Fabric of life: The worlds first organic tweed mill.

The world's first organic tweed mill is weaving a lucrative future, thanks to the community of workers and fashion students who are reviving a dying art

MINTY Mackay runs her fingers over dozens of taut strands of grey wool on a loom as though she's gently strumming a guitar. "It's amazing how all these threads can come together to make something so beautiful," she says thoughtfully.

Mackay lives on her organic farm, Ardalanish, on the southernmost tip of the Isle of Mull, with her husband Aeneas and a few helpers, the strands of wool that make up the cloth if you will.

Hide Ad

The world's first Soil Association- certified organic tweed weaving mill, Ardalanish might best be described as the ultimate in holistic farming. A small operation nestled between rugged hills and a strip of brilliant white sand, it attracts volunteers and visitors from across the globe, all drawn to its organic philosophies and idyllic setting.

The approach is refreshing in its simplicity; as much of the process as possible is done on site, by a team of people with myriad backgrounds, skills and passions. Much of the wool comes from the Hebridean sheep that roam the surrounding hills, while fabrics are woven on looms – some nearly a century old – in the farm's byre.

Tailors and designers work on site creating everything from simple scarves to high-fashion jackets, and everything is sold from yet another converted outbuilding. It may be geographically isolated, but it's far from inward looking. Products are available online, and the company has taken commissions from Clarks (which used the tweed for a cuffed desert boot) and Jigsaw.

Keen to embrace the world of high fashion and to strengthen the link between Scotland's textiles and its young designers, the company this year set up the biennial Ardalanish Designer Award through the Scottish Academy of Fashion, a 1,000 prize given to a student designer of sustainable and organic fashion garments from a Scottish institution.

This year's winner, Sarah Ho of the Edinburgh College of Art, will have her creations made up in Ardalanish fabrics as part of her prize.

The Mackays are surely the ultimate advertisement for the Ardalanish lifestyle. Now in their sixties, they are smiling, sparkly people, dressed in layers of tweed and wool in the earthy tones of the surrounding landscape. It may be a bright June day, with the sun bouncing off the blue bay, but the wind whips through the farmyard with vigour and woollens are definitely called for.

Hide Ad

Taking refuge in the warm farmhouse kitchen, and shutting the door behind us to prevent the farm's 37-year-old horse wandering in, we gather around a crowded table and, over a steaming pot of vegetable soup, the couple relay the extraordinary story of Ardalanish.

Minty grew up in Tobermory, Aeneas on the mainland and both came from farming stock. They bought Ardalanish together in 1994, and with "not a stick of furniture" between them, found themselves sleeping in the kitchen with just a gas camping stove and the 600 sheep outside for company.

Hide Ad

"Coming to Ardalanish provided us with a challenge," explains Minty. "Did we wish to adopt the status quo, or could we endeavour to seek a deeper understanding of the land and its needs? From this grew ideas as to the role we could play as farmers and how we could integrate farming practices that allowed ecological relationships to develop with livestock production in this harsh Hebridean environment.

"The sheep were predominantly blackface and, according to custom, were 'bound to the ground', or connected to the land Although blackies have been in Scotland for around 250 years, they are not perceived to be totally native. We reduced the sheep numbers from 600 to 200 and, wishing to utilise a native breed, Aeneas decided upon the Hebridean."

The couple learned they could earn roughly 30 from the wool of each sheep, and in 2005 approached a local weaver, Bob Ryan, to discuss having him weave for them. Ryan, how-ever, was on the cusp of retirement, and Aeneas came across him as he was about to scrap his machinery, including looms from the 1920s and 1950s.

"Aeneas popped in to see him just as he was arranging to put a lot of his machinery in the skip," says Minty with a laugh. "So he suggested Bob store the machinery at our farm until he decided what to do with it. Before long he had decided to rebuild it in the byre."

The couple set about finding a weaver, advertising nationally, but they had no luck. Being something of a dying art, there wasn't exactly a surplus of weavers clamouring for the job. So they hatched a new plan. Keen to see his work carried on, Ryan would train a new weaver for free and would visit twice a week for as long as he was needed. Six years later, he still visits regularly, making up one thread in a fabric that includes a Swedish head weaver, a Canadian weaver and a French marketing manager, among others.

Indeed, the people who have visited the farm over the years have helped the business thrive. Some stay for a week, others for a few months. A few have never left. They live nearby, on the farm or even in the farmhouse itself. "A day doesn't go by that I don't receive an email from someone, somewhere in the world, asking if they can come and volunteer with us," says Minty.

Hide Ad

"I've had a house full of people for 15 years. The people who come through our door are astonishing and we've had some great ceilidhs with them all, roasting whole deer on the spit and doing an Orcadian Strip the Willow down the farmyard with all the campers from round about. Everyone talking, singing and dancing; that's 'agri-culture' and I do think there's a real need to put the culture back into agriculture.

"Here we've had as many as 15 people around the kitchen table all talking and telling stories."

Hide Ad

Musicians Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain have visited, as has chef Mary Berry. Even Prince Charles, after hearing about the initiative, landed his helicopter in their farmyard to see it for himself. Then there's the German carpenter who visited and built a beautiful new timber roof, with the whole farm turning out to raise it on a blustery November day; or the two nuns who stopped by to help out.

Eighteen-year-old Hannah Poulton from Bunessan is one of the few local young people who've come to work on the farm. Studying history and politics at the University of the Highlands and Islands, she's spending her summer manning the shop and Minty is delighted that, on an island where so many young people leave as soon as they come of age, Ardalanish has provided Poulton with at least one reason to stay.

After lunch we wander back down through the farmyard, clambering over a couple of sheep who've nestled against the door of the farmhouse. It's such a clear day you can see the beach on Colonsay, a rare sight, I'm told, and staff are sitting on an old timber beam in the sun enjoying a tea break. A family from San Francisco have arrived, the parents ogling soft wool blankets in the shop and the children trying to cuddle a pair of lambs.

From the byre, the hypnotic clatter of the looms is the only noise for miles around. Weaver Katrina Crosby is manning an enormous quivering loom. She seems, I observe, surprisingly relaxed considering all the whirring machinery around her. "Well, the top speed of tweed is about four metres an hour so it's not a particularly fast process," she says with a laugh.

Crosby, from Vancouver, has worked here for over three years. A fashion design graduate, her intention was to come to Mull for just a couple of months with her husband, but they've never left. She runs her fingers over the fabric, drawing my eye to the subtle colours that make up the cloth, drawn from the landscape around us.

Crotal, woad and madder are all used to give the fabrics their unique, earthy hues, which range in tone from stony greys to warm cinnamons, with the occasional glimmer of burnt reds.

Hide Ad

"We can only use what nature offers us," explains Crosby. "So some years the fleeces will be lighter because they've seen more sun or, as they get older, they'll go grey, so the colours differ from year to year. We're always inspired by what we have in stock.

"I think that creative people have no choice but to be creative," she adds. "There are so many different ways you can do that in a mill, from coming up with ideas for a blanket or scarf to simply being creative with the mechanics. If something breaks, they're old machines and you can't just phone up a shop and get parts. So we're working with old parts and being creative that way."

Hide Ad

Crosby works alongside Madeleine Ostling, a tailor from Sweden who visited six years ago and fell in love with the place. She stayed in touch, and when she found out three years ago that Ryan's first apprentice weaver had moved on and the position had opened up, she bought a one-way flight over.

"What I find incredibly fascinating and rewarding is that you get a sense of the whole chain, from the sheep all the way through to the finished product," she says. "You don't just go in and do your bit with no idea of what's going on around it. Because its such a small mill you have to do everything, so you understand every step of the process."

For Ryan, it's given him an unexpected hobby in his retirement, with the two young weavers learning from his 60 years of experience, and him in turn picking up new things every day. "I enjoy the buzz of it," he says, "of trading ideas and suggesting different ways of doing things. A lot happens in 60 years and there's a lot I've forgotten, but I learn from Madeleine and Katrina too. They'll come up with something and I'll think, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"

While most of the work is done on site, anything that can't is outsourced to companies with organic certification, so the product remains organic and fair trade throughout. The sheep are sheared on the farm in June or July, and an additional five tonnes of wool is bought in from ethical native sheep breeders across the country. It's stored in a shed with organic status, and in the autumn it's sorted into different colours before being sent to the New Lanark Mills to be spun.

From there it makes its way back to Ardalanish where the weavers work their magic. Visiting volunteers have included designers, who drape the fabric over fences to understand how it falls before making it into bags and jackets, trousers and dresses.

For 21-year-old Ho, who has just graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art, it was this story behind the raw material that inspired her winning designs. "It was so important to me to see that other side to the fashion industry," she says. "To meet the farmers, understand the process and visit Ardalanish really put things into context for me, and it's incredibly inspiring in terms of my work in the future." Ho designed a jacket, a cape and a pencil skirt for her submission, all of which will be made up in Ardalanish fabrics.

Hide Ad

Minty is delighted that in Ho, and the many young people who volunteer on the farm every year, these new threads continue to weave the story of Ardalanish. And there will be a few more important ones to come; the farm and business have just been put up for sale as the couple think about retirement. Clauses in the sale ensure the ethos of the business must live on with the new buyers, that staff are retained and things continue much as they are. All in all, everyone is optimistic that the company has a bright future.

"It's these threads," Minty says. "When they all come together it's amazing what you can do, what can be built."

Hide Ad

The Scottish Academy of Fashion will present its first year's achievements, including details of the Ardalanish Design Award, in a showcase at Inspace in Edinburgh from 2-3 July. Visit www.scottishacademyoffashion.com for details


• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on June 19, 2011

Related topics: