Caroline Chaffer Weaving in Northton

By David Prentice - Added 05/05/2014

Take a right on your way to Leverburgh and you’ll find yourself in Northton, a compact village of homes, independent businesses and cafes built on either side of the township’s only road. Here, at the gate where the road ends and becomes farmland, a small building of bright blue timber marks the site of The Northton Trading Company. Part shed, part shop, it provides a window into the work of Caroline Chaffer, an independent weaver who, with her unique and innovative designs, is breathing new life into the tradition of Harris Tweed and single-width weaving on the island.

Caroline moved to the island with her husband in 2007, following several years of spending six to eight week periods on Uist as part of her husband’s work with Scottish Natural Heritage. The freedom, strong sense of community values and the natural beauty of the island reminded them both of their childhoods growing up in Yorkshire, and Harris seemed to them a perfect place to raise their children. The island soon proved to be an ideal place for Caroline to pursue her lifelong interest in textiles and design:
‘Since the move I’ve been amazed at how many opportunities have opened up. I’ve always been making things and sewing in textiles. It’s not always been my main job but I’ve always kept a hand in it, and so when I came here I just naturally found like-minded people. In a small community you keep meeting one person after another who are all directed by the same interests….I met Joan Cumming very early on and she said that there would be a weaving course , and I said, ‘Absolutely, sign me up!’’
The weaving course run by Harris Development Ltd took some time to organise and coordinate the people interested in taking part, and it was during this period that Caroline celebrated the arrival of a new addition to her growing family. Though it was hectic at the time, Caroline says she was determined to ‘make anything happen to do the course.’
Run by Sheila Roderick of Scalpay Linen, the single-width weaving course was designed with the intention that each of the six trainees would become independent weavers, as the mills no longer use single-width cloth in the production of Harris Tweed. Sheila visited Caroline at home to teach the first wave of the course, which allowed Caroline to learn the skills involved as well as looking after her new-born daughter.
‘I thought it was great, really. The fact that Sheila was prepared to commit herself to come and teach people at home, followed by the second wave of the course which would be taught at the workshop in Manish. It was fantastic for me, because I had the baby and I could fit the course around her having sleeps. It worked really well.’
One year later, following the completion of the course and having already established a name for herself on the island for her embroidery and textiles, which she achieved through the sales of her work at craft fairs and also by being commissioned to design and make curtains for people’s homes, Caroline says it seemed a natural step to then go into business, using The Northon Trading Company shop as a place to exhibit the finished items from the work she does in her loom shed.
‘The shop is really a window into what I do and a place to display my work,’ she tells me. ‘A lot of the people who come to visit me at the shop are ‘textile tourists’ and they’ve come from all over the world to buy Harris Tweed. As quaint and twee as it might seem, they also want to see how it was made back in the day.’
Far from being ‘quaint’, the reality is that without people like Caroline the opportunities for tourists and locals to witness the traditional methods involved in single-width weaving would be in danger of dying out completely. As Caroline says herself,
‘It’s good to have people who are enthusiastic about single-width weaving because it needs to be kept going. The people that did learn to weave on single-width looms are sadly coming to the end of their time and there’s a risk of those skills being outdated and forgotten.’
With this in mind, one of Caroline’s aims for the future will be to open up the loom shed to the public, so that people who are interested can come and see the loom and watch her weaving at it. When I ask if she would ever consider running her own workshops and tutorials in order to pass these skills on, she replies:
‘Absolutely, that’s something that I would love to do. I do think it’s important to pass it on, and I would certainly pass it on to my kids if they show an interest. I do think it’s still got that family value, it’s still what they call a ‘cottage industry’, because you’re working from home by hand, rather than having the material being mass-produced in a mill.’
As for where she feels she fits in to the tradition and the continuation of the craft, Caroline says:
‘I’m enthusiastic about the historical and the traditional side, but also how I can be different in the market today with single-width weaving, and making more bespoke fabrics. I know a lot of people all over the world have used Harris Tweed in lots of different ways, but I think that to be able to actually design and produce the cloth and then to design and produce the item all on my own is my edge.’
Another aspect of what makes Caroline’s work so interesting is the innovative and original twist she puts on her own designs. Though she was trained to weave using traditional methods, she’s keen to infuse everything she makes with her own personality and tastes:
‘I have had a lot of feedback about the kind of cloth I’m weaving, and the designs and the colours I’ve created. Mine aren’t traditional, they’re not tartans and herringbones as such; they have a different edge to them. ‘
In addition to creating unique cloths and patterns that mark a move away from tradition, Caroline’s process of experimentation by inspiration, trial and error with different colour combinations and patterns means that every single one of her items are unique, not only from tweeds that have gone before, but from each other:
‘I very rarely produce anything identical, everything’s individual and takes on a different look as I’m constantly experimenting and trying to improve on designs I like. Saying that, I was commissioned to do a set of six dining chairs that had to be identical, and they were identical,’ she says with a pause, ‘but if I’d been designing them for myself they would all have been different!’
Given the wide variety in the colours, patterns and styles of Caroline’s fabrics, together with the different forms they take (she makes everything from bags, hats, scarves and tweed accessories to bespoke items such as wedding dresses, upholstery and embroidered furniture) I’m keen to find out the source of her inspiration. The answer, she tells me, is just outside her front door:
‘I know it’s a cliché associated with the Harris Tweed brand that ‘from the land comes the cloth’’, she says, ‘but it really is true. I do look at the landscape and the colours of the land and the wildlife. I’ve designed colour combinations based on photographs I’ve taken of birds. Everything you see inspires you in a different way; the colour of the lichen, of seals, of seaweed, the way the light changes on Toe Head or on the heather and on the surface of the sea; the landscape really is what inspires me.’
‘I think I’m lucky to be able to live somewhere like this and to be able to go out onto the beach whenever I like. Even on a rainy day like this, it’s so bright; you’ve got that colour all the time.’
For an artist that takes her inspiration from the colours of the surrounding landscape, Caroline couldn’t have picked a better place to set up her home and business. Just on the other side of the gate, the road becomes a dirt track through rolling fields of rich grassland that are carpeted in the summer months with acres of wild flowers that make up the machair, a vibrant and diverse coastal plain stretching to the base of Ceapabhal and the temple ruins beyond.
‘I take myself for walks out there all the time with my camera. When my daughter was born I’d take her with me in the pram for walks, and then I’d come back with ideas for colours and colour combinations and see how I could put those ideas down on paper. I work on a type of paper with a grid called a peg-plan, it’s like graph paper but you work in the draft of the loom to the trebling sequence so that you can see how it’s going to form on paper before you go through all the effort of putting material through the machine. It’s a long process, but it’s worth it.’
It would be difficult to try to tell the story of Caroline’s textiles without discussing the loom she uses to produce them. As part of the weaving course arranged by Harris Development Ltd, each trainee weaver was provided with a loom that had been donated by elderly members of the community who either no longer had a use for them, or were themselves too old to put them to use. With one exception. Caroline’s loom, a Mach II Hattersly, is a trade show model that was donated by a couple living on the mainland. Now sixty years old, the loom is the only one of its kind on the island, and nobody that Caroline has spoken to has been able to find a corresponding model anywhere else in the UK.
The one piece of information that we do know about Caroline’s loom is that it was designed and built in her very own hometown of Yorkshire. Whether through coincidence, fate, or mere chance, it seems more than appropriate that a weaver equipped with a unique take on an island tradition should be suitably equipped with a piece of machinery whose history corresponds perfectly to her own.
As for her materials, Caroline sources her tweed locally from Shawbost. As she says herself, she’s only just now venturing out into purchasing yarn, as it was provided previously as part of the course. Though the palette of colours available on the course was fairly limited, Caroline tells me that this in itself proved to be useful in forcing her to adopt colour combinations that she ordinarily wouldn’t have used:
‘Because I wanted to create something quite bright, and there was loads of brown (maybe too much brown, she adds, laughing) but there’d also be blues and there’d be greys, and so in combining colours which you might not think would go together, they’re still colours that come from here; they remind you of the lichens and the seaweed, and they still produce unusual results which are accurate to the landscape.’
‘As for the linings that I use for curtains and bags and hats, I use a company that I used in the past back in Yorkshire before we moved here. They have a similar ethic to the Harris Tweed Company, in that they produce high quality linens and fabrics that have to be dyed and woven in Yorkshire and Lancashire. It works well for me as a selling point that I can provide a background and a history that connects me to my work: I’m from Yorkshire and I now live here working on a loom that was designed and built in Yorkshire and which has helped to revitalise an entire industry on the Isle of Harris.’
In addition to her own personal connection with Yorkshire, Caroline tells me that there is a cultural relationship between Harris and her home county that also informs her craft:
‘I do think there’s quite a strong connection between Yorkshire and the western isles, through the mills for example; the mill in Uist was provided with their equipment from a mill in Yorkshire. The landscape is also quite similar to the Yorkshire moors I knew when I was growing up, there’s a similar sense of colour in the sandiness of the soil and in the heavier, peaty ground as well, and those colours are also ones I incorporate into my cloth. ’
As well as being a source of inspiration to Caroline, the natural beauty of the island is something that she cares deeply about. She will often take her own children out to the nearby beaches on a Sunday to collect and clear litter that has been washed up or left on the shore, and encourages other children and parents in the community to do the same.
‘I think we’re very lucky to live in a place like this and so it’s important to encourage kids to appreciate and look after it for the future. It’s also important for the tourists coming from all over the world to see the that the land is being looked after by the people who live here.’
I’m curious to learn how Caroline feels about the future of weaving and of Harris Tweed as a brand. In her own work as an independent weaver, Caroline is a great example of the innovation and experimentation that is essential to the continuation of any craft, and she’s already told me that she intends to pass on the skills, knowledge and tradition of weaving to her own children and to the public, just as Sheila Roderick passed on those same skills to her. On the subject of the future, Caroline says:
‘I do think that Harris Tweed is getting stronger and it’s making it’s mark again as a very high class, quality product in the fabric world…and I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time to be part of that growth and to offer a different aspect of Harris Tweed. That and the fact that I am one of the only people that is actually living on Harris, producing my own Harris Tweed, and making products out of it on Harris itself. Mine is a completely island-based product. ‘
Using locally-sourced materials and working closely with local artists and tradespeople, Caroline intends to build upon the reputation she has for design and textiles in order to create a portfolio that will serve as a ‘directory of design’ for local artists, and also for large-scale interior projects. She aims to target local homeowners as well as people running holiday cottages for interior design projects, and to run a service for anyone wanting to renew their soft furnishings and upholstery. It is this kind of innovative, forward thinking that makes Caroline, and her designs, so refreshing on the island. She is an artist equipped not only with a strong sense of the history of her craft, but also with the imaginative flair and technical ability necessary to take weaving forwards in new and exciting directions. The future of weaving, it would appear, is in safe hands.