From the land comes the cloth | Harris Tweed

Donald John Mackay. Weaver of traditional Harris Tweed.

Donald John, you grew up on the Isle of Harris and say you can’t remember a time when you didn’t weave tweed. Can you tell us a little about your memories of living on the island and how you got started?

Well, growing up in Leverburgh on the island of Harris, I suppose my first memories of the tweed would have been from five or six years of age when my Dad was weaving and we were seeing it, hearing about it. As time went on at about 10, 11, we could do a few chores for him. My first job would be to, as we used to call it, ‘fitting the bobbins’ that went into the shuttle. By the age of 12 I would have been pedalling the loom, then at 13 I was, you could say, quite competent to be left on my own.

It was a lovely childhood - it wasn’t an easy childhood. My parents, they were poor (as most of our village were) and my Dad and Mum had to work long hours. My Mum seemed to be constantly on the move, on the go, baking, cooking, cleaning or whatever and being pregnant at the same time - because we were a big family. There were eight of us in the family, six boys and two girls. And we’re all here now, settled and working on the island of Harris, all within half an hour of each other – which is something dramatic I think. So, my Dad was always out, other than weaving he was doing other jobs too to earn a few pennies. But it was a lovely childhood, it was lovely.

What do you think it is about Harris Tweed that makes it so enduring?

It’s because it’s so special and it’s got a lot of history behind it, and because thank God it still is – and I hope it will remain – the only fabric in the world that is protected by an Act of Parliament. And it can only be made in this part of the world.

People come from far and wide for your cloth. You’ve worked with big names in the fashion and clothing industries including Savile Row tailor, Patrick Grant, Nike and Clarks – do you have any particularly memorable experiences or favourite collaborations?

I suppose our associations with Nike and Clarks, and Converse. It was certainly Nike when they came here in 2003 that really turned around the fortunes of the Harris Tweed industry. I’m just amazed at the publicity that attracted, because it was publicity no-one could afford and it came for free along with Nike.

My inspiration is my surroundings, the landscape. I try and convert the colours I see from nature into the tweed.

In 2012 you were awarded an MBE for your outstanding contribution to the Harris Tweed industry – how does it feel to be recognised in this way?

It’s a huge honour, and a privilege – very humbling. It was at Holyrood in Edinburgh and it was the Queen herself – she made a special point of coming to see me. It was just absolutely fantastic, I was humbled and honoured and privileged to be there.

Can you tell us one thing that has inspired you, whether it be today, this week, month, or in your lifetime…?

My inspiration is my surroundings, the landscape. A lot of the colours we use reflect the landscape from the window. I try and convert the colours I see from nature into the tweed. 

Donald John, how many miles do you think you’ve pedalled on your loom?

Oh now, I must have been round the world a few times...

And inspiration - well, I have to get up in the morning!

© 2013Debra O'Sullivan

Donald John in his workshop

Donald John in his workshop

Spools on the shelf

Spools on the shelf

Loom threads

Loom threads

PeopleDebra Drew