Design & Make

Weaving Harris Tweed, Part II

by James Fox June 05, 2018
ReadWeaving Harris Tweed, Part II

A couple of months ago we introduced you to Mike Donald, a young Scot who decided to forsake city life and return to the western isles of Scotland. He won a placement in a state-sponsored scheme to become a registered weaver of Harris Tweed. Reminder: Harris Tweed enjoys Protected Geographical Status (similar to “Champagne”) and must be made from wool which has been dyed and spun on the Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra in the Outer Hebrides islands, and handwoven at the home of the weaver. Afterwards, the cloth is returned to the mill for inspection, and only then can it be given the Orb stamp that authenticates it. Each piece of tweed can be traced back to the individual weaver. (If you inspect the label in your Harris Tweed sport coat you’ll see an inked blue number, this number relates to the responsible weaver.)

I caught up with Mike again after he received his weaver’s number and completed his first tweed.

KM: First, I have to ask: how the hell does it feel to be a certified weaver of Harris Tweed?!

Mike Donald: Feels awesome! There are some things in life that just feel right and this is one of them for me. Throughout the training there was just a series of epiphanies. A lot of that was to do with the guys that taught us, they were 20 or 30 years my seniors but spoke with love and passion about their craft. If I can feel as enthused after all those years then I’ll be happy with my life choice. There’s also a huge sense of beginning, this will be a life long process and I’m enjoying the early stages. Every mistake and misstep I know I’ll learn from and look back on, eventually, and hopefully laugh too. When you see the experienced weavers work and tend to their looms you realize how far you have to go but also that you’ll get there with time and dedication too. Am happy to be on that same road.

KM: Major check mark in the “Harris Tweed weaver” box, no?

Mike Donald: I got confirmation today from the Shawbost Mill that my “test” piece of Harris Tweed had past inspection. This is the first tweed I’d woven, unaided, alone, at home and without support. The mill delivers a 15 meter beam of yarn and the weft bobbins and you need to produce a tweed to their specifications and exacting standard as laid out on the attached order ticket. I got a two colour, plain twill, 19 shots per inch on an 18 reed. It took a few days to do but the training paid off and the tweed was done without too much drama. They collected it from my loom shed and took it to the mill where it was inspected by their seamstresses and darners for flaws. When the phone rings and they tell you you’ve passed it’s a great feeling. So now it’s onto the real thing 50-meter+ lengths!

KM: Tradition passed down — another check in that box.

MD: My family have been a huge part of this journey. My folks have been so supportive and my Uncle and Aunt too. I’ve lived hundreds of miles away from Mom and Pops for about twenty years so it’s been odd having to lean on them while I make inroads back into island life. The loom shed is on the family croft so I see a lot of them these days, the kettle is always boiled and I’ve had more hot dinners cooked for me than I could hope for. They’ve been great. My Uncle is a weaver and is always on hand for advice too. It’s cool to be back in each others’ lives after all this time. The friends I left behind in Glasgow have been bemused but right behind me, a lot of them work in the music, fashion and design industry and know the values and ethos behind Harris Tweed but tend to be on the front line of the cloth’s presence in the world as it hits catwalks and clubs. Not sure they’d be down with the tribulations of bringing the stuff into the world in the back of beyond. Maybe it’s just a calling!

KM: So what is the loom shed situation near your cottage?

MD: My loom shed is on the family croft in the village of Tong on the east coast of the island. It’s directly attached to the house and there’s a small workshop full of tools inside, plenty light and warmth. I can look out of the window and see sheep grazing, the lighthouse across the bay blinking, fishing boats sheltering from storms…we have a border collie called Mac who sticks his nose in now and again and an old, old cat called Charlie who likes to sit on front of the shed heater and fall asleep. Not a bad place to work all in all.

KM: Do you get any choice on projects? Do some weavers become associated with certain styles or colors? Can you create or commission your own tweed?

MD: Harris Tweed weavers can work for any of the three main mills on the island, work independently or a combination of the two. I work for the Shawbost mill which is the busiest and most exciting of the three and guarantees me steady work and a chance to learn my trade. As a new weaver I’m restricted to the simpler patterns which means I’ll do two colour plain twills in increasing lengths initially and after a period of proven reliability move up to patterns like herringbone and houndstooth. The real challenges lie in the plaids and other complicated designs. There can be multiple colours on the warp beam, as many as six colours on the weft, complicated heddle drafts and sometimes even 8 tappet weaves which are very beautiful but complex to produce. I’ll do more training as time goes on and move onto these eventually. The colours and patterns are so diverse that I’m not sure if anyone is associated with any particular style but the older, more experienced weavers tend to get the more difficult stuff, right now I’m quite happy to take the basic patterns the mill sends me.

If you weave independently then you are responsible for your own designs but also finding customers and dealing with the associated costs. The mill still provides the yarns and finishing but there’s more leeway to be creative if you feel the need and there are a few who do just that. Donald John Mackay is probably the most successful in this field, having worked with Nike and Clarks, but there are others. For most weavers working for the mills is the easiest and most rewarding format, they handle the orders, marketing and production and we can get on with weaving which is what we want to do. Part of the training course did tackle pattern design so the tools are there to get more creative in future, it’s a road I’d certainly want to go down at some point  but right now I want to support the industry by meeting current demand on the wider scale.

KM: You were so involved in the music scene in Glasgow (the long-running Sub Club). Does playing music come into it at all in the shed ?

MD: Yeah, music in the loom shed is inevitable, although the tying in process I like to do in silence. The loom can be pretty noisy and has a nice rhythm of it’s own so the soundtrack needs to fit, otherwise it’s just a cacophony! It’s important to listen to the loom too, you can tell a lot about your weaving by the sound it makes so I tend to tune in to the clicks and clacks more than the music. The mind does tend to drift and often you’ll find yourself humming or whistling some accompaniment to the machinery. Weaving is all very musical and lyrical and you can see why both are so entwined in Gaelic culture.

KM: What other issues affect you/tweed production right now?

MD: The industry in general seems pretty peachy right now I think. There’s definitely a peak in interest right now but Harris Tweed transcends fad and fashion. It will settle soon enough and hopefully we’ll see a steady continuation in the love shown to the cloth. The Harris Tweed Hebrides guys (and girls) at Shawbost are really on top of their game and are leading the way with all this after just three years of reopening their mill (you should read up on the pre-2007 dramas). There is no shortage of work thanks to their endeavors and the continuing role of the Harris Tweed Authority, if anything the issue is meeting demand but I think this is no bad thing. Harris Tweed is not a mass-produced textile, getting limitlessly churned out from factories. Every inch is handwoven so if this leads to a restriction in supply then so be it. Designers will simply have to order in advance and respect the fact that they’re dealing with high quality not high quantity. But I know Shawbost Mill is running 24 hours a day, they want those who want Harris Tweed to get it when required.

On a grassroots level there are issues with availability of looms to new weavers but this is being addressed at a high level so should be rectified this year. Also the cost of spare parts is problematic, if something breaks on your loom then it’s not cheap to replace and we rely on manufacturers in England. The ideal situation would be to have the looms and parts built and produced right here on the island, we have the means, and within a few years I think this will happen, bringing another part of the process into our island economy. Everything is heading in the right direction though, so absolutely no negativity felt or implied!

(Archival pictures not taken by Mike Donald were found by Michael Wojtas.)

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