Jamieson & Smith yarns are loved by Thistlers around the world. We hope that you enjoy this history of their company, their craft, and their contributions to Shetland's knitting traditions. And, we hope that this awareness encourages you to take pride in your own J&S knits, when you hold their woolly wools in your hands and wear them on your body.
Nestled on North Road overlooking the harbor of Lerwick are the Shetland Wool Brokers: Jamieson & Smith. In a church where herring fishermen once gathered to pray, you will now find eager knitters browsing through nine different yarn bases, patterns modern and historic, and Shetland wool products such as handknit yoke sweaters and woven blankets. Next door is the wool warehouse, where you’ll see bags upon bags of wool waiting to be inspected.
Picture of Outside of the Wool Brokers at its North Road Location
Photo courtesy of Author
While many know them for their beautiful wool, Jamieson & Smith is more than a familiar name on your favorite yarn’s ball band. The Wool Brokers play a vital role in preserving Shetland’s knitstory, supporting today’s wool industry, and building a future for the island’s most cherished resource.
One corner full of wooly cones at the Jamieson & Smith store in Lerwick
Photo courtesy of Author
The Shetland Wool Brokers started in the 1930s at Berry Farm on Scalloway by the Smith Family – wife Isabelle Jamieson, husband James Smith, and their son John whose work in wool over the years would earn him the nickname “Auld Sheepie”. What started as a family operation with Shetland sheep and the occasional Shetland Pony blossomed into a bustling business of buying up Shetland wool from crofters for highly sought after Shetland wool products in the Postwar era. In the 1960s the Wool Brokers moved to their current location in Lerwick, where they’ve been expanding upon and operating ever since.
Picture of John “Sheepie” Smith with one of Berry Farm’s Shetland Ponies
Photo and History from Oliver Henry’s “My Life in Shetland Wool”
Their name The Wool Brokers comes from their role as the island’s largest buyer of Shetland wool. They purchase 80% of the island's wool from over 700 crofters and farmers throughout Shetland. This is evident when you walk up to their store and wool warehouse flanked by large bins of wool. With so much fleece coming in, it is no small feat to sift through, sort and grade the wool so every fiber is used in the best possible way.
Snapshots of Wool waiting to be sorted and graded at the Wool Brokers
Photos courtesy of Author
Here is where Oliver Henry comes in. A lifelong woolman hired by John “Sheepie” Smith himself, Oliver is one of the best known wool graders in the industry and has been working with Jamieson & Smith for over fifty years. You can see his wool grading process on the Jamieson & Smith Youtube here, where the finer wools end up in lace to jumper weight yarns and the coarser bits go into household items like carpets and mats. Oliver is also a fount of knowledge on all things Shetland, writing about his life on the Islands and work with wool on his blog.
Oliver Henry modeling the Roadside Beanie: A design based off his life in wool for 2019 Shetland Wool Week, of which he was the Patron
Photo © Oliver Henry and Sandra Manson
This love for pure Shetland wool can be best seen, and knit, in its Supreme Jumper Weight yarn. Shetland sheep come in a variety of colors ranging from cream to taupe, gray to a deep, almost black, brown. J&S Supreme Jumper Weight is a completely undyed Shetland wool yarn that shows the full color spectrum the Shetland sheep have to offer. Sporting Shetlandic names, such as Mooskit and Yuglet, J&S Supreme is a celebration of the islands’ wooliest residents.
One of the things we love about Jamieson & Smith is how they help preserve the knitstory of the Shetland Island's long-standing wool industry. Of these efforts, we’re lucky enough to have the Shetland Heritage line here at The Woolly Thistle. Developed in cooperation with a team of archivists, specialist dyers, curators, and wool curators, this yarn is based on the handspun “wursit” of the 19th century. Available in a range of neutrals as well as red, blue, green, and yellow, these colors are based on the Fair Isle knitted garments stored and exhibited just down the road at the Shetland Archives & Museum.
The Wool Broker’s archival work is not limited to the yarn on display, but also in translating knitwear of centuries past into patterns for today’s knitters. Their Fair Isle Cap, or ‘kep’ in Shetland dialect, is a wonderful example of this. This pattern came from analyzing one of the oldest knit artifacts at the Shetland Museum, a “haaf” style kep that likely belonged to an offshore fisherman, dating back to the 1860s. These modern patterns breathe new life into old knits, and bring Shetland knitstory from the museum in Lerwick to your needles.
Another way J&S contributes to Shetland knit culture is their annual “Colourbox Challenge”. Each year they curate a set of eight colors, and encourage entrants to knit something new using at least five of the shades. Knitters showcase their creations at competitions across Shetland hoping to impress the judges. These pieces were recently the topic of an exhibit at the Shetland Textile Museum, which showed just how much creativity can spring from one palette.
Left Photo: Showcasing Colourbox Challenge Yarn Combinations from 2011-2019
Right Photo: Close up of Colourbox Challenge Exhibit at the Shetland Textile Museum
Both Photos taken by Author at the Shetland Textile Museum
The work of the Wool Brokers touches all levels of our craft: from supporting the crofters who grow the wool, to processing it into wonderfully woolly yarn, and providing inspiration on everything from color palettes to patterns. Each skein of Jamieson & Smith yarn you buy supports a vision of a brighter future for Shetland wool: something we can all tip our keps to.
Hello thewoollythistle.com webmaster, Your posts are always well-received and appreciated.
I loved the video of Oliver Henry! His skill, love of the job and sense of humour we’re endearing
I really enjoyed reading about the history of Jamieson & Smith, Shetland wools. I now have a deep newfound appreciation for these fine woolens.
When I decide to tackle that first beautiful fair isle sweater (or possibly a smaller project), you can bet that my yarns will come from them.
Thank you for the info!
~ Linda Holden
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