Travels in Scotland Post 7: Harris Tweed on the Isle of Lewis

Welcome to my series of blog posts Travels in Scotland. Whether you're planning a trip, reliving a memory, or relaxing into some armchair traveling...thank you for joining me! Here I will show you images & share stories of my one month travels through Scotland. I'll cover this beautiful country of mountains, rivers, glens, islands, history, and, of course, fiber and textiles.

The isle of lewis (and the isle of harris) and the tweed that's made there

The Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris have a population of 21,574 people.  Two islands, nope. Confusing? Yes. Lewis & Harris, as they are commonly called, are actually one land mass divided by mountains. Seeing that the Outer Hebrides are an archipelago, small and large islands almost chained together, helps with accepting this odd naming. Although at one time governed by Clan MacLeod Lewis and Clan MacLeod Harris, Lewis & Harris are now governed by an Island Council. But the history goes back with the archeological evidence in the peat showing human habitation 5-8,000 years ago and subsequent settlements by the Picts and the Vikings. This is an ancient place.


Now to the weaving industry. Harris Tweed is the famous cloth - the rugged, tough wool cloth associated with Scottish outer coats.  As Harris Tweed became popular, imitators cropped up, and thus to protect this vital island cottage industry, Parliament passed a law in 1993 dictating the use of the Harris Tweed name and orb symbol. The "tweed" comes from the Scottish "tweel" though Harris tweed can be woven in either twill ("tweel") pattern or plain weave.  (This is not tartan.)


All Harris Tweed must be woven from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides (any of the islands, not just Harris) and woven in the weaver's home with only human power.  The wool is sourced from the islands, but because of the huge demand for Harris Tweed cloth (1-1.5 million meters produced annually) wool also comes from across Scotland and the UK from mostly Cheviot sheep. Harris Tweed is the largest commercially produced handwoven cloth. Even so, there are only 200 certified weavers on the islands who work in one of the three mills (studio workshop of a handful of weavers who are completing the entire process from raw wool to finished cloth in one space) or from their homes.

Before I even knew that I would visit Lewis & Harris, as a weaver, I was interested in Harris Tweed and what made it unique.  I had watched the following video and was mesmerized. The video is 10 years old, but amazing for the segment with Alice Starmore showing the host how the wool was historically naturally dyed with plants and lichens on the beach.  It's a 5 minute watch and well worth the time - you'll be transported to the Isles of Lewis & Harris with the BCC.

A visit to a Harris tweed weaver

While in Stornaway, the Wild Fibers tour group walked to the studio of Gordon Macdonald, to see his home business operation named A Harris Tweed Weaver. Gordon is an independent Harris Tweed weaver, meaning that he weaves in his home according to the regulations governing the traditional making of Harris Tweed cloth. Independent certified Harris Tweed weavers can either work for a mill or for themselves, but all Harris Tweed weavers receive their wool threads for warp and weft from the mill and have the cloth "finished" (washed and pressed) and stamped with the orb symbol at the mill.  Thus, the Harris Tweed Authority keeps tight quality control on all Harris Tweed.

Sound on! Here's  a one minute video with Gordon Macdonald telling about weaving Harris Tweed on his Griffiths loom. The Griffiths loom uses a rapier and creates double width cloth, whereas the older Hattersley loom uses a shuttle and creates single width cloth. Gordon was so welcoming and we all bought meters and meters of his gorgeous cloth to thank him for opening his studio to us.


Watch his feet! This loom is mechanized, but it is still human powered. When a new warp must be put on the loom, Gordon ties 1,392 +24 threads on by hand.  And when a thread breaks or mechanics fail, Gordon takes the hours to make it right.

archeological sites on the isle of lewis

We visited three archeological sites on the Isle of Lewis on a very sunny morning before heading back to the port town of Stornaway.  The first was Dun Carloway Broch, a circular Iron Age stronghold to defend against invaders (effective but carried the risk of starvation for those inside during an attack). The second was the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, a living history settlement so named for the blackening effect of burning peat for warmth. The third is the Calanais Standing Stones, uncovered from 5 meters of peat in the 1850s revealing a Neolithic set of stones.

Blog tip: Click on any image to enlarge and read caption

spotting a famous hebridean knitwear designer

The Gearrannan Blackhouse Village sits on a stunning hill overlooking the sea, a perfect backdrop for a photoshoot. And that's what we stumbled upon on the morning of our visit.  We saw Alice Starmore (as featured in the BBC short video - top of the blog post - on the dyeing of Harris Tweed) directing the shoot with photographer and model.  Alice Starmore has been designing intricate knitwear for decades and is still going strong with incredibly inventive and beautiful designs inspired by the Hebrides where she lives and works. Look at the flowers on the hillside and the model's skirt. I am particularly taken with the "Raven Capelet" that was being modeled on this day and secretly want one for myself. Take a look at Alice Starmore's instagram page, too! The designs are a feast for the eyes.

My watercolor travel journal
My watercolor travel journal


coming up in Travels in Scotland post 8: Shetland

Thank you for reading my blog post. Travels in Scotland is a 12 part blog series filled with photos and stories of a fiber artist's journey through a beautiful country, encountering a land with a deep textile history, stunning landscapes, and of course sheep!


You can read all of the Travels in Scotland blog posts on my website.  I invite you to travel along with me, along the coast and through the mainland hills seeing, experiencing and learning about this place called Scotland. Turas math dhuibh! (Good journey to you!) Amy

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