Thursday, 28 April 2016

Home of Harris Tweed

The Outer Hebrides, home of Harris Tweed, is a very long way from Somerset - to be precise 673 miles from my home on the Somerset levels.  Having stitched with Harris Tweed for a good number of years, I have long yearned to see the scenery and meet the people behind this most evocative and iconic cloth.  Arriving at Tarbet in Harris on a beautiful sunny spring afternoon was a moment to be savoured for a lifetime.  Tiredness from several days of travelling was forgotten in an instant as the breath taking scenery of Harris unfolded on my first journey across the dramatic landscape.

Lewis & Harris where I was staying is actually one island.  The mountainous terrain of Harris in the South sharply contrasts with the flat open landscape of Lewis in the north. Small communities are dotted around both Lewis & Harris, where the people are gentle natured and highly supportive of each other.  Stornaway in Lewis is the main town where around a third of the islands 7500 population live.  Its tranquil harbour was the perfect place to watch the sun go down at the end of my first day.

Within minutes of journeying around Lewis & Harris I was smitten by the blackface sheep that roam all around the island. This hardy breed with their striking black faces made for compelling photography, even more so at lambing time.  Their thick and weather resilient fleece was the traditional source of wool for the original hard wearing Harris Tweed.  Some of this fleece is still used for modern production, in conjunction with finer and softer wool from the mainland.

Getting to the heart of Harris Tweed production started with visiting Gearrannan Black House Village in the west of Lewis.  The Atlantic ocean created a stunning backdrop for a small group of charming crofters cottages.  Inhabited by islanders until the 1970s, the cottages have been lovingly restored and now make for the ultimate in holiday accommodation.

Each cottage reflects a past era of crofting and comes complete with a burning peat fire - a very smoky affair as I quickly found!

The highlight of visiting Gearrannan was meeting and chatting with Alec, who I found happily weaving on an old loom in one of the cottages.  His passion for weaving and talking about Harris Tweed was immense, although I am sure he must have answered the questions I put to him umpteen times!  Alec explained that the older looms are way more reliable and durable than their modern equivalents, which have plastic components that easily break.  A local mill delivers yarn 'bobbins' to Alec that allow him to warp up his loom to create one of many Harris Tweed designs.  Setting up the different colour combinations requires concentration and skill, particularly for plaid tweeds with many colours.  To watch Alec weave while he chatted and think of my Scottish weaving ancestors was very moving. 

Harris Tweed is the only textile in the United Kingdom that is protected by an Act of Parliament.  The 1993 legislation ensures that all the production processes take place in the Outer Hebrides.  Harris Tweed now is produced in many different designs and each mill has their own collection and colour palettes.  It was heart warming to hear that the number of mills has increased again over recent years, such as Carloway Mill that Alec weaves for.

Further South at Drinishader in Harris, a visit to the Old School House added to my ever increasing appreciation.  The Clo Mhor (Big Cloth) exhibition in the adjoining studio was beautifully presented and showed how Harris Tweed can be used both traditionally and in modern designs. 
Of course there was yet another beautiful pile of Isle of Harris tweed to be lovingly examined - this collection was produced through the Shawbost Mill in Lewis.  Choosing a few pieces to take home was no mean feat and required a follow up visit the next day for one last look!
I very nearly missed a thought provoking exhibition of Marion Campbell memorabilia tucked away on one side of the Drinishader shop. Put together by her granddaughter Catherine, old photographs explain the end to end process that Marion once completed singlehandedly, from collecting the wool to weaving the cloth.  It was delightful to look at looms and spinning wheels that she had worked with her hands for a lifetime.

It is very easy to see how the Outer Hebrides has inspired the creation of such a beautiful and invocative cloth.  Views like this from Drinishader are the norm on Harris and undoubtedly stimulate the senses that feed the creativity of an increasing number of craftsmen and women.
There are many stunning beaches such as Luskentyre Sands on Harris where white sand stretches as far as the eye can see. 
The contrast of landscape and weather across Harris & Lewis is immense.  To leave the sunshine of Stornaway and be in a snowy landscape 45 minutes later was an experience unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
When I departed Harris & Lewis from Tarbet in hazy afternoon sunshine, I felt like I had only scratched the surface and pondered my return to this magical and moving island. 
It was a privilege to see first hand and talk with those who create textiles with huge heart.  I was frequently reminded how we little we often appreciate textiles that are vital to everyday living and come to understand the people around the world that produce them.  An opportunity to visit Harris & Lewis should be grabbed with both hands - it will be an experience treasured for a lifetime.

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