Photographer Ian Lawson offers a loving portrait of Harris tweed in his new book, From the Land Comes the Cloth
here is a magic to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This string of more than 200 islands situated northwest of the British mainland, only a handful of which are inhabited, is bursting with rugged beauty. Thatched-roof houses and boats dot rocky shores, and out from behind the rolling cloud cover (often stereotypically dark and stormy) occasionally peeks a bright blue sky. Here, the landscape informs the lifestyle: A hard-working sheep-farming community steeped in tradition functions much as it might have 50, 60 or even 100 years ago. Much of those traditions surround a singular claim to fame: weaving one of the world’s most celebrated luxury fabrics, Harris tweed.
The new book by English photographer Ian Lawson, From the Land Comes the Cloth: A Journey to the Heart of the Hebrides, documents the artisanal charm of tweed production and contextualizes it against the spectacular physical backdrop of the islands. The book’s title, an English translation of a common Scottish Gaelic phrase, sums it up: This is the story of a distinct heritage formed in a unique environment. For several years, Lawson shot images of the land and the people of Harris and Lewis, the largest island of the Outer Hebrides, compiling what some claim is the finest photographic book of Scotland they have ever seen.
Lawson’s personal journey wasn’t so simple. Though he focused on landscapes while studying fine arts photography at Manchester Polytechnic, he ended up primarily shooting architecture. “I didn’t want to do it,” he says, “but I did the best I could, and the commissions kept coming.”
Thirty years later, at age 50, Lawson realized he hadn’t “done landscape,” the focus of his education.
“When I wanted to escape working in the built environment, I’d go to the Outer Hebrides,” he says. “Heritage and history there had largely remained intact due to [the islands’] isolation. It was a little like stepping back in time. For four years, I documented the landscape.”
Initially, Lawson focused on the raw beauty of the islands. Through rain and shine, he watched the progression of the seasons. He was finally shooting what he’d dreamed of, but his ultimate achievement—this book—required a serendipitous failure.
“In 2008, I stumbled across a weaver’s loom shed. I had lost a fishing boat I was trying to capture on the sea, and I went back to the car and found the shed,” says Lawson. “All the colors and textures I could have possibly imagined, they all reminded me of the colors and textures I had recorded on the landscape. That night, I thought I would like to start matching these up, connecting people, place and product.”
witching his focus, Lawson began documenting the story of the tweed economy on Harris and Lewis as he saw it. Artisanal tweed, produced here by crofters, or farmers, with looms at their own homesteads, is exported around the world to supply luxury brands. Older weavers choose colors and patterns of their own accord. The fabric created is informed by the textures and colors of the landscape the makers inhabit.
From the Land Comes the Cloth plays out in two parts. The first part introduces tweed and describes how it is made. As Lawson got to know the native crofters, they introduced him to sheep breeders. He remembers one man from the island of Valtos, whom he’d first seen in an issue of National Geographic.
“I recall seeing a photograph of a crofter from the island and his son, who were ferrying lambs to another island…a little blue rowing boat with eight sheep and up to 16 lambs,” Lawson says. “I eventually joined in on that experience—eight trips, running lambs and sheep across to green pastures.”
Anecdotes like this make up the book, and Lawson’s journal entries detail the stories that go behind the iconic tweed. In the second part of the book, Lawson juxtaposes sensational photographs of the landscape with tweed on the loom; the connection between land and cloth is impossible to miss. Lawson says he ended up “creating a book about a product that is quite iconic in the textile industry,” which stands in contrast to the relative anonymity of the people who create that product.
“It’s a strange old thing, Harris tweed,” Lawson says. “I was lucky enough to have 10 years to capture these special people who embody the island of Harris.”
From the Land Comes the Cloth is available for $253.73 US at http://www.fromtheland.co.uk.
NICK SCHONBERGER is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and a coauthor of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.