In as small and remote a place as Shetland, however, the festival is actually helping to bring textiles back into view as a player in the economy. There are about islands in Shetland, though only 16 are inhabited. Schoolchildren often travel to Lerwick during the week and then back to the smaller islands to spend the weekends with their families.
Often when you curve around a bend in the road the view before you is breathtaking, and if you are driving a car you have to be careful not to drive right off the road.
Cliffs drop precipitously just feet from the pavement; inlets have choppy waves and, in summer, killer whales who pick off sleepy seals , enormous rocks jut up from the ocean just off the coast, and everywhere, roofs and boats and houses are painted cheerful colors that burst against the overcast sky. I had watched the BBC series, but even such a well-crafted show is no substitute for being there.
The wind is a large part of life on the islands: as winter approaches, everything that might blow away is removed from yards -— wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, wooden benches. The people of Shetland, though, really could not be nicer — one is tempted to think their isolation and hardiness has formed them for kindness.
At the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed, Virdafjell , the owner, Dorothy Stove, greeted us with a plastic bin of clean house slippers for us to choose from, and every morning put out a breakfast spread fit for 10 hungry men though my friend and I were the only people there : scones, assorted bread, eggs, yogurt, fruit, at least 10 different kinds of cereal, and even decorative butter slices in a perfectly sized dish. Considering the size of Shetland, Wool Week is incredibly vast and diverse. The program is eight full days, and each day features myriad classes and exhibitions, tours, gatherings, teas and lectures on nearly all of the islands; on a random day, I counted 54 different offerings.
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This spread accompanied an exhibit of lace haps or shawls — most of them made by local schoolchildren — knitted with cobweb-thin yarn, so thin the whole shawl could pass through a wedding ring. My fellow bus-riders and I, once all the shawls had been exclaimed over, sat and happily ate the homebakes while working on whatever knitting project we had brought with us. There is a lot of knitting, as one might imagine, being done during SWW.
For such a small place, Shetland offers an incredible amount to attract visitors. In addition to the textile industry, visitors are drawn by archaeology — there are ancient sites scattered all over the islands , by geology the islands sit atop a network of tectonic plates and boast an array of ancient and volcanic rocks , by caving and kayaking, and by an enormous diversity of nesting seabirds puffins, who nest there in the s of thousands in the summer, are a popular draw.
Nearly 1, torch-bearing islanders show up in Lerwick alone. Two of the nights we were there, there were sightings of the northern lights, ethereal streaks of color across the night sky.
Despite all of this, the main action at the time of my visit was Wool Week, which begins Sept. A highlight of my week was a visit to Uradale Farm , one of six organic farms on the islands, where Ronnie Eunson, the farmer, gave us a tour of his property and talked us through the process of making the all-organic yarn that he and his family produce and sell.
The farm is high on a hill overlooking many rolling acres and the sea; it was raining the day we were there, but the view was still staggering and the sheep unimpressed. Getting there was a bit of a challenge — as with most everywhere on the islands, there are no street addresses, so one has to know the landmarks one is looking for, or pray that Google recognizes what you are searching for and can lead you to the correct dropped pin.
Uradale Farm is actively trying to bring more of the native Shetland sheep back to Shetland — currently, of about , sheep on Shetland compared to 25, people , less than 30, are native, though the native sheep are the ones most well-adapted to thrive on the islands.
Asked whether he saw any change, he spoke about Wool Week and the bigger crowds it brings to the islands every year, all with interest in and passion for the native wool. Before Wool Week started nine years ago, he said, the situation seemed quite desperate.
After he talked, he brought us into his colorful home a rainbow is painted on the ceiling for tea and more homebakes, and spoke a bit more generally about the increased interest that Wool Week has brought to Shetland he and his wife also then let us shop for wool in their living room. In , nearly people made the trip, primarily from Europe, the United States and Canada, but also from many farther-flung places such as Australia, Japan, Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia and Israel.
Where is all of this attention coming from? The BBC series has helped, as has perhaps a general back-to-basics interest in those of us who feel increasingly distanced from a natural form of community in our modern world.
Get weekly updates from our Travel Dispatch newsletter, with tips on traveling smarter, destination coverage and photos from all over the world. An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the mystery writer who set a series of murder mysteries on the Shetland Islands.
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