Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - What we need is a jumper renaissance

Fleece: to obtain a great deal of money, typically by overcharging; a soft warm fabric similar to sheep's wool; a jacket made from such a fabric; the woolly covering of a sheep.

And so the New Oxford English Dictionary goes on in an attempt to remove the wool from our eyes and tell us the meaning of the word that has come to communicate nothing, for the vast majority of the population, other than that knobbly, nylony, man-made stuff that you wear to protect against the cold.

Nowadays, you don't wear a jumper - a gansie, as we say in Shetland. You wear a fleece.

This material is something that can be spun from recycled plastic bottles, thus proving itself to be a wonderfully green, ecologically admirable commodity. Let's kill sheep and recycle bottles. It feels cuddly. It looks sort of sporty, as if mountaineering is in the offing.

As I write, I am muffled in an expensive American Polartec jacket, and in my wardrobe are similar items of apparel produced by the likes of North Face, Helly Hansen and Berghaus.

The irony is that, stored in the old hayloft on the croft, rolled in plastic bags, are the very sheepy, arguably real fleeces that were clipped from my dozen Shetland sheep last year.

These fleeces are worth virtually nothing, which is why I did not bother taking them into town to be weighed and sold. Occasionally, clearing stuff out of the barn, I pause to sniff the amazing, oily aroma of raw Shetland wool, once the most sought-after on the planet for its fine softness and natural water-repellent properties. Now you can hardly give it away.

Fleeces and, bizarrely, the collapse of the Russian market for Afghan coats and woolly bunnets are two of the reasons why. And yet there is worldwide demand for the native knitted garments that Shetland is famous for, from the legendary all-over Fair Isles (very cool in Japan, thanks to an association with, of all things, grunge fashion) to oily polo necks in the colour known as moorit, after the natural brownish shade of some sheep.

They're cheap, too. Walk into the various knitwear specialists in Lerwick's Commercial Street and you pay wholesale prices for quite astounding garments.

For example, I recently saw a 14-colour Fair Isle V-neck, hand-frame (home knitting machine) produced, size 46, for £20. Cashmere is a lot dearer, and the rare hand-knits (using nothing but needles - no machinery of any kind) would cost around £90.

But that's for something that would have taken a man or women (oh yes, men knit too) several weeks of painstaking, highly skilled work. By buying such a jumper, you are investing in skills that are rapidly disappearing.

Because knitting machines are becoming the rule, the handmade shawls, scarves and gloves that were once the mainstay of Shetland's rural truck-and-barter economy are disappearing. You can tell a hand-knit from a hand-frame garment by the seamlessness of it, the almost magical symmetry and the sheer perfection of it.

I have a sleeveless Fair Isle jumper, hand-produced on the island of Papa Stour, and every time I wear it I feel transformed into someone from another time.

Unfortunately, I also look like Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. And there's the problem for many British buyers.

The classic Shetland jumper can appear just a tad out of date. Perhaps things are changing, though. Recently I was commissioned to present a TV series and was told that the image I should try to achieve was "jumperish".

So I trawled the knitwear emporiums of Lerwick and came up with four magnificent examples of local craftsmanship which I hope will do a little to restore knitwear to the popular perception of what is televisually permissible.

We are talking serious knitwear here: voluminous, oily jumpers on a massive scale.

They are to what we now know as fleeces what TVRs are to Toyotas.

I will leave my sad, static-attracting fleeces at home, pull the fragrant wool over my head and rejoice in natural fibres.

And I don't look in the least like Frank Spencer. Well, not much.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Just wait for the gold rush to end