HARRIS TWEED chats with Donald John Mackay

30 September 2009

Had a chat on the phone with Donald John Mackay of the Luskentyre Harris Tweed Company this evening. The weather has been good today in Luskentyre but the forecast is ‘not too good at all’ .

The good news is: “Harris Tweed is on the way up …and it’s no thanks to Mr Haggas… it’s not the bloody doom and gloom as on that last ‘Tweed’ programme,” (BBC4 ‘Tweed’) he told me. “I’m weaving a huge order of Harris Tweed for the special commemorative Clarks Desert Boots (see Monica’s separate Page) – celebrating 60 years of the boots…we’ve got an ongoing order for over 5000 metres. It’s too big an order to do it all myself so I’ve got help in producing it. And the boots are being made up in Vietnam.”

DJ also has another big order for Harris Tweed for another style of Clarks boots in the ‘Lumberjack’ design, red and black and green and black, which are being made for the Japanese market.

HARRIS TWEED – well, Luskentyre ramblings

28 September 2009

One incident I remember from a year ago on the road to Luskentyre. We were parked this side of Morag’s late, rusty, corrugated shed, which was about half a mile before reaching weaver Donald John Mackay’s shed which overlooks one of the most gorgeous bays in the world. Even on days when a storm is raging and news in the world is depressing, the view from Donald John’s property over the silvery-white sands and sparkling water is a feast for the mind.

It was either on Friday 1st or Saturday 2nd August last year (I seem to have missed a day in my Journal) we were snoozing and reading in the car. It was an overcast day and threatening midges. In other words there was no wind. Perfect midge weather. Grumbling that someone should block our view of heaven, or something about sheep, or both, two pairs of long female legs emerged from the car that had parked slap bang next to us. One of the long blonde haired girls wore a short black pencil thin skirt, black patterned top and black stilletto heeled shoes and giggled. Her name was Alla. Very Hebridean.

 The second girl was also preceded by long legs, but wearing stiletto heeled cowboy boots as she emerged from the silver car. She was obviously too hot – as soon as she was out of the car she peeled off her skirt to reveal white, laced up hot pants and then on with a white stetson hat. Her name was Gina.

Of course a dissertation followed, about how it was going to be a repeat of something he (my partner) came across many years ago in Lincolns Inn Fields, about 1973, where they were making a calendar with naked girls standing on plinths, who threw off their coats, with snow all around, and here it is all happening again.

Well, the Luskentyre floor show was apparently the beginnings of a calendar to be called Beauty and the Beach, Lewis and Harris Calendar 2009. And it was to raise funds for local primary schools on Lewis and Harris to give children an opportunity to enjoy more class outings to places of interest and recreation.

The sight of these young ladies in the outback of Harris made my camera fingers twitch. They huddled in the road. “It’s nice to have something different in a landscape,” said one of the girls. 

Here’s  one of my pictures.

Gina and Alla on the road to Luskentyre

A million miles from Harris Tweed…I like the idea of the unusual…opposites.  It made me think of Harris Tweed, young island folk today….

HARRIS TWEED – start of my collection

27 September 2009

This length of Harris Tweed is crying out to be made into a neat jacket. The fabric must have been underwraps in my home for 12 years or more. Every now and then I remove it from its wrapping and examine it to make sure moths and spiders haven’t been gorging on it. So far so good.

Houndstooth Harris Tweed

This was one of my first Harris Tweed purchases from the world-famous Katy Campbell’s workshop in Plocrapol which is situated on the Golden Road, the remote rocky east coast road on the Isle of Harris.

HARRIS TWEED – Visit Scotland

26 September 2009

I glimpsed through the Daily Mail this morning and noticed a piece about 4-day taster trips to Scotland which includes tours of the Scottish islands of Harris and Lewis. Donald John Mackay gets a bit of publicity – the place to go, they enthuse, to stock up on the very fashionable  Harris Tweed.

To get to Luskentyre if you’re in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, drive out of the town on the A859 passing through Leurbost, Ardvourlie, past Clisham the tallest mountain on Harris and to Tarbert the capital of Harris.

Continue along the A859 out of Tarbert until you get to the turning to Luskentyre marked by a bus shelter, often inhabited by sheep trying to keep their coats dry in a Hebridean gale. Turn right and drive off the beaten track. It’s a single track road with passing places and breathtaking views of the Island of Taransay across the Sound of Tansay. En route you’ll pass a ‘pod’, one of the houses the Castaways lived in whilst doing their year on Taransay for the BBC1 programme, Castaway, in 2000 (which featured Ben Fogle) and now re-planted on land in Luskentyre. Keep going past the site of Morag’s late corrugated shed and you’ll arrive at Donald John’s shed where he makes his Harris Tweed.

En route for Donald John Mackay's Luskentyre Tweed Company

Donald John Mackay of Luskentyre, Isle of Harris

On the final episode of BBC4’s ‘Tweed’ this week, to be repeated tomorrow Sunday 27 September, I think it was Patrick Grant tailor of Savile Row, who said he couldn’t find a Harris Tweed jacket anywhere in Harris. I got confused. The programme makers were actually showing places  on the Isle of Lewis. I’m not surprised there was no sign of a Harris Tweed jacket there. You only have to drive down from Lewis to Harris and all becomes clear.

The late Katie Campbell from Plockrapol was a big name in Harris Tweed.

Katie Campbell of Plockrapol, Isle of Harris

Katie Campbell's Harris Tweed workshop

Katie Campbell's Harris Tweed workshop

The ‘Tweed’ programme makers only had to take a diversion off the A859 in Harris, on to the Golden Road which winds it way round the rocky east coast of the island and they could have feasted their eyes on Harris Tweed in all shapes and forms – jackets, hats, throws…fabulous colours, some now woven by her daughter who produces Harris Tweed in all colours of the rainbow.

Lengths of Katie Campbell's Award Winning Harris Tweed

HARRIS TWEED IN LUSKENTYRE

HARRIS TWEED by Monica Weller … cont

Wednesday 23rd September 2009

If you travel down  the A859 out of  Tarbert to Luskentyre, which is one of two of the most beautiful beaches in the world (Huisnish in Harris is the other) you will experience the magnificent lunar landscape that makes up a huge swathe of the Island of Harris. Breathtaking scenery.  Then turn off the main road on to a single track road with passing places to Luskentyre.

Up until 2 years ago we would spread our ancient Fraser tartan blanket on the rainbow-coloured flowers of the machair by the roadside near to Morag’s shed, a landmark in Hebridean terms, and eat our picnic. But the shed disappeared between 2007 and 2008. Morag told me it was getting dangerous. It must have been the most photographed shed ever.

Harris sheep and Morag's shed

If you travel a bit further on past the new graveyard you’ll come to a green shed by the side of the road. This is the home of Harris Tweed weaver Donald John Mackay and his wife Maureen.

Donald John Mackay at his loom in Luskentyre

Harris Tweed in the making

 

 

 

 

 

Windowsill in Donald John's weaving shed showing Harris Tweed Orb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Donald John with some of his finished Harris Tweed

It must have been about six years ago that I bought a length of Harris Tweed tartan from Donald John. It’s almost like an obsession owning your own piece of Hebridean tradition. It’s been carefully stored in polythene being moved from drawer to drawer, waiting for the moment when I make a decision. What shall I have made? Until then I remove it from its wrapping every now and then and absorb the colours, purple, bottle green, khaki, parchment and burgundy and imagine being in Luskentyre. Imagining the screeching of the oyster catchers in the rocks below the road, the heady scent and sight of purple clover, spindly swaying daisies …a gentle breeze…Donald John's Harris Tweed Tartan fabric

Donald John Mackay

HARRIS TWEED by Monica Weller

In the first episode of  ‘TWEED’ on BBC4, Brian Haggas asked his son, whose new season collection of clothing included some produced in Harris Tweed, “What is Harris Tweed?”

Here are some of my answers.

Harris Tweed is not just a cloth. It is a way of life.

It is the colour of the pewter sea and orange crottle on the grey basalt rocks. It’s the purple of heather maturing on  the moors and on the Harris Hills. It’s the red, orange, pink and violet of the setting sun over sea and lochs. It’s the chocolate brown of sweetly smouldering peats dug out by hand.

Harris Tweed is about the people who live on the edge of the British Isles. People who live and flourish in wind-swept conditions. Where for days on end you can hear nothing but a force battering the window panes. Then silence. Silence you can’t possibly experience or imagine in a city or town on the mainland.

It’s of sun and mist, of four seasons rolled into one hour of one day. It’s a rare way of life.

Hey, Mr Haggas, where have you been all your life, asking, “What is Harris Tweed?”

HARRIS TWEED by Monica Weller

Beginnings…

I watched BBC4’s Tweed last night – the repeat of last Tuesday’s. It was when they described the shed in Tarbert (stacked full of lengths of Harris Tweed in gorgeous colours and designs) as a graveyard, I decided, It’s about time I started writing a Harris Tweed blog – and show some photos.

Photo taken at 8pm
Photo taken at 8pm

 

 

 

more to follow…

So, here is the building crammed with rolls of Harris Tweed. It stands between West and East Loch Tarbert, beside the A859 out of Tarbert, the capital of the Isle of Harris. To add to the geography, Harris is in the Outer Hebrides, a necklace of islands off the west coast of northern Scotland. And very beautiful they are. One fabulous evening in August this year, no wind, no rain, no midges, we were making our way on foot to the Harris Hotel, the meeting place in Tarbert, that is not forgetting the other meeting place, First Fruits cafe (near the tourist office and ferry terminal) where they serve, according to all the conversations I listened into this year, and I can vouch for, the best coffee in Scotland.

Here’s a picture of the so-called Harris Tweed ‘graveyard’ , framed by gigantic gunnera leaves, it’s a pest of a plant in Tarbert this year, and showing the ferry terminal complete with a CalMac roll-on roll-off ferry(far left in picture) nicely lit by the late evening sun.PHOTO2

Photo taken about 8 o'clock one evening in August
Photo taken about 8 o’clock one evening in August

By the way, these pictures were taken on an old Olympus Trip camera which uses film, and the film I use is a black and white Kodak 400CN, one that can be developed in colour chemicals. The camera cost £1, came from a charity shop, and is my favourite camera. En route for the Harris Hotel I glanced behind  and saw the light and shadow on the ‘graveyard’ which appealed to me.

My next picture shows rolls of Harris Tweed in the shed in Tarbert….tweed salvaged from skips in Stornoway in the adjoining island of Lewis….tweed thrown out by Englishman Brian Haggas…a multitude of the most amazing tweeds to feast your eyes on…tweeds that in Brian Haggas’s opinion were the wrong colour for today’s market. Rolls of Harris Tweed in the shed in Tarbert  

 

 

 

…and the shed itself….

By chucking out thousands of yards of craftsman-produced Harris Tweed into skips, and reducing the several thousand woven patterns produced by island weavers to  precisely 4 boringly-dull patterns  and to be made into men’s jackets in the Far East, Mr Haggas would seemingly save Harris Tweed from extinction.The so-called Harris Tweed graveyard