Shetland Fashions Ltd was established under the name of Clousta Handcraft in 1967 by an English couple, Iain and Gaye Caldwell. The company quickly grew, at one point employing 400 casual workers and producing more than 4000 garments a week predominantly on manual knitting machines.
Shetland Fashions employed mostly female knitters in their own homes, drawing on the reservoir of skilled labour in the islands. Outworkers produced the bodies of sweaters on domestic hand-operated machines or they hand-knitted the fair isle yokes.
The company operated out of purpose-built factories in Aith (designed by architect Ove Aarup) – which was predominantly used for finishing and packing – and later in Gremista, which housed a number of Bentley Cotton automated knitting machines facilitating significantly higher production levels.
Shetland Fashions mainly produced traditionally designed garments using Shetland wool for the export market, seeking to capitalise on the distinctiveness of the Shetland brand. But as it expanded the company faced obstacles. Difficulties in sourcing a secure supply of Shetland yarn resulted in Caldwell purchasing Pickard’s spinning mill in Leicester. The overseas demand for traditionally styled Shetland garments, produced relatively expensively in Shetland, declined in the face of competition from cheaper factory-produced fashion garments.
Although the company sought export opportunities in Europe, North America and Australia, it eventually closed the factory premises; the majority of workers then worked from home. And when the Shetland economy was transformed by the arrival of the oil industry in the early 1970s, Shetland Fashions along with other knitwear producers struggled to find sufficient workers. After just 15 years of existence, Shetland Fashions was wound up in 1982.
Shetland Fashions might have been short lived but its rise and fall highlights some important aspects of the knitwear industry in remote communities. The company’s reliance on outworkers, the combined use of manual knitting machines and hand skills, the difficulties in the supply of raw materials and labour, and ultimately the competition from UK mainland and overseas producers, which could produce so-called ‘Shetland’ garments more cheaply, are all illustrative of the fragility of knitwear production in the global marketplace.
For a more detailed discussion about the knitwear industry in Shetland and its combination of hand and machine knitting, please read the project’s recently published article in Textile History – ‘Recognising the Co-dependence of Machine and Hand in the Scottish Knitwear Industry’.