11 Jun 2014
Since the beginning of Cock & Bull Menswear we've been making tweed waistcoats and caps. You could say tweed has become a kind of core to our DNA. And as our range has expanded we've been taking our love for tweed in new directions. Hence our autumn / winter 2014 collection is called 'New Directions in Tweed' - keep an eye out for it come September!
One thing that hasn't changed though is the tweed supplier we use. Our Tweed is an exquisite textile from the Isle of Lewis made from Shetland wool, which has served us well from the start. When you get your hands on it you can feel straight away that it's a pretty special tweed. But the thing that keeps us going back to our supplier is as much about the colour palette as anything. We originally chose 10 of their different tweeds, and they work so well together as a collection that bringing in a tweed from any other tweed house just wouldn't work. And we've slowly added a few more of their tweeds, so now we use about 18.
We've been handling this fine cloth for about two and a half years, and being very interested in the provenance of our supply chain we've wanted to visit Breanish for a while. Also I have family heritage nearby (sort of) and am attracted to the wildness of this part of Scotland. So I jumped when the opportunity arose to travel to this remote part of the UK and see how hundreds of years of artisan tradition is still producing excellence in the 21st century.
I'd been in Scotland for about 10 days before the final leg to Lewis, which is reached by ferry from the small town of Ullapool, about a 3 hour journey. Then from Stornaway, the main town on Lewis its another 45 minutes to the Port of Ness. I don't think my words can really do justice to the sense of remoteness here. And its a very beautiful place:
As I took this photo, Christina - one of the four family members who run the company - said "I love it here. There's no where else on earth I'd rather be". I think she might be on to something.
Tthe weaving process carries on hundreds of years of tradition on the the Isle of Lewis / Harris. This means the weaving is done in the homes of the weavers on hand looms. So it really shouldn't have been a surprise that our Tweed producer is just another house with a shed. But it was still a surprise! Here it is:
While Harris Tweed is usually made from the wool of from Cheviot and Scottish Blackface sheep, our suppler uses primarily wool from Shetland sheep, which results in a finer, softer tweed. Also they send their tweed to the mainland for the finishing process. These two aspects of their production make their tweed ineligible for the Harris Tweed Orb trademark. But they've obviously chosen their path based on the excellent results they are getting, and they're achieving huge success in fashion houses from Milan to Tokyo. All from a couple of sheds, this an extraordinary cottage industry! Here is Christina demonstrating winding the yarns on to the warping board, one of the first stages before weaving can begin:
Christina and her team are the only weavers on the island who still wind their own warps. Although it's a very labour intensive process it allows them more control to do smaller runs.
Once the warp is created it's then loaded onto the loom. Christina and her team use Hattersly looms. There are not many of these still in existence, and the few that remain can be anywhere up to a hundred years old but they have a 90 year old and a 40 year old Hattersly (called Bertha, bought for a bottle of whiskey!):
They are powered using a couple of pedals. One of these looms can make between 3 and 5 metres of (single width) cloth each hour. Our tweeds are made by 4 weavers, including 3 who work from their own looms in their own homes. From this tiny operation they are supplying a steady supply of superior quality tweed to fine fashion houses from Savile Row to Tokyo.
One of the most exciting things for me about this trip was discovering that there were plenty of tweeds that weren't in their swatch book. We've been wanting some more colours, and when I stepped into their 'shop' (AKA 'front room') I was was greeted by an arresting display of colours that I didn't know were available.
I piled up a selection on the table for Christina to send me sample lengths of:
Some wonderful pops of colour to add to our repertoire! So watch this space for a new selection of richly coloured tweed caps and waistcoats, and we'll be doing blazers and trousers again soon too. These may also very well crop up in our A/W collection 'New Directions In Tweed'.
It was a real treat to meet the team - Chrissie, Donald and their daughter and Christina (unfortunately Iain was away when I visited). Its inspiring to see how skilled artisan production is still providing good livelihoods for people in this remotest part of Britain, and amazing to see what excellent results they are achieving!
I travelled the long way to Lewis - by car. But you can fly there from Glasgow too, which makes it only a few hours journey from any major city in the UK. If you are at all interested in fine craftsmanship and artisan production, or if you're looking for a special piece of tweed, the Macleod family are always welcoming at their home situated in the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis.