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harris tweeds

The Fabric Of The Hebrides

In solitary outposts all across Lewis and Harris, tweed is
being made slowly by hand, just as it was a century ago.

BY PAUL STAFFORD

A strange noise can often be heard during evenings in Shawbost, a village on Lewis and Harris. The buffeting sound of the Atlantic wind and the distant crash of surf against the jagged shoreline of the Outer Hebrides are accompanied by a steady clack-a-clackity clack. It is the same sound that may have been heard here over one hundred years ago: the sound of a loom.

Across a treeless landscape that never seems to rest, a single pin of light can be seen. This is the workshop of Ian McKay, who lives at one end of the village. Shawbosts houses are strung out thinly along single-lane tracks; fine yarns of humanity at the fringes of Scotland. Many of the houses are newer, built to replace the blackhouses that preceded them; their rotting ruins still cast eerie shadows in the half-light.

The process of making Harris Tweed is fundamentally the same as it was before electricity reached the island. This traditional method of weaving is enshrined in law to protect the brand, ensuring that every yard of Harris Tweed is hand-woven. This is part of what makes Harris Tweed both unique and endearingly human.

Tweed clothing was first developed as a protective garment to be worn in harsher weather conditions. But today it is fashion, as much as functionality, that keeps weavers like Ian busy on Harris and Lewis.

Ian sits at his loom six nights a week, with the TV on in one corner, hand-weaving Harris Tweed -- although foot-weaving would be a more accurate description of this part of the process. "One spool is about 360 metres long (nearly 1,200 feet)," he says, indicating a completed spool of blue and grey fabric on the floor as he steadily cycles. It looks as though he is on a static exercise bike, but this is the mechanism that operates the loom and weaves the fabric. Turning the pedals causes the shuttle to shoot from one side to the other, weaving the weft and warp together in the process.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2017 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Paul Tomkins / VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint