

About 23.000 people live in the largest of the islands called The Mainland, which covers an area of 373 square miles. In the Shetland archipelago, there are 15 islands that are inhabited because of the harsh climate.

In a magnificent landscape closer to the Faroe Islands than Edinburgh, one can experience a spirit of proud self-sufficiency among captivating ancient sites. The proud people of these islands hear the waves of the North Atlantic every day of the year.

Independence and a proud spirit are honorable and envied qualities. Scattered around the former Viking ruins, there are epic landscapes, untouched beaches, and beautiful wildlife such as seabirds and seals.

In the harsh breeze above the rugged cliffs, the spirit of the Vikings can still be felt today. The Scandinavian warriors settled on the Shetlands in the 9th century and stayed for almost six hundred years.

To this day, traces of their presence can be found in the islands’ landscapes, music and language.

The legacy of the Vikings is most clearly felt by the inhabitants of Shetland. Scotland is already too far away for them. They feel more Scandinavian and orient themselves more towards Norway. They are simply Vikings!

Only 16 of the 100 islands of the archipelago are inhabited. Whereby the term “inhabited” in Shetland has to be specially declared – on the Shetland Islands live far more sheep than people.

The mystical nature of the Shetland Islands

Dark Clouds over Neist Point on Isle of Skye
Dark Clouds over Neist Point on Isle of Skye - Shetland Sheep Grazing

The natural landscape of the islands is untouched, dramatic, and impressively wild. They are characterized by dramatic coastlines with steep rocky cliffs and easily accessible white sandy beaches, wide green hills covered with countless wildflowers, large areas of moorland and peat, as well as breathtaking valleys.

Many of the plants that can be found here grow only on the Shetland Islands, and the fauna is also very impressive.

Visitors can see millions of seabirds that come to nest at the cliffs, species like fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, and razorbills during summer. The sea surrounding the Shetland Islands is home to orcas and seals and otters that visitors can easily spot.

Inland there is miles and miles of wilderness with serene lochs and birds circling above. Many of the plants and the flowers that grow there are unique to the Shetland Islands and don’t grow anywhere else in the world.

The infamous Shetland ponies calmly roam around and make the scenery even more enchanting.

The Aurora Borealis and the Shetland Islands

During winter, the lucky visitors of the Shetland Islands can enjoy the unique and mesmerizing phenomenon of aurora borealis or Northern Lights, or Mirrie Dancers, as the locals call them.

The northern sky above the islands takes a green glow, and colors such as blue, orange, purple, and pink create a magnificent natural spectacle. The displays vary in colors, density, and duration, but the experience is always striking and unforgettable.

Aurora Borealis happens in the Northern sky when particles electrically charged from the sun collide with particles energized by the Earth’s magnetic field. Many people travel to the Shetland Islands just for the opportunity to see this magnificent sight.  

Northern Lights and stars on Shetland Islands
Northern Lights and stars on Shetland Islands

Shetland Ponies and Shetland Sheep

The small ponies of the Shetland Islands are grazing all around. Living in that area and being exposed to the harsh natural elements for 4.000 years formed a beautiful and robust breed that perfectly fits the surrounding environment. They are usually seen on the island of Unst, Scalloway, Tingwall, and the West Mainland.

The unique terrain and the climate also create ideal conditions for rearing livestock such as sheep. The amble vegetation and overall environment are responsible for sheep that produce one of the finest wool varieties.

Similar to the ponies, Shetland sheep are small and grow slowly, but they live long, adapt, and are thrifty. The flocks roam free, and their wool is exceptionally soft. Local weavers produce the Fair Isle patterned knitwear, which is recognized and loved all around the world.

Traditional Fair Isle knitting is all about creating patterns using multiple colors. Today, the term is sometimes used for any colorful garment.

Still, the original designs have a unique feel about them that accentuates the qualities of one of the world’s finest wool variety.

white-cute-shetland-pony

The Shetland Sheep

A brief History of the Shetland Sheep

Until the Iron Age, the sheep of the British Isles and other parts of northern and western Europe were small, short-tailed, and variable in color andonly the rams were horned.

The Shetland sheep is a small, wool-producing breed of sheep that originated in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. The Shetland sheep belongs to the Northern European short-tailed sheep group and is closely related to the extinct Scottish Dunface.

Although Shetland sheep are small and slow-growing compared to modern breeds, they are hardy, thrifty, easy to lamb, adaptable and long-lived. The Shetland breed has survived for centuries in the Shetland Islands’ climatically harsh conditions and on a meager diet, so they are easier to care for than many modern breeds.

The origin of Shetland sheep dates back to the cross-breeding of Norwegian sheep. According to historical data, the Norwegians settled in Scotland and the Northern Isles around 500 AD.

They likely brought their own sheep and crossed them with the existing Soay type of the Islands. Shetland sheep have many similarities with the Spaelsau sheep of southwestern Norway.1

In the 13th century, they were present in a wide variety. During different periods, when the sheep farmers bred more in the direction of meat-oriented use, the original type of Shetland sheep could be preserved in different closed areas of the islands.

Thus, this breed was preserved in the Shetland Islands throughout the centuries and was strictly bred here for the wool’s fineness and firm crimp. In 1927, the Shetland Flock Book Society was founded in Shetland, and the breed standard written at that time is still in use today, unchanged

The precious Wool of the Shetland Sheep

The wool of Shetland sheep is exceptionally soft and fine, especially on the neck and shoulders; it ranges from 10 to 20 microns in diameter, which corresponds to the fineness of cashmere. On the back legs, it is coarser and reaches values of 25 to 35 microns.

Shetland sheep are the British country sheep with the finest wool. Furthermore, it is the breed with the most incredible variety of colors.

There are 11 primary colors with different gradations and 30 registered patterns, which can also appear among themselves combined. The most common colors are white, fox colored and black. The sought-after wool is processed in many different ways into various products and is famous worldwide as “Shetland Wool.”

The wool has another unique feature: In the spring, Shetland sheep repel the wool themselves; you can then pick it off them and get fibers without gating, which is even more attractive for further processing.

What are the unique properties of Shetland wool?

Shetland sheep form a breed that has not changed much for ages. Their roots are said to reach back into the Stone Age, and these animals are correspondingly tough and resistant.

What about their wool? Is Shetland wool similarly solid? Learn all about the properties of Shetland Wool:

Some people do not like to wear wool. With sheep’s wool, many people think of a coarse fabric that feels scratchy, is very heavy, and, in warmer temperatures, immediately makes you sweat.

This is certainly not the case with Shetland wool. These fibers are surprisingly fine and have a fine crimp. This makes the material wonderfully fluffy and also elastic. The wearing comfort is accordingly pleasant, as enthusiastic Shetland friends explain again and again.

You can even wear this wool directly on the skin without itching or scratching. Moreover, you can create wonderfully fine lace patterns from it, such as the famous Shetland tweed.

Despite its fineness and softness, Shetland wool is extremely durable! However, you should give the fine fabric the appropriate care to be able to use it for decades to come. Like all exclusive wool, Shetland wool can only tolerate low temperatures and would prefer to be washed by hand – without rough rubbing.

But it has one thing in common with many types of wool:
This many natural shades make dyeing unnecessary. As already mentioned, there are incredibly many different natural shades of color, from white to dark brown and gray-blue to reddish-brown and honey. So there is no need to use chemicals to achieve colorfulness.

How the World’s softest Wool is made | Bloomberg Quicktake

The outstanding properties of Shetland Wool at a glance:

  • fluffy soft and fine fibers
  • slightly crimped
  • elastic material
  • long lasting
  • does not scratch
  • warming and breathable
  • many natural colors
  • does not need to be dyed

  • Temperature sensitive
  • Care by hand wash
  • Sensitive to friction

Fair Isle Knitting

This knitting technique, with its unique patterns, is named after the “Fair Isle.” Fair Isle is a Scottish island that belongs to the Shetland Islands. It is located about 90 km south of Lerwick. It has an area of about eight km² and reaches a height of 217m above sea level in the north.

Until 2011, the island – which is also called the “Island of Birds and Sweaters” – had a population of just 68. Fair Isle has an area of about eight km² and reaches a height of 217 m above sea level in the north

Nevertheless, the small island is world-famous for the production of high-quality knitted sweaters according to a colored knitting pattern, under the name Fair Isle Knitting.

Fair Isle stands for the multi-colored patterns that run in ribbons across a sweater. Originally there was only un-dyed wool, but today; almost every color is in stock – to achieve a clear pattern.

Secondly, Fair Isle refers to the technique of knitting the sweater in the round smoothly right up to the neck. The different threads for the patterns are interwoven directly, so there is no need for time-consuming sewing.

hands knitting a Fair Isle pattern
Hands knitting of a Fair Isle Pattern

The Shetland Wool Week

Nobody would deny that the Shetland Islands are quite remote. However, every year at the beginning of autumn, countless people from the remotest corners of the world head off for Shetland Wool Week, taking the most adventurous routes.

But once you have overcome all the travel obstacles, you will definitely be rewarded:

Firstly, with the magnificent nature of the remote island archipelago, which is so rugged, elemental and dominant that the idea that we humans rule the world immediately vanishes into thin air.

And, of course, with everything that has to do with knitting and wool: sheep, farmers and their ranches, original Shetland yarn, spinning mills, workshops and, of course, people who are as crazy about the art of wool crafting as you are.2

Shetland Wool Week | Fruity Knitting

During Shetland Wool Week, a state of emergency prevails everywhere: for one week, thousands of wool enthusiasts gather to attend workshops, get to know the country and its people, and storm the local wool stores.

The Shetland Wool Week has a huge range of activities on offer: From the classic beginners’ course in Fair Isle knitting, felting, weaving, spinning, dyeing, making handmade “Fair Isle” jewelry. There is probably almost everything on offer that you can think of in terms of wool.

In the central meeting place in the Shetland Museum, you can always sit, knit, talk and visit exhibitions and if you still haven’t had enough in the evening, you can continue with “Knitting Nights” or “Shetland Spree.”

Fair Isle and the Shetlands are very special but beautiful and unique. Unless you are an extreme wool enthusiast, you should not necessarily visit the archipelago during the Shetland wool week.

But if you are a big wool fan, the wool week is probably one of the best knitting events in the world to see.

If you really want to visit, you should book your flights and accommodation early enough, as they are usually fully booked. The same goes for the workshops – because ticket sales already start in spring for the coming autumn.

It’s best to plan a few days’ vacations afterward to relax in the wonderful nature of the Shetland Islands – because participating in the Shetland Wool Week can be a bit stressful.

Thank You for Reading

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  1. The History of Sheep Breeds in Britain, Published By: British Agricultural History Society, M. L. Ryder (1964)
  2. Siún Carden (2019) The Place of Shetland Knitting, TEXTILE, 17:4, 357-367, DOI: 10.1080/14759756.2019.1639416