'Harris Tweed': The Story of the Greatest Cloth, From Land to Street

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Harris Tweed is a unique fabric hand-woven by the islanders on Scotland's Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra, using local wool and vegetable dyes. Despite its rustic roots, this unusual cloth has risen to international fame, appearing as anything from a premium furnish on limited-edition Nike shoes to the attire of choice for celebrated fictional characters like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, the Doctor from Doctor Who, and Agatha Christie's detective Miss Marple. Known for its distinctive flecks of color and peculiar scent, produced by the lichen dyes known as "crottle," Harris Tweed is as much a material as it is a fascinating story about tradition, community, collaboration, and heritage.

In 2010, British photographer and Royal Society of the Arts fellow Lara Platman spent seven months on the islands of Scotland, documenting the intricate human machinery of Harris Tweed production, from the backs of the Blackface and Cheviot sheep to the artisanal looms to the high-end tailors of Savile Row. The result is Harris Tweed: From Land to Street -- a stunning large-format tome that captures a group portrait of the men and women who spend their lives and make their living crafting the legendary textile.

'The box room contains all the colours of yarn required for the recipes created by the mill's designer from the colour palette of the mill.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

On a farm in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders, Will and Ruth Dickenson set up maternity wards next to the farmhouse during lambing season. The children play with the newly born lambs and give them names. Along with their extended family, they help look after the lambs.

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Patrick Grant captures the cloth's magical tradition and heartfelt humanity in the book's foreword:

I love the island and I love the people who live there and make the tweed. Harris Tweed is made by enthusiasts, craftsmen and women who understand its history, have had its methods passed on by hand and mouth through generations of their families and their neighbors' families. This cloth, painstakingly woven, from yarn locally spun, from wool of the local clip, is imbued with something personal and humane that no other textile comes close to possessing. And the wearer, in his or her turn, adds something more to it by the wearing. He softens it and scuffs it and shapes it, cherishes and repairs it, and all in good time he passes it on so that a new owner may enjoy it anew. All of this makes Harris Tweed the greatest cloth of all.

'Bill Walton is one of the best-known faces in the British wool industry, having worked in the business for the past forty years. He has been responsible for grading wool and helped adapt the new wools going into the Harris Tweed industry, working on the production of carding machines in the new double-width looms.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Duncan Macleod weaves full time on his croft. He also works with the sheep shearers catching the sheep so that they are ready for the puller and shearer to do their work. The shearing days are hard work -- catching is a far cry from sitting at the loom -- but he thoroughly enjoys being outdoors.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Neil Mckinnol came back to Lewis to work as a weaver after working in the Merchant Navy. The work is a change from the traveling he was used to. His shed at Leurbost is large and he has a garage at the front of his property where he keeps the tweeds he has woven, ready for the mail lorries to collect.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald Murray started weaving in 1987. His shed is very spacious and has great light. There is a top bar on his loom and although his tweed will be checked when it goes back to the mill, he checks it on the bar under the light before it goes.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'When the weavers have completed their work, the mills' lorries collect the lengths of tweed and bring them back to the mills to be finished. The tweed arrives in bales, which here Donald John Mackenzie is unloading at the Shawbost mill. First the tweed is sent off to be darned. Then it is washed: the process is similar to any domestic wash, and takes place in a big washing tub. Finally it is pressed.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. (c) 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platmanx

Ultimately Harris Tweed has transcended fashion in terms of transient trends and been prompted to timeless style. As the tailers of Saville Row will tell you, no wardrobe is complete without an item in Harris Tweed, and this will always be the case. --Guy Hills, Dashing Tweeds

Harris Tweed is a follow-up to Platman's 2009 book, Art Workers Guild 125 Years: Craftspeople at Work Today, and peels back the curtain to an extraordinary subculture that's equal parts cult, craft, and tradition -- a rare self-contained universe that bleeds into our own just enough to hook you with its fascination, but not so much as to lose its mystique.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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