Seaforth Harris Tweed
‘I’m glad I opened the gate,’ smiles weaver Iain Martin.
Last year, he invited the public into the family croft at Arivruaich. Four generations of weavers have lived and worked from this house, originally built in the 1740s.
It was his grandfather, a young man returning from World War One, who took one of the original Hattersley looms offered to ex-servicemen. Previously, the family had worked on handlooms. His grandfather adjusted one pedal to suit his foot – damaged by a bullet in the war – and so began a love affair with single-width weaving.
In late 1926, his grandfather walked the winding route (at least 30 miles) from the croft to Rhenigidale in Harris because he heard ‘someone was selling a good boat.’ (Iain’s grandmother would regularly walk the same path carrying a hundredweight of wool and – so the journey home wasn’t wasted – would return carrying a hundredweight of flour.)
Grandfather bought the boat, but he also bought a loom – one of the brand new Mk1 models – now the oldest on the island – on which Iain weaves today.
Crofting and weaving involved the whole family. From the age of five, Iain would wind bobbins for an hour before and two hours after school. As he grew older, he frequently missed classes to aid his father. ‘There was the fank and lambing and potatoes and more to deal with.’ In later years, when he had a career in aquaculture, he used up all his holidays coming home to help. His brother puts it simply: ‘This sheep and weaving malarkey has been in the blood for years.’
Also in the blood is a love for sharing what they produce with others. In the early 1920s, his grandmother would put tweeds out at the end of the road to sell to holidaymakers. ‘She loved meeting people.’ From this, great friendships were formed and connections made across the country.
The love for sharing must run in Iain’s veins too. As a school leaver, he became a ghillie on Eishken estate in the Pairc hills. ‘I found it fascinating to meet people from all over the world. That is still in me.’
Since opening, 500 people have been through the gate at Seaforth Harris Tweed. Just some of the treasures to be found here include wartime blankets woven on handlooms, a spinning wheel, mill samples, original bobbins made from compressed card, traditional scythes and two bright-eyed collies waiting on their master’s voice. Everything is lovingly kept. A second loom (which Iain built himself) takes pride of place in the original house. ‘We look after everything. It’s very precious to us.’
To visit Seaforth Harris Tweed is to learn not just about weaving, but to glimpse the whole story. From peat cutting to sheep dog demonstrations to traditional wool dyeing to hand warping – this is a treasure trove of living history.
Photography: Alison Johnston/Encompass