In Scotland, local plants and lichens inspire the makers of Harris tweed. In south-western China, Bai people use woad root to tie-dye their clothes.
In the western isles of Scotland, it is the local plants and lichens that inspire the makers of Harris tweed. In south-western China, Bai people use woad root to tie-dye their clothes. On opposite sides of the planet, artisans combine nature and tradition to produce highly sought-after garments.
Incredible landscapes inspire the makers of Harris Tweed
Scotland’s Outer Hebrides lie on the edge of north-western Europe. The incredible landscape is the inspiration for the colours that are woven into the famous fabric that is made here.
Harris Tweed Hebrides is one of three mills on the island. Production and Design Manager Calum Iain Macleod shows us around.
"It's 100% pure virgin wool," he says. "This is all we can use in Harris Tweed. We can't use any foreign fibres other than 100% wool."
The mill produces over 50 base colours. Once dyed, these are combined to make infinite blends. The wool is then carded and spun into yarn. Protected by parliament, the rules governing Harris Tweed are strict. The cloth must be woven by hand, by the people of the Outer Hebrides.
Once woven, the fabric is brought back to the mill for cleaning and pressing, ready for certification.
"It's presented to the Harris Tweed Authority, who will authenticate it with the famous orb logo," explains Calum. "It must have that stamp to be recognized as Harris Tweed.”
A worldwide brand
Clothes made in Harris Tweed have worldwide appeal.
"We get visitors from all over the world and everybody knows Harris Tweed," says David Galloway, Store Manager at Walker Slater Menswear in Edinburgh. "Those guys are the heart of our business. They know they're going to get a lifetime's wear out of it. They know there’s the history and they want the fabric, they want the weight, they want the colour, they want everything, all the natural thing that comes with Harris Tweed and the full history of that brand.”
The Chinese origins of tie-dyeing
Zhoucheng village is situated close to the city of Dali in the southeast of China. It is the home town of Bai tie-dyeing.
Tie-dyeing is one of three traditional printing techniques with their origins in ancient China. It combines a number of different skills to produce beautiful patterns.
Woad root is at the heart of the process. The Bai people extract a pigment from it for dyeing. They have a unique approach involving eight steps in total. Tying and dyeing are, not surprisingly, the most important.
“In tie-dyeing, making the dye is the first creative step," explains Duan Yinkai, a Bai Tie-dye Master who was born into a Bai tie-dye family. "Followed by the tying, which is the second. You must keep the stitches even.”
The designs in the Bai people’s tie-dyes represent what they see in Nature. Every line tells a story about the environment surrounding them.
The last step is when you get to witness the miracle. The stitches are cut away, and the threads removed from entangled places, to reveal the patterns that were hidden among the tight knots.
“Tie-dyeing is like giving birth," says Duan. "You never know what your baby will look like when it’s in your belly.”
You need to be careful. A tiny slip, and you can make a hole that will ruin the whole piece.
It is the unpredictable outcome that makes tie-dying exciting. You never get two patterns and colours that are exactly the same.