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Q&A With Andrea Holden of Skye Weavers - Made in Scotland Series

Posted by James King on

We're delighted to welcome Andrea Holden - the co-founder of Skye Weavers - for our latest Made in Scotland interview. Have a read to learn about the complicated process of working with wool, the beauty of Skye and why weaving is such an important part of Scotland's culture. 

On your website you describe your passion for preserving the knowledge and quality associated with Scottish tweeds and garments. Please can you tell us a bit about why this is so important to you and how you got into weaving and textiles in the first place?

The inspiration for Skye Weavers came from living and working at Ardalanish, an organic farm and weaving mill on the Isle of Mull. I met Roger at Ardalanish when I came on a working holiday from Germany to Mull. He was working on the farm at that time, growing crops and looking after a large flock of Hebridean sheep and a herd of Highland cattle.

Minty and Aeneas MacKay, the then owners of the farm, are both very inspirational people. They started the weaving at Ardalanish because they wanted to make most of what they had on the place. With the weaving they managed to turn the financially almost worthless coloured sheep’s wool into a real asset and beautiful product.

The other critical person in our move towards the weaving is Bob Ryan. He and his wife Kathie had set up the original Isle of Mull Weavers in the 80s. When they retired, Minty and Aeneas approached him and bought the business. Bob got the weaving machinery set up again at Ardalanish and, despite retirement plans, he is still training up new apprentices even now.

When we decided to buy a bicycle pedal-powered loom and start our own weaving business on the Isle of Skye, Bob taught us all the basics and we had a lot of support from everyone at Ardalanish.

If Minty and Aeneas hadn’t taken on the weaving at Ardalanish, Bob would have sold off all the equipment separately and all his knowledge would have been lost. As it is, he’s trained so many people and quite a few of them have now set up their own textile businesses.

When Bob took up loom tuning and weaving as a young man, there were lots of mills, especially in the north of England. So much of this industry has moved overseas now and a lot of knowledge has been lost. We’ve seen how keeping a tradition alive at a critical moment, can inspire a lot of people further down the line and sew seeds for future textile enterprises.

What is a typical day like for you?

Our daily rhythms vary a lot depending on the time of the year. Between Easter and October our opening hours are between 10am and 6pm. This means at least one of us will be weaving and showing our visitors around. If we need to get some urgent weaving done, we’ll do that before and after opening hours. Winter is our main production time.

We don’t have regular opening hours then and there are only few visitors to the island. We’re spending a lot of time on the loom, but also catch up on other things which get put aside in the busy summer months. Winter is also the time when we tackle projects which are more difficult to set up on the loom.

How would you describe the woven products that you make?

We’re weaving a variety products made from sheep’s wool. This includes bolts of tweed, scarves, shawls, throws and wraps. We use some of the tweed to make a small range of garments and home furnishings. Everything we sell has been woven by us on our pedal-powered loom.

Which of your designs are you most proud of and why?

Many of our designs have their origin in observations of the little things close to the ground. We’re fascinated by the colours and textures of mosses, lichens, bark, grasses, rocks and water surfaces. We love turning close-up looks at the landscape into fabric patterns.

Not all our ideas are directly connected with our Skye surroundings though. Sometimes we just really like a particular weave design or fall in love with a new colour available from our spinners. The colour for this shawl was naturally dyed by Tony and Eva Lambert of Shilasdair Yarns on Skye.

What does creating an item to sell involve from beginning to end and what are aspects of the process you like and dislike the most?

It’s a long process from design idea to finished product. It involves translating an idea into a pattern that’s workable on the loom, making samples, ordering the yarn, winding and warping the yarn, setting up the loom, weaving, mending, finishing and labelling. For more details and pictures you can visit our website - we’ve explained all the processes from sheep to tweed there.

How do you see the future of traditional design methods in Scotland?

Weaving has been a very important part of Scottish culture. There’s the world famous Harris Tweed, but also the big mills in Elgin and the Scottish borders. Some of the patterns go back a long way, but there are plenty of new ones emerging all the time.

Weaving is the interlacing of warp and weft threads and no matter what type of loom it is, that’s what it always comes back to. Even though production speed has increased with modern loom technology, the design methods are still the same.

How has your move to Skye influenced you and what other parts of Scotland are important to you (and why)?

We only started the weaving as a business when we moved to Skye. We didn’t know how it was going to work out, but we loved our pedal-powered loom and being able to create fabric by cycling. A few years down the line, the business has developed much faster than expected. We’ve even been able to take somebody on to work with us.

Living on Skye provides endless inspiration for new designs and patterns. It’s a hugely varied landscape with dramatic changes in colours over the course of the year.

For a break we often head to the north-west of Scotland, a stunning landscape dominated by rock and water. We both like hill-walking and the scenery up north is hard to beat.

What else inspires you to create?

I get many of my ideas while I’m out on a cycle ride, but it could also be on a walk through the city. The nice thing about working on a manually powered loom is that it gives you the time to think about these ideas and plan the next creation while doing a repetitive activity.

What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to make a living by following their passion?

Not sure, every situation is so different. I still think we are just very lucky with how things have worked out for us so far. If we had trusted our business plan, we wouldn’t have dared to start a business, but that doesn’t mean I’m advising against making a business plan. I think one of the vital ingredients is to be passionate about what you’re doing.

A big thanks to Andrea for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out the Skye Weavers website and follow them on Facebook.

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