Gordon Covell, the proprietor of The Islay Woollen Mill first started working with the film industry 12 years ago, when a visit to the Harrogate Gift Fair led to an order for some traditional heavyweight tweed for a film about Ernest Hemingway. Since Hemingway Mr Covell has regularly made special lines of tweed for films and has established a good working relationship with the costume designers Joanna Johnston and Charles Knode. On Braveheart he worked with Mr Knode. "I think he was a bit worried as to whether we could do such a big job," Mr Covell admits. "But he sent me a piece of tweed which we copied so exactly that I got the go ahead for the whole lot. We designed five cloths in different colour combinations."
Though an alliance between the hi-tech movie industry and an old-fashioned weaving business may at first seem rather unlikely, it makes perfect sense. Mr Covell explains that the costume designers are not interested in taking short cuts: they want the authentic product and he is one of the few people who can still provide it. "When I worked on the film Chaplin I said I could make cheap acrylic tweed that would look like the genuine article on screen but they wanted it exactly as it would have been made in the early part of the century - they didn't want to cheat."
Though there are 54 machine-weaving companies in Scotland, very few still make traditional, high quality country tweed - the stuff that survives to be handed down the generations. Hunters of Brora, Haggarts of Aberfeldy and Knockando Mill are Mr Covell's main competitors in the country tweed market. They are all still able to design cloth and make it up in very small quantities whereas the rest make their profit by doing bulk orders for the retail market - the sort of thing that Marks & Spencer or Next might use for winter skirts and jackets.
Mr Covell will make a minimum of 35 metres and Hugh Jones at Knockando 60 metres. This means it is affordable for individuals to design their own tweed (or have it designed for them) and have the cloth made up for their own use. Many Scottish estates still do this - continuing a tradition that has lasted more than 150 years. In the mid-19th century "estate tweeds" began to take the place of clan tartan which had been traditionally provided by the Highland chiefs for their retainers. The English Victorians, who bought land in Scotland following the fashion set by Queen Victoria, wanted to keep this tradition. Since they had no right to wear tartan they began to design their own cloths. These tweeds had a dual purpose: to distinguish the members of different estates and to provide camouflage for stalkers on the hills.
Hollywood aside, most of the tweed produced by The Islay Woollen Mill is heavy-duty country or "estate tweed". Mr Covell wants to continue developing this specialist area: "I'd like to think in another four or five years' time we are the country tweed manufacturer." Despite the growing debate on blood sports and the accusations of feudalism being levelled at the Highland estates, he doesn't think there is a serious threat to the present way of life. "There will always be a hunting, shooting, fishing group. I don't really like guns myself but I've always been involved with hunting and hare coursing so I understand what country people are looking for."
His customer base is widespread. Apart from individuals who come direct to the mill, he sells to manufacturers such as Chrysalis Clothes and Hucklecote who make up the tweed into garments which are sold under their own label.
Mr Covell is not a native Scot. He was born in Huddersfield and moved to Islay 15 years ago with his wife Sheila and son Marcus. "I was running a small mill in Pembrokeshire and was asked if I wanted to be museum curator at the Islay mill. I said I wouldn't do that but I would manage it as a working mill. It had been run by the Christie family since 1873 and shut in the mid-60s when Willy Christie retired and there was no family to keep it going."
Today Islay Mill is once again something of a family concern. Sheila Covell checks all the cloth at the mill as well as being in charge of the mill shop and another retail outlet in the local town of Bowmore. Marcus Covell works one of the looms alongside four other local employees. Gordon Covell himself does all of the design work. "It's so much easier nowadays. I can have the idea, put it down on paper and fax it to The Scottish Farmer's Enterprise. The computer there will transfer my instructions into an image of the tweed, which I can have back the same day. Producing a sample used to take weeks when we did it on the loom by trial and error."
If you can't make it to Islay to see the mill for yourself, keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of the Covell tweeds in the film Mary Reilly (with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich) and the television version of Kidnapped to be released later this year. For the adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Covell designed "ancient Royal Stewart tartan in gungy colours to make them look old and weathered. We also made some odds and ends to burn in the scene where the Redcoats set fire to the Highlanders' kilts." Most Covell tweeds are treated with a lot more respect.
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