An Open Letter to the Shetland Islands Council

To The Shetland Islands Council,

I write to express my dismay on learning of your decision to not renew Promote Shetland’s contract, which puts three people out of a job and imperils the inspiring work that they have done. From the outside, the decision appears deeply short-sighted. I am frankly at a loss as to how you imagine anyone can do a better job at “attracting people, particularly young people, to live, work and study and invest in Shetland” than the current Promote Shetland team. I am also confused by the implication in the articles I have read, that “heritage tourism” seems, in the eyes of the Shetland Islands Council, to be at odds with your goals of drawing people to Shetland.

To better explain what I mean, I should speak about how Promote Shetland attracted me to stay, work, study and spend in Shetland. I was first in touch with Promote Shetland when I saw a photograph by Fair Isle photographer – Dave Wheeler – on social media. I contacted Misa Hay at Promote Shetland to see whether it might be possible for us to republish this photo on the Wovember blog. Wovember is both a celebration of the heritage, culture and labour surrounding woollen textiles, and a forward-looking campaign seeking to change how the garment industry uses the term “wool” in current product descriptions. Like Promote Shetland’s thoughtful approach to “heritage tourism”, Wovember is about deepening our understanding and appreciation of history in order to improve the future. Dave Wheeler’s fantastic image really speaks to that mission, capturing the special provenance of Shetland wool which makes it such an inspiring material for contemporary Shetland textile businesses.

Photo © Dave Wheeler; see Dave’s work at Dave Wheeler Photography

Misa Hay at Promote Shetland helpfully contacted Dave Wheeler on our behalf and enabled us to share his fantastic woolly photo. This is the first of many exchanges over the years that have demonstrated to me the sophisticated understanding of social media possessed by the Promote Shetland team – their joined-up, connective, and collaborative approach.

Partly because of my work with Wovember, I was invited by Promote Shetland to act as Patron for Shetland Wool Week in 2013. At the time I was employed by Oxford Brookes University as an Early Career Research Fellow in Sound Art. I used field-recordings and interviews to explore the special history of Shetland wool through listening and sound, producing a special online sound map enabling listeners to hear elements of Shetland’s working woollen landscape. I presented a talk at Shetland Wool Week called Listening to Shetland Oo, celebrating links between Shetland’s music and textiles and the distinctive, sonic textures of the places in which Shetland Wool grows.

Shetland Wool Week Poster, 2013

I also produced a knitting pattern for covering pillow speakers in Shetland Wool. The pattern contains instructions on how to download sounds from my online soundmap. By knitting the speaker and downloading my recordings, knitters can listen to Shetland Wool through Shetland Wool.

My drawing of the knitted speaker, which was printed on one side of the bags for SWW 2013

This project is currently installed in the Open Data Centre in London as part of Data as Culture: Thinking Out Loud. Opening last year, this exhibition has been extended until September 2017, and features work from many different artists “exploring the ways in which humans have captured, encoded and distributed data and made it meaningful through pattern”. Ostensibly beginning as a project about Shetland’s heritage conceived for Shetland Wool Week, Listening to Shetland Wool has become part of a contemporary art discourse on data, knitting, textiles, computer code, and gender and technology, all the while spreading Shetland voices and sounds far beyond the initial audiences who saw and heard that work at Wool Week 2013.

Proffering a baa-ing, 100% Shetland-wool clad speaker to an audience at “Playground on Fire” in Oxford; I am explaining that the pillow is made of Shetland wool, and that there is a special map where one can hear this wool growing in the landscape

Listening to Shetland Wool was made possible not only through the practical support and contacts provided to me by Promote Shetland, but also because the team did not turn their noses up at my unusual proposal to incorporate digital technology into my promotional Wool Week activities. In fact Misa was extremely encouraging about my knitted speakers, my online sound map and my enthusiasm for using field recordings to document the special stories and textures of Shetland Wool. Perhaps this is because Promote Shetland are already so familiar with using digital content to engage potential visitors with what Shetland has to offer: just look at their popular webcams. Because of the warm responses shown to my recording activities in Shetland in 2013, I’ve never stopped making recordings of Shetland or sharing the sounds I have recorded there. On World Wide Knit In Public Day this year, my podcast Sounds from Shetland Wool Week was aired at a gallery in Germany as part of a special exhibition featuring textiles and sounds by German artists Gerald Fiebig and Tine Klink. Too, this year, at the Readipop Festival in my home town of Reading, I will publicly perform my promotional song about Shetland, written as a love song to your Islands when I traveled there in 2013.

You can hear the song now because it was recorded by 60° North TV: the fantastic video platform of Promote Shetland. I am frankly honoured to appear on their YouTube channel which features another video by the same team that I show to all my friends when I am talking about Shetland: The A-Z of Shetland. That’s not all. Drawing from the generous and attractively presented resources collected on the Promote Shetland website, I’ve been able to share many other elements of Shetland life with my friends here, too: baking bannocks using the recipe on the website; playing music from Shetland discovered through Promote Shetland’s vibrant social media channels; and proudly wearing my I <3 Shetland badge wherever I go.

I heart Shetland!

Exposure to the rich culture and deeply embedded sense of place in Shetland – perhaps something you might narrowly mis-name “heritage tourism” – made me yearn for a textile practice of my own: one that would enable me to deepen connections between the landscape in which I live and my knitting. Encouraged by Promote Shetland, I developed a workshop along these themes in my capacity as patron for Wool Week 2013 called Quotidian Colourwork. Celebrating everyday objects and places in stranded colourwork, this workshop is about finding patterns and textures wherever you live, for use in your knitting. My workshop gives knitters who cannot lay claim to any one particular knitting heritage the tools to make stranded colourwork out of anything that is personally significant or special to the knitter. The workshop was well received enough that in 2014, when my University-funded Early Career Research Fellowship ended, I was able to run a successful Kickstarter campaign that enabled me to publish a book expanding on the same subject. Selling that book and teaching further Quotidian Colourwork workshops have been my main source of income ever since: neither could have happened without the enabling support and encouragement of Misa Hay that I received at the start of the idea: Thank you, Misa!

Misa Hay on the Shetland Wool Week stall with Donna Smith’s Baa-ble hat design in 2015

The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is now in its third print run. When working on it, I exclusively use Shetland Jumper Weight 2-ply supplied by Jamieson & Smith. It is my favourite yarn with which to knit colourwork, and I continue to buy all my yarn for teaching workshops from the Woolbrokers, urging all my students to do the same. I’ve returned to Shetland to offer Quotidian Colourwork classes at Wool Week almost every year since 2013.

Swapping publications with Hazel Tindall in 2014

Unable to come in 2016, I staged a series of celebratory activities dubbed Shetland Wool Week in the South and researched through the Shetland.org website. My comrades at Purlescence hosted a Sunday Tea, and local friends created a temporary display of knitting inspired by Shetland or worked in Shetland Wool. We had a reading table piled high with fantastic publications produced by Promote Shetland: The Shetland Pocket Guide; two fantastic editions of the Wool Week annual; and copies of the wonderfully informative 60° North Magazine. I am traveling to work in Shetland once again this autumn, and also for a holiday with my husband, Mark: we are researching our whole trip using the fantastic resources at Shetland.org.

When we were married earlier this year, I knitted a pair of gauntlets from Shetland Wool and wool from Portland – an island off of Weymouth, where Mark is from. I wanted to incorporate a feeling of home into the textiles I wore that day: a feeling I strongly associate with Shetland and all the amazing people I have met there. I am sure I do not speak only for myself when I say that Promote Shetland played a key role in welcoming me to Shetland as an outsider. Promote Shetland also gave me the means and resources to work in your Islands (albeit on a freelance basis). I don’t want to downplay the fantastic warmth of all the Shetlanders I’ve met, the fantastically supportive team at Jamieson & Smith, or the incredible work of people like Carol Christiansen at the Shetland Museum and Archives… but back in 2013, it was Promote Shetland who first introduced me to your Islands and to all the Shetlanders I now joyfully count as friends.

I am not the only person who feels this way, and I know that all the knitters who come to Shetland Wool Week boosting the economy by half a million pounds strongly associate that event with the friendly faces of Promote Shetland. I am heartened to read that Shetland Wool Week is not at risk, but it is hard to envisage how this event will continue without the involvement of the people who have been developing the event since it first began and particularly without the fantastic energies of Misa.

Misa Hay with the giant Baa-ble by Donna Smith, in 2015

Learning from every successive event, this team has built an excellent, world-class brand for Wool Week; one well-recognised by the International Knitting Community. Designs by former Wool Week patrons Donna Smith and Kate Davies have featured in popular television programmes Shetland and Eden, and when Promote Shetland have attended such events as Vogue Knitting in New York City, they’ve been greeted like superstars. Well-researched articles by renowned researchers Kate Davies and Roslyn Chapman have made the 60° North magazine one that is cherished everywhere by knitters who want to read quality content about the history and context of our craft.

Ella Gordon at the Shetland Wool Week stall at Edinburgh Yarn Festival in 2016

Because of the sophistication with which Promote Shetland utilise social media, the reach of Shetland Wool Week far outstrips the capacity in Shetland for actual visitors. To overcome this problem, knitters are engaged worldwide through Promote Shetland’s wonderful online channels and through activities organised on the Internet. The popular knitting website Ravelry lists a total of 8,580 hats knitted to date in celebration of Shetland Wool Week; that is the sum of projects listed for Hazel Tindall’s Shwook (2014); Donna Smith’s Baa-ble Hat (2015); Ella Gordon’s Crofthoose Hat (2016); and Gudrun Johnston’s Bousta Beanie (2017). These projects don’t include all the hats that have been knitted from promotional leaflets handed out by the Shetland Wool Week team, or the many other designs by these talented Shetland knitwear designers and others whose designs have been highlighted through Shetland Wool Week.

with Ella Gordon and Kate Davies at Shetland Wool Week 2015 at an event that was live-streamed to the world

Promote Shetland have made Shetland Wool Week a world class event. Generosity, encouragement, listening to the needs of the knitting community, representing Shetland Wool Week at popular events like Vogue Knitting and the Edinburgh Yarn Festival and creating consistently quality online and printed content have built the prestige of this event, and the relationships on which its success depends. Wool Week is of course only one of many projects juggled by the team, but it is clear from their fantastic website and online presence that the same love, energy and diligence have been lavished on all their other projects.

I have to agree with Tom Morton’s criticisms leveled against the Shetland Islands Council in this article and by what my friend and former Wool Week Patron Kate Davies says here. Your decision to not renew the contract shows incredible ignorance of modern marketing and the value of the work done by Promote Shetland. The motivation, passion, and care that they have brought to the task of promoting Shetland will be impossible to replace. Sadly, I feel your decision will damage your aims for Shetland more than you can imagine.

From outside it looks like few have done more to raise the profile of Shetland globally than Promote Shetland. Initiatives such as the Shetland.org website; their dynamic social media campaigns; video content; live-streaming of major events; 60° North magazine and Shetland Wool Week will be difficult to sustain without the skill base, contacts and friendships that have been fostered and developed by this generous, forward-looking organisation. For all of these reasons, I strongly urge you to reconsider your decision: places that do not reward digital skills, online engagement, and the importance of provenance stories in today’s commercial environment are not welcoming to young people looking for dynamic contexts in which to set up their lives and businesses.

Yours Sincerely, Felicity Ford.

To readers of this blog: please consider signing this petition or writing, as I intend to do, to Malcolm Bell of the Shetland Islands Council:

Malcolm Bell
Shetland Islands Council
Town Hall
Lerwick
Shetland
ZE1 0JL

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7 Responses to An Open Letter to the Shetland Islands Council

  1. Kate says:

    WELL SAID FELIX! Your point about the importance of Promote Shetland’s digital skills & online engagement in welcoming younger audiences is particularly well made.

  2. GothamMuse says:

    This. What an excellent commentary on the abilities of @PromoteShetland – raising the profile of Shetland in the 21st century requires knowledge of both past and present, and a sophisticated approach to connect them in order to create a future! Petition previously signed, but may I also suggest readers follow PromoteShetland on their various social media, if they haven’t already?

  3. I live in Canada and raise Shetland sheep. I have used your promotions to promote Shetland, the place and the wool. At this very moment a fellow Shetland producer and I are doing a proect on Shetland for a local museum. I have learned so much from your website, Facebook, Kate!, purchased books you have released, ordered the magazine, and am planning to (one day) come to Shetland wool week! You have all done such an amazing job and it really saddens me that this may come to an end. I really hope and pray the council will listen to your concerns and renew the contract. There are a lot of people across Canada and the USA rooting for you!

  4. Dorthe Viemose says:

    Without Promote Shetland the islands would have remained small dots on the map of great Britain.
    With Promote Shetland the dots turnes into a real place, a place to visit, which I did last year, and a place to keep in my heart and wish to return to. A place to read about in 60 North. A place to watch on the webcams and with Promote Shetland itself I would contact first thing before my next visit. If plans of closing Promote Shetland are realized, i haven’t got the slightest idea about whom to ask.

  5. kateg2 says:

    Ms. Ford, whenever I feel blue I watch you singing your ode to Kate Davies. Now I have a second original anthem to cheer up with. You are, indeed, the sweetest nut in the fiber cake.

    Promote Shetland would be wise to listen to you.

  6. Christine Hughes says:

    I agree with completely. None of the thinking behind this decision makes any sense, the work done by the Trust and Promote Shetland, has encouraged people to come to Shetland for tourism, work and to study. I would not have visited Shetland if it hadn’t been for the trust, reading articles, viewing via the webcams, etc., Shetland is an amazing place, and I am looking forward to visiting again in the future, in the meantime will listen to Wool Week, Up Helly-a and watch the wildlife over the internet, thanks to the Trust. It would be so sad if all this work was to cease, and such hardworking talented people made redundant – I’m hoping this decision can be reversed.

  7. Pamela Butler says:

    Petition signed

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