Ripping Yarns– a labour of love

HARRIS TWEED DundeeI cannot lie, I am literally in tears, I am utterly so overwhelmed and ever so slightly proud of myself. I make no apologies, that when I see my photographs on a page I simply melt and hope that what I put out there inspires or educates the viewer.  My book ‘Harris Tweed from land to street’ seems to be doing just that and each day another review pops up, telling the world (well, its readers) that my photos are working their stuff.Today, after a visit to London to hear my dear friend Martin Hartley talk about his expeditions to the North and South Poles along with his book “Face to Face” (Scott Polar Research Institute) at The Leica store in Mayfair, I return to find a package from The Courier (North East and Fife Edition), along with a full page review opening the weekend section, about my book or rather, about me.

And that is where I find it so overwhelming, as it is about me personally. Oh It is true and I am proud of it all, but my gosh, It is all about me! And yes, it is utterly true, working up in the Hebrides has totally left its mark in ways I am yet to realise.

I heard Martin speak of his emotions on an expedition, with –48 degrees below freezing on average, with comparing his actions to that of a terrier dog, who must run around the team, gather some distance to be able to shoot back in – and then run and be with the team to shoot the scenes outwards, along with his emotions of solitude: of not wanting the plane to leave when they first embark on the expedition and equally not wanting the plane to arrive when they are to leave. These emotions of solitude and of peace, freedom and survival, I certainly have not experienced those temperatures, but I know what he meant by not wanting to leave.

Is this what being a photographer is all about?


HARRIS TWEED IS Scotland in a fabric— durable, beautiful, much cherished and created with love and skill from the textures and colours of our natural light and landscape. Helen Brown spoke to journalist and photographer Lara Platman, whose new book marks the 100th anniversary of Harris Tweed’s iconic Orb trademark, about the unique place of this very special part of Scotland’s warp and weft

HARRIS TWEED is a legend. And for a while, it seemed as if the legend might become a myth and the ages-old traditions die out and disappear with the closure of major mills on the islands. But class and quality will out and Harris Tweed is still with us today, with smaller mills busier than they have been for years and a mixture of youth and experience combining to maintain the beauty, quality and highly personal touch for which this iconic material is world famous.

Photographer Lara Platman found herself fascinated not just by the fabric itself and its renewed influence in modern couture but also by the land and people who create it. For her, they are inseparable, a mix that could not have happened anywhere else.

“It’s been a traumatic last few years for the industry,” she explained, “but it is now growing again. At one point, there were as many as 900 weavers working on Harris Tweed. Now there are more than 120 and more are needed, more are being trained up, with classes in Stornoway and greater demand for these abilities and related skills. The mills are busy — the one at Shawbost was doing night shifts when I was there — and will be getting busier. “It makes me happy to see the new blood taking this way of life into the future. I want to be one of the people saying, ‘Yes, get it out there, get this stuff into the public eye where it deserves to be. These people and what they make are special!”

With an eye for the unusual and an ear for a good story, Lara herself comes from a family of theatrical costumer designers. “My grandfather was a tailor who moved from making and altering evening clothes into fancy dress in the 60s and then into theatrical costumes and wedding dresses. “As a child, I did a lot of my homework in dressing rooms or helped with sewing on sequins and beads. They employed 80 people at one point in their workshops. “I think that’s where I get my love of photographing things behind the scenes with whatever subject I’m covering. I like that literally, in theatre and dance settings, but where something like the life and activities of the Harris Tweed weavers was concerned, I really felt it was a privilege for me to show people what happens to create something — but not take the magic away. 

“With technology so dominant today, we need things like this in our lives to remind us that technology is wonderful but so is this cloth. I wanted to show that hand-made and individual have a vital place for us, to underline the value of something bespoke that takes time and skill and feeling to create something attached so strongly to one place and one group of people that has also gone all over the world. For me, it’s the complete opposite of current ‘celebrity’ culture — this takes talent and time, and it isn’t just a craft. It’s part of a fantastic existence. “I had just finished a book on the Art workers Guild’s 125th anniversary that had introduced me to literally over 100 craftspeople whom I had photographed in their working environments. I had photographed a weaver at work and it made me realise that somehow, fabrics and materials were central to my view of the world — in my DNA, in fact! — and that I wanted to explore more. “Lots of strange little things came together — I have a Harris Tweed jacket, for example and at school, when I studied music, I was completely mesmerised by the Hebrides overture and still am to this day.

As a photographer, too, I’m always looking at weather conditions and always hearing about Stornoway on weather or shipping forecasts and somehow, the combination and the fascination just grew. Like many people, I knew about Harris Tweed — or thought I did! — but I just somehow felt I needed to find out more about the background story, the behind-the scenes reality of it. “I had seen designer Patrick Norton’s programme about visiting weaver Donald John Mackay and there was a book in the 80s about the islanders that was my Bible and guide on this project. But I wanted to go through it myself and see for myself what was happening today.

The industry has been through so much and I wanted to capture not only the timeless quality of it and how it has lasted and survived but the people, the land and the skills that make it truly unique.” Nothing daunted, Lara, who had visited and holidayed in mainland Scotland but never on the islands, travelled north to immerse herself in the weaving culture. In the end, she spent a year in the islands, camping out instead of staying in hotels and shooting with film instead of digitally, She drove around, listening to her beloved Hebrides Overture and the evocative music of American composer Aaron Copland, finding a strong spirit of place in her surroundings, something that kept her inspired throughout. “When I was camping, waking up to that light and land, those colours, amazed me every day — even, or maybe especially, in winter. You could see exactly where colours and dyes for the fabrics came literally from the natural landscape.

“It seemed like the tippiest tip of the world before I got there but the people were wonderful, so warm and welcoming and accepting of what I was trying to do. They have a great feeling for their industry, it’s central to them, right at the heart of their lives and there was no difficulty about letting me into that. So many people weave in their own homes, in sheds set up in their gardens or crofts, so it is utterly personal to them.” She definitely didn’t want it to be a technical history. “Although the history is vitally important, what I wanted to capture was the character of a society that uses space, the land, the light, to create something special.

Weaver Katie Campbell, for example, lives and works overlooking the Little Minch that separates Harris from Skye and her knitting wool hangs on lines outside. Unlike most weavers, she works independently, ordering yarns from the mills and taking her tweed to get it stamped when she has completed it. Her designs are very traditional, using the colours that she sees in the landscape around her. With the weather always changing, she is never short of inspiration. There can be about 20 colours in one tweed. Nothing is written down; it is all in her head. “I wanted what I wrote and photographed to be about what is happening today, not just a story about what happened in the past.” What Lara’s book is, is a celebration of craftsmanship, dedication and a way of life.

The subtitle, From Land to Street, says it all — according to Lara: “I wanted to show the whole process but not in a textbook way because this is a very human story, a story of people and their surroundings combining into something that has had an effect on the world at large. “People are so dedicated. It’s a way of living that grabs you. People asked me: ‘Would you live in Harris?’ and I would love it. This project has left an impression on me. I wonder how I’m going to find something to top it. I think I’m too nosy to stay in one place for too long but the island thing has definitely got to me. “I do photographic workshops and community projects in Italy and I’m intrigued by the Venetian glassmaking islands of Murano and Burano where many people are still living in a traditional way in spite of the spread of tourism.” The timelessness of Harris Tweed and its reputation for the highest quality has meant that contemporary designers have “rediscovered” it in a big way.

As Lara explains in the book: “Each piece of cloth has an estimated amount of garments allocated to it and labels with the Orb logo and a series number are distributed accordingly. The Harris Tweed Orb has become a worldwide export.” The foreword to Lara’s book was written by Patrick Grant of Norton & Sons of Savile Row and she has included a selection of photographs of modern “takes” on tweed from Vivienne Westwood (who dressed the Sex Pistols in Harris Tweed in the 70s), Paul Smith, Deryck Walker (whose suit is worn in the book by  playwright John Byrne) and Sara Berman. Global brands such as Radley and Nike have used the famous cloth for their bags and footwear.

Lara added: “in the island mills, too, there is so much creativity. Ann MacCallum at the Carloway Mill is working with colour charts, mood boards, all the ideas you would see in fashion houses and she travels to shows to work out how to use the colours and patterns of Harris Tweed in so many different, often cutting-edge styles. It’s not just the ‘old man’s suit’ idea any more, the garment that lasts forever and is handed down — although the new things are just as good and will undoubtedly also become heirlooms! It’s about taking tradition and giving it a new lease of life — in a woman’s coat, for example, with wonderful buttons and dynamic pockets. “At the moment, there is a lot of interest in retro clothing, in changing our lifestyles to take in things that last rather than buying something and throwing it away after one or two wearings. Harris Tweed lasts!”

Lara is proud of her year’s labour of love and reckons, as she says, that it has left its mark in ways she doesn’t yet realise. “I think my personal favourite of all the pictures is one I took of Donald John Mackenzie and his dog. At first glance, it says nothing about weaving but in the context of the book—and the industry — Donald John is one of the younger weavers who tried a number of jobs before he settled on weaving. He has a little croft and has written for the local community about the weaving process. Somehow, for me, it’s a picture that sums up the place.” Her time in the islands has also had its effect on her personal wardrobe.

Apart from buying more than a dozen tweed tea cosies to give out to family and friends, she has also ordered metres of cloth from Ann MacCallum’s new collection. “It’s beautiful fabric, what I think of as colours of morning, with pinks, mauves, yellows and blues in a herringbone pattern. I’ve found a tailor from the London College of Fashion who has been making a tuxedo (it’s the 150th anniversary of the tuxedo this year!) and she is going to make me a coat, a kind of cross between Edwardian styling and Vivienne Westwood. It will be very individual!”