Over the past year I have worn the hell out of my Riding Jacket, rolled it up and carried it around in panniers, threw it on rushing to meetings, jumping on my bicycle. Every so often I give it a baffled glance when I expect to see it pill, wrinkle, become misshapen. I expect to see the wear it has endured. And it stares back at me as beautiful as the day it came. It has remained a mystery, where this beautiful wool tweed fabric comes from and how the heck it remains so durable, so beautiful. What sort of origins brings something like this into being? I had to go see for myself.
We stepped off the bus at Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland after an intense couple of days of travel. Our initial flight from Raleigh was canceled. (We boarded the plane twice before they finally canceled it.) I watched with disbelief as a weatherman pointed out the storms along the Eastern seaboard and talk about all the travel delays. We arrived in Scotland a day late. We would not have the allotted day to rest in Edinburgh before heading out to the islands. Instead, we jumped in a rental car, me in the driver’s seat after only a few hours of sleep, on the wrong side of the road, with the stick shift in my left hand and headed for the islands. We drove 7.5 hours and made the last ferry to the Isles of Lewis and Harris by 5 minutes. (A young woman from the ticket office drove us to the ferry where we had to board with the cars since they had already raised the gangway.)
The following morning the bus driver pointed us in the direction of the Kenneth Mackenzie mill. I was bleary eyed from our travels and outfitted in the Riding Jacket and Riding Denim. We lugged with us the panniers for the bike camping to follow.
We found our way to the main office at Kenneth Mackenzie, tucked into the maze of warehouses. Donna and Alec received us and introduced us to Calum, the mill manager. Calum graciously showed us each step of the process starting with the raw wool, dying, blending of the colors and transforming it into yarn ready to be woven in homes throughout the Isle. Each step has its own vast area, with beautiful old machines and the experts who lovingly tend to them, carefully overseeing their step in transforming the wool.
The machines are beautiful, well designed, built in the hay day of machining (a few of them go as far back as the 1960s). They were built to run 24 hours a day. They actually run better this way. In an era of plastic pieces and disposable technology, the rugged durability of steel parts and the timeless dependability of these beautifully designed machines was a spectacle to behold. And each set of machines had their master, an expert, who enthusiastically shared with us how the machine worked, clearly conveying their respect and love for their machines.
There are too many steps in the yarn making process to recount here, though a few were notable and worth sharing. I was surprised to learn that the wool is dyed in vibrant colors, which are then used as the pallet to create a vast array of colors and patterns. We got to grab fists full of bright turquoise, yellow, blue, orange, gold, and red wool – and many more. These colors are then blended together to make a yarn such as moss green or apricot – the rich and complex colors that will contribute to the final pattern. In essence, painting with wool. If you look closely at the fabric you can see all the little flecks of color that were the basic units for the final piece.
There are an enormous number of steps dedicated to making the super strong yarn that is used for weaving the fabric, alongside a number of final steps for inspecting every inch of fabric to ensure quality control. There are no shortcuts. Theirs is an outfit devoted to the final product – beautiful, high quality wool tweed in timeless, vibrant colors and patterns.
No description would be complete without an homage to the sheep. Though we were not able to see the exact location of the Harris Tweed sheep – they were further south in Scotland than we had planned for – I can confidently say that the sheep in Scotland are living a good life. Their only transgression is likely taking for granted the spectacular scenery they inhabit – they know no other.
To top off our visit, eagle-eyed Drew spotted a weaver as we were biking around the island. The weaver: Derek McCloud, a weaver for the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill, came outside and Drew asked if he would show us his workshop. He kindly showed us around and explained to us how it all worked. The surprise to top them all?: The loom was powered by pedaling. Seriously. And that fabric, made in a phenomenally sustainable way – will one day allow a woman to bike to work.
I was ecstatic to bear witness to the process of the making of this beautiful fabric – it is pretty hilarious to see this captured in the photos – in some I look delirious with happiness. Yet taking stock of the importance of working with a fabric like Harris Tweed takes on a more sobering tone. To know a company like Kenneth Mackenzie, to know a product like Harris Tweed, I feel the weight of knowing that I must do this fabric justice. If I am to use something so beautiful, where each player in the process, farmer, sheep, manufacturing experts, designers, weavers have put enormous love, energy and expertise into making wool tweed, I must make sure that I pull my weight design-wise, and only develop worthy products. I must make sure that my sewers and pattern makers pull their weight. Each player pushes the other to be better – to respect the work each puts in, to respect the product that we’ve all collaborated on to bring into this world.
Thank YOU for your contribution!
* Special thanks to Drew Marticorena for the beautiful photography.