Factory Corners – Isle of Harris
Photography and Words by Ashley Watson
For clothing designer Ashley Watson, a work trip to Skye with his vintage motorbike afforded an unexpected bonus – a visit to Carloway Mill on the Isle of Lewis, home of one of the world’s most respected fabrics. It made me think, he says, how all too often I look for inspiration from far-flung places …
A couple of years ago I’d spent a week up in Skye. One afternoon I walked to the tip of Rubha Hunish – a peninsula that reaches out to call itself the island’s most northerly point. Perched on the tip of this finger, a white wooden bothy faces out to sea. Windows etched with salt wrap around three of the four walls, their surrounds framing a view across to the Outer Hebrides. That day was clear, visibility was good. I cut cheese and tomatoes with my pocket knife; tore chunks from a crust of bread. While I ate, my thoughts skipped the 30 miles of open water to the Isle of Harris.
Over the decade that I’ve worked as a clothing designer, I’ve always felt an aura around Harris Tweed. It’s like a pre-war Brough – it has a presence. From spinning to weaving, every stage of fabric production takes place on Harris and Lewis. That’s what’s always captured my imagination; from an unassuming island tucked off the coast of Scotland comes one of the World’s most respected fabrics. In the clothing industry, a David among Goliaths.
My bike had been booked for a film shoot on the Isle of Skye. There was budget and so I’d hired a van for the motorways. We’d wrapped at dusk on Wednesday. The van had to be back before nine on Monday. Minus the drive South, that gave me two free days. Because of the tweed, I’ve felt a connection to Harris. Despite having travelled to the Western Highlands a number of times, I’d never completed the pilgrimage. Being so close, I couldn’t let this chance slip. The timetable showed a ferry leaving Uig early the next morning. I left the wrap party to pack.
The ferry’s engine beat a path through deep turquoise. On deck, the sun warmed through a stiff sea breeze. First onto the boat, I was first off. Leaving the port, I leant into a ribbon of tarmac that draped itself over the shoulders of Clisham – the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides. Mountains drew themselves up – the opening act to a two-wheeled dance I’d do all the way up to Carloway Mill – one of the main producers of Harris Tweed on the island.
I’d not had a moment to research the trip, I didn’t know what to expect. As I crossed into Lewis I was glad. The stacked contours of the south were ironed smooth, a horizon of unbroken scrub stretch ahead. Over half of the island’s population live in Stornoway – its biggest city. The draw of this magnet creates a sense of space across the rest of the island like I’d not experienced before in the UK. I could have been riding the great plains. I stopped. Made wrong turns. Forty miles took an hour and a half. Having time will always be the greatest luxury.
I arrived at the mill. Turning off the engine, I was reminded how good my bike is as an ice breaker. Out from behind a storeroom strolled Willie (pronounced Wolly), one of the technicians. Hands in pockets, we talked about my bike. It quickly became obvious he knew a thing or two. Willie mentioned he had a few himself, I asked how many, ‘thirty-five’, stored in two containers at the end of his garden. I couldn’t believe my luck – the first conversation I’d had on Harris was with a keen motorcyclist. We swapped stories and he shared his local knowledge – marking my map with the waypoints of a route he and his friends call ‘the circuit’. As he left to go back to work, he gave me his number in case I had any problems. I learnt afresh how generous the motorcycling community is.
I’ve visited a number of spinners and weavers over the years. I’m familiar with the way it works. What marked this as different was the machinery – it was some of the oldest I’d seen in use, the earliest dating back to 1892, the newest having been at work for 50 years. I always have a lot of respect for companies that keep old machinery in use. If I see someone taking care of their tools, I know they’ll take pride in what they’re producing. It’s a good sign.
Harris Tweed is famous for its use of colour. Rather than weaving one shade, a palette of dyed wool is combined in different formulas to build an impression. The result is a cloth littered with vibrant sparks that add a dimension to what would otherwise be flat. In the past, I’d only ever seen the finished product. Watching the wool mixed, carded and spun was an initiation to the magic circle. Although I’d learnt the trick, when I turned the pages of their decade-old archive later that afternoon, every ounce of magic was still there.
Before parting ways, I spoke to Annie, the manager of the Carloway Mill, about her corner of the industry – the challenges she’s facing, areas that are going well. These conversations have taught me a lot about design. Time and again, I’ve been rewarded by making the effort to look someone in the eye when explaining what I’m trying to achieve; to listen to the challenges this would create during manufacture and to then work together to find a way around.
To me, good design isn’t about having an egotistical vision, a mantra that an industry must follow. Good design is about working in a chain. It starts with the farmer and links manufacture, retail, right the way through to the person using the finished product. The chain is symbiotic – if one link breaks, everyone is affected. Riding to a hostel in Rhenigidale, a remote coastal village an hour south, my thoughts were filled with a renewed belief in the importance of working with people and not computers. A renewed passion for making products close to home in the UK.
I woke early. My return ferry was in the late afternoon, this gave me more than enough time to explore the Bays of Harris – a series of inlets running down the south west coast. A few nights before, a friend had recommended Mission House, a church that’s been converted into a gallery space. This is where I was headed.
The landscape transformed once more. Crests of granite show themselves through a rolling sea of grass. A scattering of houses punctured this motif – the single lane track I was following threading from one to the next. As I went, I could pick out the colours I’d seen woven through the tweed a day before. It made me think, all too often I look for inspiration from far-flung places. It takes a certain skill to draw inspiration from what hides under your nose. Something for me to work on. Again, I took my time. Took lots of pictures. An hour later I found Mission House.
As was the way at the mill, so it was here. On hearing the engine Nikolai came out to meet me. I could tell instantly that we were like minds. We spoke about my bike, where I’d been, where I was going. Disguising a grin, he said, ‘You should take a look in there’. Inside the gallery, nestled in among his ceramic sculptures was a gleaming BMW r80rt. His love of the forms that make up this motorcycle was such that he’d bought it having not yet fully passed his test.
Nikolai’s work takes inspiration in the objects and textures around him. His sculpture looks to expose the internal structure of a material. I like this approach and could see a connection with the honest mechanical forms of his bike. He showed me his studio at the back of the gallery, shelves stacked high with ideas; on every surface, a different thought. I could have stayed for the afternoon. In fact, I could have stayed for longer. He’d got the balance just right.
Unscrewing the fuel cap, I could see I’d ridden further than I thought. We said our goodbyes and I followed directions to the nearest petrol station. I continued around the Southern tip of the island and picked up a fast road back towards Tarbert. It was time to head back over to Skye and home. The tail of the ferry lowered – a final curtain on what had been the best kind of trip, the kind when experience far outweighs time.