Shetland abounds with wonderful creative spaces, but surely one of the most inspiring has to be the charity that Andy Ross has established, nurtured, and developed in Yell. From its beginnings as an organisation focused on music and music teaching, GlobalYell expanded its focus a decade ago to textiles, and to weaving in particular. Over these ten years, GlobalYell has become renowned for both its world-class weaving facilities and for its enabling atmosphere which has allowed craftspeople from around the globe to develop and explore their skills in an inspiring island environment. If you’ve ever been to Yell, you’ll know that it is an incredible location: a place of big skies, constantly changing light, and the inescapable presence of the sea. It is perhaps testimony to GlobalYell’s compelling creative atmosphere that talented London-trained weaver, Kirsty Jean Brabin, found she just couldn’t keep away. After completing a residency there, Kirsty found herself moving slowly further North, finally moving permanently to Shetland to work at GlobalYell. As well as being a talented weaver with a background in fashion and interiors, Kirsty has also conducted post-graduate research into the history of Shetland tweed. Working in partnership, in 2015 Andy and Kirsty founded the Shetland Tweed Company together, with the aim of producing beautiful cloth inspired by, rooted to, and created in, the island landscape. The northern isles of Shetland have a long and proud tradition of beautiful tweeds, and through the dedication and hard work of Andy and Kirsty, Shetland tweed is finally being woven again in Yell. Andy and Kirsty both feature in our Shetland Oo book (which is now available in our shop!) and I thought you’d like to hear more about the interesting and important work they do.
KD Hi Andy! Thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us a a little about your background, and how you came to establish GlobalYell?
AR: I grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to London in 1992, moving to Shetland in 2001 to establish GlobalYell because I wanted to teach music. Along the way we encountered weaving through an arts and business project, and we were given weaving equipment from the Ann Sutton Foundation. So GlobalYell was first established as a music charity, and then expanded to include textiles in its aims. I would say it is family (my mum taught me to sew and embroider), a childhood in Zimbabwe (I grew up in Bulawayo, a cotton production town), an education in the service and tourism industries ( I have an HND in Hotel Management), and music (I trained as a singer and have been singing since I was very young) that has made GlobalYell what it is today.
KD Could you say a little about the different ways that craftspeople have been able to make use of what you offer at GlobalYell?
AR: We offer space, time and equipment and those who come here respond to what we provide in their own way. We work closely with our artists and craftspeople through a collaborative design brief which we set here at the studio, and this gives our visitors the constraints necessary for good design but also some freedom to experiment. We have had people using wire, paper, cloth, yarns, grasses and reeds, and beach-combed rope in their weaving. We encourage people to walk and see the landscape differently, to research in the archives in Shetland, to use our reference library, to play and to experiment.
KD: Can you say a little more about the residencies you currently offer, how interested visitors can make use of your facilities, and the way that local folk and students are able to benefit from the studio?
AR: We have two ways for people to work with us on residencies; paid places or bartered places. The paid residencies run when we have funding to allow them – the last residencies were funded by the Paul Hamyln Foundation. Bartering allows us to offer space and equipment to craftspeople in exchange for a pattern, a design, a class… anything of value to us can be used in exchange for time in the studio. Last year we bought a new manufacturing loom and this is what we use to make our cloths. This means people can come to us and create, then we can actually weave lengths of their cloth at an industrial width. The local students are able to come up and see what we do and to volunteer for us, as is anyone interested. Of our residents, seven in total, all of them are in industry or teaching textiles, and two have moved to Shetland to live and work, including Kirsty.
KD: Shetland is a place that seems to inspire deep connections, and a profound sense of place. How would you define your own personal connection to Shetland, and to Yell in particular?
AR: I love living here. I enjoy the space and light, the fact that I know lots of people, being surrounded by the sea, the stunning scenery and the wonderful colours of all the seasons with the drama of the islands. These all give me great happiness. The fact that I have made my very own creative place which others can enjoy gives me a deep sense of pride and is also quite humbling. I know lots of fantastic people with amazing ideas. I am very lucky to live here.
KD: You also extend public awareness of Shetland textiles through your tours. What makes Shetland such an exciting place to visit for anyone interested in textiles?
AR: Shetland IS textiles. There is always something new to see and do. Every tour I run teaches me something new, and I have learned more than I ever thought was possible. I think Shetland creates and attracts people who think about things in a different sort of way, and this is what makes Shetland’s textiles so exciting. Colours and patterns which you would not think could go together do. Interesting ideas emerge out of left field. People experiment and have the space to do so. And there’s a deep sense of freedom here which others respect and allow. Shetland simply repays patience and those who take time to explore.
Thanks so much for this illuminating chat, Andy!
KD: Hi Kirsty! Thanks for joining us for this conversation. Can you tell us a little about your background in weaving and design, and how the Shetland Tweed Company came about?
KJB: I came to Shetland in 2013 after completing a degree in Textile Design at Chelsea College of Art. During my four month post here as weaver in residence I created two interior collections drawing inspiration from the islands where I spent most of my time, Yell and Unst. When I returned to London to begin a masters degree, Shetland’s tweed industry became the focus of my research. I returned several times, conducting interviews regarding the islands textile history, and talking to a range of locals from artisans to mill workers. Upon completing my masters, I worked as a tweed designer in an Aberdeenshire mill, creating collections for fashion and interiors. This was enjoyable, but Shetland was the place I felt closest to my heart. While working at the studio Andy and I often discussed the potential of reinvigorating Shetland tweed in Yell, through a company creating bespoke tweed with a contemporary twist. So I moved to Shetland permanently in May last year, taking a position at Andy’s charity, then later establishing a partnership with him in the Shetland Tweed Company. Andy and I have similar aims, using our passion for Shetland’s landscape, people and weave heritage to inspire contemporary collections.
KD: Weaving has a long and important history in Shetland. Can you say a little about this, and how that history informs what you now do at the Shetland Tweed Company?
KJB: Shetland has a rich heritage of weaving that developed commercially as dyes became more readily available in the late nineteenth century. Shetland tweed production derived from the crofting tradition of making claith (cloth) to trade for goods such as bread and fish. I studied the beginnings of this cottage industry, together with sample books and ledgers at the Shetland Museum and Archives. Community shop owners who stocked and sold claith established croft manufacturing which corresponded to a growing international interest in tweed woven in the Highlands and Islands. The revival of these traditions of island tweed manufacturing is at the core of our ethics here at the Shetland Tweed Company, For the first time in decades, Shetland tweed, woven with Shetland wool, is once again being produced in Yell.
KD: I live in a very peaty landscape – in some ways quite similar to that of Yell – and find such spaces extraordinarily rich and colourful: anyone who describes a bog as barren or empty is just not looking properly! I wondered what you thought about the landscape of Yell, and how it speaks to the textiles that you create?
KJB: The Yell landscape is certainly woven right through what we produce. Our tweeds pick up the flecks of colour you’ll find dotted along the coastline, and we often take a single shade from the landscape and make it the focus of a textile, through sophisticated accent stripes and checks. Before production we sample extensively with Shetland wool, which is soft and drapey and ideal for the cloth we like to make.
KD: Tweed now seems to be enjoying a remarkable renaissance, with more and more people interested in beautiful, handwoven cloths. Can you say more about the impact this move towards the bespoke and handmade has had on you as a weaver, and the kinds of work that you are able to produce?
KJB: Andy and I concentrate on creating short runs of bespoke cloth and limited editions. The majority of people interested in our woven textiles are also interested in how they’re made, the sampling process, where we source our yarn and what inspires us. Our unique setting is deeply important: the story of this island is the story of our cloth. I also think initiatives such as Campaign for Wool and Made in Britain, and events such as Meet the Manufacturer have generated increased interest in traceability and product origin.
KD: Shetland has an amazing craft community, focused on the production of textiles in so many different contexts. There’s also a rich and diverse community of craftspeople online, many of whom are interested in Shetland and Shetland textiles. How important are these different communities to your own practice as a maker?
KJB: Shetland is a fantastic creative hub with a lot of extremely talented craftspeople from knitters to basket makers. To be part of such a diverse creative community is very rewarding and I really enjoy conversations with others about their practices. Living in such a beautiful place, it’s easy to see why so many creative people find Shetland inspiring. Although as I live in the heart of a crofting community, I often find myself talking more about the nitty gritty of wool and sheep with my neighbours and friends than I do about the aesthetics of weaving!
KD Finally, what’s next for the Shetland Tweed Company?
KJB: We’ve recently gone into production, having our longest ever warp woven at 60 metres. The fabrics are from our Lammas and Blen collections and will be for sale by the metre shortly. We intend to produce small runs of each collection, offering a limited edition service. I’m also working on a new collection – but its details have to remain a secret for now!
You can find more about what’s going on at GlobalYell through the website and blog, and find information about Andy’s textile tours here. Follow Andy and Kirsty on Twitter (@GlobalYell and @ShetlandTweedCo) and Instagram (@theshetlandtweedcompany) and discover more about their beautiful textiles on the Shetland Tweed Company website.