From the gentle bleating of prehistoric sheep on misty hillsides to the unique patterns knit into Fair Isle jumpers, Scotland’s textile traditions weave a bright tapestry of art, history and cultural identity.
As ethical fashion continues to gain momentum, Scottish wool and textiles stand tall. Many in the industry balance heritage with innovation. Additionally, they emphasise local production, animal welfare and low carbon footprints.
From ancient origins to a hopeful future, wool is so much more than the scratchy jumper a well-meaning relative knit you all those years ago. Grab your needles, hooks or wheel and discover everything you need to know about Scottish wool and textiles.
Scotland’s textile heritage runs deep within its cultural fabric, from cherished family jumpers to iconic tartan kilts. Of course, to understand Scottish wool and textiles today, we need to discover its unique history.
Woollen garments have been a part of human history for millennia. The discovery of wool trousers in western China dating back over 3000 years reveals the ancient significance of this versatile material. Organic matter is rarely preserved in the archaeological record, requiring the right conditions to prevent decomposition. Finding trousers from at least the 10th century BC is remarkable. In contrast, the earliest pair of socks, found in Egypt, dates between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD. The earliest example of double knitting appeared in North Africa 900 years ago.
Sheep and goats were the first domesticated livestock. Sheep arrived in Britain in 4000 – 3000 BC with early Neolithic settlers from mainland Europe. These sheep were small and generally dark colours, similar to Soay sheep today. Although these early sheep likely arrived in southern England, horns have been discovered at the prehistoric and Norse settlement of Jarlshof on Shetland. Today, some of the oldest sheep breeds in the UK are found on Scotland’s far-flung northern isles.
The Roman Empire reached Britain in the mid-1st century AD. The Romans encountered an established wool industry, and introduced their sheep to the emerging mix of breeds in the country. Remember those prehistoric sheep that we mentioned earlier? It is no coincidence that they remain in areas of Scotland that the Romans could not conquer.
It should be noted that although the written record is much older, descriptions of specific sheep breeds don’t exist until the 1700s in the UK.
The sprawl of one of the most iconic empires in the Western world’s history allowed the emerging wool trade between Britain and mainland Europe to expand. British wool remained a powerful trading tool when the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. By the time William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, Britain and Spain were at the centre of the Western world for wool production.
The wool trade peaked in Medieval Britain following the arrival of the Normans. The boom shaped much of the country we know today, especially in England. From the romantic golden streets of the Cotswolds to the towering wool churches across the country, evidence of the success of the Medieval wool trade can be seen everywhere.
Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Scotland was second only to England as a wool-producing nation. Other Scottish exports included fish and animal hides. Today, Shetland is synonymous with wool, the most famous wool from Scotland. This story began in the 1600s when Shetland exported hand-knit socks from handspun Shetland wool to the English and Dutch.
By the 16th century, heavy taxes and strict legislation saw English interests shift from the wool trade to textile manufacture. As a result, the Stroud Valley, in southwest England, became a hub of clattering water mills. However, unlike England, Scotland did not turn to cloth yet, and the wool trade continued into the 1700s.
The Industrial Revolution reached Scotland after it had swept through England, emerging in the mid-1700s. In England, technological advances saw the textile trade move from southern England to the north. Subsequently, a new era of wool towns emerged in places like Leeds, built on steam power. Back in Scotland, linen was the leading textile industry. This transition to industrial textile mills led the way for cotton, jute and, of course, wool. By the early 1830s, the textile industry employed almost three-quarters of Scottish workers. Tartan, as we know it today, also emerged in this period.
A conversation about the Industrial Revolution in Scotland can only occur by also discussing the Highland Clearances. Infamous in modern history for the mass displacement of Scottish families, players like the Duchess of Sutherland show the Clearances through a particularly notorious filter.
Many factors contributed to the Highland Clearances. One influence was the British Agricultural Revolution. Starting in the early 1700s and preceding the Industrial Revolution, this overhaul of farming methods allowed the expanding populations of industrial cities to be fed. At the same time, the events that led to the Battle of Culloden in 1746 also marked the end of the clan system as it had been known. Following this, power came from wealth rather than manpower. As the price of sheep and wool increased, livestock replaced tenant farming. By the second half of the 1800s, tens of thousands of Highlanders had emigrated. After this, by the end of the 19th century, falling wool prices gave way to deer and game.
Just as the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s had seen the price of wool spike, the First and Second World Wars had a similar, larger demand for this fibre. As a result, the British Government operated the Imperial Wool and Sheepskin Contract Scheme during both wars. The Scheme involved buying wool from across the Commonwealth for an inflated price. Wool bought through the scheme was primarily used to produce uniforms for the military, including trousers, skirts and jackets.
Following the end of World War II, wool prices began a continual decrease. Textile mills, many of which had seen a revival during the wars, closed for the final time. Simultaneously, Scottish wool and textiles gained a reputation for being scratchy and stodgy, unable to compete with the acrylic garments flooding the market.
Scottish wool and textiles have declined since the 1950s. Consequently, the wool industry was virtually unviable by the millennium. The Covid pandemic and Brexit further damaged an already struggling industry.
Most sheep today need annual shearing thanks to selective breeding over the centuries. In 2021, the value of British fleece dropped to an average price of just 32p per kilogram. Even as the market recovers from the global pandemic, the average price of fleece remains around half the cost of shearing.
Yet a new era of Scottish wool and textiles is emerging. Harris Tweed and tartan continue to be significant textile exports. Shepherds like Caithness Yarns and companies like Iona Wool showcase the best Scottish wool that might otherwise have been burned or buried. Annfield Farm showcases beautiful Angora goats with exceptional welfare standards. Lunan Bay Farm is the only remaining commercial herd of Scottish cashmere goats. The Journal of Scottish Yarns created a beautiful map showcasing Scottish-bred wool. Explore the map below.
There is a glimmer of hope for the future of Scottish wool and textiles. As farm-to-table dining remains popular and people become more aware of their carbon footprint, local wool steps back into the spotlight. Furthermore, the number of voices speaking up to promote Scottish wool and textiles continues to grow. Paired with industry innovations, such as the work by Prickly Thistle Scotland, Johnstons of Elgin and the University of Edinburgh to make Scottish fleece more wearable, the future looks bright.
From clothes and yarn to home interiors and insulation, wool is an exciting and versatile fibre with many uses. How will you use Scottish wool and textiles?
There are many woollen mills, textile mills and yarn festivals across Scotland to discover. Of course, we’ve listed a few of our favourites below to help you find out more about Scottish wool and textiles in person.
Uist Wool is a spinning mill and wool centre on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. With a strong focus on provenance and local wool, they aim to create the ‘best and most sustainable yarn’ they can.
Alternatively, Jamieson’s of Shetland are a household name in Shetland wool. With a legacy dating back almost 250 years, they remain Shetland’s only commercial woollen mill. Their shop in Lerwick is an oasis for wool lovers, and their wool wall is not to be missed.
Stepping back in time and onto the mainland, Knockando Wool Mill has been on its site in the beautiful Spey Valley for over 230 years. Undoubtedly one of the last mills of its kind, Knockando closed in 2000 before reopening as a working heritage attraction in 2012.
Johnstons of Elgin is a coveted brand worldwide, known for its luxurious woollen goods. With a history into the late 1700s, the company has had centuries to hone its expertise. Certified B Corp, the mill in Elgin allows visitors to peek behind the curtain on their fascinating mill tours.
Moving from Scotland’s oldest wool mill to the newest, Prickly Thistle Scotland is based in the heart of the Highlands. It was inevitable that they would work in tartan, and this Certified B Corp company entered the market with a splash. Visit their mill for a tour and a shop, or discover one of their pop-up shops.
Additionally, Stanley Mills is a historic textile mill located just outside Perth that ceased operation in 1989. Today, it offers a fascinating insight into a Scottish textile mill.
The Scottish Yarn Festival is an annual yarn and fibre festival in Perth, attracting visitors from across the world. Additionally, their sister event, the Scottish Wool Producers Showcase, launched in 2022 to showcase yarns of Scottish origin.
Shetland Wool Week is a world-renowned celebration of Shetland sheep and the local textile industry. A week of knitting, natter, and expert-led classes, this is the event on every knitter’s bucket list.
Last but not least, Glasgow School of Yarn is the brainchild of The Yarn Cake, a Glasgow-based wool shop. Championing local makers, this is a celebration full of laughter and yarn.