Harris Tweed may have something to celebrate as Centenary looms

DONALD John Mackay, a weaver of Harris Tweed known throughout the island as DonJohn, a soubriquet that indicates a level of local familiarity and fame similar to that enjoyed on an international level by JLo and SuBo, looks up from his loom and points out the window of his weaving shed at the sun setting over machair-fringed Luskentyre Beach.

• Weaver Billy Mathieson carrying a bolt of Harris Tweed

"From the land comes the cloth," he says. "You've got the sheep grazing the land, and from the sheep comes all of this."

By all of this, he means the bolts of tweed in his store room waiting to go out to customers including Nike, Clarks and Sandhurst military academy.

But Mackay also means the entire Harris Tweed industry, which this year marks 100 years since its iconic orb trademark was first stamped on a length of the fabric known by native Hebrideans as clo mr – the big cloth.

Harris Tweed, by law, can only be made from yarn that has been dyed and spun from pure virgin wool in the Outer Hebrides.

Though the spinning process takes place in the three mills on the island, the weaving must be done at the home of the weaver, using looms powered by nothing more than human effort; electricity is forbidden.

Government legislation allows the fabric to be woven on any of the Outer Hebridean islands; so, for instance, although it is called Harris Tweed, a weaver resident on Barra, the Uists or even St Kilda would, in theory, be allowed to make it.

However, in practice, most of the weaving is done on Lewis, which is in the northern part of the same land mass.

There are only six weavers left making Harris Tweed on Harris, Donald John Mackay being one of them.

The 58-year-old is a minority within a minority; he works for himself rather than one of the mills, and uses an old-fashioned single-width Hattersley loom, which plays merry hell with the hips and knees.

For Mackay, though, the green metal loom is relatively modern. In one corner of his small weaving shed there is a wooden loom, circa 1928, which has been in his family all those years.

Mackay is a dark-haired Gael whose green eyes are mostly twinkle. He enjoys swearing, listening to Gaelic radio, eating home-made cheese scones, attending church and weaving Harris Tweed.

He has been a professional weaver since 1970, but has been at it since childhood, starting out – like many a Hebridean child – winding yarn round the bobbins, or iteachans, for his father to use.

There are few native families that do not having a history of weaving. Before Harris Tweed became a commercial prospect, it was woven for personal use – to be made into clothes for the family – or to be bartered for food and other goods.

"It's not work to me, it's a way of life," Mackay says. "It's a proud part of my heritage. I'm playing a part in carrying on a tradition which meant survival for so many people. Weaving is part of who we are. Over the years it has been the mainstay of the island. It has raised many hundreds upon thousands of families."

The weaving shed smells of engine oil and lanolin. It is cold and cramped. Mackay spends ten hours a day in here and sometimes works through the night to fulfil orders, his shed the only speck of light in the massive darkness of Luskentyre, which is on the west coast of Harris, looking out to the Sound of Taransay.

He and his wife Maureen live amid a level of beauty so intense as to be almost absurd. A great black blanket of storm cloud glows golden at the hem as the sun glances through.

The tide is out, leaving herringbone patterns on the silver sand. International customers who make the pilgrimage to Luskentyre to meet Mackay and buy his cloth are often very moved by this vista. For the weaver it is an inspiration when he is creating patterns.

"To me and the wife, we're thinking of the landscape or seascape, seeing how we can capture what surrounds us," he says. "We've had tweeds the colour of the marram grass and the dunes. Peatlands, grazing lands. Heather in its many stages from purply to brown."

But why does he wish to reflect the colours of the landscape in his work? "It's simple. And, of course, the guy that created them had a very good eye, far better than me."

The loom dominates the room and is very noisy. In the late 1960s, when the industry was at its peak, most villages in Harris and Lewis would have echoed with the clackety-clack. The loom is operated by foot treadles. It moves in a pleasingly Heath Robinson sort of way.

Flywheels spin, the heddles fall and rise, the reed goes forward and back, and the wooden picking sticks move in and out like small oars. All of these parts have Gaelic names – greallagan, slinn, smideagan and so on.

One of the reasons weaving is considered important to contemporary Hebridean culture is that it helps preserve the language.

As Harris Tweed has to be woven in the home of the weaver, employment is maintained on the island, often in its most remote parts. As a result, weavers do not have to move away in search of jobs and they do not have to speak English in the workplace.

For Mackay, the loom is part of him. He has it tuned and timed precisely to his needs, and would no more use another man's loom than a virtuoso guitarist would consider borrowing someone else's instrument.

He never gets bored with weaving. He is always focused intensely on the tweed forming in front of him, alert to the possibility of knots and aware that every thread is where it should be. The slowness of the process and the attention to detail required is, he believes, what makes Harris Tweed special.

Carefully, respectfully, he runs his hands over the blue cloth, flecked with gold, which he is busy weaving. "It's part of you," he says. "Part of me's in this tweed."

For all the magic associated with its production, Harris Tweed has spent the last few years in crisis and flux. Last year there were 660,000 metres of tweed sold, almost seven million metres fewer than the peak year of 1966.

The industry supports 175 full-time jobs on the island, including mill-workers and weavers. As recently as the mid-1990s there were around 800 weavers, and well over 1,000 if you go back to the early-1980s. The average weaver is a man in his sixties. Only around 10 per cent are female.

In 2007, the industry came close to dying out altogether. All the mills on Harris were long gone, the mill at Shawbost on Lewis had closed, and the mill at Carloway was struggling.

Brian Haggas, a Yorkshire textiles magnate in his seventies, bought the Kenneth Mackenzie mill near Stornoway.

He reduced the numbers of patterns from hundreds down to just four, which would be used to manufacture his own gentlemen's jackets. This meant, effectively, that clothing companies around the world would no longer be able to buy Harris Tweed.

The Mackenzie mill's huge stock of tweeds, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, were sold to Catherine Campbell, a local businesswoman in her late thirties, who comes from a famous dynasty of weavers.

The bolts are stored ten feet high in a warehouse – a tweed treasure vault – next to her shop, Harris Tweed Isle of Harris, near the ferry terminal in Tarbert. "It was just the thought of all that tweed being sold to someone off the island," she shudders when asked why she bought it.

"It's so important that it stays here and is available for use."

After making 75,000 jackets – "in a euphoric rush", as Brian Haggas puts it – he found he was unable to sell them as quickly as he had hoped, and so ceased production altogether for a year.

The mill, which operates as Harris Tweed Scotland, has reopened and is expected to break even next year; it now employs around a dozen people where once it gave work to 85.

Haggas, for his part, seems to relish his reputation among locals – "the local minister called me the vile serpent within, but I don't give a damn what people think" – and says he has a greater appreciation for the weaving culture than is generally understood.

"I have lived and breathed Harris Tweed for the last few years," he says. "It is a wonderful fabric and quite unique. But the industry was dying, and if I hadn't stepped in it would not have survived."

Increasingly, those in the industry are coming round to that point of view, although not quite in the way Haggas means. There is a widely held belief that his actions were a wake-up call, that he frightened the industry into upping its game.

The most important development was the purchase of the derelict Shawbost mill, now known as Harris Tweed Hebrides, by the oil trader Ian Taylor.

The deal was suggested by the former MP Brian Wilson, now chairman of the firm, who had become friends with Taylor after meeting him in Cuba during a dinner party thrown by Fidel Castro.

The mill was sold for an estimated half a million pounds, and Harris Tweed Hebrides was able to begin manufacturing tweed for sale to the world market.

Harris Tweed Hebrides is said to now be in profit. Its customers include Topman and Chanel; it employs over 50 staff and works with 100 weavers; in the past two years it has doubled its market in Japan and is targeting India and China.

"I'm a Hebridean; we don't do optimism," says the chief executive, Ian Angus Mackenzie. "But I'm an awful lot more optimistic than I was four years ago when I was wondering what on earth was going to happen to Harris Tweed and what I could do about it."

Harris Tweed Hebrides is a cheery place full of wonders: the bales of wool stacked to the ceiling; the great steaming vats of dye; the silver ducts that suck the wool from one part of the process to another.

Then there are the various machines with their evocative super-villainish names: the teaser, the scribbler, the carder, the warper. The wool, as it passes through each stage, undergoes a transformation from fleece to yarn. But most remarkable of all are the colours.

The wool can be dyed using a blend of up to nine colours, which gives Harris Tweed its distinctive flecked look. Examined under a microscope, it's quite psychedelic.

This particular mill is not alone in its positivity. There are encouraging signs all around the industry.

The Carloway mill, which operates as Harris Tweed Textiles, has a new go-getting manager in Anne MacCallum, 49, who says the business is selling four times as much tweed each week as last year, and that it has secured large orders from Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren.

Across the whole industry, tweed sold last year was up 45 per cent on the year before. It is hoped that in 2012, it may be possible to sell the magical figure of one million metres.

All the mill bosses, according to MacCallum, feel the pressure of leading an industry with so much economic and cultural importance; heavy is the arm that carries the orb.

"I don't think the industry can take another severe downturn," she says. "It would kill it. So we have a duty to the heritage of this island to make sure the industry survives."

Part of that bid for survival is an attempt to reposition Harris Tweed as a fabric suitable for ladieswear, accessories and furnishings; it is thought this will make it a less seasonal fabric, its ledger no longer so dependent on sales of gent's jackets in autumn and winter. Smarter marketing is also key.

"As an industry we haven't done enough storytelling about what we are, what's different about us, and where we come from," says Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority.

"For too long we've presented ourselves as hairy, woollen, warm and functional. But we need to be modern and romantic and fashionable as well."

The vintage jacket worn by Matt Smith in Doctor Who was a public relations triumph. Now, the industry is looking to replicate that success in the American market.

A US consultant working for the Harris Tweed Authority is in talks with the producers of Mad Men with a view to getting characters such as Don Draper wearing suits made from the fabric. Given that Harris Tweed already has a commercial relationship with Brooks Brothers, the US clothing company that provides wardrobe for the show, the idea is not entirely far-fetched.

It would be a case of Md Men, perhaps.

In addition to these marketing ideas, Harris Tweed producers believe their product can benefit from the growing international interest in craft and provenance.

There is an idea that, before long, you will be able to type the code number from your Harris Tweed label into a website and read about the weaver who wove the cloth from which your garment was made.

It is vital, if Harris Tweed is to have a future, that new weavers continue to come into the industry. At present, there are around 90 full-timers, which is thought to be too few; 130 would be more sustainable.

To this end, training courses are now being offered in both Lewis and Harris. The Sir E Scott secondary school in Tarbert is also teaching a new SQA-accredited qualification in Harris Tweed which includes hands-on experience of weaving.

This is important not just for the industry, but for the future of an island that faces huge problems with depopulation as youngsters leave in search of work.

Billy Matheson, a 42-year-old native of Lewis, has been weaving since last summer.

He works in an outbuilding with a Saltire and lion rampant on one wall, pictures of Bo Derek and Raquel Welch on another, and "Shadow the loom hound" – a black German Shepherd – at his feet. While he works, Matheson sometimes practises the chanter or brushes up on his Gaelic verbs.

He works a ten-hour day and aims to produce 35 metres of tweed in that time, and claims to have developed a "bionic arse" from all that sitting down.

Matheson has returned to the island after many years travelling the world and working in the oil industry. Retraining as a weaver was a calculated risk, he says, and one he might not have taken if he had a wife and children to support.

A good weaver in a good week, it is said, can make between 500 and 600. The danger is that there may be periods of idleness. Matheson was busy from June until the first week of December, after which the work slowed; that's better than he had expected.

"I came into this because of the prospect of year-round work," he says.

"I'm a worker by nature. It didn't used to affect people so badly when the weaving went slack because they could turn to the crofting. But the modern weaver isn't interested in skittering about doing three jobs to earn a wage. We are looking at this as a full-time job.

"See if it wasn't Harris Tweed I was weaving, though? I don't think I would do it. There's a kudos attached to it. People use the word 'iconic' far too much. They use the word 'global' far too much.

"Harris Tweed you can definitely say has iconic status and is a global brand without a doubt. I'm proud of it, and seeing the pattern appearing before my eyes is a great feeling.

"Well," he hesitates, "going out with Jennifer Aniston would be a great feeling. But weaving Harris Tweed is still pretty good."


This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 20 February, 2011