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.