Monday, 27 December 2010

The smartest dog in town

All the products that we make at Anna Macneil are things that we have wanted for ourselves or have been suggested by friends or family. The latest was the result of a request from my son George's partner, Catherine. They have collie dogs and one of them, Bronte, is quite elderly, arthritic and feels the cold. Catherine asked if I could make a tweed dog coat. She traced a pattern from one that she already had and sent it to me and I promised to make her one for Christmas.

As it was, I only finished it a couple of days before Christmas - me being me, I couldn't resist the idea of going to town with the design and rather got carried away. I am particularly fond of zoomorphic designs and developed a Celtic hound design that I have used on some other products.

The coat is made of Harris Tweed and lined with polar fleece. The design is appliqu├ęd with reflective silver fabric making this a high visibility coat, ideal for walking the dog early on a cold winter morning or late at night. There are elastic straps that hold the coat over the back legs and velcro straps to secure the coat around the belly and across the chest.

George and Catherine brought Bronte round this morning to show off the coat and let me take photographs. The snow is melting fast, but there is still enough around to warrant wearing a thick coat. However, the sun is always low in the sky at this time of year and it was difficult to get good shots.

There are so many different shapes and sizes of dogs that I don't think it would ever be practical to make these as part of our standard retail range, but I am happy to accept bespoke orders. Have a look at our swatches page to choose the colour of tweed that you would like. Email me a photograph of your dog and then I will contact you with what measurements I would need and an indication of price. Factors which influence price are size and complexity of the design. One similar to this would probably work out at around £100, but I can guarantee that you won't meet another dog wearing the same outfit!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas Day

To be able to spend time on Christmas afternoon writing this blog is strange. We only have our son Simon and his girlfriend Megan staying and so dinner tonight will be a quiet affair - at least in terms of numbers. Simon and Len between them will ensure that there is plenty of laughter!

We had a big family dinner yesterday which was a great success and will have another one tomorrow night when son George and his girlfriend come for dinner.

This morning I went to look out of the dining room window to see what the cat was staring at - and promptly did a double take! I know it is just the way the dead leaves are hanging and a play of light, but it really did look as though there was a tiny angel standing on the ground at the foot of the tree.

Here at Anna Macneil we were very busy in the run up to Christmas with people ordering last minute Christmas presents and decorations, so this year I have been quite restrained in decorating our house. Added to which, with all the snow that fell last week, access to greenery was somewhat tricky. However I managed to cut enough to do some simple garlands and wreaths and made use of bare twigs to display some of my hand-painted Christmas eggs.

The Christmas tree looks splendid nestling in the stairwell and covered with my growing collection of stars and angels. Some of these have been bought or received as gifts over the years but most have been made from materials as varied as polystyrene plates and recycled Christmas cards.
I don't know if there was a problem with the electricity supply last Christmas, but several sets of lights blew over the festive season and so I got some new sets this year. I was particularly pleased with the rattan ball lights used on the large holly wreath that adorns the front porch.

I used some strings of red and blue lights to make a simple holly garland that runs along the picture rail in the dining room and a similar set of white lights teamed with sprigs of Scots pine above the window of the sitting room.

Above the crib set in the sitting room I have another twig arrangement adorned with some of our Shetland angels - quite a small twig and only a few angels because we almost sold out of Christmas decorations this year.

OK, now it is off to the kitchen to spend a quiet hour or so preparing veg, emptying the dishwasher and generally clearing the decks ready for the next onslaught!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Dreich December Day

I am on the Isle of Lewis having been visiting my mother. On Wednesday when I traveled here it was touch and go whether I would make it across to Ullapool to catch the ferry. The road was closed until 7am because of snow drifts. I arrived at the ferry terminal just before the ferry did and at that point it was lovely sunshine and all the land round about was white with snow.

However, once on board it had all changed and we sailed from Ullapool in a blizzard that was so thick you could see no land even though we were only yards from the shore. That soon cleared and it was plain sailing the rest of the way - bitterly cold, but bright and calm.

Landing at Stornoway it was clear that they had considerably less snow than the mainland but there was still a lot of white around, particularly across the moors.

I found my mother in reasonably good spirits, though feeling her years and much slower moving around than when I was last across.

On Thursday the weather had changed - instead of 2 degrees, it had risen to 10 and all the snow had gone from around the house and the only evidence of the cold spell was the skating rink that was trying to pretend it was a garden path. Late morning we headed out to the west of the islands to visit some of our trade customers and also to purchase more tweed. Most of the lochs were still frozen over despite the rise in temperature but it was a dark, damp day.

On Friday it was still mild, but as you can see in this photograph it was dreich. This is an old Scots word that loosely translates as drab, cold, damp, miserable - the sort of weather that is completely un-inspiring and makes you convinced that we were meant to hibernate for the winter. This picture gives an idea of just how desolate the moors can be, but it seems to show everything much brighter than it really was. Driving across the moor to the Butt of Lewis I was contantly reminded of one of the reasons why I DON'T want to live on the island.

However there was a plus side to my journey. I went to visit Callum Maclean and collect some tweed he had woven for me. So, between what I got from him and elsewhere, I am going home today with a car packed full of tweed. I have left some with mother to make more hats - certainly the weather for hats and that was what we sold most of at our recent craft fairs. I will go home and make scarves, wraps and lots of other things to have them all ready for the trade show we will exhibit at in January. I know that Mary has spent the last few days sorting out the workroom so that I will have space to put away all our new tweeds.
This photograph shows a small selection of some of the ones I selected particularly for making hats, and in due course the other swatches will appear on our website. Also pictured is one of Callum's tweeds - an autumn toned check - which I particularly like and bought a lot of it.

Now the sun is shining again, the winds of last evening have dropped and it looks as though the ferry is running on time, so I will be back across the Minch this afternoon.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Felt making workshop

In the summer I did a felt workshop for the Merkinch Arts Festival and one of the people at the workshop was so delighted with the techniques I taught that he asked to come and do a one to one session with me.
Alistair - a retired farmer - particularly wanted to make a felt picture of a Highland cow. Normally I would have held the session in my studio in the garden (a wooden shed) but the weather was so cold that we couldn't have worked there for more than about two minutes without hypothermia setting in. Added to which, the water supply to the shed is by way of a garden hose connected to an outside tap - all frozen solid for the last two weeks.
So, knowing the theme for the felting session, I brought in the colours of fibres that I thought we would need along with the various pieces of equipment and we worked at the kitchen table. It was warmer and more spacious and the only drawbacks were that I had to clear things off the table (in our house, nature abhors a horizontal surface!) and we didn't have the benefit of the height adjustable table that I have in the studio.

Alistair came with a photograph that he wanted to work from and we set about making his picture. He went home delighted with the results, and I have to say I was pleased too. He has a little work to do with adding some fine detail using needle-felting, but I think for a novice he made a pretty good job of it.

The sky and the foreground were achieved by traditional wet-felting, with the cow being made using an inlay method combined with some needle-felting that was put in before we did the rolling. The finished picutre had a nice feel of summer for such a cold winter evening. Alistair has taken the picture off with him to Norway to show his daughter.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Craft Fair at Eden Court

This weekend I spent three days exhibiting at a craft fair at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness. Eden Court is just along the road from my home and studio, so is the most convenient craft fair that I do.

I had products from across our range - small velcro-closing purses through to large wallhangings, Christmas decorations and scarves.

Visitors to the fair got a sneak preview of our new product - the "Hebridean Hood". Details will be available on the website in the new year. It received a lot of favourable comments and several people tried it on.

The red scarf you see in the foreground of this photograph was another hit. This is a new design in our range of flared-ends scarves - "Celtic Flame". I will need to make another similar scarf because I only made this last week and didn't have a chance to photograph it. I was particularly pleased with this one, so I do want to feature it on the website.

The large wallhangings received a lot of interest and the green/gold one you can see to the right of the mannequin sold half way through the fair.

As might be expected for an event billed as a Christmas Craft Fair, the Christmas decorations were popular with Tartan Hearts being bought to be sent as presents to destinations around the world and Shetland Angels flying out of the hall.

I have to spend the next few days making more hats and scarves to fill orders for shops and then it will be another round of packing up and setting up my stall at the next event - the Victorian Craft Fair at Brodie Castle.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Craft Fairs

I will have a stall at three craft fairs over the next few weeks. At these we will have all our usual things plus a few extras - hats & scarves, bags & purses, cushions & wallhangings, wraps, Christmas decorations plus some other bits and pieces.

Friday 19th to Sunday 21st November - Bishop's Palace at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness
This event is organised by Exclusively Highlands and features all sorts of quality crafts from local makers. On the Friday it is open from 3pm till 9pm and on Saturday & Sunday it is 10am till 5pm, so plenty of time to browse around all the stalls and do some serious Christmas shopping.

Friday 26th to Sunday 28th November - Brodie Castle, near Forres
Another Exclusively Highlands event run in conjunction with the National Trust for Scotland, the fair is from 10 till 4 on each of the three days. Stalls will be spread around throughout the castle and I believe some will be in a heated marquee opening onto the library.

Wednesday 1st December - Stirling Castle
This event is organised by Historic Scotland and as well as having things for sale I will be demonstrating my Celtic embroidery technique. The fair is open 5.30 to 8.30pm and the entry fee includes entry to the castle itself.

If you can't make it to any of these events, use our on-line shop where you can find our entire range. There is still plenty of time to choose what you want and have it made in your choice of colour and design.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Photography session

On Thursday we had a day out in west Sutherland photographing some of our products for next year's catalogue and for the website. My brother is a photographer and lives in Lochinver - an area with stunning landscapes that provide wonderful backdrops to show off our fashion accessories. We found an interesting hat stand there, but it would have been a bit awkward to take home!
The weather on the way over was not promising, but by the time we reached Lochinver things were a bit brighter. Martin, Mary and I headed out right away to the shores of Loch Assynt leaving Mary's daughters Rachel and Lauren with Martin's wife and children.

We started off with some items from our Moor and Machair range. This "sundew" purse was a new design this year and fits particularly well in this moorland setting. Sundew is a little insectiverous that grows in boggy places. These velcro closing purses are the perfect thing for keeping your credit card, and keys - the times when you want to go out without the encumbrance of a bag.

After an hour or so we headed back to the house for lunch. By the time we had finished the weather had brightened up considerably so we all headed off to Achmelvich beach where the children settled in to beach activities right away - Catherine (Martin's baby - 10 months old) started eating the sand!

Robert wanted to be photographed too - you see him here with Martin showing him the results.

Rachel has shot up this summer and has now grown taller than me so we felt she was ready to help out with the modeling. Of course her little sister, Lauren wanted to join in too.

Martin's wife Cristine joined in as well and between the four of them we managed to photograph hats, scarves, bags and wraps in a wonderful setting.

By the time the sun started getting a bit low for good pictures the children were needing to let off steam and started turning cartwheels on the sand. Mary couldn't resist and just had to prove that even though she is getting older she can still turn a good cartwheel. You see her here modeling one of our tweed belts in a somewhat unusual position!

The patch-pocket wraps pictured here have now been sent over to The Harris Tweed Shop on the Isle of Harris along with some scarves and hats. These wraps can be worn as a wide scarf or as a shawl - perfect when you want a bit of extra warmth around your shoulders. We also do a wider style with triangular shaped pockets and more embroidery, which as you can see here can be wrapped round baby as well!

Parcels of scarves have just headed off to the Isle of Lewis ferry and to Arbroath Abbey and more will soon be heading to St Andrews Cathedral - all windy places where the extra warmth that these fleece lined Harris Tweed scarves is very welcome.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Celtic Designs - research trip

As I write this, I am sitting in our room at the Steam Packet Inn in the Isle of Whithorn looking out over the harbour as the sun sets. It is as idyllic as it sounds, but it's not all play. I had to travel to Glasgow yesterday - one of my embroidery machines needed fixed and I had a trade show to visit so we decided to take a short break and fit in a visit to Whithorn before the museum and visitor center shut up shop for the winter.

In Glasgow yesterday we visited Govan Old Parish Church which has a large collection of Celtic stones including 5 hogback stones. I had visited here before but in the days before digital cameras so had only a very limited record of my visit. While I was photographing the stones my husband was interviewing one of the church elders for a radio programme that he does once a week on Moray Firth Radio. At the time that many of these stones were carved Govan was a very important ecclesiastical site but it declined in importance once Glasgow Cathedral was built. The church buildings on the site have changed over the centuries with the current building having been erected in Victorian times. The stones are housed in the church and in the care of Historic Scotland. There are many different interlace designs along with images of people on horseback and an interesting (probably pre-christian) sun symbol.

We came down to Whithorn in south west Scotland yesterday afternoon and have spent today visiting the sites associated with St Ninian - the earliest recorded Christian missionary to Scotland. Just round the corner from the inn is St Ninian's Chapel - one of the contenders as the site of Ninian's original Church - Candida Casa. Others believe that it was at Whithorn where St Ninian's Priory was a major ecclesiastical centre in early medieval times. At the priory I visited the museum which has a large collection of Celtic stones and crosses. These are quite different from the cross-slab Pictish stones in our own part of the country with influences from Northumbria. The most striking feature is the cross shape - wheel-headed crosses where the arms don't protrude beyond the bounding circle. The next thing I noticed was that although some had true interlace designs made up of a single line of knotwork, in many others the design consisted of lots of interlinking loops joined up with simple circles.

Later in the afternoon we walked to St Ninian's cave - one of the sites of pilgimage. It was a pleasant walk down through a wooded glen and then along a pebble beach. Some of the carved stones in the museum came from here, but were moved to the museum to keep them safe.

Once we get home I will begin work on some new designs that take their inspiration from stones I have seen on this visit. One project is to do a new stole design based on the crosses here at Whithorn and utilising the new St Ninian tartan that was created to commemorate the Pope's visit to Scotland on St Ninian's Day a few weeks ago. When done I will post a picture on my website for Ecclesiastical embroidery. Other examples of Celtic knotwork that I have seen may find their way onto some of my tweed wallhangings. I have certainly seen enough over the last couple of days to provide inspiration for a lot of new work.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

New cutting table

Until today, the vast bulk of our cutting of fabric has been done on the floor. That in itself has not been a problem - I like sitting on the floor, have no problem being on my knees and I like having space to spread myself out.

However - having space to spread out means I do just that, and tidying up is something I hate doing!

Some months ago my son finally (at 32!) moved away from home. As we were up to our eyes with orders for shops I immediately spread out into his room using the floor as a large cutting out area and the bed as a store. Things quickly got out of hand, fabric piled up, rubbish piled up, boxes seemed to appear and the room very quickly became unusable as a spare room. On Friday morning Mary and I set about clearing it all out and re-arranging the furniture so that instead of having one proper spare bedroom and two rooms that could in an emergency get used for people to sleep in, we have made two proper spare rooms, one of which is a family room and the third room is now officially part of the Anna Macneil domain. Rachel & Lauren (my grandaughters) stayed the night last night and got to try out the new room. They enjoyed the extra space to play compared with what they got in the past.

On Friday afternoon I took my husband to B&Q and we got wood to build my new cutting table / tweed storage shelves. I spent Saturday morning cutting, drilling and screwing bits of wood together. Once it was all assembled I headed up into the attic and salvaged a piece of carpet that has been gathering dust there for 30 years and used that to cover the tabletop - much nicer to cut on than a hard surface as we use electric shears.

Now I have space to store all the bales of tweed in such a way that pulling out one does not dislodge half a dozen others. I also had space to put away all the tweed that I brought back from Lewis two weeks ago - not many new colours, but restocking of some of our main range. However, I did get a few lovely subtle herringbone patterned tweeds from Callum Maclean at Butt of Lewis Textiles. He is weaving more for me just now and I hope to have them available at the end of the year. Among other things, I brought back a lot of black & charcoal herringbone tweed for making wraps and some of these have already been made - a collection of wraps headed across the Atlantic to "Things Celtic" in Texas, and another few have gone to California to "Scottish Treasures".

We have also been hard at work making small things - in particular our Christmas decorations. Most evenings I am sitting making Shetland angels - a nice thing to do while sitting watching the telly. It's just a shame there is not much on worth watching, but we are amusing ourselves by watching through a recently acquired boxed set of Jonathon Creek. Celtic and Tartan hearts are also being made in quantity, but we are finding it difficult to keep up with orders. It seems that as fast as we make them, shops are asking for more - a good complaint to have!

Now I have to see if it is any easier to keep the cutting table free of clutter than keeping the floor clear. I think I will have to have clearing the space on a daily basis written into Mary's contract!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Hebridean Holiday - Part 3 - Isle of South Uist

Our introduction to South Uist was wet. It started raining as we crossed the Sound of Barra to Eriskay and it got wetter as we crossed the causeway to South Uist so we just headed straight to Daliburgh and our next self-catering place. We settled into Loch View Chalet and had a lazy afternoon watching the swans, ducks and grebes that live there.

The next day dawned fair, but pretty windy and we decided to do a tour of the Uists. I forgot to take my camera with me that day - so no photographs!

On North Uist we drove up a hill track on the west side of the island where there is a telescope set up so that you can see St Kilda, however it was actually easier to see it with the naked eye and visibility was not good, so all we saw was a grey mound rising up from the sea on the horizon.

Weather the next morning was lovely but we decided to stay close to base. We popped along the road to Lochboisdale and picked up information from the tourist office. Then we took the road through our village that heads across the machair towards the sea. Here there is the remains of an ancient settlement - the Cladh Hallan roundhouses. They were excavated just a few years ago.
The next day we headed up towards the top end of South Uist and tried setting up Len's telescope to see if we could get any better a view of St Kilda, but once again there was a lot of cloud on the horizon and St Kilda was nothing more than a faint grey mound.

We also visited the medieval chapel site at Howmore - somewhere I had visited while on a cycling holiday here some 15 years ago, but it had been horizontal rain that day and I hadn't really appreciated the ruins.

A visit to Kildonan museum was very interesting - it covered all aspects of the history of the island. I was particularly taken by the box beds and the old loom. I had already taken several photographs by the time I saw the sign saying "no photography".....OOPS!

We had picked up a small booklet "Made in the Outer Hebrides" and I very quickly homed in on an venue at the south end of the island - the Hebridean Woolshed.

We headed down there and found the place very easily - a lovely walled garden with a small summerhouse type shed just inside the gate. In this shed there was a mixture of handcraft items and preserves, all made by Denise Bridge. I found her hanging out her washing and we had a lovely conversation about all things wooly, that ended with me buying a couple of small Hebridean fleeces. I shall be using them mostly for feltmaking, but that will have to wait until my right hand is back in full working order. We followed Denise's directions to Eriskay to find her Hebridean flock. Easily found - and quite happy to pose for the camera.

On the way back we stopped at the standing stone at Polachar before heading back to our cottage. Then, unfortunately, it was time to start packing up ready for our departure the next morning.

All in all, a wonderful, relaxing holiday - just what the doctor ordered.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Hebridean Holiday - Part 2 - Isle of Mingulay

It was my birthday while we were staying on Barra and my birthday treat was a boat trip to Mingulay. This is the most southerly but one of the Outer Hebrides chain of islands and was inhabited up until 1912 when the population level dropped too low to be sustainable.

The weather that day was wonderful - warm and sunny with just a light breeze. The sea was almost mirror calm. We set off in the M.V. Boy James at 10am from the slipway in Castlebay. When I say "we" I mean me, the skipper, Donald Macleod and the other holiday makers - my husband elected to stay on shore because he really doesn't like small boats.

About an hour into the sail we slowed right down to watch basking sharks. I had seen them in the distance in the past but never as close as this - just about 10 feet away these massive 30 foot long plankton eating sharks were quite a sight.

Wind and tide were in our favour and the skipper was able to take us right round the west coast of the island past some spectacular cliffs and through a narrow channel spanned by a natural arch.

On the east coast of the island there is a lovely sandy beach and we disembarked on the rocks at the north end of the beach for 3 hours on shore. I set off uphill across the narrowest part of the island to Eagle Cliff. Unfortunately the eagles were not to be seen that day, but the cliffs were perhaps even more spectacular when seen from the top. I sat up there to eat my picnic lunch but soon had to start walking again to escape the midges.

I walked along the ridge of the hills for a while getting the most of the midge-moving breeze before heading back down to the beach.
The remains of the village are still clearly visible as are the lazybeds field system that were in use a century ago. I took lots of photographs, including quite a few wild flowers that I will use for the basis of some new designs for our "moor and machair" range of floral designs on our bags and purses.

There were more sharks on the way back to Barra, plus lots of seabirds to watch and it seemed no time at all before we were back on shore.

What a wonderful day out - possibly the most memorable birthday I have ever had, topped of by a meal at the Craigard Hotel - in their conservatory dining room overlooking the bay while the sun set slowly in the west.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Hebridean Holiday - Part 1 - Isle of Barra

We wanted a "get away from it all" holiday this year and that was certainly what we got in this delightful cottage on the Isle of Barra. We stayed here for almost a week and what a delight - no mobile phone signal, no television, no radio. I suppose it would be difficult to live this way, but for a holiday it was wonderful.

We arrived off the ferry from Oban about 8.30 on the Monday evening. In Oban it had been raining stair-rods most of the day and we were wondering whether it was wise to be heading for the Outer Hebrides, but by the time we arrived the clouds had dispersed, there was just a gentle breeze, the full moon was rising over the Minch and we could see the island of Rhum clearly from the cottage window.

South Bank Cottage is just a few miles from the "capital" Castlebay in the village of Earsary on the east coast of the island. It is a converted Whitehouse. A whitehouse is one step up from a blackhouse - still very thick walls, small, but with the addition of windows and chimneys. And unlike a blackhouse which is bare drystone walling, the walls are rendered and painted white.

Our first day was spent just meandering around the island getting a feel for the place. We went up to the north end and saw a plane coming in to land on the beach. Barra boasts the only beach airport in the world to offer daily scheduled services - they are just scheduled to coincide with low tide. It is quite something to see a plane landing on a beach where there are several people cockle gathering. This was one of the busiest beaches we came across - there were 6 people on it! Most were deserted even though the weather was fine and we are still in peak holiday season.

On the Wednesday morning we went into Castlebay and took the boat trip to Kisimul Castle - the medieval seat of the clan Macneil, set on a rock on the middle of the bay. The castle is now managed by Historic Scotland and is open to the public for the summer months. We were the first visitors that morning so had the place to ourselves.

What a delightful surprise on entering through the gate of the castle - inside this rather forbidding and defensive fortress everything was suddenly on a small domestic scale. There were houses built with their backs to the main castle wall arranged around a little courtyard, almost like a small village. Part of the castle had been made habitable again in the middle of last century and it was enough to give one a feel of what a comfortable home it could be now that we have all the luxuries that modern technology can provide. I can recommend it as a place to visit - and they have a well stocked shop that inlcudes hats, scarves and bags from our embroidery business - Anna Macneil.

The next day was a wonderful experience - a trip to Mingulay - more of that in the next post. Friday was spent doing a bit more pottering around. We headed down to Vattersay, the most southerly of the inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, but joined to Barra by a causeway. We stopped en-route to visit the remains of a wheelhouse - an iron-age dwelling peculiar to the Outer Hebrides and the Shetland Isles. In this particular example there were remains of several buildings from different periods. The wheel house pictured here is so named because it is circular and has internal walls arranged much like the spokes of a wheel, creating little rooms which appear to have all had specific purposes.

Our time on Barra came to an end the next day. If we had been heading straight home it might have seemed quite a disappointment, but fortunately we had another few days holiday to go - we were simply heading across the Sound of Barra to the island of Eriskay and then on to South Uist to continue our Hebridean adventure.