How tweed travels from the Scottish islands to the catwalks
In the crowded workshop of his home off the coast of northwest Scotland, Ian Mackay patiently weaves bright green wool, surrounded by sacks of cloth, spools and tools.
He makes a steady clicking noise as he pedals his machine in the shed of his small farm in the village of South Shawbost on the Isle of Lewis, keeping a close watch on any faults.
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“It’s hand-woven … or rather woven on foot,” jokes the 51-year-old weaver with his singing accent typical of the Outer Hebrides.
Mackay spins wool 10 hours a day, resting only on Sundays, when most shops and services are closed on the religiously conservative islands.
When finished, his piece, the authentic Harris Tweed, could be shipped halfway around the world, as the rough woolen fabric becomes more popular than ever.
Long associated with the windswept Scottish islands, the ecological and sustainable properties of textiles have inspired designers to be more environmentally friendly.
“It doesn’t matter what the weather is outside if you are weaving,” Mackay told AFP as an icy November wind blew over the ocher moor where sheep were grazing.
“There is no point in being very fast, in making mistakes. Better to do slow, quality work.”
That is its status, Harris Tweed, traditionally made from 100% virgin, non-recycled sheep’s wool, is the only fabric protected by an Act of Parliament.
The Harris Tweed Act of 1993 states that it “was hand-woven by the Islanders at home in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”
A distinctive embossed Orb globe with a cross on top certifies the origin and authenticity of the fabric.
Haute couture export
Harris Tweed, primarily woven with a plain weave, twill or herringbone structure, was originally associated with the British aristocracy and gentleman farmer.
Jackets and over-ovens made from the durable fabric that can withstand harsh climates were a must for traditional upper-class outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing.
But British designer Vivienne Westwood turned that image upside down by incorporating it into her punk wardrobe in a subversion of culture and tradition.
Now, other big brands, including Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès, are making it a key part of their collections.
“Recently, we’ve been doing a lot of work with Polo Ralph Lauren in the United States,” said Margaret Ann Macleod, sales manager for Harris Tweed Hebrides.
Seventy people work in the company’s lakeside factory, where the wool is dyed and spun, then sent to some 120 home weavers, where the skills have been passed down for generations.
Once woven, it is sent back to the mill 18 miles from Lewis’s main town, Stornoway, to be washed, dried and finished at Shawbost Mill.
One-third of the Shawbost factory’s output goes to the UK, while two-thirds are exported to all corners of the world.
“We export a lot to France, Germany, Italy and many other countries in Europe,” Macleod said.
“We also have significant export business in South Korea, Japan and the United States, and China has also increasingly become a new export market for us.”
Color and culture
In total, some 160 home weavers live in the Outer Hebrides, working hand in hand with three factories that produce a total of 1.5 million meters of fabric each year.
Tweed, immortalized by Mr Toad, one of the main characters in Kenneth Grahame’s classic 1908 novel “The Wind in the Willows”, is used to make jackets, pants, coats, but also shoes, bags hand, armchairs and even teddy bears.
Fifteen years ago, the sportswear brand Nike chose Harris Tweed for a collection of sneakers, a huge publicity stunt for Hebridean artisans.
But more recently, audiences have rediscovered the fabric in its dozens of different patterns and shades through popular TV series.
From the aristocrats of “Downton Abbey” to the gangsters of “Peaky Blinders” and the royals in “The Crown”, virtually everyone wears tweed.
“We start with around 60 colors and we mix each of those colors to create over 180 different shades of yarn and they would reflect the landscape and seascape of the Outer Hebrides – rich browns are the hues of the moor, the blue of the the Atlantic Ocean, ”Macleod said.
“Young designers are arriving and looking for colors. They look for authenticity, the fact that we hand woven (and) create our own threads is very important to them.
“They want to capture a bit of the island, the Outer Hebrides as well in their designs.”
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