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Issue 3 - Harris Tweed looming large

Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


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Harris Tweed looming large

Elizabeth Walton pays a visit to the outer Hebrides to see the home off Harris Tweed, an icon that rigidly sticks with traditional values

Harris Tweed is a powerful symbol of the remote Outer Hebrides where it is woven. An explosion of colour in every design reflects the landscape’s luminous beauty, and the million metres of cloth woven by hand each year is as adaptable as the island inhabitants.

The tweed story began in 1868 when Lady Dunmore, wife of the owner of South Harris, recognised the potential of the local cloth. Her farsighted efforts led to Harris tweed becoming widely sought after, and in the 1900s, the industry moved to Stornoway where production was mechanised. In 2002, the Stornoway mill under the aegis of the KM Harris Tweed Group is responsible for 90% of production. One important aspect of the tweed-making process remains, however, resolutely unchanged. To sustain the cloth’s authenticity, the Harris Tweed Act insists on three strictures. It must be woven in the Hebrides, in the home of the weaver – and without the aid of any power.

Pure new wool is dyed, carded and spun in the mills, and then the warp and weft of a designated pattern are despatched to weavers scattered across the bare, bleak islands. The weavers’ craft would be instantly recognisable to the Macleod sisters, Marian and Christina, whose skill first caught Lady Dunmore’s attention all those years ago in the village of Strond. However, the modern weaver’s tweed is shipped far and wide, perhaps to Tokyo, Montevideo or Madrid. For generations Harris tweed has been part of the sporting wardrobe; with the development of a softer cloth twice the width of the traditional cloth, it is now a stalwart of the fashion industry too.

While the islands are mocked by Atlantic gales, the raw wool began its journey to elegance in the mill’s steaming and antique washing machine. Chemicals strip away dirt and grease before the wool is tipped into the dyeing vats. 180 different shade mixtures are used, and there may be anything up to eight colours of wool to make up one single shade; this explains the lustrous, painterly depth of the end result. In the teaser house, each colour is added by weight as determined by an order card. To make up a peaty brown so reminiscent of nature’s northern palette, the ingredients may well include tropically-bright colours called gorse, kingfisher, violet, and tartan scarlet.

Before the yarn is spun on the clacking spindles to lend it strength, tiny clouds of wool float around inside the carding bins. Next the tweed is warped, and Robert Macaulay issues the warp to the weavers from the mill. A finished warp resembles a giant cotton reel bearing a tweed’s designated north-south pattern. “The weaver gets this delivered to his shed by the mill,” Macaulay explains. “A tweed is 65 metres; there are five of them on there, continuous, exactly the same. His weft is supplied by us as well,” and the weft is the east-west design.” A weaver is responsible for the warp in his charge and the tweed must comply exactly with the order. “When he’s finished, we collect the tweed. It’s measured, and he gets paid on what he returns.” Any mistakes automatically incur a fine.

When Macaulay describes the elaborate procedures that justify the cost of Harris tweed, his speech is embroidered with Gaelic and Old Norse inflections. Hebridean culture is unique and, like Harris tweed, it is on the cusp between the past and progress. The mills touch every village on the island as they reach out to the crofts where the weavers live and work. Weaving is seasonal; mills cannot predict orders, and delivery times are unfeasibly short. All the weavers are self-employed and rely on additional occupations, frequently crofting, to supplement their income.

Like many others, John MacLean took to weaving at the end of his career as a merchant seaman. ‘Big John’ uses a deafening, antiquated loom; before his father’s time looms were wooden. “You can choose your own hours, that’s the best thing about the job,” he says, and he is often out in his weaving shed for 10 hours at a time. “It’s a decent return if you’re a decent worker.” When he finally retires, his narrow-gauge loom will be obsolete. Ken Bartolomy, Chairman of the weavers doubles as a postman. He uses a wide loom which is easier to operate, clean and quiet. His son, a bus driver, works the second loom in their weaving shed. “The maximum the Harris Tweed Act allows is two looms in a shed, and then only because we are father and son. Put another loom in here and it wouldn’t be Harris tweed.”

The Western Isles Enterprise Board offers grant-aid to the weavers towards the £14,000 purchase price of a new loom. 130 weavers now use them, and a tweed takes two days to weave, earning the weaver around £170. Completed work is returned to the mill, where it is washed and dried on the tenter before going to the cropper which shaves off any coarseness. The finished cloth, soft and supple, is closely examined by Ian Angus Mackenzie from the independent Harris Tweed Authority. Satisfied, he irons on the famous orb mark of authentication.

The new, wider looms are beginning to modernise the industry that is so vital to the people and economy of the Hebrides, and so highly valued by customers. Harris tweed mogul Derick Murray of the KM Group is quietly optimistic: “The new cloth has opened up new markets for us.” Ian Angus Mackenzie is equally bullish. “A wider customer base will stagger ordering times and solve the problem of seasonality, and the future of this niche industry will be secured.”