10th July 2014: Harris Tweed Hebrides Mill, North Shawbost
We arrived at the Harris Tweed Hebrides Mill, a major producer of Harris Tweed based on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis at Shawbost. It is a common misconception that Harris Tweed is a single company and brand, in fact there are three mills producing Harris Tweed on Lewis and each has its own unique brand and marketing strategy. The Harris Tweed Authority — which controls the Harris Tweed trademark — oversees all the mills and will only allow the Orb stamp to be used if the cloth meets their standards. Another common misconception is that Harris Tweed is made on Harris alone, in fact Harris Tweed can be made on any of the isles of the Outer Hebrides, as long as the wool is spun and dyed on the islands and the cloth in woven at the home of an islander. In reality, however, virtually all Harris Tweed is woven on Harris and Lewis since there are no mills on the other islands; weaving anywhere else would incur significant cost in ferrying cloth between the islands for finishing.
We had arranged to meet Sahrish Shafiq, whom I had met at last year’s Incorporation of Weavers of Glasgow annual dinner where we were both presented with an award for our weaving. Sahrish has recently moved to Lewis to take up a design role at Harris Tweed Hebrides and she kindly offered to take me on a tour of the mill — a unique opportunity as it is not open to the general public.
The first process we saw in the mill was the dyeing of the wool. It is this dyeing of the wool before spinning which gives Harris Tweed its depth and character — a single yarn can be blended to have many flecks of colour within it. This means that when it is woven, even in a simple weave structure such as a plain twill, the cloth has a rich luxurious quality. Each yarn is created using a careful balance of colour, following a precise recipe that stipulates the percentages of each colour to be used. It is only when you look very closely at Harris Tweed that you see these beautiful flashes of colour within it.
What makes the production of Harris Tweed so unique compared to the other mills I have visited is that no weaving (except for some sampling) takes place at the mill. Instead we saw warps with weaving instructions attached, ready to be delivered to the weavers across the island. This is, of course, because Harris Tweed must be woven at the home of an islander of the Outer Hebrides. Then we saw deliveries of woven cloth arriving back at the mill ready to be darned, finished, inspected and stamped with the Harris Tweed Authority’s Orb.
I came away from the mill feeling so inspired at the potential for designing my own tweeds and with the understanding of how important the yarn itself is for the character of the finished cloth. I realised how important the processes before and after weaving are to producing a beautiful cloth and that weaving is actually just one element of this story.
Shawbost Weavers, Reg and Catherine Amor, live close to the Harris Tweed Hebrides Mill in Shawbost. When we arrived Catherine was out, but Reg was happy to give us tour of their weaving sheds. We were excited to meet a weaver of Harris Tweed whose warp was from the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill, filling the gap in the production cycle we had seen at the mill earlier that day.
Reg Amor weaves regularly for the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill using a double width Bonas-Griffith Loom. He showed me the instructions from the mill for the tweed he was in the middle of weaving when we arrived, which was a bright check. He also explained how his loom worked, as it is quite different not only from my own loom, but also the single width Hattersley loom. The Bonas-Griffith is powered by pedals, similar to a bicycle and most significantly uses a rapier rather than a shuttle. I also enjoyed hearing about the modifications Reg had made to his loom, such as adding a motorcycle wing mirror so that he could see the reverse of the cloth whilst operating the loom. It was really interesting to hear about his life as a weaver, which had been a relatively recent career change for both him and Catherine.
Reg also showed us Catherine’s loom. She uses a single width Hattersley loom and works as an independent Harris Tweed weaver. The life of an independent Harris Tweed weaver seems appealing to me as you have control over the design of your cloth. Instead of receiving a warp directly from the mill, you purchase yarn on cones from the mill, then wind a warp to to your own design or one which has been specially commissioned. The woven cloth is then sent to the mill to be finished, inspected and stamped with the Orb before being returned to you. As an independent weaver, it is your responsibility to market your Harris Tweed yourself which Reg told us Catherine is very successful at!
You can get in touch with Reg and Catherine here and of course buy some of Catherine’s gorgeous Harris Tweed.