Wool—or in Shetlandic, Oo—has for centuries figured centrally in island life. Hardy, colourful, characterful sheep have adapted over millennia to a challenging climate, and Shetlanders have always put their fine fleeces to good use, in beautiful, distinctive textiles ranging from woven tweeds to Fairisle handknits. From croft to creative enterprise, wool remains at the heart of many island industries today, and this collaborative documentary project reveals the many different kinds of work that oo supports. In Shetland Oo, you’ll meet the fascinating graders, breeders, tanners, artists, designers, knitters, weavers, hand spinners, knitwear manufacturers and retailers, who, in so many ways, have made their lives in oo. Photographed by Tom Barr, and with accompanying essays and profiles written by Kate Davies, this book is produced in celebration of the vital contemporary work of Shetland wool.
Shetland is a fascinating place to think about the relationship between human labour and place, and my starting point with this project was a desire to show how a particular landscape has been shaped by the work of wool, and to illustrate the many different ways in which wool shapes humans lives in turn. I wanted to show people at work, and in the places where that work occurs, and in Shetland those spaces are very varied – from the cosy interiors of sheds and living rooms, to the drama of wind-blown hills and cliffs. My guiding principle was that the images should suggest the real dignity and beauty of the work that’s done with wool and textiles in Shetland, and hopefully capture some of those same qualities in working Shetlanders themselves.
I was particularly keen to explore how black and white photography might allow us to see Shetland wool work for the incredible and monumental thing it is – especially the kind of work that is sometimes overlooked because it is conducted by women in domestic spaces.
There were two key aspects of this project, which I really enjoyed: the particularly intense sociability of talking to and photographing people about their work, and the meditative solitude of being out in the Shetland landscape, and engaging in a different kind of photographic activity. I love the great Shetland outdoors, and these solitary landscape shoots often gave me time to reflect on the work I’d done, and that which was to come. Over the course of the project, I don’t think there was a single day I didn’t return to my accommodation with wet feet, or covered in mud and sheep shit. Apart from obviously needing some sort of washable boiler-suit uniform in which to conduct my photography, I couldn’t have been happier. I know the special quality of the Shetland light is something of a cliché but its completely true. There’s just a certain something about being 60 degrees north on these windswept islands under an always rapidly-moving sky.
Shetland Oo: Wool Textiles Work is available here.