There was cause for a double celebration as two famous Outer Hebrides businesses were recognised for their commitment to employing young people, by being rewarded with the Investors in Young People (IIYP) accreditation on Thursday 18 June.
The Harris Tweed industry is the product of a beautifully balanced relationship between the land and culture of the Outer Hebrides. As in many remote parts of the world, the weather dictates lifestyles and can have a serious effect on the livelihoods that people follow there.This year will be remembered as the year with no spring. The end of March saw the Sneachd nan uan bheag (snow of the young lambs). Since then, there has not been a consistent spell where temperatures have settled over 12c – key for kick-starting grass growth. In addition the soil temperature has remained well below the temperature necessary for planting potatoes and other vegetables.
The proliferation of Greylag Geese and their devastating effect on crops and machair are once again in evidence this year. These birds eat seeds. Their dung droppings contaminate grass, making it inedible for sheep and can even cause some lambs to be stillborn. This has led to calls for a major cull. But, even if this occurred, action may be too late to save what is looking like an annus horribilis for crofters in the islands.
Neil Macleod, Chairman of The Harris Tweed Weavers’ Association says: “It has been a really tough time across the islands. This year is looking like a write-off. Crofters who would have had hopes of selling excess hay will now have to buy it in because there is so little grass. Perhaps the only positive aspect of the summer is that there is plenty of tweed to be woven.”
Thankfully Shawbost mill is resistant to the vagaries of the weather and its newly refurbished roof is casting positive summer light into the mill, adding brightness to the working environment and reducing our carbon footprint. A busy mill bursting with colour and craft provides consolation for the cold dank conditions outside. In addition, a full order book and six weeks to the summer holiday makes for a cheery buzz around Harris Tweed Hebrides.
The continued high demand for Harris Tweed also makes for a positive experience for weavers. Ian Mackay - a crofter/weaver - exemplifies a typical island stoicism when he reflects: “This year has not been great - snow at the lambing, peat too wet to cut, geese ruining the grass…. but I have three nice tweeds ready to weave!”
The delicate relationship between crofting and weaving can also work in the other direction, with the tweeds taking a back seat when the weather is right for outdoor work. Over 80 per cent of Harris Tweed weavers are also involved in crofting, the primary form of agriculture to be found in the Outer Hebrides.
A few years ago - before Harris Tweed Hebrides entered the fray – an executive from US trainer giant New Balance was informed that their Harris Tweed order would be delayed for a week. On being asked why, he was told: “The weather is really good so the hay is being cut and the Guga hunters are heading out tomorrow.’
The last is an especially important date in the calendar for the people of Ness at the northern edge of Lewis. Donald S Murray*, the writer of ‘The Guga Hunters’ gave his reason why. “At one time in the Hebrides, particularly in a year when the weather was like this, people depended on the eating of seabirds for their existence. The guga – or the young gannet – was often the bird of choice, particularly in areas like Ness. The annual visit of men from the north of Lewis to Sulasgeir, a rock some distance from the district’s harbour, brought food to the table, the difference sometimes between starvation and sufficiency. It is this sense of continuity with the past that is marked each time Nessmen sail out for their annual quota of gannets, similar in its own way to the tradition of the tweed.”
The executive from New Balance might have been puzzled by the explanation at the time, but in retrospect he could perhaps reflect on how this was all part of the Harris Tweed narrative – a global brand which rests on the efforts (and availability) of 150 weavers working from their own homes and combining their commitment to the loom with other demands dictated by the cycle of the seasons.
That crofter-weaver lifestyle was forged in harder economic times and still contributes to the identity of the industry and the character of the workforce on which it depends. The wonderfully nuanced relationship between culture and craft should never be broken, even in the face of a lost spring and the persistent appetites of some greedy geese.
*The author's book is now out in paperback from the Scottish publishers, Birlinn.
Lead photo by Angela Smith.
An eighteen month, £100,000 project designed to reconnect the textile industries of the outer Hebrides and the Scottish Borders and support the Harris Tweed industry, has been described as a great success as the industry attracts new interest.
The Creative Futures project aimed to reflect the culture and history of the fabric as well as laying foundations for its future success. It worked to overturn a spiral of pessimism and slow decline for Harris Tweed which began in the mid-1980s, with the collapse of the North American market.
In recent years the cloth has seen a great resurgence, with both its enduring qualities and craft tradition recognised. Harris Tweed is now a fabric of choice for young designers as well as for the fishing and shooting clientele; it is popular with young and old and for interiors and accessories as well as on the catwalks.
The Creative Futures project involved Harris Tweed Hebrides, the School of Textiles and Design at Heriot-Watt University’s Scottish Borders Campus and was supported by Creative Scotland. It aimed to add another dimension to a turnaround in the Harris Tweed industry. The project team included Alison Harley, Creative Director at the School of Textiles and Design (TEX) at Heriot-Watt’s Scottish Borders Campus; Jim McVee, Business Manager at TEX, and consultant MaggieMarr who was Project Manager.
A series of residences and workshops took place in the Scottish Borders and the Outer Hebrides to explore innovative approaches to marketing, textile technology, design and manufacturing.Creative Futures also stimulated ideas around the development of the Harris Tweed Sector and explored new networks with Scottish textiles companies.
Brian Wilson, Chairman of Harris Tweed Hebrides, said that the collaboration had been a timely intervention and support for the newly resurgent industry.
“It is essential to our industry’s success that it continues to be exposed to new ideas, modern technology and an awareness of what is happening elsewhere in the textiles world. It is particularly important that younger people, who increasingly make up the Harris Tweed Hebrides workforce, are aware of the wider industry they are part of and the opportunities it presents.”
Alison Harley, Creative Director at Heriot-Watt University said that the project recognised the deep family bonds and personal memories behind a cloth which has been part of the Outer Hebrides since the 19th century.
“The collaboration between Harris Tweed Hebrides and the School of Textiles and Design has enabled careful reflection on what makes a creative and sustainable future for Harris Tweed that is also mindful of its past. Today there is a remarkable optimism from those directly involved in the making and production of the cloth. This is testimony to those who continue to work in the transfer of tacit knowledge from experienced minds to the next generation.
“The project would not have succeeded without the willingness of the many Scottish companies and individuals who hosted industry visits and sessions.”
Helena Ward, Portfolio Manager Creative Industries and Skills at Creative Scotland, said,
“Our vision, in partnership with colleagues on the Creative Futures project, is for the Outer Hebrides to become a nationally and internationally recognised creative cluster, maximising the economic and social contribution of its rich creative and cultural heritage, people, content, products and services.”
A book has been published outlining and celebrating the Creative Futures project and the people involved in Harris Tweed Hebrides. It describes the intangible and cultural heritage of the Harris Tweed story that unites people and place, and their deep family bonds and personal memories enrich the history and folklore of a cloth that has been part of the Outer Hebrides since the nineteenth-century.
A book about the Creative Futures is available on request from Jim McVee at Heriot-Watt University: J.McVee@hw.ac.uk.
The video relating to the project, seen above, can also be viewed at: https://youtu.be/7olEs6wZ-M8
For further information please contact: Barbara Fraser, Barbara.firstname.lastname@example.org, 0131 556 0770
Harris Tweed Hebrides has chalked up its latest accolade by being named Scotland’s SME Exporter of the Year at an awards ceremony in Glasgow.
The company sends fabric to more than 60 countries and around 75 per cent of the overall output is exported. Harris Tweed Hebrides now employs 90 people at Shawbost and provides work for over 120 home weavers.
Last Tuesday’s Scottish Export Awards, sponsored by the business magazine BQ and Scottish Enterprise, was held in Glasgow’s Hilton Hotel where Harris Tweed Hebrides was represented by chairman Brian Wilson, brand development director Margaret A. MacLeod and creative director, Mark Hogarth.
In its short history, Harris Tweed Hebrides has been named as UK Textile Company of the Year as well as being honoured on several occasions for its outstanding contribution to the Scottish fashion and textiles industries.
Brian Wilson said: “It is another tribute to the entire team that we have this recognition specifically for our contribution to exporting. Sending Harris Tweed to every corner of the world, from the west side of Lewis, is a remarkable logistical exercise which involves an immense input of experience, co-ordination and attention to detail”.
Shipping manager Alison Mackenzie said that there was no “one size fits all” solution for exports as many different markets and clients have their own requirements. “We use shippers in Glasgow, Manchester and Essex for onward distribution by air and sea, but some clients want to use their own shippers.
“It is all quite complicated and specialised. There are some countries which have particular issues with customs, taxes and form-filling. Our biggest market is Japan but I think the most difficult place to deal with is Turkey which has its own very particular requirements!”.
Chief executive Ian Angus Mackenzie said that the company – which produced its first tweed just seven years ago after re-opening the Shawbost mill - is heading for its busiest year so far, following a major surge of early orders. “The response from both mill workers and weavers has been superb ,” he added.
Last year, Harris Tweed Hebrides were official suppliers to both the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games while a collaboration with Johnnie Walker whisky attracted world-wide publicity. Harris Tweed from Shawbost has featured prominently in this year’s fashion collections from leading designers including Chanel, Ermenegildo Zegna and Lardini.