“Ever since I knew what hand weaving was, I knew about Harris Tweed. You think weaving, you think ‘Harris Tweed’.”
And so it was that destiny led a young art school graduate with a love of Eastern motifs to the Western Isles, where she has joined the design team at the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill in Shawbost.
Until now, that ‘team’ has consisted of one designer – old hand Ken Kennedy. Now, with the arrival of Sahrish Shafiq from Renfrewshire, they are two.
Sahrish, 23, graduated from Glasgow School of Art last summer with a BA Honours in Textile Design and, from the moment she began weaving her own fabrics, was being influenced by Harris Tweed.
Her degree show collection of fabrics, largely aimed at the interiors market, was inspired by the motifs in mosque architecture. Not much obviously in common with the Clo Mor – until we come to her use of natural yarns and traditional Scottish weaving processes.
Now, as she works her way through the extensive archives at the mill, getting to know the many hundreds of fabrics that make up the Harris Tweed Hebrides collection, Sahrish says: “Harris Tweed was something I aspired to, in terms of working for the company – but I never thought I would be here today.”
There’s a smile as she points out personal favourites. “I’m a big fan of the houndstooth, the classic herringbone, but at the same time I really like the dark tweeds with the specks of vibrant colours, like the rich dark purple YC132. For me, it’s about modernising traditional patterns and designs.”
As a design assistant, currently on a graduate placement, Sahrish has a number of responsibilities including trend research, product development and, of course, general assistance to Ken Kennedy. Her main task, though, will be the introduction of the new technology into a business steeped in traditional design methods.
It’s no surprise that young dogs know the new tricks. But what cannot be taught is a ‘simple’ eye for colour and the business knowledge that comes from years in the trade.
Apart from a spell in the oil industry, chief designer Ken is a Harris Tweed ‘lifer’. He began working in the industry at the age of 15 and was a warper and a weaver before becoming a designer 17 years ago.
We won’t reveal his age – it might be better to count it in dog years – but it is just as well for Harris Tweed Hebrides that he remains committed to his craft.
“I’m learning so much from him,” said Sahrish. “He knows Harris Tweed like the back of his hand. When we look at designs, I normally end up going for the vibrant colours and his answer is always, ‘will it sell?’”
Ken recognises the value of new methods in helping create designs. But being a traditionalist and a purist – this is Harris Tweed, after all – he insists it is “back to the loom for fabric trials”.
As for what makes a good designer? Simple.
“You have to have an eye for it. Over and above everything, the ability to know what will sell. That’s the bottom line.
“You’re not a designer as such; you’re a colourist. All the designs that I’m looking at just now, for next year, they’ve actually been done 50 years ago – but the colours are different. You’ve got to divorce yourself from your own taste. I just like blue, you see, but you can’t just sell all blue! You have to think, ‘Will it sell? Will it keep people employed?’”
Doing a great job so far, Ken.