The New Season

Spring Cheviots in Newvalley just outside Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

Spring Cheviots in Newvalley just outside Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

Spring has finally sprung here in the Outer Hebrides, our island home of ‘Harris Tweed’. Anyone travelling the long and winding roads around Lewis and Harris cannot fail to notice the profound change in season after a long and hard winter of wild winds and rain.

Grass is beginning to grow, slowly gathering itself to a fresh green lushness, and across the acres of croft land new lambs are littered like so many wee woollen wonders. Their bright white fleeces are only matched in vibrancy by the spring in their first steps as they enjoy the joys of this remote and beautiful part of the world.

As the dark nights give way to longer days we can feel the sap rising somewhat as our reinvigorated industry looks forward to fresh bursts of activity and sharing the story of our precious cloth with friends in tweed and an extended family the world over. This time of year also marks an important time in the crofter’s calendar as well as our own here at the Harris Tweed Authority.

Now is the time to bring new life into being, whether it’s planting and growing from seed  or lending a helping hand to the expectant ewes who have been so well cared for over the winter months. For many crofters and ‘Harris Tweed’ weavers, this is a period of long days and sleepless nights, hard work but the reaping of rewards.

As is common with most weavers, crofting life is a wearing of many different hats, a collaboration of diverse and disparate skills, each employed to carry on a traditional way of life as well as adding a little to the household income. We caught up with one such busy weaver to find out how his Spring was going…

Neil Macleod, 68, is a crofter and ‘Harris Tweed’ weaver originally from Orinsay in Lochs but now living in Stornoway. He is also the present chairman of The Harris Tweed Weaver’s Association among many other extra-curricular activities connected to crofting and island community life.

Neil has been a weaver for the last 8 years after taking to the loom following retirement from a well-known local engineering company he co-owned and ran. Even during this past working life he found himself tightly connected to the ‘Harris Tweed’ industry, overseeing the manufacture of spare parts for Hattersley looms and working in the heart of the busy mill areas of Stornoway, home to old names like S.A. Newalls, Smith’s, Burn’s, MacKenzies, Todds, Kenneth Macleod Shawbost as well as other small producers.

“To me Harris Tweed has always been part of our lives, the fabric of the island, a barometer of our fragile economy. When the tweed industry was busy we were also busy in the workshop, we’d have staff dedicated just to making parts for the looms and mill machinery. Busy mills meant money in people’s pockets, simple things like new tractor parts or shop fittings could be afforded for example. Money earned through producing Harris tweed was spent locally and filtered down to all sorts of other local businesses too. Turning looms kept people on the island, there was no need to leave for the cities to earn a wage.”

Neil can be found peddling his loom for anything up to 10 hours a day, only resting on a Sunday, the Sabbath, as all weavers do. But when lambing season arrives the demands of the added work substantially increases, putting demands on both his time and energy. However, the protection of the Harris Tweed Act and its enforcement by the Harris Tweed Authority, means weavers can and must work from loom sheds at their own homes affording them precious freedom to balance their workload as they see fit.

Put more simply, Neil and weavers like him can be masters of their own time clocks, giving them the flexibility to work to their own schedule at times and shifts that suit them and their other life commitments.

“Traditionally you would perhaps also fish for lobster and herring, you would maybe be growing your own corn and looking after livestock on the croft. Having to travel miles to the main town to earn a living through set hours would have been impossible to balance with our day-to-day crofting lives. Even today this protection is incredibly important, I couldn’t continue to keep rearing my sheep, which I enjoy so much, without this law in place.”

During lambing season Neil is up at daybreak to head out his croft in Newvalley and check on his proudly maintained flock of pedigree Cheviot sheep. An experienced eye will be cast over the handsome animals, looking out for signs of impending new arrivals or any distress that might indicate trouble ahead. If all appears to be well he’ll return to begin an early stint back at the loom shed, a two hour session on a crotal-rust plain twill that is taking shape under his skilled hands, until it is time to check on the expectant mothers again.

And so this routine will continue over the coming weeks, coming and going from his ‘Harris Tweed’ weaving as necessary, keeping to the same working patterns as men and women for generations before him have also done. A more accomodating trade there surely cannot be.

Neil is hugely proud of the cloth he weaves, even moreso given his love of raising Cheviot sheep, the very breed whose soft fleece provides the yarn from which he intertwines warp and weft. As a crofter and weaver he is lucky enough to not only bring the wool into the world but transform it into something even more beautiful and send it onwards, after being stamped with our Orb Mark as genuine ‘Harris Tweed’.

“I love the traditional tweeds, the 8×8 Herringbone most of all, it’s perfect for a gentleman I think and I never tire of wearing my own jacket made in one. Which is just as well as it will last me a lifetime. But I also like the new bright colours and vibrant patterns – they’re a joy to weave. It’s a source of huge pride that the cloth I make could end up anywhere from Milan to New York. It’s very satisfying.”

And with that, it’s time once again to leave his loom shed to check on the lambs, his faithful Border Collie Molly joins us too as we take a walk among his flock of large and sturdy Cheviots and long-legged lambs, happily bouncing beside us not long arrived but obviously delighted to be here.

The wind is fresh and the clouds above are zipping across the sky like fishing boats at full sail, it’s a typical spring Lewis afternoon and although there appears to be no new lambs immediately imminent, Neil and Molly look in their element just being on the croft and out in the fresh air.

Neil’s story is just one of many shared by weavers working from crofts across these islands, tied to their work and land by long, strong tethers of tradition. In a world where unpaid overtime is often unceremoniously demanded, where long traffic-jammed commutes are the norm, where tea-breaks and lunch hours are rigourously enforced, the working life of a ‘Harris Tweed’ weaver suddenly seems far from archaic, rather it appears to have embraced the most modern of attitudes to the perfect life/work balance.

We’re proud to bear the responsibility of protecting such a unique way of life, ensuring that the weavers of the Outer Hebrides can continue their traditions and carve out a living in their island homes, a place where truly their hearts lie.

 

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From Association To Authority Pt. 4

Edinburgh High CourtFollowing the amendment defining how genuine Harris Tweed was made in 1934, the industry entered a period of unprecedented expansion and the old story of mainland firms trying to break into the industry surfaced yet again because of the post-war popularity of the cloth.

The fact that Harris Tweed was also a vital dollar-earning export during and after the war allowed the controversy over ‘unstamped Harris Tweed’ versus Orb-stamped Harris Tweed to spread to the United States where it came to a head in the mid-nineteen fifties, at much the same time as the challenge to Orb-stamped Harris Tweed from producers of ‘unstamped Harris Tweed’ reached crisis point in Britain.

It took the longest civil court case in Scottish legal history at the time and the famous judgement by Lord Hunter to resolve this controversy in 1964. The 1934 definition of Harris Tweed, which had confined all the processes of production to the islands (including the production of yarn) was being flaunted by a consortium of mainland producers, calling themselves the Independent Harris Tweed Producers (IHTP), who had been breaking into the island industry by passing off as ‘Harris Tweed’ a cloth made in contravention of the terms of the 1934 definition.

The mainland producers of ‘unstamped Harris Tweed’ had asked the court to declare that their product, made in accordance with their own made-up definition devised by the Independent Harris Tweed Producers (IHTP) on its formation in 1958, was entitled to be called ‘Harris Tweed’ and to forbid any person anywhere from saying that such a product was not entitled to be called Harris Tweed. The IHTP definition differed from the 1934 definition of Harris Tweed in maintaining that the processes of dyeing, spinning, and finishing could be carried out anywhere in Scotland.

On the other hand, the Orb producers and The Harris Tweed Association contended that it was essential for all these processes to be carried out in the Outer Hebrides, as required in the definition of ‘Harris Tweed’ laid down by the amended Regulations of 1934 governing the use of ‘The Harris Tweed Trade Mark’ otherwise known as the ‘Orb’.

After considering an arduous defence in Edinburgh High Court and following much deliberation, judge Lord Hunter decided against the IHTP and issued his judgement in favour of the Orb producers, because he had concluded that the IHTP definition of Harris Tweed was

‘a mere device designed to enable them, by attaching the name ‘Harris Tweed’ to their product, to use the reputation attaching to the genuine article and to pass off their goods as the goods of other manufacturers and producers’.

Once again the reputation and ownership of the cloth on behalf of the islanders had been upheld serving to secure their precious work for another generation in the face of unscrupulous money men looking to cash in on the skill and hard work of the crofters, weavers and millworkers of the Outer Hebrides.

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An Inspiring Heritage by Davy Macdonald

Davy Macdonald is an Edinburgh-based painter specialising in portraits and figurative painting. His latest series “Harris Tweed – An Inspiring Heritage” celebrates the history of the making of the Big Cloth. Using Island girls as models, period costume & artefacts and awe-inspiring locations in the Western Isles the past life and processes are brought to life.

The series consists of eight oil paintings capturing the tasks that were required to produce Harris Tweed in the Outer Hebrides, some of which are gradually being forgotten.

There are Limited Edition prints available of all the paintings. All prints are strictly limited to 125 of each painting and are signed and numbered by the artist. The prints are produced on heavy weight, museum quality, archival paper using the highest quality Giclee printing process and cost £150.00 each.

website : www.dmacart.com

Harris Tweed - Artwork by Davy Macdonald

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From Association To Authority Pt.3

Gaelic-waulking-songs-in-the-Hebrides-1The first challenge to the new Harris Tweed industry and the newly formed Harris Tweed Association was getting producers to adhere to the definition of Harris Tweed which stated that ‘Harris Tweed means a tweed, hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides.’

A vulnerable area in the island industry developed in the mid-1920s when the laborious hand-finishing of the tweed woven on the croft went out of fashion. Beating cloth by hand and drying in the fresh air was workable for very small-scale production but completely untenable for the amount of tweed now being ordered. Because there was no finishing plant in the islands, tweeds were commonly sent to the mainland to be finished by specialist finishing departments at the mills there.

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Inevitably, with this new relationship now being formed, an increasing number of mainland mills began to send their own yarn to island weavers to be woven, then took back the greasy tweed for finishing and sold that cloth as ‘Harris Tweed’ but without the Orb authenticity stamp and, adding insult to injury, all the profit going into mainland hands.

At the same time, the people, mainly in Harris, producing genuine, stamped Harris Tweed from hand-spun yarn in accordance with the definition were finding it difficult to compete in price with the unstamped Harris Tweed made from mainland mill-spun yarn and finished on the mainland.

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This opening the door to mainland producers had threatened the native industry on an alarmingly wide front. In that good quality mill-spun yarn made from pure virgin wool did in fact produce just as good a tweed as one made from hand-spun yarn, it had become clear by the early 1930s, that the industry required a more realistic definition of Harris Tweed which allowed the use of locally-produced mill-spun yarn to meet demand and with that, new machinery to finish the cloth.

Eventually in 1934 a revised legal definition of Harris Tweed trademark was achieved. It allowed the use of local mill-spun yarn and confined all processes of production to the islands. As a result new mills on the isles of Lewis and Harris were built and an important step in securing the cloth’s production for the local economy had been taken.

But more challenges were to come…

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From Association To Authority Pt.2

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By the 1900s legal protection of the good name of Harris Tweed by a trade mark and an established standard definition had become essential to the developing industry.

This led to groups of merchants in both Lewis and Harris applying to the Board of Trade for a registered trade mark. When this trade mark, the Orb, was eventually granted, the Board insisted that it should be granted to all the islands of the Outer Hebrides i.e. to Lewis, North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra, as well as to Harris, the rationale for this decision being, no doubt, that the tweed was made in exactly the same way in all those islands.

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In 1909, after much negotiation and a degree of acrimony from merchants in Harris who felt that the trade mark should have been granted exclusively to Harris, the famous Orb Trade Mark was granted.

The Harris Tweed Association, a voluntary body, was formed to protect both the use of the Orb Trade Mark and to protect the use of the name ‘Harris Tweed’ from imitations, such as the so-called ‘Harris Tweed’ of Henry Lyons or from the inferior standards of production which produced ‘Stornoway Tweed’.

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The original definition attached to the Orb Trade Mark stated that:

‘Harris Tweed meant a tweed, hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed by the crofters and cottars in the Outer Hebrides.’

The industry was to become a vital part of the economy of Lewis and Harris, and to a lesser extent of the Uists and Benbecula for over a century. Families and communities prospered in the good years and, equally, they suffered during the lean years. While not quite the Biblical pattern of seven prosperous years followed by seven years of famine, a cyclical pattern of intensive production followed by a few slack years seems to have been the norm.

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Until nearly the end of the 20th century, each period of slump was followed by new sales records when Harris Tweed reasserted its leading role in the textile world. Next week we’ll look at this long and challenging journey and the ups and downs that led to the founding of the Harris Tweed Authority…

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