Shetland Textile Museum began its life as the Shetland Textile Working Museum (STWM), set up in 1996 by the Shetland Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers. Known simply as “the Guild”, its members had long wished to establish and run a textile museum. This would conserve examples of Shetland textiles, commission new examples, and display various tools and equipment used in its execution. These items would be kept “alive” by the demonstration and teaching of the Guild, and member Bess Jamieson was a driving force behind this plan.
The STWM’s first home was on the bottom floor of the Weisdale Mill, the other floors being occupied by the Bonhoga Gallery. A custodian was employed, exhibitions were mounted, and volunteers from the Guild came in to demonstrate and run workshops. Initially it remained open over the winter, but visitors were few, and after two years, opening times were reduced.
In 2006 the lease on the Mill expired, and the STWM had to move out. Although promised the use of Voe House in Walls, following planned renovations by Shetland Amenity Trust (SAT), these never materialised, mainly due to lack of funding. In the meantime, the Collection was stored by the Shetland Museum. More time passed, and the Amenity Trust offered the use of the lighthouse buildings in Bressay, but this was unsuitable and inaccessible, and was rejected.
Finally Shetland Museum suggested that perhaps the STWM could temporarily use space at the Böd of Gremista in Lerwick, at that time occupied by the Arthur Anderson Museum, which didn’t see many visitors. It was owned by the Shetland Islands Council, and managed by Shetland Museum and SAT.
At last, in the summer of 2010, after completion of some essential repairs, the growing Collection was moved to the Böd. A custodian was appointed, an exhibition planned, and once more a rota of Guild members demonstrated their skills to an appreciative public. The following year, upon closure of the Arthur Anderson Museum, the Guild took over the whole building.
As the Shetland Museum made no charge, it was decided simply to accept donations from visitors. However, income from this was disappointing, and further funding applications were unsuccessful. The Museum was overseen by a Board of Trustees, but run by a management committee of Guild members and, as time went on, the responsibilities of managing, fund-raising and volunteering were beginning to take their toll. In addition, membership of the Guild was falling, as too much time and energy was having to be devoted to the STWM. A decision had to be made regarding the future of the Museum – should it close?
After much soul-searching, the majority of trustees voted to keep it open, but to end the legal relationship between the Guild and the STWM. A new Board of Trustees took over the management, the name was changed to the Shetland Textile Museum, and SAT continued to care for the fabric and grounds of the building . In April 2012 the Böd opened its doors again, this time charging a small admission fee, and a new era began.
The new Trustees had inherited a Museum which was making a loss, but were full of enthusiasm for the task ahead. The exhibitions that year included The Gunnister Man, with replicas of his clothing. As well as beautiful examples of fine lace knitting. These exhibitions would change each year.
In 2014 a partnership was begun with the nearby Shetland College, where the final year students from the Textile Department agreed to exhibit their work, for the first few weeks of the season. This has continued (apart from 2020), and it is always exciting to see the imaginative work produced each year.
For the next few years, the STM continued to run at a loss, but since 2016 the balance sheet has looked much healthier. Visitor numbers have increased year on year, with a corresponding increase in Gift Shop sales. Social media has helped raise the profile of the Museum, a growing group of volunteers has injected new blood – including gardeners, photographers, sewers, weavers and more demonstrators – and many groups from all over the world now visit the Böd each year.
We continue to have a close, informal relationship with the Guild, and are proud to number many of its members among our demonstrators, who are the lifeblood of the Museum. Visitors regularly comment on how much they appreciate being able to chat with the knitters, spinners and weavers, learning how to use a knitting belt, or how to blend colours effectively in their knitting. We have also expanded our Handling Collection – not available to the general public, but pre-booked groups are allowed to avail themselves of the opportunity to actually touch the Fair Isle, lace and woven items on display. Many can scarcely believe they are allowed to do so!
Our Gift Shop showcases wonderful high quality items from makers around the Isles, many not available anywhere else. While we do not offer an online shop as yet, we do take commissions from visitors, who are delighted to be able to have their own unique piece of Shetland textile heritage, made to their own requirements, and perhaps even made by one of the demonstrators met while in the Böd. This opportunity can also be done via our Facebook page.
Each year we receive donations of items for the Collection – many from Shetland, but also from further afield. For example, the most recent came from a Shetlander now living in New Zealand, wishing to return a childhood sweater to its original home. However, we also purchase items, and occasionally commission new ones, if we find a gap exists in our Collection. We are also beginning to acquire more modern items – after all, they will also be “heritage” one day!
Every two years we also run a competition, advertised locally and on social media, for which we receive entries from all over the world. Themes have included such titles as Arms and Legs, Neckwear, and At the Beach.
A highlight of the Textile year is Shetland Wool Week, which takes place annually at the end of September. The STM plays a significant part in this, putting on workshops, classes and talks, extending opening hours, and culminating in a “Spree”, giving visitors a chance to don their dancing shoes and experience a traditional Shetland night.
In 2018 we again achieved full Accreditation status with Museums Galleries Scotland. This means that all our policies, programmes and planning have met the criteria for a professionally-run museum with a competent and trained management body. The Böd is a very traditional building, with limitations for present-day needs. Our Collection is expanding every year, and visitor numbers have been increasing steadily. We need more space, and plans are afoot.