The name was under threat from imported wool, but now Yorkshire has stepped in to become the saviour of the Shetland Wool industry. Sharon Dale reports.
Rearing sheep on remote Scottish islands is no easy way to make a living, so you can understand crofters' fury at fakes bearing the Shetland wool label. And there are thousands. Hundreds of miles away
in Yorkshire, Martin Curtis shares that anger.
"The Shetland label has been stolen by other wool types and there are thousands of items from jumpers to blankets that claim to be Shetland when they clearly aren't," says Martin. "I've seen products labelled as Shetland when the wool has come from New Zealand."
His passion for the unique wool and the unique crofting way of life it supports has led Martin and his son Adam to mount a battle to reclaim the brand and promote the real McCoy. The family business Curtis Wool Direct, based in Bingley, is the biggest wool merchant and last remaining comber in the UK, and for the past decade it has bought
95 per cent of the Shetland Isles sheep clip.
So when brother and sister Jim and Eva Smith, who collected wool from the island's 800 crofters, decided to retire, they offered their Lerwick-based wool brokers' business to Curtis.
"We bought Jamieson and Smith, but at that point Shetland was just a wool that went into blends with other wool," says Martin. "It went into the mix which was a shame because Shetland wool has its own unique characteristics. It is clean and springy, some of it is fine, soft but very resilient."
Martin, a former economist and one-time marketing director with the British Wool Marketing Board, visited his new acquisition in the Shetlands and was captivated. He realised that the potential of the
islands' wool was being squandered, while inferior imitations traded on its name.
He also discovered that some crofters were giving up rearing sheep for more lucrative work in the oil industry after the price of their wool clip fell to 20p a kilo in 2004.
"It captured my imagination. I saw families bringing their wool by boat from the islands to Jamieson and Smith and I could see how passionate they were about what they did. I knew if I could recreate the Shetland Wool story and reclaim the brand, we could get more for the farmers."
Back in Yorkshire, he registered the "Real Shetland" trademark to protect it from counterfeiters and encouraged his son Adam to set up the Real Shetland Company, a web-based business that makes and sells products using the crofters' wool. The result is a range of exquisite range of throws and blankets starting at 35 and a beautiful dark grey carpet using the natural, un-dyed wool from black sheep. It sells at 30 a square metre and is already a huge hit with interior designers. The crofters, who are now paid 90p a kilo for their wool, and the staff at Jamieson and Smith are delighted.
"We've tried unsuccessfully for the last 40 years to protect the name Shetland, but now we feel that the Real Shetland brand will do that for us. There's traceability right back to the crofter,"
says Shetlander Oliver Henry of Jamieson and Smith.
"This new brand is helping preserve an industry that suffered enormously due to man-made fibres and the import of Australian wool. It is also helping to preserve the Shetland breed. I also
think the connection with Yorkshire is very appropriate. They have been the centre of the world wool industry for years."
The wool is collected from Shetland, then scoured, combed and woven into throws in Yorkshire, while a factory in Kidderminster makes the carpet.
The throws, mostly made from natural, un-dyed wool, are already proving a big success especially with buyers from America and Japan, who adore the idea of wrapping themselves in a blanket that has spectacular provenance.
In marketing terms, Real Shetland wool has everything going for it. It is exclusive, as there is a finite amount of the raw material meaning the market will never be flooded. It is also imbued with a rich and romantic heritage.
"The Shetland wool story goes back centuries right back to the Vikings,
who supposedly introduced sheep
to the islands," says Martin Curtis. "We are using that romance and the authenticity to promote the product."
Each throw come with a card boasting the trademark image of Shetland rams and a personal thank you from a crofter. Crofters dropping their wool off at the depot in Lerwick get 50p for each card they sign.
"People who buy the throws know
that it's authentic and that they are supporting the crofters," says
"They also know that the product is natural. Pure wool, as opposed to the synthetic fibres, is also one of the most eco-friendly products you can buy. It's a wonderful material. It's warm,
naturally flame retardant, it breathes and absorbs moisture and is resistant to staining."
Everyone is a winner from the crofter and consumer to the environment. "We are able to pay farmers more for their clip than they've had for many years, which is wonderful, because wool prices are generally too low," says Martin.
"Hopefully it will encourage crofters to continue. Sheep are very important to the Shetlands for lots of reasons. I was told by an ornithologist that land up there that was no longer grazed had affected the bird population because the grass was too long for them to source the insects they needed."
He also thinks that Real Shetland is an idea that could transfer to other areas or specific breeds of sheep.
Oliver Henry agrees, though he says they could never compete with Scotland's finest.
"Shetland wool is super soft and full of bounce. It almost feels alive. It is the most fantastic wool in the world."
For more details, visit www.realshetland.com