Shetland Wool Days
"In through the front door, Around the back Peep through the window, And off jumps Jack!"
~ Traditional knitting teaching rhyme
Shetland Wool Week is a world renowned celebration of Britain’s most northerly native sheep, the Shetland textile industry and the rural farming community on these islands. This tartan, created for a joint partnership between a Japanese and Scottish company, takes its name from the Scottish Gaelic for "hair of the sheep" or "wooly one." Apart for use in the weaving of tartan, knitters from the Scottish Isles have traditionally made use of the wide range of natural wool colours which occurs amongst the fine-fleeced Shetland sheep, ranging from Shetland black, shaela (dark grey), sholmit (pale grey), moorit (brown), mooskit (dark fawn), eesit (pale fawn) to unbleached white. 🐑🐑🐑
Wool is fiber obtained from sheep, of course, but also from other animals, including cashmere and mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, angora from rabbits, and other types from camelids (camels, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos). Although sheep were domesticated some 9,000 to 11,000 years ago for their meat and milk, archaeological evidence suggests selection for woolly sheep (which originally were more hairy than wooly) may have begun around 6000 BC.
From the official register:
"This tartan was created for Takihyo Company Ltd of Japan in partnership with House of Tartan Limited of Scotland. It is the first in a collection of contemporary tartans based on the traditional and classic. The tartan draws its name from the ancient Gaelic term for 'hair of sheep'; wool being the foundation of Scotland's renowned tartan industry."
Up to the Iron Age, the sheep of the British Isles and most of Europe were small, short-tailed, and variable in colour. These were gradually displaced by long-tailed types, leaving the short-tailed sheep restricted to the less accessible areas. One such was the Scottish Dunface (also known as Old Scottish Short-wool, Scottish Whiteface, or Scottish Tanface), which until the late eighteenth century was the main breed throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, knitting became an important industry amongst the Scottish Isles with entire families involved in making sweaters, accessories, socks, and stockings. A distinctively Scottish knitting decorative technique, Fair Isle, is named for the island.
Original Fair Isle techniques and colours made use of the natural colours of the Shetland sheep and the local dyestuffs of the islands. The names for the colours of Shetland wool are still called:
Emsket – dusky bluish-grey
Shaela – dark steely-grey, like black frost
Musket – light greyish-brown
Mioget – light moorit (yellowish-brown)
Moorit – shades between fawn and dark reddish brown
For an overview of regional knitting in the British Isles & Ireland from the Victoria & Albert Museum, click the April Food's tartan sheep photographed by Gordon Fraser.