Drake’s in Harris, the Historic Home of Tweed
“Do you want to see the sheep?” says Ian, gesturing towards the open door of his shed, a squat room painted white, thin red curtains framing a small window that looks out onto grey-green fields, a few pebbledash houses and not much else. Various pieces of sheep-rearing equipment are piled up by the entrance. Tubs of something called Wonder Wipes and Action Sheep Boost, rubber boots, a work bench and a ladder propped against a wall — a battered radio plays quietly in the corner. The most important piece of equipment in the room is a decades-old treadle loom. Ian spends a lot of time sat behind it, methodically pumping his legs, transforming wool threads into the world’s most desirable tweed. “It’s good exercise!” he says in a broad Hebridean accent, lilting and rhythmic. The word suit sounds like ‘seet’ when he says it. He picks up a margarine tub full of some kind of sheep snack. “Come on, let’s go and say hello.”
Ian is a crofter, a weaver, and an occasional fireman, born and raised on Lewis and Harris, a small archipelago at the very northwestern tip of Europe, part of the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. A wild and raw place. A land of seabirds, sheep, ancient standing stones, distilleries, Presbyterianism, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Turquoise water, powdery golden sand and dark mountain peaks that poke out from a gloomy horizon. Shame about the weather. Its most famous export is Harris Tweed, that world renowned fibre that is solely produced on this little island far, far away. As the Harris Tweed Authority says, it is home to “every weaver, dyer, blender, carder, spinner, warper, finisher and inspector of Harris Tweed cloth.”
Now in his 50s, Ian started weaving straight out of school at the age of 16. It takes about a week (40-50 hours) to make a 50-yard bolt of fabric, and on a good week he can put in the equivalent of 70 miles on the treadle loom. Good exercise indeed. Ian leads us out towards the field and his sheep, through the faint drizzle and past an old collie, who regards us quizzically. Harris Tweed was originally woven by farmers and crofters, people who spent a lot of time outside braving the capricious elements of coastal Scotland. The quality and hardiness of the cloth became so well regarded that excess fabric was used for barter, eventually becoming a form of currency for islanders. Today it’s exported to more than 50 countries around the globe. Ian regales us with stories of hosting representatives from Japan, South Korea and America, who have travelled thousands of miles to see where the best of the best comes from.
The process that goes into creating Harris Tweed is closely observed in order to ensure a top quality fabric and finish. There are around 140 self-employed weavers on the island. Every week bags of warp and weft wool yarns arrive from one of the island’s three mills. Ian, or another weaver, then hand ties the new yarns to the tail-ends of the previous weave. The process has to take place inside someone’s home, or a next door shed, before the fabric is collected by the mill in a ‘greasy state’ — woven, but not quite ready. During our visit, a small white van with ‘Harris Tweed Hebrides’ printed on the side arrives to collect some of Ian’s efforts. It all feels like a well-oiled - or spun - machine.
“I just sheared them last week,” says Ian, as a flock of neatly barbered sheep come to greet us, or at least the margarine tub. “They’ll be a bit wary of you,” he says, “it’s usually just me out here with them.” Some of that sheared wool will be sold back to the mill — and the cycle continues. He shakes the tub until the sheep grow bored, or full, and amble back to the shelter of some nearby rocks.
Just over the road from Ian’s shed is one of the Harris Tweed mills. We head across to observe a group of darners at work. Sharp-eyed experts, they're trained to seek out any and every imperfection. Dirt, oil and other impurities are removed by washing and beating the tweed in soda and soapy water, before the fabric is dried, steamed, pressed and cropped. Two men, Donald and Graham, are on finishing duty, going over the cloth with the intensity of forensic detectives. I lean in, trying to see what they see.
Finally, in another room, a man called Calum from the Harris Tweed Authority pores over a finished piece of fabric to make sure it meets expectations. He’ll travel around the island to inspect the weavers at home, and the mill itself. He has the confident and slightly imposing air of an auditor or a judge. There’s no messing about here. Satisfied, he applies a beeswax seal to a large patch of brown, grey and green herringbone. What began on the back of a sheep, ends with an official stamp on a beautiful and intricate piece of fabric. Ready to be crafted into a coat, a pair of trousers, or a Drake’s Mk. VII Games blazer.
As our friend David Coggins said in a previous article on Harris, "it’s amazing just how much tweed feels like it belongs to this place. The colours from the tweed we all love - burnt brown, heather green, pale wheat, and the rest - are present in the landscape itself. The palette is literally all around you.” Today, the colours are grey and green and soft browns. The rustling grass, ominous skies and flashes of stony blue sea. Stark and elemental in that uniquely Scottish way.
Before we go, we drop in to say goodbye to Ian. He’s returned from feeding the sheep and is tending to his loom. The radio plays quietly as his hands nimbly inspect the machinery that he knows so well. We leave him in peace. He has work to do.