Monday, 21 September 2009

Harris Tweed: Hanging by a thread

I don't know about you, but both of us at Style Salvage are a little tired of the fashion week craziness, the relentless pace of it all is headache inducing and we could do with a lie down. Of course we are excited about Wednesday but it can just be a little too much at times. With this in mind, I propose a change of pace. Go and make yourself a cup of tea, why not rustle yourself up a plate of shortbread biscuits whilst you're up, then sit down in your comfiest chair with your laptop and read through our chat with the director of the BBC4's Tweed series.

Image from Monocle

Harris Tweed is woven in a beautiful setting by workers in their own homes. It is the most iconic of all tweeds, woven by hand, and adored for decades the world over. Or it was. The current BB4 series, Tweed looks at the island industry which is now in terminal decline. With the closing of its largest mill, it’s crunch time for the business. The story of the British Isles most notable native cloth is both wonderful and frustrating. I've enjoyed watching the series immensely and are looking forward to the final episode which screens tomorrow (Tuesday 22nd September at 21:00) and will be available on iplayer soon after to digest at your viewing pleasure.

For such a burly and utilitarian fabric, Harris Tweed evokes an a great deal of romantically nostalgic feelings and this series certainly captures this. The reason being is that the tweed is still woven by pedal-powered looms in the homes of Scottish sheep herders on the outermost fringe of the British Isles, just as it has been since 1846. 2010 is make or break time for Harris Tweed. It is one of the most iconic fabrics in the world. yet, as the series documents, the outlook for the fabric is similar to the weather forecast for the Outer Hebrides, not all that sunny and bright. For those of you who refuse to watch the picture box or those living outside of the UK, you might have seen that, in their latest issue, Monocle wrote a great piece outlining the future of the famous tweed and the livelihood of its weavers. So you should all be familiar with the story, if this and then watch the series. Here, we talk to director, Ian Denver to learn more about the series and his love affair with the fabric.

The idylic, remote setting where the fabric is made. Still by Guy Hills.

SS: What inspired/drove the series? Did you have an existing relationship or experience with the Harris Tweed industry?
Ian Denver: The series came after we briefly covered the story in a previous series about life and times on Savile Row (2007) We were so fascinated, that when we discussed which small world we next want to attempt to penetrate next, there was no question. I have always loved and worn tweed - when the rest of my generation were getting in to pins and bondage pants, I was in Oxfam buying old Harris. I also moved to the Yorkshire Dales to live the life. Incidentally, we interviewed Vivienne Westwood for the series and she said that in the Punk Era, Malcolm Maclaren was obsessed with tweed and tartan. We also discussed my belief that Harris Tweed, made by workers who own the means of production and produce in defiance of the global manufacturing trend, is a truly subversive cloth.

SS: Harris Tweed evokes an awful lot of romantically nostalgic feelings. Did you fall in love with the fabric and the people who make it?
Ian Denver: I did. As I said above I already loved the fabric, but the people, so un-polished and other worldly, made the whole thing a joy for me. I practically lived up there for a year.

SS: Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant who features in both episode one and the final one believes strongly in the fabric . How did you meet him and what role did he play in the making of the documentary?
Ian Denver: I had met Patrick making the Savile Row series and he was involved from the off. He studied Textile Technology before opening his business and is descended from people in the Scottish cloth trade, so he knows what he’s talking about. I never gave up my contacts with the Row and now spend my life working to be able to buy bespoke clothing. PG believes I am the only person who would even consider some of his heavier and more functional clothing. His new E.Tautz cavalry overalls being a case in point. He tried to wear them on a bicycle and couldn’t pedal. Anyway, he was committed to the idea of a series in which he and I and the islanders tried to save Harris Tweed. Clearly this was a rather grand ambition, but I hope we’ve helped. Hearts are most certainly in the right place.

There are around eight hundred fabrics and seven hundred colour variations. Still by Guy Hills.

SS: There are moments in the first two episodes where I wanted to throw my remote control at the television (mainly at Brian Haggas). The fabric certainly provokes strong feeling. Was the series difficult to film at times?
Ian Denver: The series was very hard because we had a minuscule budget and the Hebrides are notoriously expensive to get to, because so few people do. The personalities made it a joy however. I don’t mean they were all nice people, but the epic, almost Greek nature of the narrative and the beauty of the stage made it a gift. Brian Haggas you simply couldn’t make up. In episode three he commissions a Harris tweed feature film. What a Godsend. Interestingly I believe he starts as a villain, at least in the eyes of the islanders, but I believe he is actually a hero. Before him there had been no investment for decades. He may have made mistakes, but he spent more than anyone else, employed most of the weavers, albeit briefly, and created such a groundswell of opposition the industry was reborn. He says he’ll be back – and I believe he’ll actually win through in the end, with a wider variety of tweed patterns...

SS: Your series has already taken us on quite a journey. The first two episodes follow the drama in the Outer Hebrides, where we see short lived proclamations of a new savior in the form of a Yorkshire textile baron soon followed by lay-offs at Christmas. What can we expect from the final episode?
Ian Denver: The final episode sees the big Shawbost and tiny Carloway mills still going at it. Shawbost’s pet designer Deryck Walker goes to Japan in search of inspiration and creates some remarkable catwalk garments – and Alan Bain begins what might be civil war by experimenting with lighter tweed. Patrick Grant is flown in to address the weavers, and has some hard things to say about the future of the cloth. And then there’s Haggas, who becomes a photographic expert...

The magical thread. Still by Guy Hills.

SS: Having watched the series it seems clear that many people involved in the Harris Tweed industry have differing opinions on what is the best path to a successful future for the fabric. 2010 is probably make or break time for Harris Tweed, which path would you like to see it go down?
Ian Denver: I’d like to see hook-ups with major high street names and Harris Tweed produced in eye-popping designs for a new generation. I’d also like to see some of the long-lost tweed designs, particularly from the fifties and seventies, re-issued. I just want it to be huge, not least because all those in the industry who now say they hate me will have to say thanks...

SS: The series certainly instills a strong desire in me to go out and buy a Harris Tweed jacket. What would you like people to take away from it?
Ian Denver: I’d like them to infest the flights that leave Edinburgh and Glasgow and go and see the place. It is simply beautiful – on Harris in the summer, turquoise waves lap on empty white beaches. Go in autumn or spring and you’ll never want to leave, and being there forces you to want some of it on your back. I’ve never come across another fabric you just lust after. I want to eat it. Plus it’s British. This is our heritage, our gift. It’s got a great green future moments away, and the outside world is cottoning on. Shawbost mill, Harris Tweed Hebrides, has just become Textile Brand of the Year.

The certified trade mark of Harris Tweed. Still by Guy Hills

This series has certainly ignited a passion within. If you are interested in keeping arts and crafts, artisan businesses, communities and positive traditions alive, the Harris Tweed cause is certainly one to support. If you are interested in long lasting clothing that is good for the environment, the very antithesis of the throw-away culture that has controlled the clothing market, then you should consider this fabric.


Matthew Spade said...

a must watch! im putting t on record now

J said...

I've been wearing a Harris Tweed jacket I picked up for an Oxfam years ago now but it still looks great. I've heard that the series is good but not had a chance to watch, will have to make the time now.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Harris Tweed should be protected and treasured.

Michael said...

Great interview Steve. I thought both this and the series on Savile Row were excellent and great to see BBC4 making intelligent programmes on men's clothing. Some of the tweeds featured were absolutely beautiful.

I think it is an utter scandal that the Scottish/British government doesn't do more to protect and promote these artisanal industries and blue chip brands. Although bespoke is out of my price range, I'd certainly be willing to pay a premium for mid to upper range RTW designers and retailers who used Harris Tweed.

As a result of this programme and Jonathan Meades excellent 'Off Kilter' on the islands I've been inspired to take a holiday there next year.

Style Salvage Steve said...

Mat: I really can't wait for the last episode. No fashion parties for me, I'll be tuned in to BBC4!
J: Good to hear about your harris tweed jacket. Please do watch the series and let us know what you think.
Anonymous: Thanks, I couldn't agree more!
Michael: BBC4 is well worth checking out because it does throw up some great programmes on men's style from time to time. I just wish the BBC advertised them a bit more! I have enjoyed this series and the Savile Row show immensely, but I missed out on 'Off Kilter'. I have faith that the Scottish Government will do something to protect and promote this industry, series like this, combined with the recent media attention will certainly help.

John said...

We should really look to Japan for inspiration on how to handle the Harris tweed dilemma. Japan has (generally speaking) become very good at balancing the traditions of the past with the what the future brings. The craft should be recognised by the government, preserved and promoted worldwide. Unfortunately in UK we seem to be better getting lost in red tape. The series has certainly inspired me to buy some Harris Tweed fabric, or invest in a jacket (depending on how much work I want to create for myself.)

Angelo said...

I got my Harris jacket for $17 at Good Will a couple years back, I'll surely keep it for a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Check out the new collaboration of BEYOND THE VALLEY and Harris Tweed!
Cool capes!

Garry said...

Well doen to Harris tweed for their outstanding contribution award at the Scottish style awards!

Anonymous said...

Im a Harris tweed addict! I live in min.Some cracking cheap Harris tweed jackets @

Anonymous said...

TOPMAN Harris Tweed Jacket for Sale on Ebay; View Item no 150446068032 ends in 7 days!

Anonymous said...

Just bought one!
Greetings from chilly Sweden


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