Visit to the Islands of Harris and Lewis « Vanessa Arbuthnott
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Visit to the Islands of Harris and Lewis

isle of harris

My May visit to the islands of Harris and Lewis

Two years ago Rose, my daughter went on a recce trip for me to find the perfect tweeds…she wrote:

‘I journeyed around the west of Scotland painting land and seascapes in my camper van called Patrick. Accompanied by my friend jess, I took the long road to Ullapool with a view to reaching a far flung book festival in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

We took the early ferry surrounded by beautiful sea light; the entire bay was in twinkling shade. We I embarked on the hunt for Harris Tweed, driving all the way around the mountainous Isle of Harris and also Lewis, with scattered homes in little bays between the abundance of sheep- covered hillocks. We visited the home looms, in little sheds next to the houses (hence the phrase ‘home-spun’), weaving tweeds in beautiful colours reflective of the landscape; peat, bracken, sea, sky, storm, heather and grass….. the new wool smelt amazing…’

Two weeks ago my husband and I did the same exciting trip and visited amongst others the famous LUSKENTYRE HARRIS TWEED COMPANY run by Donald John Mackay M.B.E. from his little shed next to his house, a small cottage by the sea where the famous fax from NIKE in the USA, for 9,500m of tweed came slowly through his fax machine by the stove….and kick-started the sleepy industry on the Islands. He bravely accepted the order and every loom on the island played a part in meeting the order.

Here is what he recalls of this time:

“One day in 2004, my wife, Maureen, came out to the shed and said there was a company called Nike on the phone, calling from America. I didn’t know who they were but they said they wanted some samples of my tweed that they might use in the design of a new shoe.

We sent off a package of my traditional tweed designs to their offices in the US but, to be honest, I didn’t expect to hear anything back. As the weeks passed, I forgot all about the phone call and the samples we’d sent. But then in March the same year the company contacted me out of the blue and this time they asked if I could provide 10,000 yards of cloth for a trainer called the Terminator.

It was a very big order but I wasn’t going to say no. I normally make 27 yards of tweed a day, so somehow I had to find a way to make it work. We mobilised weavers throughout the Outer Hebrides. It took us three months to complete the order. Nike was delighted – even Madonna wore the trainer – and almost immediately they asked for another 10,000 yards. That was sent out in a separate consignment the same year. Since then, Nike has been back to us several times; the last occasion was in 2010 when they ordered 6,000 yards of cloth for a new shoe. I can’t say how much the Nike orders were for, but it was a lot of money.

For us the most important thing is that it has helped Harris tweed become fashionable again. Ten years ago the tweed industry was in serious decline because the cloth had an old-fashioned image and wasn’t what the young people wanted to wear.

There were only about 80 weavers left on the island before the Nike order came in. Now there are more than 200″ – Donald John Mackay M.B.E.

We had a wonderful time visiting the weavers and came away feeling thoroughly inspired! If you would like to see any samples of my Harris Tweed range, please send us an email at enquiries@vanessaarbuthnott.co.uk or you can also order them online here: http://www.vanessaarbuthnott.co.uk/collection/birds-and-beasts-collection 

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One comment on Visit to the Islands of Harris and Lewis

  1. Louise Taylor says:

    Loved the article, about 40 years ago I visited the Isle of Harris and from a man in a small croft bought enough tweed to make a skirt, at that time although not expensive it seemed a bit extravagant for me, having two young children. The skirt lasted for years until I sent it to a jumble sale as I was a bit fed up of wearing it! I have always wished that I had saved the skirt and made a cushion out of it! I will though, never forget the experience of buying that material! Happy Memories!

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