Product & Design, Product & Design

Sit Down with Oliver Henry, Shetland Wool Broker

29 September 2022
Shetland Wool
This Shetland Wool Week, we’re sharing story snippets from two of Oliver Henry wool broker’s blog posts to hear of his journey with sheep and wool. Oliver has worked at Jamieson & Smith Shetland Wool Brokers in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, for over 50 years. To read more of his articles, click here

Jamieson & Smith is a wool broker and has been around since the 1930s, when it was founded by the Smith family of Berry Farm in Scalloway, on the east coast of Shetland. In the 60s, they relocated to their current premises overlooking the harbour in Lerwick. Their buildings on the North Road include their wool sheds and a renovated church which houses their yarn store. 

Shetland is renowned in the global textiles world for its exceptionally fine wool fibre shorn from the distinctive Shetland sheep. Oliver has worked with Shetland sheep, wool, Real Shetland Knitting yarns, and other unique textile products for over 50 years. His primary duties today are handling over 80% of the Island’s wool clip annually, grading, and hand sorting the fleece. Oliver had also been judging Shetland wool and Shetland Rams wool on the hoof for over thirty years. 


My Early Years with Shetland Sheep and Wool

My grandfather’s croft consisted of a small park fenced in where he kept perhaps a dozen ewes. The remainder of his flock roamed the village. I fondly remember hand-feeding his sheep, especially when grazing was scarce in the winter. One particular Shetland ewe, “Blackie” would come into our house, and I would brush the snow off her fleece while hand feeding her. 

Mam, My Sister, and Blackie at Hamnavoe

It wasn’t until I was ten that I had the good fortune to meet up with my uncle Willie Robertson’s family. He lived in the North East of Shetland, in Vidlin, where I understood the importance of traditional crofting life, its impact on a rural community, and the comradeship of crofters. My summer months were spent on the Robertson croft at Kirkabister in Vidlin, and my education of Shetland agriculture and, particularly, Shetland sheep and wool began. 

Vidlin Hills

A highlight of my summer was gathering or “caaing” the hill sheep. As many as a dozen crofters would set off with their dogs from different parts of the district, which was very hilly and full of gullies and burns. I marvelled at how they all seemed to meet up at a specific location, most often next a loch, and drive the mass of sheep into the “cro” (pen). Here each crofter would select their sheep and start hand shearing or, in some cases, “rooing” (plucking) their animals. I began to know how each crofter could distinguish who owned the sheep. This was done by “lug” earmarks, where each crofter had their own “brand”. A favourite memory of mine was at one of the larger gatherings, I spotted one of the Robertson family’s black ewes being shorn by a distant neighbour and telling the Johnson brothers, who were representing the crofter who owned the ewe of what was about to happen I asked if they should point out the mistake they said no just wait, and when the crofter has finished, they went and said “thanks for shearing one of the Robertson sheep” and took the fleece and handed it to me to pack.

Shetland Sheep in ’60s

Oliver with Lamb on Family Croft, 1969


Grading & Sorting Shetland Wool

We appreciate nothing much has changed up to the present day in that there are still two distinct types of Shetland sheep. A kindly fine wool sheep, the other of mixed quality with particularly coarse wool. Obviously, these two distinct types of Shetland sheep interbreed, so you have a mixture of wool qualities. 

In 1978 came the introduction of the wool grading scheme, a much fairer system for all concerned, producer, merchant, and end user. Five grades of white wool and two grades of coloured were introduced, which applied a standardised grading system from which the purchaser of the wool could work his margins. We still stick pretty rigidly to this method of grading today. As the primary buyer of the local wool clip, over 80%, according to local trading standards, we have a responsibility in our handling of the clip for all parties involved in the wool process. 

The wool quality determines the grading; if coarser fibres are present, the lower the grade. In most Shetland fleece, the finer wools are more prevalent around the neck and shoulder areas. A perfect example of fleece presentation I was personally involved with occurred in the scheme’s first and second years. A crofter approached me at the end of the first grading year and stated he was disappointed with his wool returns having only a small amount of grade one. I took a Shetland fleece on my sorting table and proceeded to roll the fleece from the Britch to the neck folding in the coarser staple out of sight; he explained he had not rolled his clip and so had not shown off the best of his wool. At the end of the next wool season, my boss asked me to explain why the same crofter’s wool clip was mainly grade one.

Because of this mixture of wool qualities occurring in a fleece, it is essential that after grading, wool sorting has to be done, and the only means to separate the different types is by hand. There are various types of qualities sorted depending on the finished product. The more robust guard hair wool staple (lock), which can form part of the fleece, is sorted away, leaving the more delicate fibre which will be used in high-quality knitting yarns such as Shetland Supreme lace. This is a very time-consuming and skilled job that is necessary to produce a high-quality product, such as that which makes it into our Vispring beds

Thank you very much Oliver, for allowing us to share your story with our readers, to read more of Oliver’s articles, click here