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Rooted in the Isles
I spent most of my teenage years and early twenties living on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides. Mum and I made good use of the tweed outlet shop in Stornoway for sturdy yarns to knit with and remnants to make clothes and furnishings from. I remember she sewed me a hacking jacket which I loved, but neither of us were exactly skilled tailors nor of skinny model proportions, and Lewis was quite definitely not a fashion hotspot.
I arrived at textile college in the Borders with a wardrobe of thick gansey-type sweaters, cheap ‘catalogue’ jeans and questionable home-sewn nightwear (mail order brushed nylon remnants, anyone?).
I’ve deviated from my theme, though, which is Harris Tweed. It took me many years to break the youthful association with amateurly stitched but affordable garments and appreciate the true beauty of this classic fabric.
Yes, every process from dyeing to finishing is carried out in the Outer Hebrides, every yard woven at home by islanders using treadle looms. And it is the only fabric protected and governed by its own Act of Parliament, the Orb certification mark ironed onto the back of every bolt of tweed.
But it’s the connection to the essence of the islands that makes it truly special to me. By this I mean the physical, the topographical, the elemental and the hand of man.
Wool is dyed before being spun. What this means in practice is that myriad shades can be blended together before spinning, producing yarns of remarkable depth and character. It’s a hugely skilled job to select shades (and their proportions) for inclusion in any yarn. The considered combination of colour-complex yarns in warp and weft together with the choice of weave are what make the finished fabric sing.
And that song is of stone and peat and marram and shingle, moor and moss, heather and lichen. It is of harsh grey sea swell, pellucid sunlit shallows, glinting cloud edge, softening mist, flattening wind, driving rain and breathless sunset.
Look closely – a magnifying glass is best! You can lose yourself in the depths of a seemingly simple weave, eyes dancing from hue to hue, half hidden in the twist of a yarn, or the angle of a twill.
Harris Tweed is warm and water resistant, strong and ageless, imbued with textures and shades which tell of its provenance. Produced on the north western edge of Europe and destined to travel the world, telling its stories to those who choose to listen. What treasure.
The images above are all mine.
You might enjoy the photography and facts at www.harristweed.org.