24 Bobbins to Ballalan

 

24 Bobbins to Ballalan
The Tweed Mills of the Outer Hebrides, by Robin Mitchell.

In the autumn of 2009 I was entering my final year of study for a degree in Documentary Photography at Newport in South Wales. Not long before that I had made my first visit to the Outer Hebrides and I was looking for an excuse to go back. That year the BBC ran a documentary series about the state of the Harris Tweed industry and the role of the tweed mills within the island community. The combination of tradition, craft, industrial turmoil and the wild and beautiful landscape convinced me to travel to Lewis to make work there.

Harris Tweed is a hard-wearing, woven fabric made from sheep’s wool in the Outer Hebrides. The brand is protected by Act of Parliament and in order to be stamped with the famous Harris Tweed Orb trade mark the fabric must be woven at the home of the weaver using a treadle loom without electricity. This much is common knowledge, but the 3 tweed mills on the island of Lewis play a big part in the manufacturing process. They generate the bulk of the orders, wash and dye the wool, make the yarn and send it out to the weavers. The mill vans travel round the island dropping off yarn and collecting in the woven fabric, while workers in the mills darn broken or loose threads and wash, press and package the orders. I wanted to find out more about the work of the mills and the people employed there, but also about the relationship between the mills, the community and the landscape.

 

Sentinel (Carloway, Lewis, 2009), ©Robin MItchell, All rights reserved.

Sentinel (Carloway, Lewis, 2009),  ©Robin Mitchell, All rights reserved.

 

Pens (Rhenigidale, Harris, 2009) Many island crofters lost their land to the sheep during The Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, but wool became indispensible to the local economy with the growth of the tweed industry from 1840 onwards. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Pens (Rhenigidale, Harris, 2009) Many island crofters lost their land to the sheep during The Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, but wool became indispensible to the local economy with the growth of the tweed industry from 1840 onwards. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

Carding Corridor (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009), ©Robin MItchell, All rights reserved.

Carding Corridor (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009), ©Robin Mitchell, All rights reserved.

 

It is a cliché (and a marketing strategy) to say that the colours of the Harris Tweeds reflects the landscapes from which the fabric comes. In the past this was more literally true, when the yarn came from local sheep and the dyes were made by hand from lichen, seaweeds and other plants and minerals found locally. While these practices have changed, there is nonetheless a clear correlation. Each tweed is made from a number of different colours of yarn, but each yarn also contains a minimum of 3 different coloured wools, carefully weighed out and mixed so that each strand is flecked with different colours. Earth colours predominate – greens, browns and greys – but bright yellows and pinks, emeralds and scarlet also find their way in and the possible combination of colours and patterns is limitless. Like the landscape, the tweed reveals more beauty the closer you look.

 

Wool Sacks (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009) In the past the weavers worked with the wool from their own sheep.  Today the wool is bought in large quantities from the wool market in Bradford.  It is not impossible, however,  that the consignment contains wool from local island sheep. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Wool Sacks (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009) In the past the weavers worked with the wool from their own sheep. Today the wool is bought in large quantities from the wool market in Bradford. It is not impossible, however, that the consignment contains wool from local island sheep. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

Dyed in the Wool (Harris Tweed Textiles, Carloway, Lewis, 2009) The mills work with dozens of basic wool shades.  As many as six of these colours may be combined in one yarn.  Donald 'D.K.' Macleod washes the dyed wools at the mill in Carloway. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Dyed in the Wool (Harris Tweed Textiles, Carloway, Lewis, 2009) The mills work with dozens of basic wool shades. As many as six of these colours may be combined in one yarn. Donald ‘D.K.’ Macleod washes the dyed wools at the mill in Carloway. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

Kelly Jenkins (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009) Kelly Jenkins' job includes ensuring the right colours and quantities of yarns are sent out with each order.  She works alongside her father, Harris Tweed Hebrides' pattern designer Ken Kennedy. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Kelly Jenkins (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009) Kelly Jenkins’ job includes ensuring the right colours and quantities of yarns are sent out with each order. She works alongside her father, Harris Tweed Hebrides’ pattern designer Ken Kennedy. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

24 Bobbins (Harris Tweed Textiles, Carloway, Lewis 2009) Whether the weavers source their own clients or work to order from the mills, they depend on the mills for the supply of coloured yarns.  The yarn for the warp (the strands that run the length of the fabric) is supplied on large spools, or 'beams' while the yarn for the weft (the strands the run across the width of the fabric) is delivered on bobbins. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

24 Bobbins (Harris Tweed Textiles, Carloway, Lewis 2009) Whether the weavers source their own clients or work to order from the mills, they depend on the mills for the supply of coloured yarns. The yarn for the warp (the strands that run the length of the fabric) is supplied on large spools, or ‘beams’ while the yarn for the weft (the strands the run across the width of the fabric) is delivered on bobbins. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

In November and December 2009 I made two trips to the island, staying ten days each time. I stayed in independent hostels and traveled to the two active tweed mills by service bus. I hired a car for a couple of days to travel round and photograph the island, looking for that connection between the rocky landscapes of Harris and the moorlands of Lewis and the tweed that was being created in the loom sheds and mills dotted about the place. The connection was clear, not only in the colours of the fabric but in the lives of the overall-clad workers, many of whom had been fishermen or farmers or weavers and perhaps still were spending part of their year outside, working the land. And while the mills could not be termed ‘family businesses’, many of the people I met were working alongside other family members or working with tweeds created by friends and relatives.

 

Looking to the Loch (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009, ©Robin MItchell, all rights reserved.

Looking to the Loch (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009, ©Robin MItchell, all rights reserved.

 

Darning the Tweed 3 (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009). At Harris Tweed Hebrides the darners sling the tweeds over a bar and run it past a strip light to identify any flaws needing darned. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Darning the Tweed 3 (Harris Tweed Hebrides, Shawbost, Lewis, 2009). At Harris Tweed Hebrides the darners sling the tweeds over a bar and run it past a strip light to identify any flaws needing darned. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

Clearly a life as a weaver is no easy option – particularly when working with electric looms is not permissible – but the island people take pride in its creation and work hard to retain and build on its reputation and to protect the integrity of the brand that is so important to the island economy. After lean times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when modern, man-made fabrics seriously threatened the future of the brand, the market for Harris Tweed is growing and diversifying.

During my trips I photographed at the smallest of the mills, Harris Tweed Textiles at Carloway and the newly established Harris Tweed Hebrides at Shawbost. The biggest of the mills, Harris Tweed Scotland in Stornoway was not operating at the time. My thanks to everyone in the mills and to the Harris Tweed Authority for their help with this project.

 

Tweed emerging from the loom. Lewis, 2009. The subtle pattern of the tweed being woven in Alexander Smith's loom shed in Carloway contains a myriad of colours. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Tweed emerging from the loom. Lewis, 2009. The subtle pattern of the tweed being woven in Alexander Smith’s loom shed in Carloway contains a myriad of colours. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

Machine Pressing at Harris Tweed Hebrides, 2009. At Harris Tweed Hebrides finished tweeds are run through the presses before being packaged up and sent out to clients. ©Robin MItchell, all rights reserved.

Machine Pressing at Harris Tweed Hebrides, 2009. At Harris Tweed Hebrides finished tweeds are run through the presses before being packaged up and sent out to clients. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

Bus Shelter (Harris Tweed Textiles, Carloway, Lewis, 2009) . The tweed mill at Carloway, on the west side of the island, is some way off the main island route.  While not heavily used, the service bus provides an important link with the rest of the island. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

Bus Shelter (Harris Tweed Textiles, Carloway, Lewis, 2009) . The tweed mill at Carloway, on the west side of the island, is some way off the main island route. While not heavily used, the service bus provides an important link with the rest of the island. ©Robin Mitchell, all rights reserved.

 

24 Bobbins to Ballalan
The Tweed Mills of the Outer Hebrides

All photographs © Robin Mitchell 2009
This text © Robin Mitchell 2014

Robin Mitchell’s photography on his website.

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