First Person: Donald John Mackay
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
I work in a small tin shed behind my house in the tiny village of Luskentyre on Harris, in the Outer Hebrides. There are mountains and sea all around with beautiful views of the western shore but I don’t get a lot of time to stop and look out of the window when I’m working at the loom.
Weaving goes back a long way in my family. Both my father and grandmother made cloth and one of my earliest memories is of watching Dad in his loom shed. I was small and the machine seemed big and noisy but, as I grew older, I was allowed to help more with the wooden bobbins and operate the loom pedals. I’m 61 now and have been making Harris tweed in my own shed for 43 years.
One day in 2004, my wife, Maureen, came out to the shed and said there was a company called Nike on the phone, calling from America. I didn’t know who they were but they said they wanted some samples of my tweed that they might use in the design of a new shoe.
We sent off a package of my traditional tweed designs to their offices in the US but, to be honest, I didn’t expect to hear anything back. As the weeks passed, I forgot all about the phone call and the samples we’d sent. But then in March the same year the company contacted me out of the blue and this time they asked if I could provide 10,000 yards of cloth for a trainer called the Terminator.
It was a very big order but I wasn’t going to say no. I normally make 27 yards of tweed a day, so somehow I had to find a way to make it work. We mobilised weavers throughout the Outer Hebrides. It took us three months to complete the order. Nike was delighted – even Madonna wore the trainer – and almost immediately they asked for another 10,000 yards. That was sent out in a separate consignment the same year. Since then, Nike has been back to us several times; the last occasion was in 2010 when they ordered 6,000 yards of cloth for a new shoe. I can’t say how much the Nike orders were for, but it was a lot of money.
For us the most important thing is that it has helped Harris tweed become fashionable again. Ten years ago the tweed industry was in serious decline because the cloth had an old-fashioned image and wasn’t what the young people wanted to wear.
There were only about 80 weavers left on the island before the Nike order came in. Now there are more than 200 – and there’s plenty of work. Ralph Lauren has also used our cloth, as well as the tailor Patrick Grant, of Savile Row. Clarks used Harris tweed in a boot design.
Television programmes such as Downton Abbey have also helped. A man in a beautifully cut tweed suit is once again very fashionable, especially with a pair of brogues. I honestly don’t see the demand dying away again – a good tweed jacket is something you can wear year after year.
I’m very proud of the success of Harris tweed. I’ve met many interesting people through my work – we’ve had TV stations from all over the world filming to see how tweed is made. I try to work 10 hours a day but since tweed has become so popular, I seem to have more visitors and phone calls than ever. Sometimes people come to Harris to see where tweed is made and they’re expecting to find a huge factory. I think they are amazed when they find my place – just a shed behind a house, on a road by the sea. I still like nothing more than sitting at the loom.
I don’t have any children, and I used to fear that when I grew old there would be nobody to run the family business. But two of my young nephews are learning the trade and I hope they will carry on the tradition. I know I won’t stop making tweed until they find me dead at my loom.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published