Meet The Weavers #02: Alasdair Murray

IMG_4303Alasdair Murray is a relative newcomer to the world of weaving having started his career with the cloth in 2011. For the previous 20 years ‘Aldy’, as he his known to his friends, worked offshore, like many other islanders, earning his living on the oil rigs of the treacherous North Sea.

Trained as a deep sea diver, his work was not only cold and wet but also very dangerous. However, as with many of these difficult jobs the risks can prove very lucrative in their financial recompense. Unfortunately with a fall in oil prices, new opportunities became few and far between and other, less well-paid, diving work like fish farm maintenance, seabed surveys and the occasional salvage job had to be undertaken.

Eventually, working away from home and out of doors in all weathers for two decades convinced Alasdair to look for a change, he wanted a job where he could still work with skill and challenge but just in a little more comfort. He didn’t have to look far for one that fitted the bill and was pleased to be taken on as an apprentice to learn his new trade at the loom.

 After three months of full-time tutelage with an experienced weaver a trainee is allocated their unique number and can now weave authentic cloth.

“Training to become a weaver was certainly no walk in the park, there was a lot to take on board over the 12 weeks I undertook the tuition.”

However, the learning process just doesn’t simply stop there.

 “You learn a lot in the first year as you are suddenly left to your own devices. The looms can be such contrary machines. Everything will be running smoothly, then you take a break for a cup of tea and when you go back it won’t weave for love nor money. Maybe the wind changed or something because sometimes it is nothing obvious!”

However, with time the weaver learns not only to tune his new machine but also tune into it, learning the feel and sound of its many movements, getting to know by instinct when something is going awry. And as the old adage goes the new weaver also learns by their mistakes, a fault, once found and fixed will never be flawed for long again.

Despite all the new challenges Alasdair is glad he persevered with his new career.

“The signs are good for plenty tweeds in the next year. There are only 130 of us who cater for the global demand for Harris Tweed. Surely we’ll be kept busy enough. The lifestyle suits me. No matter what time I get out of bed, I’m never late.”

Alasdair, who is now 50, would recommend it to anyone considering a lifestyle change, as he did. He adds:

“When I think about it, weaving is a lot like diving. You’re suddenly shut away from the outside world, just you and your thoughts and a difficult task to concentrate on until you complete the work at hand.”

As he lifts a fresh beam of warp yarn into the loom, safe in his cosy loom shed, wrapped in his warm knitted jumper and with a kettle on the boil it’s clear that’s likely where the comparison ends.

For many in the industry, weaving offers a way to return to the island. A fragile economy in the Outer Hebrides often leads to the bright and talented setting off to earn their fortune far from our shores. However the pull of home is strong and many of our emigrants set their sights on coming again back if they can.

Like ‘Aldy’, working with Harris Tweed, whether as a weaver or millworker, can play a vital role in keeping our communities together and strong and the HTA is proud to play a role in making this possible. And on this particular occasion the North Sea’s loss is most certainly our gain.

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Life’s A Beach.

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris © Ian Lawson

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris © Ian Lawson

The islands of the Outer Hebrides are currently basking in summer sunshine, much to the delight of visitors and locals alike. Our far northerly latitude also affords us some of the longest days in the United Kingdom to enjoy as much of this special time of year as possible.

While mention of our part of the world often conjours up instant images of windswept moor and mighty mountain, our rugged coastline, particularly the Atlantic facing western shores, also hide some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

A relentless ocean surf pounds silica and sea-shell into the finest of white sands and from vast bays to secret coves, pristine shallow seas acquiesce upon our land and glitter in glorious blues and greens. At the northern tip of Lewis lies Traigh Shanndaigh at Eoropie, a golden crescent unchanged since the days Vikings hauled their longships ashore, while travelling down the west coast an avid beach-hunter can take in the twin delights of Dal Mor and Dal Beag (close to the ‘Harris Tweed’ mills at Carloway and Shawbost), the magnificent Traigh na Beirghe at Riof, the deep tidal bay of Ardroil and the rugged sands at Mangersta.

However it is Harris that holds the jewels in our northerly golden crown, boasting the world-class sands of Luskentyre, Seilebost and Horgabost, truly awe-inspiring in their scale and beauty. And there are more, just explore a little further and you’ll find the out-of-the-way Husinis and many others, while to the south, down through our long island chain to North and South Uist and onwards, you’ll discover even more…

As ever, we draw inspiration from the myriad of sandy shades, the ever changing sea hues and natural pigments revealed in seaweed, shell and rock. Yarn is spun from 100% pure new wool dyed in golds and yellows, bright whites and subtle dusky browns, briny greens and rock pool greys, each flecked with as many grains of colour as our sandy shores themselves.

Enjoy the summer wherever you are, it may not be the weather for your favourite Harris Tweed clothing but a tactile tweed throw or well-packed tweed tote bag can keep your favourite cloth close to hand on even the hottest of sea-side days!

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Machair Life

Eoropie Machair, Isle of Lewis.

Eoropie Machair, Isle of Lewis.

Machair is a Gaelic word that roughly translates as ‘a low-lying fertile plain’. A unique and beautiful feature of our island shores, almost half of all Scottish machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides and it is one of the rarest habitat types in Europe.

Machair is so important in ecological and conservational terms, that it has now become a recognised scientific term and we see it as one of the finest natural blessings our land affords us.

It is at this time of year the winter-barren, green swathes of grassland along our beaches suddenly erupts into a riot of colour. Purples and yellows explode alongside reds and blues, pinks and a myriad of other permutations. There are no neat and tidy deliniations as found in modern gardens, rather the flowers run wild, blending their hues with joyous abandon.

A profusion of rare carpet flowers, such as Irish Lady’s Tresses, Orchids, and Yellow Rattle layer themselves in great sweeps past the high-tide lines, buzzing with bees and insects who gorge themselves on this sudden and short-lived bounty while CorncrakeTwiteDunlinRedshank and Ringed Plover thrive in their embrace.

Such a mixture of bright colour and vivacity has obvious parallels with our Harris Tweed cloth, clothing the land as it does with great natural beauty. The mixture of pigment and petals closely echo the complex confusion of dyed wools found in our intricately spun yarns, themselves a stunning cocktail of colour, brought together to form a cohesive milieu.

Armeria maritime, Seilebost, Isle of Harris. Image © Ian Lawson

Armeria maritime, Seilebost, Isle of Harris. Image © Ian Lawson

All our cloth is woven from this 100% pure new wool, carefully imparted with dyes before being spun into yarn, drawing strong influences from natural wonders like the humble machair flowers and embodying just a little piece of our land for customers to enjoy.

Take a closer look at your Harris Tweed next time you have some to hand and marvel at the multitude of colours under your gaze, a brief bloom, captured in cloth for years to come.

To find out more: www.machairlife.org.uk

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Machinations

DSCF2536Harris Tweed looms are complicated and often cantankerous creatures. Composed of a myriad of moving parts, the machines on which our cloth is made can be likened to well-loved classic cars, each an entirely personal beast, tended to lovingly by the weaver who will know every inch and inkling of its form.

A cast iron Hattersley loom undergoing a restoration in one of our weavers loom-sheds reminds us just how mechanical and hands-on the process of our cloth’s creation is. A weighty behemoth with steam-punk sensibilities, the Hattersely has been a work-horse for the weaving of Harris Tweed since the end of the First World War.

Made almost entirely from cast iron, with concessions to wood and leather, the rugged form of the machine remained unchanged until the mid 1990’s. Its bombproof frame toiled tirelessly for decades, endlessly repeating its movement and motion as axels turned cogs to move levers and rods under the weaver’s watchful eye and deft hand.

Metal manoeuvred yarn and threw wooden shuttles full of spun wool with precision and prowess to produce beautiful and intricate patterns of clo mor, wound inch by inch on beams through no other power but that of the weaver’s body, foot pedals providing the kinetics required to bring their steeds to life.

Very little has changed.

By law all Harris Tweed must be woven in this manner, on looms at the weaver’s home. The newer looms may be a little larger but the wheels and cogs continue to turn in much the same manner as they have done for generations while the weaver continues to tend and take care of each part with pride.

Underneath all the oil and grease, lies a certain permanence, a way of doing things traditionally, with care and consideration, with craft and with skill. Even after all these years Harris Tweed continues to espouse these values and with safe hands will do so for many more years to come.

 

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Meet The Weavers #01: Anna Macleod & Donald Montgomery

Anna Macleod, Harris Tweed weaverHarris Tweed weavers, by the very nature of their work, tend to be a solitary breed, shut away in their loom sheds each day, working with concentration as they create their cloth. Unless you know a weaver personally, or know someone else who does, it’s unlikely you’ll get to see them ply their craft, producing the Harris Tweed you love so much. So we thought we’d open the loom shed door a little for you, take a peek at the people on the inside and hear a little bit about their story.

The weaving community is currently in a period of transition. A resurgence in demand has meant that new blood has been required to meet market needs and as the older generation looks towards less hectic work schedules its imperative to ensure their age-old skills are handed down to the new weavers joining the community.

Once such example of this passing down of knowledge and know-how can be found in the loom shed of Anna Macleod from the village of Garyvard in the beautiful district of South Lochs, Isle of Lewis. Anna has been weaving for just two years but shares a loom with her father Donald Montgomery who is also a weaver.

After attending university to attain a degree in business and human resources, Anna’s career took her from NHS roles to working as a P.A. before she finally returned to where she grew up to start a family. Her grandfather and uncle were stalwarts on the older single-width Hattersley looms, and with her father now weaving also Anna saw an opportunity to combine her home life with a whole new challenge.

 “I decided to train as a Harris Tweed weaver and found the whole process very educational. I don’t think I fully appreciated how skilled and technical it would be, I’m still learning three years down the line.”

After 12 weeks of full-time, daily tuition with some of the islands best weavers Anna successfully met the high standards required and received her unique Weaver’s Number allowing her to produce cloth for the local mills. She now shares a loom with her father and it appears to be a perfect working relationship.

 “He can tackle all of the technical issues that arise which allows me to concentrate on my weaving. If anything goes wrong with the loom I just have to shout “Dad!” I can fix faults with the tweed but when it’s anything mechanical I tend to let him be the mechanic.”

The flexibility of the weaving life, working to one’s own schedule and hours also fits in well with her family life.

“ I suppose I’m spoiled in a way as my youngest hasn’t gone to school yet. He’s in and out all the time so I’m not really on my own. He goes to school this year so I may get lonely then.”

The arrangement also suits her father’s crofting lifestyle.

“My dad has animals so he will usually be on the loom early until about 10am. I am then on until teatime which gives him time to look after all his animals during the day. Then he can come on again in the evening.”

The stipulations of the Harris Tweed Act ensure that weavers like Anna and her father will always have the security of working from their own home and croft with all the freedom this can afford them and their busy lives. A thriving industry combined with this unique protection can help retain workers on the islands by providing income for young people who wish to return to their island homes find work and start families.

By keeping our communities together like this we can ensure that long-held traditions are maintained, passed down from father to daughter, mother to son as has been done here in the Outer Hebrides for so many years, helping to keep not only a vibrant culture but a very special cloth alive.

 

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