Fifty years at the sharp end of the Tweed industry

Ian Angus Mackenzie’s unparalleled contribution to the Harris Tweed industry was honoured at a dinner in the Caberfeidh Hotel last Friday.
Ian Angus cuts the cake with a little help from grand-daughter ChristinaIan Angus cuts the cake with a little help from grand-daughter Christina
Ian Angus cuts the cake with a little help from grand-daughter Christina

It marked both his retirement as chief executive of Harris Tweed Hebrides and his 50 years devotion to the industry.

He points out that he is probably the only person who has worked in all three of its arms – weaver, regulator and producer. “Not only that, but I spent roughly equal time in each – 16 years as a weaver, 14 years as chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority and 16 years at Harris Tweed Hebrides.

“Throw in four years teaching weaving in the College and you get the 50”. Looking back at the major and sometimes traumatic events which occurred over these years, he was reminded of the Welsh comedian Max Boyce’s catch-phrase: “I know, ‘cos I was there!”.

Ian Angus starting point for a trip down memory lane was a meeting of weavers in Stornoway Town Hall, in 1976. (I too was there and recall a memorable clash between ‘those who knew best’ and people acutely aware it was their livelihoods which were under severe threat).

Ian Angus says “I was there as a young weaver when the weavers told the powers that were – James Shaw Grant, HIDB, TGWU and all – that their proposal to establish weaving factories with powered double-width looms was totally unacceptable”. The weavers then voted overwhelmingly to reject the plan.

“We then had ten great years on the back of that vote, much helped by the historically low pound-dollar ratio. Halfway through this period, I became secretary of the Weavers’ Union, a post I held for 13 years - a bit like the grazings clerk job, a lot easier to get into than get out of”.

“However”, he recalled, “it was the post that opened up all my subsequent opportunities. I became the go-to guy for anything to do with weaving. I did weaving demonstrations in Selfridges and Harrods and met a lot of people, including the then Harrods owner, Al Fayed. He seemed nice enough at the time”.

Weaver numbers increased from under 500 to 750 by 1985. “All these had to be admitted by the Weavers Union because it was a closed shop – another relic of the past!”. By the end of 1984, they were taking on up to 40 at a time and still could not keep up with demand. “I took a break that summer with two months work in my shed”.

Then the downturn. “It was pretty brutal when it happened. The US market collapsed almost overnight in late 1985. There were many reasons – oversold market, fashion changes, rise of the pound against the dollar, but price competition within our industry had driven the product down market which proved fatal as it did shortly afterwards in Canada”.

Ian Angus recalled: “Weavers began leaving, others signed on and eventually Clansman Holdings went under with many job losses and leaving a hole in the industry that was never filled. The events round that time could fill a book on their own.

“Weavers feared the loss of their accumulated holiday pay which the mills held. This led them to give up that hard-won benefit in return for an increased weaving rate which was a great shame, especially since Clansman paid out all their creditors, begging the question of why it had gone under.

“Harris Tweed has always been an intensely political industry and it certainly was at that time. I was in the middle of it all”. The turmoil led to the then chairman of the Harris Tweed Association (as it then was), Dr Calum Macleod, setting up a working party with the remit to “do something to save the industry”.

At the centre of that mission was the need to meet market demand for double-width fabric but to weave it on a loom which conformed to the classic definition of Harris Tweed. There were to be no “weaving factories” or power-driven looms if these precious characteristics were to be safeguarded. Once again, Ian Angus was at the centre of that mission.

The first idea was to adapt the Hattersley loom. These trials failed as “the Hattersley frame couldn’t support the weight of the solid bar rapier fittings”. By then a man from Sunderland had made contact having read of Harris Tweed’s difficulties. He thought trying to adapt the Hattersley was “crazy” but offered to build a loom for £10,000 with him retaining the rights. Thus was the Griffiths loom, which remains the backbone of the industry, born.

Ian Angus recalled: “The Griff, as his staff called him, had come up with something special. He had produced a single-width loom with a flexible rapier and a bicycle-pedalling motion which was very light to operate. Bruce Burns and I were amazed and he whispered to me ‘don’t show any excitement’!

“I tested the loom over the next few months and got it home to Back at the end of 1988. By this time, we had tentatively begun to muse about a wider version of the loom but had to take care as double-width wounds from the ‘70s had barely healed”. Ian Angus started training weavers at the Castle College on single-width Griffiths looms which were “barely operable , so we were flying on a wing and a prayer – but it was an exciting time.

“Then the double-width prototype arrived at the College and it was a beauty. The ease of operation was fantastic. It is still the best of these looms that I ever worked and I have no idea what happened to it.

There were many ups and downs over the next few years but we managed to keep things going”.

In parallel to the technical transition, there was need for reform of the industry’s governance in order to protect the trademark. The Harris Tweed Association had set this process in motion, leading eventually to the Harris Tweed Act of 1993. By then, Ian Angus occupied another crucial position in the industry’s evolution.

He recalled: “Towards the end of 1991, I had a visit from Dr Calum Macleod at home in Back, all very hush-hush. I was quite shocked to be asked if I would consider becoming chief executive of the new Harris Tweed Authority, if and when it came into being.

“I am convinced that I would never have been offered the position if I had not pushed the new loom project the way I did. I took all the criticism and negativity because I was convinced it was the only way to secure the future of the industry. I had a lot of support from a section of the weaving force which carried me through.

“It was a wrench to leave the College but I felt that I could do more for the transition from Garden Road (then the HTA offices) and there was now a good team at the College with Angus Morrison, Barvas, better on the new loom than I ever was”.

The passage of the Harris Tweed Act was an historic step forward. Ian Angus recalls: “We moved the Authority much closer to the weavers and had a much better relationship with the mills but these were also very difficult years for the industry. The weavers split over the introduction of the new looms.

“Although very generous help was available, many did not want to change or could not for various reasons”. There was also a series of disputes which involved challenges to both the independence of the weavers - Derick Murray’s ill-fated Premier Weavers scheme and also attempts to dilute the definition of the fabric, which led to court action against Carloway Mill which the HTA won.

By the turn of the century, more than 90 per cent of the industry was owned by Derick Murray’s KM Group and, as demand receded, he closed Shawbost mill to concentrate production in Stornoway.

“The initial promise of the double-width loom was not fulfilled and the weavers felt very let down. Then came the bombshell of the KM Group going up for sale”, Ian Angus recalls, “and a frenzy began. Many groups expressed interest and the Authority was asked for information by most of them. On one momentous occasion, I was asked to meet a Turkish company for tea at the Dorchester.

“The tea was nothing special and the Turks lost interest when they realised they would not be buying the Orb mark. Then came the event that changed everything when Brian Haggas appeared on the scene and a whole new adventure began. There is another book in the Haggas saga but he has already made the film himself!”.

“Initially, the HTA and wider community thought this was a good thing. Here was a wealthy man, a textile professional with long and successful experience. Then we heard about the four jacket plan. It made no sense to anyone in the industry and of course it utterly failed eventually”.

The ”four jacket plan” was Haggas’s “bonkers” business model of reducing all the wonderful Harris Tweed patterns in the world down to just four and turning the entire output into his own range of dated men’s jackets. Conceivably, by monopolising this global market, it might have worked for Haggas – it didn’t – but it certainly wasn’t going to work for anyone else, as weavers and HTA soon recognised.

Ian Angus said: “I greatly enjoyed my time at the HTA. I learned a lot from two superb chairmen, Duncan Martin and Sandy Matheson.

They guided the authority through turbulent times. I was happy at my work but much frustrated, as many were, by the lack of progress in the industry”. Inadvertently, the Haggas takeover created an opportunity to address that.

At this point, the story of Harris Tweed Hebrides kicks in. The Shawbost mill was still capable of being brought back to life if anyone would invest in it. Fortunately, I was able to make that connection and Ian Taylor entered the scene – his genius in oil trading had made him a wealthy man, but one who believed in doing the right thing.

When the three of us met in Stornoway, Ian asked Ian Angus if the investment went ahead, would he become the new company’s chief executive. “It took me all of 30 seconds to agree. Then I went home to speak to the family. I was giving up a well-paid job with a pension for an entirely new venture that most people thought was bound to fail. They said without hesitation that I should do it”.

Ian Angus assembled a team of the best people in the industry and the rest, as they say, is history. “Before we started, every Harris Tweed story had been negative for years. After Harris Tweed Hebrides was formed, every story was positive”.

He pays tribute to Ian Taylor as “a special man. He took a great interest in Harris Tweed Hebrides and was rightly proud of what we achieved. He liked to know the weekly production and finance figures but left us to get on with it. For a man with such great responsibilities, I was always amazed that an e-mail to him was answered almost immediately. He said he had to because he would get swamped otherwise.

“We were devastated by his final illness and passing, and we miss him greatly. Harris Tweed Hebrides will keep his memory alive on the island”.

While retired as chief executive, Ian Angus continues as chairman, the role I had the privilege of occupying for the first 15 years. Ian Angus paid tribute to “those who helped getting Harris Tweed Hebrides started, and those who now carry it on”. The company is in excellent shape for the future and the industry has been regenerated, the age profile transformed.

It’s a wonderful legacy to look back on and Ian Angus says: “I started weaving after graduating in 1973, just to fill a wee while until I decided what I would do. I blinked and here we are”.