Thursday, 28 February 2008

Lewis chessmen

I got back last week from a very enjoyable holiday in London where I spent a good bit of my time in the British Museum. We went primarily to see the exhibition "The first emperor" with the Chinese terracotta warriors. It was fascinating and well worth the visit.

I also took the time to visit an old favourite of mine - the museum's display of the Lewis Chessmen. This is a collection of chess pieces believed to be 12th Norse that were found on the Isle of Lewis in the early part of the 19th century. I spent a lot of time in the museum photographing and drawing some of the pieces.

A number of years ago I made a chess set with an embroidered Harris Tweed "board" and solid hand-made felt pieces. A glimpse of this set can be seen on my website. Now I want to try and make a similar sort of thing, but having both board and pieces based on the Lewis Chessmen. Many people have made reproductions of these wonderful characters, but I have never heard of a textile version. There are several technical problems that I have to sort out, to say nothing of finalising the designs, so it could be a long-term project. In the meantime, if you would like an embroidered Harris Tweed chessboard with 4cm squares and hand-made felt drafts pieces let me know - cost is £65 and for this you get something that is decorative and unique. Or if you are a serious collector, you might like to purchase my big chess set at £800. Let me know and I will send photographs.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Aviemore - again
I will be there on stand K2 - with a good view out the window towards the surrounding countryside.

That's what I said a few days ago, but the show organiser has had to make some changes to accommodate more exhibitors who are wanting smaller stands. So - yes, I will still be there, but instead of the nice view out of the window, I have to content myself with a good view of the door! My stand number is B2, just inside the entrance to the Osprey Arena so you can't miss me!

Any buyers out there who want to stock our products, come along to the show. You can pre-register at the Aviemore Trade Show website, or if you contact me ( ) with your details I will post you a buyers invitation. Please be awared that this show is for trade only and proof of trading will be requested. If you can't make it to the show, email me for details of our range and a wholesale pricelist.

What is Harris Tweed

I am often asked what it is that makes a fabric Harris Tweed.

Harris Tweed is known across the world as a hard-wearing woollen fabric traditionally used to make mens' sports jackets, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Certification is managed by the Harris Tweed Authority which is based in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. To qualify as Harris Tweed a cloth must meet the following criteria:-

  • it must be 100% pure new wool.
  • all the wool must come from Scotland.
  • all parts of the process of making the cloth (cleaning, carding and spinning the yarn, preparing the warps, weaving and finishing) must be carried out in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
  • the cloth must be hand-woven at the weaver's own home.
  • it must meet the quality requirements set by the HTA.

Hand-woven is a bit of a misnomer. It really means that the weaving must be done on a loom that is powered by the weaver - no electrical or mechanical powering. There are two types of loom commonly in use for weaving Harris Tweed. The traditional Hattersley loom is used for making the single width tweed (75cm). It is powered by two foot pedals that get pumped up and down. In recent years many weavers have moved over to a rapier loom so that they can produce double width cloth (150cm) . This type is also operated by foot pedal, but in this case they are rather like the pedals on a bicycle and it is not quite such physically demanding work as the Hattersley loom. In both types, the pattern is controlled by means of a chain with different holes that give instructions to raise or lower the 4 heddles.

The main weave patterns used are either a simple twill or a herringbone although other weaves are used for some tweeds. When these different weave structures are combined with varying colours of yarns arranged in different patterns it means there is an almost infinite variety of tweeds available.

Traditional earth-toned colours tend to be what springs to mind for those who don't know much about Harris Tweed, but there are tweeds produced across the whole spectrum, from pastels to brights, from neutral colours to vivid rainbow shades. There are lots of plain self-coloured tweed produced (twill weave) as well as patterned, but "self-coloured" is another misnomer. The wool fibre is dyed prior to carding and spinning. Different qualities of fibre pick up the dyes to a greater or lesser extent and these will all be mixed in together in the final yarn. Also, small amounts of other colours will be added to the mix for carding so in any given tweed you will find at least 4 or 5 different colours and shades of fibre. (To see what I mean, look at the photographs on the HTA website.) For example, a green tweed will likely have blue, yellow and brown fibres along with 2 or 3 shades of green. These mixes make for very lively looking fabrics - nothing "flat" about Harris Tweed.

We try to keep about 100 different colours and patterns in stock at any given time, but this stock is constantly changing. We tend to buy fairly small quantities of each colour so that we can give our customers lots to choose from, but that does mean that repeats are not easy. We are unlikely to be able to match anything that is more than a couple of years old. In addition, last year a Yorkshire company bought up the main mill on the islands - Kenneth Mackenzies and they are now only producing tweed for making up their own range of clothing. As many of our plain tweeds came from there, we are now having to source elsewhere. Fortunately, this change of direction opened the way for two other mills on the Isle of Lewis to re-open under new managements - Harris Tweed Textiles Ltd and Harris Tweed Hebrides. Both these companies are now catering for makers such as myself and new colour ranges are coming on stream.

There are also several independant weavers and whenever possible I try to source tweed from them. My next trip across to the islands is likely to be in early April. I go mainly to visit my mother, but we both really enjoy visiting the weavers and mills and selecting tweeds - it feels like Christmas when we get back to her house and start opening up all the gorgeous tweeds we have found. My appliqué technique gives me lots of scope to team up different tweeds - whether I go for tone on tone or strong contrasts, the scope is endless and exciting. Look through our website and you will get an idea of the range of colours. Or download the catalogue and browse at leisure - in the introduction you will find out a bit more about Harris Tweed and see a photograph of a small selection of the tweeds from a previous shopping trip.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Spring is in the Air!

Well it may still be early February, but today and yesterday it almost felt like summer - and when inside, looking out, it certainly looked like summer. Except that the trees are still bare and the sun is low in the sky.

A low sun causes difficulties for me. Yes, my workroom (my "sweatshop"!) is lovely and bright, but the screens on computers, sewing machines and embroidery machines are much more difficult to see. I find myself sitting at awkward angles and squinting. However, we see little enough of the sun through the winter that I am NOT complaining!

We had a very productive day today (does sunshine speed us up?) with Mary making up several shoulderbags and me making lots of silk-lined tweed scarves. The scarves all have to be pressed and have the fringed ends brushed and trimmed, but we are well on the way to completing the next big order. These will all be winging their way to Iona Abbey for sale in the Abbey shop.

The Isle of Iona was the base chosen by St Columba when he came to bring the Christian message to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland over 14 centuries ago. The island hosts an impressive collection of Celtic sculpture some of which has provided inspiration for some of my Celtic designs.

The island is also a typical Hebridean island with regards to its flora. This year we are developing a new range of designs to complement the Celtic designs for which we are well known. This new range is called "Moor and Machair". Most people think of moorland as rather bleak and barren with little more than miles of peat and heather, but it plays host to a wealth of beautiful flowers such as the heath spotted orchid, tormentil and bog asphodel. Machair is the Gaelic name for the sandy fertile grassland found between the beautiful sandy beaches for which Scotland is renowned and the moor. In summer the machair is ablaze with colour from swathes of flowers such as birds' foot trefoil, red clover, lady's bedstraw and harebells. In our new embroidery designs we are taking these tiny flowers, analyzing the structures and developing designs that are large enough for the detail to be easily seen. So far we have designs for the wild rose, Rosa rugosa, harebells, Campanula rotundifolia - often called a bluebell in Scotland - tormentil, Potentilla erecta, bog cotton and bogbean. Have a look at the website to see some examples. More designs are being developed but it takes time to do the drawings, transfer them to the computer, digitize the embroidery instructions, test them out and then actually make them up into things that people will want to buy. If you have a favourite that you want us to work on, please let us know by emailing

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Celtic Cross - an exhibition

I will have some of my worked displayed in an exhibition being mounted by Walkers Celtic Jewelry in Rochester, New York State, USA. For more information, visit their website at

The particular examples of my work on display are two very different Celtic Cross wallhangings and a priest's stole.

One wallhanging is a knotwork cross created using an inlay technique from hand-made felt and embellished with beading and free motion machine embroidery.

The second wallhanging is made from Harris Tweed and is based on the ancient St Martin's cross on the Isle of Iona. It is made using applique and machine embroidery, with and fringe along the bottom edge made of hand twisted tassles.

To see other examples of my wallhangings, visit "Anna Macneil"

The stole is a green stole with embroidery over the entire surface. The embroidery is a knotwork design that has small crosses formed by the spaces in the knotwork. This interlace design is made with tartan (Scottish Odyssey) and the stole is lined with the same tartan. It has a hand woven fringe along the bottom edges - or at least it will have when I've finished weaving it!

To see other examples of priest's stoles, visit "Ecclesiastical Embroidery".

Today I have been working on another stole - a commission. I have got all the embroidery done, but now have to weave the fringe and do all the hand stitching.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Aviemore Trade Show - April 2008

There are hundreds of people like me - designer-makers - working and producing in Scotland. Most of us are far too busy being creative to be able to spend much time on marketing, but unless we get our work out there in front of the public, you don't know what we can do.

In 2007 stained glass artist Gail Steele of Half-A-Moon organised a new event to help address this problem. At this show you will only find products made in Scotland - no far east imports, no tat.

The show is aimed at anyone with a retail outlet selling quality gifts, art and crafts. It attracts buyers from all over the world who are looking for things from Scotland as well as Scottish buyers looking for stock for local shops. It is a trade only show, not for the general public

Many of the exhibitors are showing for the first time. Others have been around for many years, but they will be bringing exciting new ranges to the show. If you are interested either in exhibiting or visiting as a buyer, take a look at the website :
I will be there on stand K2 - with a good view out the window towards the surrounding countryside ready to take orders from people who are looking for Scottish products that are:
  • designed and made in Scotland
  • by a Scot
  • to designs inspired by Scotland's history
  • using fabric that is woven in Scotland
  • from wool that comes from Scottish sheep!
If you want to see what I make, take a look at the Anna Macneil website.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Starting out with blogging

OK - it's been suggested that I start a blog as a good way of giving people some background to what I do and why I do it, without cluttering up my two business websites with incidental information.
I am an embroiderer / textile artist. I have three main themes to my work:-

Ecclesiastical embroidery - visit for more information.
Celtic & Pictish inspired embroidery - visit my main website to see the range of things that I make along with my mother and daughter in this 3 generation family business
Feltmaking - I don't have a dedicated website for this, but you can see some examples of what I do on the Anna Macneil site -

My aim is from time to time to post accounts of anything new or exciting that I have been doing - today was a bit tedious, as I spent the afternoon modifying a purple altar frontal for our church - the Church of St Michael & All Angels, Inverness - so that it is easier to put on and off. Tomorrow is the start of Lent, for which the liturgical colour is purple, so it had to be done today. Well - it should have been done last week, but I didn't get round to it till my husband threatened to make the alterations with drawing pins and sticky tape!!!!!!!!!