The Hebrides have always been synonymous with weaving; with weaving an always coarse and often colourful tweed, which will occupy the days of a crofter, in a tin shed, somewhere on an otherwise unpopulated little island. But that, though, is the Outer Hebrides. The Inner Hebrides — now they are a different proposition entirely.
When it comes to cloth, the Inner Hebrides are the other Hebrides. They are the Hebrides not buffeted by the North Atlantic to an extent so severe as the Outers. The Hebrides which don’t get so much as a mention on the Shipping Forecast, in fact, and so are in less immediate need for lanolin-packed and possibly urine-soaked overcoating. They are the Hebrides without much tradition in weaving at all. There is, nonetheless, weaving on these Hebrides. There is weaving going on right this minute.
What they are weaving, right now, on one of the main islands of the Inner Hebrides, is a type of cloth which, to an almost unique extent, is a product of its geographical — and in some ways historical — surroundings. This is because nothing but undyed regional yarn is used here. The only colours are those of the native sheep kind enough to donate their wool to the cause. That means black, brown, black-brown, dark-fawn, light-fawn, and cream — the tone and hue of which depends to a great extent on how much sun shone in the first half of the year. But that’s not all — there is a range of grey yarn here, too; the array of available shades depending simply, and brilliantly, on the number of years that the dear old lamb has been collecting her pension.
Most numerous of these four-legged-fleeces are the black-face Hebrideans, which are impressively sturdy and dense sorts: kitted out to roam unchallenged all over the island, munching on heather, having evolved over millennia to live and breed better than most in this idyllic but rather barren corner of the British Isles.
It makes, with these flocks reared and sheared a stone’s-throw from the weaving shed, for a short and pleasingly elegant sort of supply chain. Make no mistake — taking colour as is from the backs of your sheep makes for a startlingly limited palette. It is a palette, though, from which the weavers here develop a no less startlingly wide range of geometric patterns. Diamonds, birdseyes, squares, and stripes are but the warm-up routine for an elite-level repertoire line-and-angle work on the warp and weft. Kaleidoscopic not in colour, then, but certainly in design — and a masterclass, really, in how strict limits or boundaries often inspire greater brilliance than does unbridled freedom.
After fifty years service on the frontline of the British textile industry, there are surely worse places to put your feet up. Aren’t many better. In fact, it is hard to spend any time here and not
retire. You’ve got your two-minute skip to a very secluded and very white beach; your acres of rolling meadow, gorse and lavender-spotted, overlooking the beach, and only your obediently grazing, heritage and organic 300-strong flock for company; your bucolic this and your idyllic that.
But, then, any self-respecting four-ton Victorian Dobcross power-loom doesn’t retire. Doesn’t know the meaning of the word. You don’t become the workhorse of the textile game for over half a century by taking early retirement. So here one stands today — all cast-iron and leather and wood and string — in the beach-side byre, a world away from Yorkshire, creaking along like a ship in full sail.
The Dobcross is facilitated in this by an actual retiree: a man who for decades had his hand on the levers of a hundred such contraptions; a man who earned his stripes many times over in the Dobcross wonderland of mid-20th-century West Yorkshire. That’s the thing with weaving. Here is a man who, after a lifetime in industry, came to this island to wind down. Didn’t come looking for weaving; weaving found him. Just when he thought he was out, the looms pulled him back in.
The power-loom here, and the small team who operate it, weave under his tutelage. Since its inception, in the 1950s, it is a technology superseded in almost every way, and yet is still fabled for its versatility. Being as it is, almost in entirety, a big lump of moving-parts, there is really nothing on a well-run sixteen-shaft Dobcross which can’t be tightened or lowered or turned or taken out. So it clatters on, uninterrupted — weaving cloth and blankets and scarves, thick and thin, all of it grounded by a hard-wearing local wool — at four-metres per hour, the only sound for miles around.