A Danish photographer (Eva Rodbro) and a Swedish artist (Charlott Markus) with a fascination for Edinburgh’s literary heritage and and appreciation of Harris Tweed have collaborated to produce a unique art exhibit called Tableau Noir.
Art and fashion have co-existed for centuries, indeed in many societies the love of fashion was born out of it being the most accessible and tangible form of art. Of this exhibit, Markus states: “When building an abstract room and covering everything, including the walls and the floor, with herringbone patterned harris tweed, the fabric will not only give an impression of its durability but more importantly represent strength by symbolizing a whole construction.”
The classic black and grey pattern, kindly donated by The Harris Tweed Authority, has given an animated element to the three dimensional structure and even in such dark hues there is a vibrancy to the cloth that helps with the artistic narrative. An admiration for Scots author James Hogg’s seminal work The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have been successfully fused into classic film noir. After a successful debut at The Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, Tableau Noir will travel to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and is set to return to Edinburgh later in the year.
Continuing on the dark side, the biggest surprise of Katie Laing’s insightful journal on the dyeing of Harris Tweed is the extent to which black wool is needed when our skilled artisans are cooking up the colour for our yarns. It is hard to play down the influence of the uniquely blended Harris Tweed yarns on a fashion industry that craves original colour when the bursts of inspiration provided by a ‘Paris Pink’ or ‘Peacock Blue’ can shock the eye with pleasure.
Miranda Priestly , the thinly veiled Anna Wintour-inspired character in The Devil Wears Prada captivates this; “But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean….I think it was Yves Saint Laurent wasn't it who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers.”
A few seasons back Topman (main picture) purchased our YC140 fabric for a limited edition collection that premiered at London Fashion Week. The journalists loved the nuanced depth of colour and christened it Rust. The colour became one of the buzzwords of that autumn/winter season. All coming from the humble YC140 fabric.
‘From the land comes the cloth’ and sometimes from the cloth come fashion trends with a provenance even more sincere than the musings of WGSN. As the creative minds of the design houses begin to think about their collections for Winter 2015 the pots in the dye house will continue to churn out Paris Pink, Peacock Blue, black or cerulean and a spectrum of other exciting colours. All inspired by the Hebridean landscape and brewed to perfection in the Shawbost Mill on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
IF there is one yarn colour that encapsulates the magic of the Harris Tweed blending process it is, ironically, black.
Technically it is a ‘non-colour’. But never mind that. Fashion and design absolutely loves black. From Henry Ford telling a customer the Model T was “available in any colour - as long as it’s black” to Audrey Hepburn immortalising the little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there has never been another ‘colour’ to touch it.
Until, that is, Harris Tweed Hebrides created Paris Black.
Very much a limited edition, this was an exclusive colour blend created for one of the company's international customers. Even the name is appropriate, with Paris Black playing homage to the city of chic and its citizens such as Madame Coco Chanel, who famously adored black, declaring it “has it all”.
What makes Harris Tweed’s Paris Black so wonderful is that it has all the power, presence and panache of true black while containing the tiniest trace of a handful of bright colours (purple, blue, green and red), to make it sing.
This is an exceptionally chic black but that is only because its colours are so beautifully balanced due to the great care taken at the blending stage.
The blending part of the Harris Tweed process - along with the other mill-based processes of dyeing, spinning and finishing - is protected and guaranteed by the Harris Tweed Act 1993 just as much as the famous weaving itself.
Harris Tweed Hebrides has nearly 150 different coloured yarns and only four of these are solid colours. All the others are blended colours, which gives Harris Tweed its instantly recognisable ‘flecked’ look.
Some will only contain two colours, such as black and white, while others comprise as many as nine.
Every recipe for a coloured yarn will stipulate what percentage of coloured wool (dyeings) are to be used. These recipes are followed by the mill workers literally taking ‘handfuls of this and handfuls of that’ - in the right order to ensure that even a small amount of colour will be evenly mixed throughout a larger colour batch.
The exact percentages of colours are, of course, a closely guarded secret and getting them right is usually the result of hours of painstaking work by designer Ken Kennedy.
When he is working on creating a yarn colour, Ken will work with minute pieces of dyeings, teasing and blending them together with his paddle brushes. Powered by elbow grease, the brushes open up the fibres and then blend them together into a mixed coloured ball resembling, in miniature, the hue and shade of a final blended yarn.
The paddles themselves are pretty low tech. They are, in fact, pet brushes bought for Ken by his daughter Kelly (who also works at the mill) as he was struggling to use his proper - but heavy and unwieldy - hand-carding paddles.
The quantities involved in trying out a colour blend are tiny, with each dyeing weighing as little as a tenth of a gram. The result, a sample ball of blended colour, may weigh only a couple of ounces but once Ken is satisfied with the colour, the mill workers swing into action to produce a full batch of up to 1000lb.
After assembling all the dyeings needed for a particular colour recipe, the mill workers follow that mix recipe by taking the right number of handfuls of wool from each sack and dropping it on top of a special hatch in the floor.
A blend that is to be 95 per cent of one colour and five per cent of another would, for example, simply be 95 handfuls of the first colour followed by five handfuls of the second, with the process repeated until all the wool has been piled up.
Then the hatch opens and the machinery whirrs into action, with the huge blending machine sucking in all the wool and blending it together by blowing it around. The result is a glorious organised chaos, that looks something like this:
This process is repeated, to ensure thorough blending, and the wool then sprayed with oil and water in order to lubricate it for spinning and hand-weaving.
After the blending, the multi-coloured piles of clumped wool are sucked through the pipework to the giant cupboards at the back of the carding machines where they await the next stage of the production process.
Here, they will be transformed from random clumps of wool into neat ‘spools’ of carded wool ready to be spun into a single ply yarn of workable strength. In any colour (just as long as it’s black...)!
A mention of Harris Tweed invariably brings to mind romantic images of the lone weaver, clacking and rattling away rhythmically in his loom shed as another beautiful swathe of cloth is slowly revealed.
Artisans and craftsmen, all. But while these weavers are rightly synonymous with the name Harris Tweed, they are not the only ones involved in producing this luxury fabric so desired by the finest fashion houses, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel.
In fact, the weavers who create the famous Clo Mòr are really only one link in the chain. The chrysalis-like transformation of the raw wool into such jewels of fabric actually begins and ends in the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill in Shawbost on the Isle of Lewis.
The processes that take place here - specifically the dyeing, blending, spinning and finishing - are protected and guaranteed by the Harris Tweed Act 1993 just as much as the actual hand weaving. The Act states that only fabric genuinely “handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides” can call itself Harris Tweed and bear the famous Orb trademark.
Once the sheep have been sheared and the bales of wool delivered to the mill, the production process can properly begin. It is on the Dye House that our curtain rises, with mill workers John Angus Reid and Calum Murdo ‘Dodo’ Macleod the first actors to step onto the stage.
A simple combination of heat, water, agitation and dye products is what turns the pure wool into deep, rich colours and once John Angie and Dodo have got their hands on the 350 kilo wool bales, they must then measure out the potions they need very precisely.
There are around 70 solid colours to choose from and with each having their own formula or ‘recipe’, care is taken at every stage.
There are two giant pots in the dye house. One takes about 350 kilos of wool; the other about 100 kilos. The big pot, although it can be used for colours as well as the smaller pot, cooks black wool more often than not. As solid black features in 60 to 70 per cent of yarn made, it is the most frequently required base colour in Harris Tweed Hebrides’ unique yarn blends.
Once a pot has been loaded with its wool, potions and water, it is heated for about an hour. Then it is into the hyrdo-extraction ‘spinning’ and drying machines.
The whole process takes several hours, with at least a handful of batches done every day.
As well as accuracy, a keen eye is essential. The dyers compare the wool in the pots to their colour samples, making allowances from their experience for the difference between wet wool and dry wool.
Naturally, they have their favourites. “I quite like the New Orange,” said John Angie (pictured). “It’s quite nice.” Paris Pink and Peacock Blue also get a mention.
Maybe all these lovely bright colours have their effect on the psyche, too, with John Angie a man who is clearly happy in his work.
“It’s a good place to work. There’s a nice atmosphere. And I like the fact that it’s something a bit different. It’s pretty fascinating and it can be intricate. There’s all sorts of weighing out. It’s like cooking, almost - for every colour there’s a different recipe.”
Obviously, the art of colouring has moved on somewhat since the days of crottle, but colour is just as important today as it ever was. And the dyeing of colours only at the wool stage – colours which are then blended together - has remained unchanged in all the years Harris Tweed has been made.
Only after the colouring will the wool be teased and blended, where another type of recipe will be followed - this time, the weighing out of predetermined portions of pure wool colours which are mixed together to create a yarn’s exact hue or character.
From there it is on to carding and spinning, where the fibres are teased and combed by metal rollers before being spun into a single ply yarn of workable strength.
This process is what gives even the ‘plain’ Harris Tweeds their distinctive flecks and depth of colour.
Harris Tweed Hebrides Brand Development Director Margaret Ann Macleod said: “Dyeing at the fibre stage is particularly important to ensure we get the intensity of colour in our yarn that’s a true characteristic of Harris Tweed.
“The vibrancy of our wool colour then goes on to create our blended yarn colours which are crafted into beautiful fabrics by our weavers.
“Harris Tweed Hebrides always dye at the wool stage of the process rather than dyeing our yarn which would result in flat colours. This is one of the key areas covered by the Harris Tweed Act which has helped to preserve this process as an essential part of creating Harris Tweed cloth.”
She added: “The dye house has quite a distinctive smell, which people love. You know you’re in the dye house when you get the smell of wet wool.”
Indeed, for those who work at the mill, a cuairt* around each stage of the production process is an experience for pretty much all the senses. The carding and spinning machines next to the Dye House can make quite a racket and next door again there is a visual treat to be had in the yarn store and warping area.
Here, the crucial and intricate work of loading thousands of warp threads - in the right order – onto weaver’s beams is carried out. These beams are then delivered to the weavers along with the yarns for the weft - and it is only after all this has been done that the famous clacking and rattling can begin.
*Clo Mòr (Gaelic) – Big Cloth (Harris Tweed); * cuairt (Gaelic) - trip or walk
We are proud to be sponsoring this years 'Harris Tweed Hebrides Tattoo 2014' which takes place on Friday 8th August to Saturday 9th August.
'This Hebridean Homecoming event takes place over 2 days in August 2014. The first event on Friday 8th, is a Tattoo to be held on the picturesque Lews Castle Green involving 10 pipebands including 6 time world champion pipeband from Vancouver, the Simon Fraser University Pipeband. The event will also feature dancers, gymnasts, horses and Sambayabamba band from Glasgow. The Tattoo will finish with a spectacular firework display.
Saturday 9th August will be Carnival day in Stornoway with all pipebands and floats parading through the town. On Saturday evening a Grand Concert will be held in the Stornoway Sports Centre featuring the Sambayabamba band, Gaelic Choir, the Lochies, Julie Fowlis and the Simon Fraser University Pipeband.'
To buy tickets for this event please follow the link below: