Compelling first day on the road to the creation of the ‘Cowal Tweed’

Even with the Dunoon Burgh Hall closed for the duration of its exhilarating major renovation, the team are still fuelling Cowal with enviable creative stimulus through the Pop Up Gallery at 33 Argyll Street.

This is an open plan all-inclusive gallery, shop and workshop space, its openness emblematic of the spirit and the philosophy of what Dunoon Burgh Hall has been in the last few years.

The latest inspiration involves attracting interested local people to be an active and creative part of a process that will see the creation of the ‘Cowal Tweed’  a specially designed and produced Harris Tweed whose name will be registered as the ‘Cowal Tweed’.

50 metres of the tweed will be woven, finished to a 29 inch width and used to upholster bench seating and cushions in various parts of the revisioned Burgh Hall.


The adventure in textile design is led by Dunoon based artist Sandi Kiehlman [left, top] – who proved the sort of workshop leader you dream of and who began the challenge today, with four local artists in various media – artist and weaver Sarah Sumsion, an expert in weaving and wool who has lent some looms for the creative workshops in this project; designer, Frances Sutton; artist Marij Van Helmond – currently working in glass; and felting artist and designer, Pieter van der Werf who, with Fiona Page, is the Orains Design Partnership.

Jenny Hunter, from the Burgh Hall team and herself an artist, walked the tightrope between participation and organisation.


The ‘Cowal Tweed’ is to be inspired by the colours and textures of the Cowal landscape. It will be woven over the coming winter by Harris Tweed weaver, Rebecca Hutton, at her weaving shed in Northton on Harris.


Today’s initial session was playful yet focused. There were looms, tweed samples, wools spun and unspun – with unforgettable examples being two irresistably soft coils of unspun wool found by Sarah Sumsion in a shop in Stornoway; and a great skein of wool deliciously redolent of sheep and flaring with the  natural colours of so much of Scotland, brought from weaver Sheila Roderick by Sandi Kiehlman.

The physicality of the wools and the tweeds, the reminder of process in the looms and the attraction of selected landscapes on the walls  – hills, rock, water – were there to provoke notions of colour and texture.

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Pieter van der Werf had a different take on this – saying that were acres of asphalt outside, some awful architecture, some grotty urban squalor [as behind the Queen’s Hall’ – and a vast number of shades of grey. He suggested two Cowal Tweeds – ‘the lovely one and the ugly one’ – and was clearly interested in the challenge of what might emerge from a focus on the ugly one – making beauty from its antithesis.

Learning that there aren’t enough sheep on Harris these days to produce enough wool – and that the wool for Harris Tweed is imported, was a shock and a conundrum all in one. It’s hard to see how this is possible within the context of a protected geographically affiliated brand name. Everything about Harris Tweed must be made in Harris – except the wool?

We’re not going to give the game away as to the first challenge Sandi threw at the participants – but it was fascinating, physical and organic in every way to the job in hand.

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This was very much a hands-on making session in the morning and watching the way different creative people used their hands was an observer’s delight.

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On Saturday 21st November at the Pop Up Gallery at 33 Argyll Street, the woman who will weave the Cowal Tweed design in Harris Tweed,  Rebecca Hutton, will give a public talk about her own weaving. Then she will meet with the participants at Sandi Kiehlman’s workshops to discuss their drawings and ideas and advise on a final design for The Cowal Tweed.

Somehow, everything that has happened in this current two day workshop [day two is tomorrow, 7th November]  and in the one next weekend, on 13th and 14th November, will play a part in concept and design, in that final pattern to be agreed on 21st November – a fortnight away.

Rebecca – very much one of the new and more radical designing weavers, will weave the cloth over the winter and early spring 2016, ready to be made into seat covers and cushions by local textile groups for the refurbished Dunoon Burgh Hall.


Listening to the chat between the knowledgeable artists in weaving and wool today, it emerged that the Harris Tweed industry all but died, following a December 2006 ‘rescue’ by Yorkshire businessman, Brian Haggas, a textile entrepreneur, who bought out the Stornoway-based KM group, which produced over 95% of the islands’ cloth. The business, which employed 100 mill workers and 150 home-based weavers, had been on the market for a number of years.

Haggas’s business plan was to order a limit to four of the number of colours used by the weavers, almost all of whom he then employed.

If you look at even the most apparently plain Harris Tweed, there are always more colours in it than a first glance would suggest – and it is full of little accents. That is the subtlety of the marriage of what colours are specifically set and used in the warp and weft of the fabric.

Haggas literally sucked the life out of the tweed and out of the industry. Weavers are not production line robots turning out repitions to template. They are supremely creative, responding as much intuitively as by design to the stimulus of the wools and their dyes, their hands making as many decisions as their heads.

The industry just died. Weavers lost challenge and inspiration. They topped weaving. They sold – or disposed of their looms when there were so many for sale that none could be sold. Today those big Hattersley looms they abandoned cost £15,000 to buy again.

Sales slumped. Mr Haggas is reported to have a warehouse full of incredibly dull Harris Tweed suits and jackets he cannot sell. No one is sympathetic to that misfortune.

Five years later, by November 2012, weaving was back on song – and singing with the colour whose deprivation had been the – fortunately temporary – end of it. Skills had been lost, of course, with the retirement of so many weavers – so the first job was to train new weavers.

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A five-year initiative to recruit teenagers, with Brian Wilson, former Labour Energy Minister very much to the fore in the move, saw in a renaissance for Harris Tweed that few could have predicted.

By the end of 2012 production had hit a million metres in that year. There were more than a thousand designs, from the rater muted traditional colour blends to unapologetic brights with patterns of bold reds, pinks and yellows.

Harris Tweed – championed by the coolest of Dr Whos, Matt Smith, had become super-cool, used in the high street men’s fashion ranges in Top Man and by the preppy J-Crew line. It was handstitched on to Nike trainers, Converse boots, Doc Martens and North Face jackets.

These objets du moment were selling for top dollar internationally, chic by cowl with Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton.

Production zoomed and thanks to weavers like Donald John Mackay and Sheila Roderick [who trained Rebecca Hutton, the weaver is’ at the treadling end of producing the ‘Cowal Tweed’], it has become stronger by the year. Donald John Mackay has recently been weaving a design for Chanel.

And by the end of next Spring, the ‘Cowal Tweed’ will be a proud member of the registered patterns of Harris Tweed.

Only the Dunoon Burgh Hall team could have come up with such a weld of an idea, pulling places, people, cultures, ideas and creative skills together from across Argyll and the Outer Isles and bringing the results home to Dunoon to grace the regeneration of a proud local building.

If the rest of this freewheeling project is as much fun and as promising as this morning’s, the end result can only be memorable.

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