Ashley Watson Learns About Wool.
Words & Images Ashley Watson
The ferry beat a path through thirty miles of deep turquoise water, heading for the Isle of Harris off the coast of Scotland. At the port at Tarbert, I rode off on my Kawasaki W650 and followed a ribbon of tarmac over the shoulders of Clisham, the highest peak in the Outer Hebrides, heading for Carloway Mill, one of the island’s main producers of Harris Tweed.
Harris Tweed is one of the world’s most respected fabrics. Like a pre-war Brough, it has an aura and a presence, and every stage of fabric production — from spinning to weaving —takes place on this unassuming island. The fabric’s legacy is protected under law by the 1993 Harris Tweed Act of Parliament and in order to carry the prestigious name, Harris Tweed must be made from pure virgin wool that’s been dyed, spun, and handwoven by these local islanders. Harris Tweed is best known for its use of color. Rather than weaving one shade, a palette of dyed wool is combined in different formulas to build an impression of depth, and the resulting cloth is littered with vibrant sparks and pops.
When I pulled up to the mill, I met one of Carloway’s technicians, Willie (pronounced Wolly). He told me about his 35 motorcycles, stored in two containers at the end of his garden, then marked my map with the waypoints of a local route he and his friends call “the circuit.” Before Willie left to go back to work, he gave me his phone number in case I had any problems, and I was reminded of how generous the motorcycling community can be.
I’d only ever handled finished Harris Tweed, so it was magic seeing the wool mixed, carded, and spun at Carloway. Thumbing through the mill’s archive, I saw all the colors from the landscapes that I’d just ridden through; too often I look for inspiration in far-flung places, and I appreciated that Carloway draws inspiration from what’s under its nose.
Having worked for a decade as a clothing designer, I’ve visited a number of spinners and weavers, and what sets Carloway apart from other mills I’ve seen is its machinery; the earliest machine dates back to 1892, and the newest has been at work for fifty years. I respect companies that keep old machinery working because if someone takes care of their tools, you know they take pride in what they’re producing.
Harris Tweed is known for its unquestionable quality, and visiting Carloway I saw behind its legacy and aura. There are no tricks or marketing strategies, just passionate people striving to create the best possible product. As I rode away from Carloway, I thought to myself: “When you break it down, what more is there?”
Ashley Watson Hockliffe Overshirt: Works brilliantly when riding, then remove the armor and wear it out for the night.
Ashley Watson Orkney Baffle: A Merino wool neckpiece I rarely take off.
Redwing Harvesters: Indestructible boots, with10,000 miles, and counting.
Bell Bullit: The huge eyeport allows me to use my camera without removing my helmet.
Kodak Portra 400: Film with fantastic color tone that’s perfect for a road trip.