Linen weaver

Linen: it doesn’t grow on trees. And, even if it did, those trees wouldn’t be anywhere on the British Isles. And, even if they were, you’d need fields and fields of these trees, and certainly more than will ever be found on an island off an island off an island off the north-west coast of Scotland. The island is so remote that the only way to reach it, until about ten years ago, was by boat. It is here that a weaver sits alone in a shed of tin on its second-highest point. She peddles on a Hattersley Mark I loom, built at the start of the last century, to weave linen in the land of tweed.

The only documented attempt ever to grow flax on this particular island in the Outer Hebrides was not a very successful one. The flax blossomed and shone for a month, but was soon battered down by hail and wind. This, for some, would be something of an omen; a warning against trying to do anything too clever with linen in this part of the world. But not the weaver. Her flax might have shimmered purple only for a few weeks, but she has nevertheless been weaving linen for going on a decade. Not just any old linen, either. The weaver makes an unusual type of linen — one which is both familiar and unfamiliar, and which like a lot of good things can only be truly understood and treasured once you have the tale behind it.

There is of course no such thing as Harris Linen. Linen has never been a way of life for the people living on the islands an hour and a half by ferry from the mainland. Most of them won’t go anywhere near it. Linen, especially in the woollier parts of the weaving game, has something of a bad name, see. Dead fibre. Boring. Middle of the road. Worst of all known for misbehaving: the warp and weft and effort put in never rewarded like with a tweed.

The cloth woven here, though, is different; has more in common with the standard local produce of tweed, rather than other linens. When all around you is coarse and hardy and textured, after all, it may be tricky to put your mind to something else.

There is the influence here not only of local tradition, but of local infrastructure, too. The Hattersley loom, the diminutive warping mill that feeds it, the services of the woollen industry’s many outposts dotted across the islands — the washing, drying, and finishing always with contraptions built with tweed in mind — they too make the linen made here what it is: its texture, its feel, its appearance, its qualities and wearing over time. Whether your raw material is flax or fleece, when you make cloth on these islands, there are some things which just happen. You get a thick cloth. You get herringbones and stripes. You get a textured, open weave; one writ through with grit and character.

The weaver also specialises in linen-wool. “Linsey-woolsey”, as they call it, came about — one version of textile history has it — with settlers heading over barren landscapes way back when, unsure of the temperature and climate of tomorrow. And so they hedged their bets: taking with them both flax seeds and sheep. Sheep perish, weave linen; seeds don’t like soil, then wool all round. Of course, if fortune favours both, then you end up with the best of both. The linen-wool is thick, textured, and coarse — but also springy and breathable, so good in all weathers.

This being the Outer Hebrides, the t-word is never far away. It isn’t only the linen weaver who has in the past woven it, but her husband, too. He, a crofter — responsible with his sheepdog for a hundred or so roaming sheep scattered over the little island, the ducks, the chickens — her husband has woven and still weaves Harris Tweed from time to time. But it isn’t much fun for him. Has better things to do. Would rather be out on the land. Still, tweed is the reason why the cast-iron Hattersley sits here. It was a source firstly of income — a source of heat, too, when peddling in the winter — and thus far removed then the buccaneering weaving spirit which it represents today.

The weaving shed is in a corner of the island where you can go no further. The road ends. Perhaps there is something in this circumstance which imbues the weaver with bold and pioneering adventure — of new patterns and finishing techniques, of pushing a machine already at its limits to weave cloth very different from the one for which it was intended. Over the decades, the Hattersley has been modified, tweaked, has had parts dropping off but never replaced because there are more pressing things to do today. It is not a complicated machine, the Hattersley, but it is one which, sometimes, in some, encourages experimentation; its mechanical simplicity a field within which some imaginations blossom and find self-perpetuating and unending permutation.

For every meter of linen woven on the two major and hundred-plus minor islands of the Outer Hebrides, there are thousands if not tens-of-thousands woven of tweed. Linen will never be recognised with its own orb. No authority will ever be established up here for the upkeep and preservation of the honour of the flax. But no matter. Here is a type of cloth original and one of a kind, and yet also inherently and inevitably in-keeping with what the weaving of cloth has been and always will be about in this corner of the British Isles.