Alasdair 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.