by Julia Welstead
I’m told to look out for a shed in the garden behind a white house, and it takes a couple of passes and a conversation with her father for me to find Rebecca Hutton at her loom. Her shed, in reality only just big enough space for her Hattersley mark 2 loom, yarns, cloth and sundry acoutrements, is a tardis (time and relative dimensions in space): a world away from the world. A strangely mobile cardboard box turns out to be Bobbin’s favourite hangout. Pirn, the other resident cat, is shy and probably won’t come in whilst I’m here.
Rebecca cheerfully explains that she’s weaving her first length of cloth since installing a replacement shaft, and it’s looking good, but her fingers are still crossed that nothing else will break under the strain of the whole machine having to accommodate the replacement part.
Production of Hattersley mark 2 looms stopped in the 1980s, and parts are hard to come by. After several months of asking and searching, an old shaft was sourced in Ness, Lewis. Over years of use, the rhythm of a loom causes parts to wear in ways unique to that loom’s personality, so fitting a shaft from another is not necessarily going to work. It puts me in mind of human organ transplants – even a seemingly ideal match can be rejected.
Rebecca is one of very few independent Harris Tweed weavers who weave single-width cloth (currently five in Harris and 14 in Lewis). Although her forebears were all weavers, she had gone off to university to pursue another life. Returning home to help with family matters in 2012 coincided with the Harris Tweed Development Group offering weaving courses and sourcing looms to encourage more folk into what was becoming a dying art.
Rebecca was given a timely boost in the form of renowned Luskentyre weaver Donald John MacKay calling by one day to suggest she weave him a massive 43×8 yard (a weaver’s yard is 8ft) length of cloth. When that passed the stringent regulations required of the Harris Tweed Orb (their trademark of certification that the cloth has been, “Handwoven 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.”) Rebecca was up and running as a bona fide Harris Tweed weaver, and her business, Taobh Tuath Tweeds, has thrived and flourished since.
I perch on the minimal shelf-seat at her loom while we chat, and wonder at the ingenious design of this timeless machine that can turn yarn into such richly coloured weaves of cloth. Rebecca shows me a selection of dyed sheep’s wool, and explains that the colour is literally ‘dyed in the wool’ – batches of fleece are dyed in primary colours before being selected by weight according to the required colour ‘recipe’, mix-blown through a chute, carded, rolled and spun into yarn, rather than the more normal method of dyeing a finished yarn with the desired colour. This means individual colours can still be seen within the warp and weft of the cloth, thus providing the rich tapestry effect that so ably reflects the myriad colours of the landscape.
Within the rules of Harris Tweed production, independent weavers can design their own cloth, and Rebecca has a wonderful, colourful range. Among her most popular is her random patchwork tweed, a riot of ever changing colourways made of the leftover pirn ends (the rod onto which weft thread is wound in order to weave it through the warps). Her cloth can be bought by the yard, and she has also diversified into a range of tweed coasters and jigsaws (the latter using photos of folds of tweed to challenge the most committed of dissectologists).
In returning to the family tradition, Rebecca has embraced her decision of a decade ago to move back home. Cutting peats, harvesting tatties, caring for family and dealing with tourists is all part of modern croft life, at the hub of which resides her weaving shed, the fruit of the loom providing sustenance.