From a humble shed, perched above a beautiful white beach with crystal clear waters, John Mackay worked himself onto the queens honours list, producing tweed for a sportswear giant and mobilising an army of producers.
The wind whips up off of the green blue sea of Luskentyre and nips at our faces as we head to see Donald John Mackay, Harris Tweed maker. His weaving shed sits next to the house overlooking Luskentyre bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, where the sand is porcelain white and the water is a thousand shades of green and blue.
Donald has been weaving Harris Tweed here for over 45 years. Weaving goes back a long way in his family – both his father and grandmother made cloth and the process has hardly changed at all over the years. In order for the cloth to be called Harris Tweed, it has to be handwoven by islanders at their homes, finished and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun all in the Outer Hebrides. From his shed behind the house, on a road by the sea, Donald has woven tweed for global brands, helping re-ignite the slowing Harris tweed industry. Back in 2011 he was awarded an MBE for his services to the industry.
We knock on the door and a loud Sottish accent belted out “come on in boys” from the back of the shed. We enter and see Donald stood, talking to someone. He looked over and says “I’ll be with ya soon boys make yourself comfortable”. The shed is split in two; we wait in the space directly below the loom, stacked rolls of Harris tweed igniting colour in the room and the sun shone in through a large window with an office view as special as they come. Looking out, it’s only the small road we drove up on that separates the house from flowing sand dunes, the beautiful beaches and the surrounding mountains rising from tropical-looking waters.
“They called back and wanted to order 10,000 yards of cloth for a trainer. I only weave on average 27 yards a day, so it would have taken me years to produce.”
We wait patiently and have a good look around. Right next to the door and pinned to the wall is a print out of a range of Clarks Harris Tweed shoes. Donald had worked with the footwear brand to create tweed for the range. Clarks aren’t the only household name Donald has worked for. Back in the ‘90s his wife Maureen, who he runs Luskentyre Harris Tweed with, took a call from Nike. They asked for some samples to try out in a new trainer. After sending off the samples Donald forgot about the phone call – that was until he said “They called back and wanted to order 10,000 yards of cloth for a trainer. I only weave on average 27 yards a day, so it would have taken me years to produce.” But an order that size from a global giant like Nike isn’t something you let slip. Donald set about mobilising weavers throughout the Outer Hebrides. Three months and lots of man hours later they had completed the order. Nike were delighted, the new Terminator trainer was a huge success and they rang back for another 10,000 yards.
Before the Nike order there were only around 80 weavers left in the Outer Hebrides, but the success of the Nike range raised the popularity of Harris Tweed exponentially, opening it up to a completely new audience and making tweed ‘cool’ again. There are now over 200 weavers, producing cloth for everything from tailored suits to cushion covers. Donald says “Thankfully there is a new generation of weavers coming through, I’ve got nephews who weave and I’m delighted to be able pass on skills I learned from my father.” This young blood coming through and a renewed global interest in the islands’ handwoven cloth means the future of the Harris Tweed industry looks solid and incredibly bright.