Harris Tweed is more then just a fabric in the UK. It is an institution. The material is so revered that it has its own legislation—an official Harris Tweed is: “a tweed that has been hand-woven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”
Lara Platman’s gorgeous ode to the anglophile textile, Harris Tweed: From Land to Street, is an immersive introduction to the fabric. Through lush photography, informative behind-the-scenes text, and first person accounts from the people who make tweed their livelihood, Platman introduces the reader to an industry that’s as concerned with community and tradition as it is with producing quality tweed.
Harris Tweed follows Platman’s year spent in the world of the farmers, millers, and weavers of the rocky islands off the west coast of Scotland. The book explains in detail how the fabric is manufactured. Each chapter is devoted to a step in its production journey, including the wool and those who shear it, the mill, weavers, and other aspects of production, until Platman explores how the tweed is used as a final product in contemporary interior design and fashion.
Where the book comes to life, however, is in Platman’s portraits, and her interviews with the people who live and work in the Hebrides. Sentimental attachment to the fabric is very much at work throughout Harris Tweed. The book begins with an anecdote from Patrick Grant of the Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons. Grant recalls his school days in Edinburgh and the smell of the tweed after getting caught in the rain. Now, working at one of the finest tailors in the western world, he insists on using the fabric, which he says is “imbued with something personal and humane.” Harris Tweed also takes note of a collection of fashion designers who profess praise for the material, with the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith espousing its transcendence of trends.
Platman’s succinct summaries of production and mini-biographies are educational, but don’t bog down textile novices. Such an example can be seen when she is explaining the dyeing process that accompanies heaps of raw wool at the mill:
“The vats are started very early in the morning so that the dyed fleece can be washed in the same vat and dried, ready for mixing…The coloured wools are mixed to different recipes before the carding process begins. The carding will turn them into lengths of wool and yarn.”
Her succinct explanations are accompanied by detail-rich photographs that illustrate the processes she describes with both beauty and journalistic clarity. Platman’s strength is in showcasing the intimate world of the Hebrides. Her writing is the liveliest when she recalls the “magical, endless, scenic beauty” and the hardworking people who, in her words, have made Harris Tweed “a worldwide success.” Her photos are rich with painterly detail and she takes great pains to show the reader how Harris Tweed reflects the palette of the land it comes from. As Platman explains in her introduction, the book is a combination of “myth and fact; beauty and harsh existence,” and it was her intent not only to explain the process of creating Harris Tweed, but also to depict the Hebrides as a magical place for one to explore.
I’d be hard pressed to find someone who, after reading Harris Tweed, hasn’t booked a ticket to the Outer Hebrides. Or Savile Row at the very least.
Harris Tweed: From Land to Street by Laura Platman, Francis Lincoln Limited, 2011.
review by Cayley James
photography by Samantha Walton