Shopping: Dyed in the wool elegance

You can carry it all off smartly with a touch of mail order tweed, writes Fiona MacAulay

Three Japanese men in dark suits standing in the middle of a field of cows is not a usual sight in the hilly farmland of Perthshire.

However, a local farmer was quick to recognise them as travellers in search of The Glenalmond Tweed Company whose shop at Culnacloich farm about 10 miles north of Crieff is well known in the region for attracting far-flung customers.

Andrew and Sally St John started The Glenalmond Tweed Company in 1992. They sell beautifully made bags in brightly coloured and chequered Harris tweed with bridle leather straps and bindings, and solid brass fittings. The large selection includes a rucksack, two sizes of holdall and four of tote bag.

The tweed is bonded with a rubberised solution on to cotton canvas to make it waterproof, though one of the qualities of Harris tweed is that it repels water, because of its density and the natural oils in the wool. There is also a clothes range - mainly waistcoats, jackets and coats.

The designs and colours of the materials alone are reason enough to want to swathe yourself in Glenalmond products, but the styling is also good. A long waistcoat with a Nehru collar and a reversible tweed and leather jerkin were my favourites. A finishing touch is the stag-horn buttons used on all the clothes.

Though the journey to the shop makes for a wonderful expedition through stunning countryside, Glenalmond does a mail-order catalogue for those who cannot make it to north Perthshire. It also has outlets at Liberty, Brora and The Scotch House. This year it introduces a small collection designed by the Japanese designer Michiko Koshino.

Combining such a traditional fabric as Harris tweed and the designs of a wacky Japanese designer (she produced the first own-label condoms and designs the wild, leather Motor King range) may not at first seem obvious but the St Johns wanted to show how well the beauty of Harris tweed complements modern design shapes. After all, British designers, in particular Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, have already shown how successfully tweed and tartan can be married with contemporary design ideas.

Michiko's range comes in the more subtle shades of Harris tweed - black, cream, greys and browns - and her designs are simple and well-cut. They include a reefer jacket and a quilted duffel coat for men and a double breasted mid-length coat for women. She has designed her own oval-shaped buttons, embossed with a sheep's head taken from the Glenalmond logo. Her bags are made in checked Harris tweed from the new furnishing type fabric that the St Johns are introducing to their range. It looks less woolly than the original fabric and so will be particularly good for spring and summer. "Our bag maker was rather taken aback when he received a prototype from Michiko in bright yellow plastic to be made up in tweed. He just wasn't used to modern materials!"

The St Johns have been visiting Harris for 14 years and are obviously in love with the place. They look forward enormously to their twice-yearly buying trips. They first went there after being shipwrecked on a trip to St Kilda and began a long relationship with a group of the island's weavers. "They are incredibly supportive about our business but all they are really interested in is the well-being of our flock of sheep; that's the real bond between us!"

Although the wool is now spun, dyed and finished by machine it is still woven by weavers in their own homes and so its production is literally a cottage industry. It is immediately recognisable by its weight and thick texture and for its amazing blending of colours which reflect the Hebridean landscape.

In the Glenalmond shop the St Johns also stock a selection of tweed to be sold by the metre. These include cloth made by Joan Maclennan, one of the few weavers who still uses the old wooden loom instead of the more modern Hattersley loom. She is one of the small group of weavers who use vegetable dyes made from indigenous plants. Elderberries for purple, indigo for blue, ragwort flowers and heather tips for yellow - the natural palette is extensive, as one can see from a close look her fabrics.The tradition of Harris tweed-making is steeped in ritual and folklore. The final part of the process used to be the blessing of the tweed: "Mayest thou enjoy it, Mayest thou wear it, Mayest thou finish it, Until thou find it in shreds, in strips, in rags, in tatters!" The Glenalmond Tweed Company brings us this wonderful fabric in its many designs of handbags, luggage and clothes so that we can do just what the blessing bids.

The Glenalmond Tweed Company, Culnacloich, Glenalmond, Perth PH1 3SN. Telephone 01738 880322 for a catalogue or local stockist.

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