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Shetland Textiles 800BC To The Present - book review

A new book explores more than 2,500 years of Shetland’s textile history, from primitive weaving through to the vibrant textile scene in the Shetland Isles today, with Fair Isle knitting and delicate lace produced for communities around the world.

‘Shetland Textiles 800BC To The Present’, from Shetland Heritage Publications, is a lively and colourful book which allows the reader to explore how textile production has developed from the earliest days of settlement and trading on the Shetland Isles.

Given the fame and appeal of Shetland’s lace and wool, it is surprising that this is the first single volume devoted to the history and development of Shetland textiles. The wait has been worth it, however, as we are taken on a journey from the Late Bronze Age (around 800BC), when simple looms which made ingenious use of weights to produce woven goods, through to the modern day, when initiatives such as Shetland Wool Week are testament to the thriving textile trade on the islands.

Of course, the quality of Shetland’s wool is down to the islands’ sheep and their environment, and we are given an insight into what makes these animals special, what life’s like for those who care for the sheep, and how the different breeds have adapted to what can be a changeable and challenging climate.


Anyone interested in the history of the Shetland Isles has plenty to enjoy here, with sections on early trade, spinning and dyeing, seventeenth and eighteenth-century textiles, and the truck system – a form of bartering which was particular to Shetland.

The textile trade on the islands is notable for the contribution from women, something which is explored in the ‘gender, work and textiles in the Shetland household’ section which explores how the different tasks were divided between household members, and explains the reasons behind the predominance of women knitters.

The home-based trade had both advantages and disadvantages; for some it was a useful means of supplementing an unreliable farming income, for others it was a painstaking and sometimes painful necessity.

Memories of those involved in the home knitting trade bring this subject to life, showing the ups and downs of this way of life.

Finally, we explore the present day textile scene on the islands, and meet some of those who produce the knitted goods and delicate lace for which Shetland is famed. It’s fascinating to discover how many of these craftspeople are inspired both by the landscapes which surround them, and their fellow workers.

The book is lavishly illustrated with colour photographs, drawings and archives images, many of which are presented to stunning effect on full or double page spreads. It is impossible to understand Shetland’s textiles without understanding the islands and their people – and this is a book which will leave the reader with a real understanding and enjoyment of the subject, as well as an appreciation of the pleasure which Shetland textiles continue to bring to so many.

Shetland Textiles 800BC to the Present, edited by Sarah Laurenson is published by Shetland Heritage Publications at £25 paperback/ £35 hardback. To find out more, or to buy the book, visit the Shetland Heritage Publications website or tel: 01595 741562.

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