Enterprise award for sewing the seeds of an illustrious business

1st October 2010 at 01:00
Mastering the art of Harris Tweed is not easy, even for native Hebrideans. But a Bristol woman and novice weaver did just that - and now she has her own company

Nikki Crabtree knew nothing about textiles when she moved with her mother and sister from Bristol to Lewis last year.

Now, in the short space of a year, she has not only conquered the challenge of becoming a Harris Tweed weaver; she has also launched her own company to produce the Clo Mor (big cloth) - surely the ultimate in self- belief in these times of retrenchment.

Her achievements so awed the judges of the Enterprising Student Awards that the 25-year-old was crowned Scotland's most enterprising student in a special ceremony held last night at the Falkirk Wheel.

Ms Crabtree launched herself on her new career by taking up knitting. She was prompted to broaden her skills by an advert from Cardonald College in Glasgow which - rather in the manner of taking coals to Newcastle - announced it was to run a new-start weaver course in Stornoway.

She is now a bona fide Harris Tweed weaver in an industry which is notorious for its ups and downs - even in the good times.

Clearly not content to be at the beck and call of others, she started her own business which she hopes will not only produce tweed for the mills but also make rugs from leftover materials. She will use her pound;1,100 prize money to buy sheep.

Ms Crabtree said: "The new-start weaver course taught me the basics of woven textile design, how to set up looms for different tweed patterns, how to weave on a loom and also about wool production. I had seen people weaving and always thought it looked so difficult, I can't believe that it's my job now. I could never have imagined when we moved here that I would create a business out of a traditional Hebridean skill.

"Weaving Harris Tweed is seasonal work, so most weavers supplement their income with other activities. I am particularly interested in spinning my own yarn from start to finish.

"With the prize money, I should be able to buy some rare-breed sheep, meaning I will be my own supplier for fleece which can be turned into yarn. There are people around the island with Herdwick, Shetland and Hebridean sheep, which all have their distinctive fleeces. I am also looking into growing traditional dyes for the wool, which I can cultivate at home and experiment with on the different wools."

The Enterprising Student Awards, which are run by Scotland's Colleges and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland, are designed to recognise students who have started their own business, either while at college or shortly after completing their studies. There were 14 entries nominated by college lecturers from across Scotland. Each received pound;300 to be used toward their commercial ventures; the three regional finalists (north, east and west) all received an additional pound;300 of prize money.

Ray Harris, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, said: "Students are using the skills and knowledge they have gained during their time at college to launch successful businesses, in a tough economic climate.

"Their entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and determination should be rewarded and highlighted. These students are testament to the important contribution that the college sector makes to Scotland's economic development."

Andy Willox from FSB Scotland added: "By supporting and developing these awards, the FSB in Scotland hopes to show the rest of the country there are opportunities for individuals with the right combination of skills, talent, vision and drive.

"Colleges, in a similar way to small businesses, are embedded in their communities and will have a key role in Scotland recovering from the recession and making the most of the recovery."

As for Ms Crabtree, the summit of her ambition has not yet been reached. "I want to create a sustainable, successful business that will contribute to the economy of Lewis," she said.

Neil Munro neil.munro@tes.co.uk


Nikki Crabtree beat off competition from two other finalists to seize the top Enterprising Student prize: Billy Dowling-Reid, 23, from Stevenson College Edinburgh, who was nominated for his innovative Media Muppet website; and Angela Irvine, 45, from Shetland College, who has already attracted international attention for her modern couture pieces which incorporate traditional Shetland lace.

Mr Dowling-Reid (pictured far right), who has completed an HND in creative industries at Stevenson, said: "I came up with the idea for Media Muppet during my second year at college. I wanted to create a totally independent website that had interesting content, inspired debate and encouraged new thinking in the creative industries sector."

Ms Irvine (pictured above) travelled by ferry every day from the Shetland island of Whalsay to complete her BA in contemporary textiles. Her intricate pieces can take up to 60 hours to make. She hopes that, by growing her business, she will reinvigorate the art of creating Shetland lace. She said the reception to her work has been "fantastic", and she has now been invited to become a member of the prestigious British Society of Designer Craftsmen.

Angela paid tribute to Shetland College for capitalising on her particular interest, which was in art and sketching rather than textiles. "I was able to use software that transported my drawings on to dress patterns, which was a fantastic resource for the college to have," she said.

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