Harris Tweed, Part I

Weaving a Harris Tweed.

Harris Tweed being made on a loom.

You may know nothing about the production of regulated Scottish cloth Harris Tweed, or you may be highly informed and would love to see some of the nuts and bolts of its weaving. Or you may just be a rabid fan of authentic products and their stories. The following is Part 1 of an interview with Mike Donald, the upright and breathing blogger of The Croft, about Scotland and especially focused on the Harris Tweed industry (croft typically refers to tenant farmland with a farmhouse. The word is in common use in Scotland).

The twist here is that Mike recently started on a sponsored scheme to learn to become a certified Harris Tweed weaver and is taking us along for the ride.

(Catch up on Harris Tweed — from its origins as a poor man’s cloth to its adoption by Vivienne Westwood and beyond. The BBC did a fantastic three-part documentary in 2009 chronicling the birth, stumbles and rebirth of Harris Tweed (parts 1, 2 and 3) that really lays bare the challenges facing this historic clo mor, Gaelic for big cloth).

Harris Isles shepherds in black-and-white

Shepherds from the Harris Isles, Scotland.

KM: What are your thoughts about why Harris Tweed is important generally?

Mike Donald: My personal opinion is that it is the lifeblood of these islands. It provides jobs, money, respect, pride and puts us on the map. The tweed is our heritage and past, our future and aspirations. A successful and thriving industry means people can remain on the island to make a living instead of leaving our shores in search of work. This is particularly true of young islanders and it’s been heartening to see so many young people on the training course. As a weaver you’re taught age-old skills, patience, attention to detail and a whole host of technical matters. There is also a wider knock-on effect generating work here in marketing, design, fashion, IT, media and so on.

Harris Tweed is inextricably part of the land and people here, without it we’d lose a huge part of our souls.

From a global perspective, it’s a rarity, something made with love and care, skill and experience. When you buy Harris Tweed your buying a truly artisan product. It might cost you a little more but in a world of throwaway goods and built-in obsolescence it’s hugely important that we’re bringing something of longevity and luxury into being.

Harris Tweed weaver.

An early photo of a Harris Tweed weaver.

It is maybe easy to romanticize it from afar but you are right there…

It’s easy to romanticize from right here too. There’s nothing fake about Harris Tweed, visit the islands and you’ll see the sheep being sheared on crofts, mills running, weaver’s in their sheds, the incredible scenery, you’ll hear Gaelic spoken and whisky being imbibed. Of course, it’s still 2011 here too, there are TVs and cars and electric light, it’s not the land that time forgot, there’s a fully functioning modern community up here with all the trappings of 21st century life. And yet there’s still a lot the old magic. Whether it’s the smell of peat fires burning or eagles overhead or simply the laughter from a tale told in Gaelic, the past and our traditional culture is never far away.

Readying the loom for a Harris Tweed.

A modern weaver readies the loom.

Tell me why you are doing this Mike. Was there a family connection to the trade? Or did it start by working for the HTA and you got sucked in!

Why am I doing this? Good question, my former colleagues back in Glasgow think I’ve lost the plot. But far from it!

I’ve been hooked on Harris Tweed and the surrounding culture of the Outer Hebrides for years. I was born in the Isle Of Lewis but was brought up and educated on the mainland of Scotland so lost out on the island upbringing in many ways, the Gaelic in particular. But there was always a distinct “pull” to the place, I went home (Lewis was always called home when we spoke about it), to spend holidays with the family still there. I could never fully understand this powerful link to the isle, a yearning to return, a natural feeling of place when I was there.

Model wearing Harris Tweed orange mallory jacket.

A Harris Tweed orange mallory jacket, designed by Nigel Cabourn.

Eventually a Gaelic word cianalis (very generally — a home sickness) tied it all up for me and about 5 years ago I made the decision to return to live and started a blog investigating all things cultural coming from these remote islands. I found it in spades, great music, food, art, poetry, prose and of course Harris Tweed.

My father ran a tailors and menswear shop on Cromwell Street in the island’s main town of Stornoway when I was born. On the racks and rails were Hardie Amies suits and Harris Tweed Jackets so from the very start I was around the stuff. One of the abiding things I remember about Stornoway in the early eighties was the constant clickety-clack from a shed or garage on Plantation Road. You could hear it on endless repeat from the crack of dawn every morning but Sunday. I had no idea what it was, I never saw the thing playing this background soundtrack, only now can I match it to the sound of an old Hattersley Single-width loom being worked.

Harris Tweed logo with bolts of Harris Tweed cloth.

Harris Tweed logo with bolts of cloth ready to go.

When I moved to Glasgow to study I worked in a small clothes shop that imported vintage selvedge denim, American workwear and brands like Stussy, Fresh Jive, XLarge, Fuct and so on. I got into the joy of textiles, chambray, seersucker, ringspun denim etc. and Japanese streetwear in particular through magazines like Boon and Assyan. Harris Tweed kept popping up on the radar and when word reached us about a forthcoming Nike collaboration with a Harris Tweed weaver I was a convert and began to pay closer attention to the island’s most famous industry.

My uncle is a Harris Tweed weaver and works the newer loom which was introduced in the mid-90s, the pedal-powered, double-width to meet market demand, made in Huddersfield, Bonas-Griffith loom. [Bonas-Griffith double-width loom was introduced in 1996 to satisfy market demands for wider, softer, lighter Harris Tweed.] I saw one for the first time a few years back in his weaving shed (actually a garage!) and was mesmerised.

Harris Tweed on the loom

Threaded through heddles. (Image by Mike Donald)

Admittedly rather geeky but, to me, this was an awesome machine, a bizarre and beautiful hybrid of engineering, art and magic. I had no idea how it worked. Hundreds of threads of yarn went in one end, pedals were turned and in mysterious sharmanka-esque piece of sorcery, Harris Tweed fed out the other. And all the time things whirred, clacked and flew in a hurdy-gurdy, like Willie Wonka’s favourite bit of cloth making kit. The vast swathe of warp yarn that stretched off the big steel beam at the back in a reverse waterfall, pulling itself taught through a myriad of delicate, shiny heddles. Lit from beneath by a fluorescent strip light the wool colour seemed to shimmer like a fish-eye view of the sun through flat calm sea.

Spool of yarn

Spool of yarn waiting to become Harris Tweed. (Photo by Mike Donald)

There were four metal boards, trimmed in wood and hung by day-glo ropes of pink and green, as if the eighties hip-hop culture was still alive and well right here on the John Deere-green trusses of the loom frame. In front lay the length of the reed, all baleen teeth, for beating weft threads tight into the cloth, while between the warp yarns a rapier flashed, almost unseen, dodging the ever changing shed, calling the shots with every streaking run. And, oh, the weft, spider strings pulled in from a nearby table, so cleverly programmed by a looping punch card like some old manual IBM computer. Each hole flicking a wire finger of thread into the throng, handing off to the grasp of the rapier flawlessly every time. Until the bell pinged a warning otherwise.

I watched inch after inch of woven tweed form before my eyes, transfixed, soon to be tied for collection and returned to the mill for finishing.

I was sold there and then; this is what I wanted to do.

Earlier this year I heard that the HTA (Harris Tweed Authority) was organising training for a new generation of young weavers to take on the skills from the older generation of men and women. I jumped at the chance and applied to be one of the twelve chosen. After interviews and applications I finally got the call, I was in. So I wrapped up my job in Glasgow, rented out my flat, packed my bags and moved 400 miles back to the islands to become a weaver.

Plain twill, herringbone, plaid. It will doubtless take me many years to master, but while the clackety-clack might sound a little different from the old loom of Plantation Road, as long as the loom is still being heard, then all to the good.

Harris Tweed weaving instructions

The cryptic weaving instructions for a Harris Tweed. (Photo by Mike Donald)

What about the nuts and bolts, do you have to buy your loom or they are handed down, or paid off like a student loan?

Obtaining a loom is a pressing issue for me right now. I am one of twelve new weavers but only half of us have found a loom to use after the training and you can’t just go into a shop and buy one of the shelf. There are looms in sheds throughout the island but many are not being used, the weavers having retired or found other work during downturns in the industry’s fortunes. The trick for us is finding them and persuading their owners to part with them. At perhaps £15K new, they are not an easy thing to give away, particularly if the owner plans to return to the weaving at some point.

A loom is almost an insurance policy, you know that if you ever need to, it’s there to go back to and earn money from. In the islands where steady work can be very precarious, having a fall back option is a valuable thing.

That said, the powers that be are making efforts to procure more, arrange rentals and so, by hook or by crook we’re confident we’ll all have machines for January. I have found a chap who hasn’t woven on his loom for a few years but doesn’t want to sell in case he wants to return to the fray in future but I have offered to rent the loom off him until he wants it back. Better having it working than gathering dust. Fingers crossed.

The Harris Tweed authentic orb stamp.

The Harris Tweed orb certifies a tweed to be an authentic Harris Tweed.

Will you get your own weaver number?

Yes, after passing a rigorous assessment I’ll sign an official weaver’s undertaking with the HTA, promising to abide by the Harris Tweed Act laws regarding the cloth and allowing access to my weaver’s shed by their inspectors. After an initial inspection of my set-up and work I’ll be registered, assigned a number and added to the database used by the mills to distribute tweeds to weavers. Then I can weave Harris Tweed officially, only basic patterns at first but after more training I’ll step up to the more complex tweeds. Can’t wait!

BTW, here is my first piece of training tweed. It took about a week. Also not Harris Tweed, having been woven in a drafty shed on an industrial estate and not on the croft. Also so full of flaws the stamper would laugh it out of the mill BUT am quite chuffed and have taken it home for posterity. Plain Twill, 10 meters, marl grey and tan. I am definitely in apprentice mode now, have moved onto herringbone and still have 9 weeks to go.

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