Blog written for thesewcialists.com in May 2109
When the Sewcialists asked me to write about brave sewing, my first thought was of taking part in The Great British Sewing Bee this year. That was an intense lesson in how to sew bravely – garments and fabrics we hadn’t tried before all under time pressure and on camera. It’s only looking back on the experience that I realised we were indeed 10 brave souls adventuring on the seas of an ultimate sewing challenge.
But I can’t tell you anything you didn’t see if you watched the show, so where’s the fun in that? Instead, I thought I’d tell you about the coat I made at the tail end of last year, in a lush green Harris Tweed, and why that was brave sewing.
I love Harris Tweed. And Shetland Tweed and the wools they weave in Bute and in the Borders and really all of our Scottish heritage fabrics. But Harris Tweed holds a special magic for me because it’s a truly beautiful fabric and also Harris is one of my favourite places.
If you don’t know it, Harris is an island in the Outer Hebrides 40 miles off the west coast of Scotland. My first visit was 20 odd years ago, my then-boyfriend and I took the train from our home in Glasgow to Oban, and then a 5 hour trip on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Castlebay in Barra, and then we got on our bikes.
We cycled about 200 miles right up the spine of the islands, from the white sand double beaches of Vatersay, past the airport in Barra where the plane lands on the cockle-shell beach at low tide, and through landscape that looked like the moon in South Uist. We stopped to admire the wild ponies, crashed our bikes into each other looking at a family of otters by the road side and woke up to the rare call of corncrakes in Benbecula. We cycled right round the outside and then back through the middle of North Uist, and finally took the CalMac to the tip of Harris and Lewis.
The landscape is jaw-dropping: white silky beaches with clear turquoise sea, and the green and purple hills and peat moors. When you’re cycling you can smell the wild flowers of the machair, the strip between beach and land. And mostly you have this to yourself, it’s a far-flung place not overcrowded with visitors.
Harris is actually joined to Lewis but they’re known as 2 separate islands, I think because there is a huge hill between them. It’s a long, slow haul up but then you get to the top and can fly down the other side on your bike like one of the witches from Macbeth: glorious. The islands are home to the standing stones at Calanais, the incredible beaches at Uig and Luskentyre and of course lots of cottage-industry weaving.
When you’re in Harris you pass croft houses with a shed in the garden, and you can hear the clack-clack of the loom. In my experience most of the weavers will be happy to show you their work and you get a terrific sense of the heritage of this fabric. Called clò-mòr in Gaelic, which translates as “big cloth”, it’s been produced by the islanders from their own wool for centuries.
The distinctive Orb trademark was first granted in the early 1900s. The Harris Tweed Act 1993 defines the cloth as “a tweed which has been hand woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the islands of … The Outer Hebrides and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”. Today, every 50 metres of Harris Tweed are checked by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority before being stamped, by hand, with the Orb Mark.
I hope I’m giving you an idea of the astonishing beauty of the place where this fabric is woven, the care with which it’s created and the importance of its place in our Scottish textile heritage. But of course it’s not the cheapest! I was in a shop in Glasgow last year and came across a bolt of a beautiful green Harris Tweed, with a small chevron pattern, and splashed out on just enough for a knee length coat.
So I did feel brave laying the cloth out and cutting the pattern pieces. I made a full toile first, and as usual extensively hacked the pattern. I wanted a simple shape with a generous collar. I’m quite tall and have broad shoulders and I always have a lot of adjustments to make, so the toile took a while.