I’ve read a fair number of essays about a traveler’s first impressions of the Shetland Isles. Many of these begin, quite reasonably, with the surprise one experiences in suddenly popping out of a cloud in a tiny tossing plane and seeing jewel-green islands crisscrossed by stone walls directly below. Once on the ground, there is the usual bustle of luggage gathering, car hiring, and map pointing. But my first trip to Shetland truly began in Scalloway, looking out towards the sea. It was here that I stopped moving long enough to experience the place—the Shetland that endures through ages and empires. When traveling, that moment of first meeting always reminds me of the stillness that is cultivated in Buddhist meditation between the intake of breath and its release. In stillness, we can feel the pulse of history. Scalloway, as the capitol of the Shetland Isles until 1708, is an appropriate place to begin.
I was keenly interested to see what the sheep of the Shetland Isles would look like. I have seen Shetland sheep in many areas of the United States and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but not in the place that gives them their name. The sheep I saw in traveling from the southern tip of the mainland to the most northerly tip of Shetland, and island called Unst, varied as widely as I had imagined. I also had a chance to talk to a number of people about the sheep in Shetland and how they have changed over time. For a fairly small land mass (less than half the size of the state of Rhode Island) it has a varied terrain and complex geology. It makes sense that rocky grazing areas exposed to the raw weather that comes off the sea would require hardy sheep if those sheep are not only to survive, but produce offspring. In areas that are better protected from the elements and where supplemental feed might be provided at times, sheep that are more delicate can produce spring lambs and a fleece to be shorn around Midsummer.
Shetland sheep have a wide range of fleece types. Fleeces can vary not only from animal to animal, but can also differ substantially from nose to tail. To make matters more complicated, even this inconsistency is inconsistent! This is one of the reasons that many people around the world are so intrigued and devoted to these very special sheep. It was heartening to hear from the Shetlanders themselves how they feel about the sheep that are so ever-present in their lives. There are sheep almost everywhere you turn in Shetland. They are found grazing along the roadsides, speckling the green hills as far as one can see, and (my favourite) resting on rocky outcrops gazing placidly out to sea.
Shearing season had only just begun when we visited the Woolbroker’s, known to knitters as Jamieson & Smith. Oliver, who is described as “top wool man” and manager at J & S, gave us a tour through the wool sorting facility in Lerwick. Then, of course, we made our way to the yarn shop and were never seen again. No, not really. We did re-emerge, as it was time for tea and scones, but we returned a number of times through the course of the week.
I also had the opportunity to spend time with two Shetlanders well-known in the knitting world. Early in my visit, I was able to spend a day with spinner and knitter Elizabeth Johnston. I have never been able to catch her when she teaches at John C. Campbell Folk School, so I was excited to meet her in Shetland. Elizabeth welcomed us to her home for an unforgettable day filled with wool and many cups of tea. Elizabeth knits traditional Shetland pieces, from haps (warm shawls, often square) to jumpers (sweaters or pullovers), using her handspun. She uses the full range of natural color that the Shetland sheep are known for and also uses natural dye stuffs to produce brilliant, complex shades. Visit Elizabeth’s website to learn more about her work. She does take commissions, so you too can have a Shetland treasure!
Hazel Tindall is also known far and wide for her tremendous textile skills. She is not only one of the world’s fastest knitters, but is a lovely person as well! You can see Hazel knitting here and here. Hazel is active on Ravelry and Facebook, but has also recently launched a website where you can find her beautiful knitting patterns and blog. She also had several of her patterns included in A Legacy of Shetland Lace, which was written by members of the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers, and Dyers.
Shetland is so vibrant and complex, I can only just begin to tease out the threads of cultural identities amid the vastness of human history. And so I simply must return, soon. But for the time being, I was off to Norway… Stay tuned.