Since 1840, peasant farmers - known as "crofters" - on the wind-swept rocky islands of the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, have produced the internationally famous Harris tweed material for sale to the outside world.
Since 1840, peasant farmers - known as "crofters" - on the wind-swept rocky islands of the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, have produced the internationally famous Harris tweed material for sale to the outside world. Before this time the cloth was used only for the islanders. In Scotland's export trade today, over 2000 different designs of the tweed are second in importance only to whisky.
Large spinning plants dye, spin and prepare the wool for the tweed in Stornoway - the largest and most flourishing town in the Outer Hebrides. It is then sent to various islands to be woven by the crofters.
In the primitive old stone crofter's cottages, on islands like Lewis, Harris and Carloway, oil paraffin lamps are used for lighting and peat fires for cooking, but there are many modern cottages too, with shining new cars outside and many other signs of the times. The actual weaving of the yarn is done in the homes of the weavers, mostly on treadle-looms costing over GBP100.
Manager, weaver, foreman and craftsman all in one, the Hebridean prefers to use him home as his workshop. His wife may wind the yarn on to shuttle bobbies for him, while his son - a few doors away - may be "warping" the spun yarn. This means preparing the basic pattern of the colours by winding the threads - sometimes as much as 80 yards in length - on a frame of wooden pegs, making sure of an even tension throughout. In some cases warping is carried out at the tweed manufacturers before despatch to the weavers.
After weaving is completed, the cloth is returned to the spinning plants where it is examined, cleaned, shrunk and finished. Then it is packed, labelled and despatched to markets all over the world including: Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Western Germany, France and Scandinavia.
The crofters - who are paid for their work by means of a mobile bank which tours the islands - often have other responsibilities. Peat which tours the islands - often have other responsibilities. Peat gathering, farming building and fishing sometimes involve the whole family. In the fine summer months, until midnight when possible, men, women and children are in the fields cutting peat. Mounds of peat are dried out and stacked against the cottages they will be used to heat.
Over the centuries, the islanders have changed very little in character. Gaelic is still the language of the home and, where a child goes to school, he is taught his first foreign language - English. This applies in all the rural villages but not in Stornoway the island capital with its population of 5000. There it is curiosity mixed with some streets named in Gaelic and some in English.
On the island of Lewis, the crofters have enthusiastically taken up a new system of creating pasture by surface seeding. In 1958 they created 500 acres of new pasture, in 1959, 1000 acres and this year, 1,500 acres. This is the start of a real agricultural revolution and most of the work is done by the Harris tweed weavers after their day at the loom.