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Island Treasures

Harris Tweed traditionally comes from Scottish Blackface sheep

Harris Tweed traditionally comes from Scottish Blackface sheep

Isle of Lewis

Harris Tweed

Photo by Lara Platman

Judy R Clark
For generations, Lewis islanders have woven Harris Tweed in the barns and sheds of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Long seen as the textile of choice for stuffy academics, tweed is in the midst of a revival, thanks in part to the attentions of people like Paul Smith and Karl Lagerfeld. Today, the fabric is being put to use by a new generation of fashion designers. Judy R Clark, one of Scotland’s most promising young talents, uses tweed to produce one-of-a-kind garments at her Edinburgh studio. For her, tweed is not just a fabric; it is a part of her heritage, and a representation of the spirit of the tiny islands that produce it.

“My uncle Donald, who lives in Shawbost, a small town on the island of Lewis, was a weaver of Harris Tweed for many years. I started working with the fabric in 2007. My grandmother had gone over for a visit and came back with a suitcase of tweed remnants. ‘See what you can do with that,’ she said. So I did, and I’ve never looked back.
From the start, I wanted to make tweed seem more modern. So I mix it with lots of different fabrics—from places like Nepal and Morocco, along with Scottish lace and other local textiles—and then combine that with unique silhouettes to create one-off, tailor-made garments. People love things that are totally original.

I adore the fabric for many reasons. I like that it’s made by hand by these people on this tiny island. There’s a romance to that. It’s part of our history, where we come from. And, for me, because it’s in my family, there’s an emotional attachment. So it’s great to have a bit of input into how it’s used.

I remember going to Lewis as a child, being on a boat. I try to go back a couple of times a year—I can’t get enough of it. The people there are what you’d expect, I suppose, with their big jumpers and jeans. They weave the tweed at home, in a shed in the back garden, and that’s the beauty of it all. When I’d go to visit my uncle, he had a radio and a loom, sitting there weaving his tweed.

Of course, tweed is the dominant source of income on Lewis, and if you’re not working directly with it, you know somebody who is—your aunt Mary’s brother’s uncle’s wife. And people are proud to be a part of this tradition. Tweed even has its own authority to protect it, created by an act of parliament, so it can’t be copied. It’s a treasured fabric.

Uncle Donald retired last year—he had poor legs after all those years operating the loom. I can’t imagine the life of a weaver being an easy one, but my uncle loved it. In general, people here seem very content, happy with what they have and who they are. It’s the kind of place where you wander into the next door neighbor’s house and say, ‘Put the kettle on.’ It’s such a lovely place to be.

It’s also visually beautiful, this rugged landscape with small, winding roads, the old croft houses dotted about, the beaches and, of course, the sheep—the place is covered with sheep.”

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