To the Edge of the Earth

Sprinkle the title with a pinch of salt as it wasn't technically as extreme as that but in my head, I felt like I was indeed going that far up north when I spent Sunday travelling up to the Outer Hebrides, to the Isle of Lewis specifically.  Had I landed on the shores of the Isle on a ferry, it would have been ultra dramatic and warranted a sweeping strings-heavy soundtrack given that our arrival coincided with a severe storm stirring up 70mph winds.  We wussed and took the FlyBe dinky plane instead and holed up in our lovely B&B Braighe House watching the waves crash over us and screaming at the TV over the FIX that is X Factor. 

Normally, on a weekend if I'm on the edge of the British Isles, it's because I'm daaaan in Westgate on Sea with the other half's nan and shopping in Marks and Spencers.  This time round, Steve and I landing in a place that could be perceived as being on the edge of the earth was all because of this… 

The launch of the Nike Air Royalty Harris Tweed, marking the second collaboration between Nike and Harris Tweed, a story that generated much press interest in 2004, and of course goes hand in hand with the revivalist narrative of an industry that was dwindling and struggling. 



In comparison to the last shoe though, the focus of this shoe is definitely about making Harris Tweed more prominent, with that iconic orb-marked label shifting to full attention to the tongue of the shoe and the tweed encasing the Nike tick in a 'vach pack' moulding so that the tick's presence is subtle and the tweed's texture and colour are dominant.  This is also a shoe along with the purple heather version (curiously, Nike produced purple for mens and loden green for women – I personally like the flip on genderised palette making) that is intrinsically linked to the landscape of where the tweed was woven, and to drum that connection in, I was lucky LUCKY enough to go up to the Isle of Lewis and neighbouring Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides to experience all things Harris Tweed-related – process, dramatic landscape, people and above all, passion.

You may be very well versed in all things Harris Tweed if you've watched this recent BBC mini-series 'Tweed' which is fortunately available for ALL to see on Vimeo (none of that BBC iPlayer restriction stuff…).  I don't really want to focus on the hardships, the former plight and the sob story that the series presented as from what I saw over the weekend, it doesn't apply anymore and there's a positivity that has resulted in an upward turn for orders.  However, the job isn't done and by absorbing the process of Harris Tweed for the day, seeing how HAPPY it made people up there to see their hand-woven tweed living and breathing on our shoes, my mind at the moment is brimming with possibilities for the fabric and its applications in fashion and beyond.  

Lorna Macualey of the Harris Tweed Authority, the organisation that oversees the marketing of Harris Tweed, the approvals/stamping process of the tweed (to verify it is indeed Harris Tweed) as well as taking on any collaborations (such as Nike) that could come about, was very very kind to give up her day to ferry Steve and I around, driving from Stornoway's Harris Tweed Authority office to a mill to a weaver with cuppa breaks too.  Thanks need to be said as well as being driver and guide, she also educated me a lot in all things Harris Tweed – the history, the pitfalls, the process and what can be done now.

First up and most importantly.  Let's breathe in the landscape.  Or at least try to through JPGs which don't do reality justice.  The Harris Tweed Authority are going to be releasing a beautiful photograph book by Ian Lawson which really highlights the connection between the Outer Hebridean landscape and the colours, yarns and resulting textures of Harris Tweed.  The beauty of the tweed is of course there is an infinite amount of possibilities in the pattern make-up because of the combination of colours and depth that is created.  It's not hard to link up landscape with tweed as throughout the day we'd be seeing swatches and rolls and then driving through sublime scenery.  I've come over all "Oooh…I'm at ONE with NATURE!" in my older years.  Must be 26 years of living in London that is suddenly making me yearn for fresh air.  And when it's blowing in gusty 30mph speeds at you, it's as fresh as you can get.  I'm not going to get all poetic and wax on about the crystalline-esque rush fronds blowing against the pearly white sand… will try and let the pictures do the talking…




I'm sadly one of those urbanites that goes "Ooooh!  Look!  It's a SHEEP!" and locals will be like "Meh… we have thousands…" and yup, everywhere you go, there are tons of black-faced sheep wandering all over…


The Callanish Stones which are actually older than Stone Henge… loved that there isn't a circle of tourists surrounding it unlike its Southern counterpart…




IMG_0997 So let's get down to process, an exacting one that makes Harris Tweed unique amongst all fabrics because BY LAW (there is in fact a Harris Tweed Act), it has to go through these processes to indeed be called Harris Tweed and get its official stamp of approval.  It starts at a mill and we visited Harris Tweed Hebrides which accounts for 95% of all Harris Tweed output where my eyes were gawking at yarns, wheels and some pretty eye-wateringly labour-intensive processes…

This is the colour make-up of the yarn which ended up making up the tweed on the army/loden green Nike shoe that were on my feet throughout the day…  


It's sort of part maths, part colour chemistry and exacting because a slight shift of weights in colour could alter the end shade dramatically…


This is the raw, undyed virgin wool which comes mostly from mainland Scotland with some Outer Hebridean wool in the mix too…


It then gets dyed, broken up and mixed up into this mass of wooliness that makes you want to jump in like you would in a ball pond…


It then gets spun into a weak-ish, first-stage yarn looking like insane acid-trip candy floss is flying over your head…



Once spun, twisted onto bobbins, it's then arranged into warp threads that can then be handed over to weavers to weave with the weft.  The Harris Tweed Act decrees that it is the weavers that must hand-weave the cloth, otherwise it can't really be called Harris Tweed. 


The arranged warp, ready to be woven…


This particular mill does all of their own designs which of course get taken to places like Premiere Vision where they present their wares but in addition, clients might bring them swatches for them to find the tweed recipe to replicate it.  Spotted Sara Berman's tweed that she used in previous collections… her collaboration with Harris Tweed has been an enduring one..



Once the cloth comes back from the weavers, it's a little oily and wrinkled and sometimes there may be slight defects.  So the cloth needs to be painstakingly checked metre by metre by ladies standing next to a light strip, with needle and thread to mend any gaps.  My eyes were hurting just looking at them doing this…


Then more meticulous tweezing and brushing is done to remove any bits of straw and hay that didn't take on the dying process.  Once washed, steamed and rolled, a guy from the Harris Tweed Authority comes round to check that all Harris Tweed has been produced properly and gives them his final physical stamp! 


Then it was onto the most scenic drives I've had in a long time, wind through the Harris Hills to get to the Isle of Harris which is a rockier terrain and even more remote-looking that Lewis.  We were off to meet a very special weaver whose face you may have seen as he's sort of become something of a lovable ambassador for Harris Tweed.  Donald John Mackay and his wife Maureen are one of the weavers who actually buys the yarns off a mill to fulfill their own tweed orders as opposed to just being contracted by a mill to weave the cloth for them.  In this way, he can work independently and create a business for himself as opposed to the other independent weavers who rely on the mills to get them business (there are about 80 of them dotted all over the isles and a lot have secondary jobs to support their weaving…).  I didn't take a picture but quite literally, Don John (as everyone calls him…) does all his weaving in a shed.  The fabric on my Nike shoe, a brand that is associated with mass MASS production, passed through Don John's hands and his loom which is sort of a mind blowing dichotomy…



Don John's loom is a single width loom, one that is very traditional as most use double width looms now and the noise it makes is distinctly 'Victorian' sounding.  Don't ask me what 'Victorian' sounding ACTUALLY sounds like but it's the chug chug chug of the wheels rotating around and the pedals of the loom going up and down and the clack of wood moving up and down the cloth that comprises a sound that may die out.  Don John and Maureen do express concerns over the lack of new blood in the craft of weaving and it's clear that for them, they cannot imagine hand weaving slowly dying out. 




I got to inspect some of the tweeds with a magnifying glass and it's hard to convey through pics again, but the colours I saw seemed to be dancing or moving around and it's hard to believe that up close so many shades are at work with each other in order to get the final shade.  It really does come alive when you see it up close hence why each tweed almost has its own personality. 



I had a go on the loom but after a few round of pedalling, my legs were already exhausted.  That was my excercise for the week DONE.  Yup, these calves don't work out much…



This is the Centenary label that has been made to celebrate 100 years of the Orb mark.  Most Harris Tweed labels often have a number which means it can be traced back via HTA's records to the original weaver and Lorna was also hoping that in the future there will be an online database where you type in that number to then find out information about who wove your tweed which of course further adds to the charm of the tweed. 


Steve's shoe which is made up with the purple heather tweed is particularly striking when magnified.  Sadly we didn't see any heather as summer is gone but we're hoping to come back in warmer climes to see some purple hills…


I can't stress how mind boggling this whole trip was in that it showed me how rooted Harris Tweed is to process and people in a way that doesn't really exist in fabric production anymore.  There are certainly ways of cutting out certain processes and reducing labour but then it wouldn't be Harris Tweed and as I touch the fabric in any instance be it on a mass produced trainer or a vintage jacket, I'm not going to be able to shake off the knowledge that a lot of love and care has gone into this fabric and that there aren't that many fabrics in the world that are produced in this way.  Going back to the tumbling possibilities for Harris Tweed, I feel like Nike has scratched the surface on the collaborative opportunities that can happen for the fabric.  Topman has also just launched their Harris Tweed range and it seems to me that the fabric with its upteenth colour/shading combos can really be worked into more contemporary silhouettes than the traditional gent's jacket.  The provenance itself is a selling point that now makes me want to try and see if I can buy the fabric myself to create pieces for myself or perhaps even commission a designer to do so, though it would be great if say an ASOS or a Topshop could work on a collaboration.  I was well and truly slayed and seduced by this craft that everyone has committed themselves to and the pride that the islanders also hold for Harris Tweed all of which NEEDS to be shouted about on a wider scale…

As you can see, we were battling with the elements here and the shoes were the perfect bit of armour to walk around in as the winds actually made me a little unstable.  My vintage Loewe leather trousers were the next bit of armour as well as cashmere, chunky knits, sock help from Tabio, a bit of Scottish cliched tartan blanketing as well as a designer with Scottish roots.  Interestingly enough, Christopher Kane actually used a kilt-maker on the Isle of Lewis to make his kilts for his A/W 10-11 collection.  Must try and seek her out and maybe make a Harris Tweed connection there next time I go to the edge of the earth again…  

(With Preen Line jumper via Beso, vintagecut-up sleeveless trench, Monki sheer stripy dress, vintage Loewe trousers, Tabio socks)


This is me at one with NATURE…



(With J.W. Anderson tartan blanket jacket, vintage cashmere jumper, Christopher Kane dress, vintage Loewe trousers, Tabio socks, See by Chloe bag via Beso)

More official notes about the shoes – they're now available at Niketown on Oxford Circus, in Selfridges' shoe department and in Nike Sportswear 1948 in Shoreditch.  Remember, GREEN for womens' sizes and PURPLE for men – it's a topsy turvy world maaaan….

**EDIT** Belated credit but ALL photos were of course taken by Style Salvage Steve who has his own more manly take on the Harris Tweed trip

63 Replies to “To the Edge of the Earth”

  1. I really loved this post! A lot of the times I find myself feeling rather disconnected from the things I own in the sense that I am not aware of the processes that brought them from raw materials into my closet. Sometimes this lack of awareness can kind of be a magical thing, but more often than not my curiosity gets the better of me! Anyway, I loved seeing the process being the production of the tweed–incredibly interesting and inspiring. Now, if someone could only tell me why particular sheep are marked with certain colors…

  2. This post is ace…. Maureen and Don wove the Harris tweed for my final collection at University, it was a pink weave! What a small world! Great to see that big companies such as Nike are tapping into cottage industry!

  3. This was a great post, so pleased to see my home on one of my favourite fashion blogs! Glad you enjoyed your trip πŸ™‚
    My grandad used to have a loom and make tweed, you never forget the racket it makes…
    There are loads of independent designers on Lewis and Harris that use mainly Harris Tweed for their designs, making everything from wedding dresses to teddy bears. Did you visit the Lanntair art centre in Stornoway? Their gift shop has loads of examples of tweed designs from the islands.

  4. I have been blogging about Harris Tweed for the past year and Tweeting about it too, which of course you have seen. I didn’t realise I provided you with so much information! Nice way to advertise my book thank you! It comes out next year. Harris Tweed – from land to street. (Frances Lincoln publishing). Dj Mackays shoes are great as always. Nice to see a quick factual about the industry in the run up to my book and the second series:)
    Lara Platman

  5. Long post Susie, and all really interesting! Makes me proud to be British, and there’s no substitute for the love and skill that goes into Harris Tweed. On a similar note, I visited Macclesfield at the weekend to see the Silk Museum. It’s sad to see how the industry has declined, because once those skills have gone you can’t replace them. Maybe it’s time for a Macclesfield silk revival?

  6. Hi! my name is Suzanne and i’m currently studying Fashion&branding in Amsterdam. You might be interested in a challenge that I’m starting tomorrow:
    It’s a project where around 20 people from all around the globe who are directly linked with fashion, stop buying clothing & accessories (so also no underwear & socks) for a year!! You can follow our ups and downs as we have different assignments throughout the year as well,
    well I hope you find it interesting! For more info check the website

  7. I loved reading this post – your lovely photographs brought back loads of happy memories of holidays spent on the Isle of Lewis when I was little, swaddled up against the elements in tweed coats! The fact that Harris Tweed is gaining a wider following is brilliant, time to get into my Dad’s wardrobe and steal some of his blazers….

  8. That’s amazing and inspiring that Harris continues to pay such painstaking detail to its production. In contemporary manufacturing where everything is about maximizig profit at the expense of quality and fairness to workers it’s nice to see this traditional manufacturer sticking to its roots.
    Once again, your pics make me yearn for a trip to the U.K.

  9. This was a Style Savage caliber post m’lady. And do I see a pouty lip? hah. Ok so back to the amazingness that is the shoe and Harris Tweed.
    I read a book that mentions the significance of the Harris Tweed Act. It allowed for a lot of people to stay in business back in the day. The wool itself is so legendary for me because it is not so easily bought at a store in the US. All the history and craftmanship make this a favorite fabric of mine.
    Plus, who doesn’t want a wool shoe with leather upper?

  10. I was breathless reading this post. Work of art blogging here and your photography has really become phenomenal! I really want to visit the Scottish islands now too haha. Thank you Susie!

  11. thanks for all these “behind the tweet”-story. its awesome!
    but these nike’s are even better! THEY ARE SOOOO GREAT!
    so fluffy, i want one of em right now ;))

  12. The scenery is so austere, yet in comparison the artisinal quality of the tweed is beautiful. Your post has really captured this duality, both in it’s writing and in the great photography. Well done.

  13. It’s nice to know there is some positive news on the hand woven woollen industry front. Thanks so much for taking us along on your visit!

  14. Thank you for sharing, I love Harris Tweed. I sell mens vintage Harris Tweed jackets and it still amazes me the diversity of fabric designs!! : )

  15. wonderful, amazing, cleaver, incredible. Bottom line is who gave you the free shoes and paid for the trip? Nike. And I guess any of us would be able to do it if we were all invited, ahahha!

  16. Denise: Sadly do Jaggy Nettle have the budget to order in bulk to actually give the boost that the Harris Tweed industry needs? From my observations, it seemed Harris Tweed are in fact chasing after more high-profile collabs because brands like Nike can give high-volume orders…

  17. I see your point, but I’d rather support Jaggy Nettle and give Jaggy Nettle the boost they need while they establish themselves. Actually if you haven’t come across their stuff yet you should check them out – I have a feeling you would love their cashmere jumpers…

  18. thank you so much for that. Out of all your posts i’ve been reading for the past few years, that was definitely my favorite. I think that you personally have done something great for Harris Tweed in that you’ve brought it to the attention of demographics that wouldn’t normally have access to that info. Hopefully it will inspire a new generation of weavers πŸ™‚

  19. New brand of clothing, by Victoria Wild, I like so much! Especially skirts and tank tops, lace wear is the best, now is my favorite!

  20. great post! i love your second outfit! thank you for reporting on this industry. some people really do take for granted what they buy these days or even the fabric i buy to make clothes. i think i need to do some research of my own. beautiful landscape too.

  21. I LOVE this post, as a craftsperson and a lover of fashion. It’s easy to forget how much attention and skill goes into certain pieces in this age of mechanization and mass production. Would love to see an inside look at embroidery studios!

  22. This was sent to me by a friend who know I have a great love for Harris Tweed. So nice to see the real passion and enthusiasm come through in the prose. My wife and I are off to Scotland in February and I’m sorely tempted to make the trek up north myself.

  23. This was sent to me by a friend who know I have a great love for Harris Tweed. So nice to see the real passion and enthusiasm come through in the prose. My wife and I are off to Scotland in February and I’m sorely tempted to make the trek up north myself.

  24. This is surreal seeing how bucolic the Harris Tweed surroundings are…My father has been collecting Harris Tweeds, finding them 2nd hand, for decades now. The best part, is that he gives me them from time to time! I have 3 of them and as a consequence I pretty much live in blazers (if that’s the correct term…) I can’t believe there’s an Isle of Harris! Thanks for adding the rich dialogue of me wearing my tweeds – beautiful post.
    x Peter @ http://low–

  25. Great to see tweed moving away from the stereotypical image it once held.
    I think with brands like this, it could really take off and its nice to see British manufacturers being recognized for this.
    Holland Cooper is a brand that has really re-invented the tweed is seen in fashion. All their tweed clothing is made in Britain and its really good to see a young, British brand doing so well.

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