Material gains for a craft at risk
Dressed in a dark Billabong top and jeans, Shaun Mackenzie doesn't look much like an ambassador for Harris Tweed.
But after completing the first ever school qualification in the world- famous fabric, the teenager is keen to keep the family business going. If he does make tweed his trade, the 16-year-old will be at least the fourth generation of his family to earn a living from the big cloth, which celebrates its centenary this year.
Created to help islanders endure the often harsh Hebridean climate, the survival of Harris Tweed itself has often been in jeopardy over the past 100 years. The biggest fear is that because the craft is no longer passed down from parent to child, it will literally die out along with the weavers, whose average age is now pushing 60.
The new National Progression Award in Harris Tweed is aimed at helping to secure the future of the industry - and the communities that still rely upon it - by equipping teenagers to fill jobs and highlighting the career opportunities available to them. It is the latest in a series of Skills for Work courses introduced by the Western Isles Council, fulfilling the national requirement for schools and colleges to offer students more tailored vocational courses.
Shaun is one of five pupils at Sir E Scott School in Harris who finished the first course last summer.
"I thought the course would be harder but it was still quite hard," he says. "We mostly went around the islands visiting a few weavers and having a look at how a lot of the production is done."
With his mother, late grandparents and great-great aunt all making a living from tweed, Shaun already knew a lot about the history of the craft.
Meanwhile, the class also learned to weave using special tabletop looms, which Shaun rates as "quite good little things".
"There are not many young weavers around," he says. "Even my mum doesn't do it now, except for demonstrations."
The reason his mum, Catherine Campbell, doesn't weave often is that she is too busy running a successful tweed shop on the island.
Both she and the council hope that the new qualification will help to meet local economic priorities. Education officer Iain Stewart, who led on the course for the authority, says: "The average age of weavers now is approaching 60; it's like an inverted pyramid.
"Five pupils may not sound like many, but Sir E Scott's is a tiny school, so that's actually a very big proportion of the upper school, and more will be doing the course next year."
Meanwhile, the 1,000-pupil Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, where most secondary pupils in the Western Isles go to study, is looking into offering the course in the future.
At least one mainland school is also keen to take advantage of the broad ranges of subjects covered in the qualification - from business and art and design to home economics. In some schools, Gaelic, the traditional language of the big cloth, may also be incorporated.
"There's a lot of interest in the course," says Mr Stewart.
The award is more of an introduction to the craft, but its supporters hope it will encourage pupils to take further qualifications in future.
Speaking at the launch of the new SQA-approved course, Calum Mackay, chair of the development group and depute head at Sir E Scott school, explained: "This particular course will complement the training of weavers which is ongoing and will give students an appreciation of the various opportunities which are currently available through the Harris Tweed industry.
"We think it's really important to look at the local economic situation and try to provide a course for pupils which fits in with local needs."
It also provides pupils with transferable skills, he points out - not just weaving, but marketing, promotion and design.
Among the weavers the pupils visited was Terry Bloomfield, 69, and - as he is quick to point out - "by no means the oldest weaver".
The distinctive clickety-clack sound coming from within his house in Tarbert, on Harris, attracts a steady stream of curious tourists through the door, which is open on to the street outside.
When Mr Bloomfield was asked to take part in the course, he didn't hesitate.
"I did not need any convincing that it was a good idea," he says. "The pupils came here for one session and I think they were quite keen. Anything that encourages young people to take an interest and join the industry is welcome.
"All the kids growing up here obviously know that Harris Tweed weaving is going on, but they don't necessarily have a concrete idea of what it involves. They might never have seen a working loom before."
Meanwhile, the Harris pupils' efforts have already caught the attention of Prince Charles, a well-known supporter of Harris Tweed, who presented them with their certificates and accepted examples of their work in return.
Whether the prince becomes one of their famous clients one day remains to be seen. But with the new award set to be offered as an evening course too, the future of Harris Tweed looks brighter already.
LESSONS IN HARRIS TWEED
The new schools qualification has four units:
An Introduction to the Harris Tweed Industry
Students learn about the origins of the industry and how Harris Tweed is produced and used.
An Introduction to Weaving and Production Techniques
Students are taught manufacturing skills, designing and making their own Harris Tweed.
An Introduction to Product Design
Students make a Harris Tweed product following a given specification before designing their own product.
An Introduction to Marketing and Promotional Methods
Students produce promotional material for a product after investigating the sale and marketing of Harris Tweed cloth and products.