After a career in the textiles industry, Paulette Brough moved to the Western Isles and set up Rarebird Designs, which makes handbags, scarves and accessories from Harris tweed, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the rugged beauty of Lewis and Harris. There’s something very special about the largest island in the Outer Hebrides, from the rocky cliffs of Harris up to the open skies of Lewis’s moors.
Paulette Brough certainly fell for the island’s charm. “It’s the colours that I love,” she explains from her studio and shop in Stornoway. “It was the same when I saw the colours in Harris tweed for the first time. They’re not flat colours – they jump out at you as if they’re three-dimensional.”
Those colours are one of the key characteristics that set Harris tweed apart from other woven materials. Each strand of wool is dyed before it is spun – as opposed to the finished spun yarn being dyed – and so coloured threads can be blended together to create a broad range of intricate shades and hues.
When she moved to the Western Isles, Brough began working for a kiltmaking company. She visited a Harris tweed mill with one of her colleagues and became excited by the distinctive material.
Brough began making a handbag for herself from Harris tweed in 2006. The following year, she launched her company, Rarebird Designs, which produces handbags, scarves and accessories. “When I started the company, I didn’t intend for it to be a full-time job,” she explains. “I just wanted something to keep me busy and to help fund trips back to the mainland to visit family.
“I thought that I’d be able to go to fairs on the mainland and then visit family and friends while I was there. But the fairs were so busy and such long days that it didn’t work out quite like I imagined it would.
“I was taking so many orders that I had to get back home to make more handbags to keep up. Within that first year, I realised that I would have to work on the business full-time.
“We originally intended for my business to be a side line to supplement my husband’s income, but we quickly realised that he would have to come and work in the business too to give me a hand. He had been working as a heavy goods vehicle driver when we first moved to Lewis.”
The transition from lifestyle business to full-blown company is one that will be familiar to many entrepreneurs. What starts off as a relatively-small idea can soon grow arms and legs and success brings more success.
Stephen, Brough’s husband, now runs her second studio and shop at Carloway, on the other side of the island, serving customers and managing the fabric orders. The business employs three people, with other freelancers joining the team as and when they’re needed.
Turnover has already grown to around £120,000 a year and Brough is preparing to expand the business again next year, introducing a broader range of products. “That will boost turnover and help to create more jobs,” she explains. “I think that the business would be a lot bigger if it was on the mainland. Every time you want to do something on an island you have to go and catch a ferry, which makes things much harder.”
Brough also takes on students during the summer months, passing on the skills she’s learned during a lifetime in the textiles industry. “We both win – they learn about business and I get extra pairs of hands during the busy periods,” she says.
Before she moved to the Outer Hebrides, Brough had worked as a garment technician at Bentwood Brothers, a clothing manufacturer at Altrincham near Manchester that supplied Marks & Spencer. The company, which was part of the Stirling Group, was de-listed from the London Stock Exchange in 2003 following a management buyout led by Steven Bentwood but later fell into administration in 2010.
“Most of the female members of my family had worked in cotton mills,” she explains. “I could make anything from ladies’ swimwear to nightwear and ladies’ blouses and skirts and jackets – but I’d never actually made a handbag. I had the skills, but it just took a bit of thinking about.”
Brough had been made redundant and she and Stephen decided to spend some time in the Outer Hebrides, where they had a holiday home, which they planned to do up. After the renovations were completed, they decided that they liked life on the islands so much that they chose to stay.
The business has come a long way from those early days when Brough was selling her wares at shows. She found that the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh and game fairs like those at Burghley and Badminton proved popular.
“It was harder to sell Harris tweed at the Devon county show in the summer,” she laughs. “When it’s 90-degrees outside and inside the tent was like an oven then people didn’t want to think about scarves.
“But the contacts I made at those fairs were really important. I met a lot of shop owners and they wanted to start stocking my products.”
The majority of the 90 shops to which Rarebird supplies goods are in Scotland – including Canongate Jersey & Crafts in Edinburgh, the National Trust for Scotland and Macnaughtons of Pitlochry – along with galleries and smaller shops. Further afield, her products are also sold at the British Museum and the Highland Store in London.
Overseas clients include Tasman International, which has major stands at the British fairs held within Japanese department stores, including Mitsukoshi Nihonbash, which holds the largest British fair in Tokyo, and Hankyu department store in Osaka, which is the longest-running British fairs in Japan, having just celebrated 50 years in October. Brough has visited three times at Hankyu’s invitation to demonstrate and promote Rarebird accessories and interact with Japanese customers. Other exports have been sent to Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.
The growth of Rarebird has mirrored the revival in the wider Harris tweed industry. Although the material had been championed during the 1980s by designer Vivienne Westwood, the 1990s was a period of decline, with weavers leaving the trade.
A major turning point came in 2007 when a consortium led by former Labour MP Brian Wilson formed the Harris Tweed Hebrides mill in Shawbost and began targeting a new generation of designers; the mill is now the biggest of the three on the island. Another landmark in the story of the material had come in 2005 when weaver Donald John MacKay won a contract to supply sports brand Nike with 10,000 metres of tweed for its “Terminator” range of baseball caps; MacKay was subsequently appointed as a member of the order of the British empire in the new year’s honours list for his achievement.
Now, brands ranging from Marks & Spencer and Top Man through to North Face jackets, Dr Martens boots and Converse shoes are queueing up to use the material. Celebrity fans have included former Dr Who actor Matt Smith and rapper Tinie Tempah.
Colour isn’t the only factor that sets Harris tweed apart. Its claim to fame is that it’s the “only fabric produced in commercial quantities by truly traditional methods anywhere in the world”.
After the wool is dyed, blended, spun and warped in one of the three Harris tweed mills on the island of Lewis and Harris, the yarn is then sent out to weavers who work from their homes. They use traditional “treadle” looms – a fascinating sight to see and one that mesmerises tourists visiting the Western Isles.
Once completed, the cloth is sent back to the mills for finishing. The final step in the process is for the famous “Orb” trademark to be added to the reverse of the fabric, which also appears on the label.
The whole process is governed by the 1993 Harris Tweed Act and overseen by a statutory public body, the Harris Tweed Authority – or, as one pun-master at The Scotsman newspaper once suggested, the “last quango on Harris”. Parliamentary protection for the traditional industry stretches back even further to the original Harris Tweed Association, which was founded in 1909.
While she works with one of the most traditional materials in Scotland, Brough’s business effortlessly weaves the old with the new. She sells her garments through her own online shop and her range includes Harris tweed iPad and mobile phone covers. Brough has also collaborated with Glasgow School of Art after being introduced by Interface, the public body that acts as a matchmaker for small businesses that want to access academic expertise to help solve problems or develop products and services.
“I wanted to explore making my own prints for my fabrics,” she explains. “I make a lot of things with nice interesting linings and it’s a nightmare sourcing the prints that I want because the prints that I mostly use are cotton prints and they tend to be patchwork.
“They’re only produced for six months so by the time you find them they’re nearly out of date, so you can’t do any large orders. Or you find a nice one and then you can’t get it anymore. I wanted something that was more ‘me’ and more reflective of the Hebrides.”