My DH and I spent a glorious 2 weeks on the Isles of Lewis and Harris with our dogs (but no kids) about a month or so ago. This post is giving me a wonderful opportunity to mull over our experience and the wonderful things we saw and did. The people are so friendly and welcoming and the scenery is something I will always remember and visit again, and again. I had a wonderful chance to catch up with design guru, Alice Starmore, and meet her highland cattle, and our dogs even won prizes at the local agricultural show!
We stayed in Lochside House overlooking the loch at Tosta Chaolais (pronounced Hoolish with a guttural H), a wonderful village on the west side of Lewis. We couldn’t quite believe the view when we arrived – it was the highlight of each and every day.
The second day, when we walked through the village we heard the sounds of a weaving loom working, a sound you hear all over the island. Being a bit of a textile nut I was determined to find out more about the legendary Harris Tweed.
We were lucky enough to be shown round Harris Tweed Hebrides, a relatively new company in Shawbost. The mill spins the tweed yarn and designs the fabrics but the actual weaving, as determined by an act of Parliament, must be woven by crofters in their homes. Just think about that for a moment. Somewhere around 180 weavers, contracted and independent, weave the Harris Tweed in sheds and back rooms that is then exported as a much-prized fabric around the world.
Now I’ve seen a fair bit of spinning over the years but I have never seen a blow room where the fibres are literally blown together to begin the blending process before carding and spinning. It takes a while to get your head round that the bunch of fibre on the left becomes the roving on the right.
The yarn is then wound onto a warping beam as per the fabric’s design and is then wound off on to the weaver’s beam before being delivered to the weaver with all the weft yarn they need to complete the fabric. When I visited a weaver a few days after the trip to the factory, there was the beam ready to be woven, which really tickled me.
Each length of fabric is carefully finished and then authenticated by someone from the Harris Tweed Authority with a special iron stamp. I think I actually squealed when I was allowed to iron the stamp on myself.
Lorna Macaulay, Chief Executive of the Authority was very generous with her time and I spent a fascinating morning hearing about the history and how the industry has changed. In the 1960s over 7 million yards of Harris Tweed were produced each year. In 2009 this had fallen to around 400,000 metres – a catastrophic decline. But thanks to the Authority’s hard work and the emergence of Harris Tweed Hebrides, the industry now produces 1.2 million metres a year, which makes it sustainable and allows the crofters a regular income. This growth is also encouraging younger people to move in to every aspect of the Harris Tweed process through a very well thought out programme which embeds vocational qualifications into the curriculum of the islands.
I came away with an even greater respect for Harris Tweed and all the wonderful people involved in its regeneration. They were all an inspiration and I really valued the time they gave me to share their passion.