Wool from Shetland sheep is some of the softest in the world, has a good staple length and is very strong. Well known examples of Shetland lace include the Wedding Ring Shawl (see image below), a shawl so fine that it can be drawn through a wedding ring. Shetland lace was made famous by British royalty and was most popular during the reign of Queen Victoria, who often commissioned Shetland lace for herself and to give as gifts.
Shetland sheep are from a group known as the North Atlantic Short Tailed Sheep, which are of ancient origin and were probably taken here by the Vikings. Shetland sheep have a double coat, the inner coat being extremely soft and very suitable for hand-spinning into fine 1-ply lace. The rest of the fleece is then spun into other types of yarn eg 2-ply lace, jumper, aran and chunky. Shetland Shawls or ‘haps’ were used by women when working on the croft and there used to be a type of wool called ‘hap’ which was slightly thicker than the 2-ply lace, but this is no longer available.
Lace knitting started about the 1840's, when better transport links between the islands and the mainland attracted visitors to Shetland. The intricate openwork stitches, invented by the islanders, were given descriptive names like ‘Fern’, ‘Horseshoe’, ‘Tree of Life’, ‘Cat’s Paw’ plus many more and traditionally the 1-ply shawls were passed through a wedding ring to show off their fineness and flexibility.