London, New York, Harris...

For years, Donald John Mackay has been sustaining the humblest of Scottish industries: weaving Harris tweed in his island shed. Then along came Nike, with the mother of all orders. Paul Kelbie reports
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The Independent Online

Bathed in reflective sunlight from golden sands and the turquoise blue waters of the Atlantic the tiny, isolated cottage of Donald John Mackay would appear to be about as far from the frantic world of fashion and big business as it is possible to get.

Yet from within the cramped confines of an 18ft by 14ft shed on the Hebridean island of Harris, a revolution has begun which could revitalise the fortunes of an ailing textile industry.

Harris tweed, the coarse-chequered cloth once beloved by the middle-aged country set and slipper-wearing granddads, is about to become part of the latest must-have sportswear fashion accessory.

Nike has chosen a Harris tweed design to adorn a range of its latest designer trainers, sparking world-wide interest from other companies and a turn around in the fortunes of the exclusive island industry.

Last September Mr Mackay, a self-employed weaver, and his wife, Maureen, were approached by the Harris Tweed Association on behalf of the sportswear giant, which was looking for somebody to produce a couple of metres of Harris tweed cloth and to send few samples of their work to Nike's American headquarters.

For such a limited amount, which entails an enormous amount of work setting up the traditional hand looms, it was hardly worth bothering but the Mackays, who specialise in small orders for companies around the world, agreed.

The couple picked one of the most popular of their own designs - a dull-green weave known to them as A75/9. "We sent them the one we liked the best out of what we had in stock," said Mr Mackay, the 52-year-old son of a weaver's son. "Nobody else was interested in such a small amount as it takes hours to prepare the loom and a couple of metres isn't even enough to make a jacket."

However, Nike, which said it wanted to test the cloth for durability with the idea of using it in a range of footwear, was delighted and immediately requested another four metres to be sent to its offices in China.

That was soon followed by another request for 10 metres and then a further 20 metres to be sent to Taiwan for further exhaustive research. Within six months, Nike's order had risen to almost 800 metres of the cloth, which is renowned for being as strong and colourful as the landscape it is hewn from yet as soft to the touch as the lilting Gaelic accents of the islanders who make it.

For Mr Mackay, who can only make 100 metres a week and whose fabric already adorns upholstery, soft furnishings, designer handbags and designer hats, as far away as Kathmandu, it was a decent order and the couple were happy to oblige.

However, within days Nike, which had changed the name of the Mackays' pattern to "cool olive", dropped a bombshell.

In a brief e-mail it said it was going into full production and placed an order for a further 950 metres.

The couple were ecstatic but their joy soon turned to panic when Nike contacted them to say it had made a mistake - what it actually wanted was 9,500 metres within 10 weeks. Realising that they were unable to cope on their own, the Mackays enlisted the help of the Kenneth Macleod mill in Shawbost, on Lewis - the largest manufacturer of Harris tweed in the world. "Our first reaction was to panic and tell Nike we couldn't do it but then we realised it was too good an opportunity for the industry as a whole," said Mr Mackay, who admits he is still reeling from the unexpected turn of events. "We had to get help from the other weavers on the island."

Derrick Murray, chief executive of the KM Group, which handles 95 per cent of the entire Harris tweed production, was only too pleased to help.

The company, which employs around 110 people and supplies the island's 200 or so self-employed weavers with work, is used to dealing with big orders and exports the vast majority of its cloth around the world.

"As orders go, the Nike deal is not the biggest but it is a decent size," said Mr Murray at his mill in Shawbost yesterday, surrounded by thousands of rolls of tweed in a variety of single and multiple colour schemes. "The real benefit for us is the Nike name. Very few companies in the world have the kind of retail network they do.

"We couldn't buy the kind of promotion that being associated with Nike will give us.

"Traditionally, most customers of Harris tweed have been over 40 but this gives us the chance to attract a whole new generation of customers. It's what we have been striving to do for years."

Despite brief dalliances with designers such as Vivienne Westwood, who incorporated the tweed into her creations, the Harris brand, which turns over about £5m a year, has been stuck in the rut of middle-aged marketing.

Until the Second World War, about eight out of 10 people in Harris wove tweed for their own needs and sold the surplus to help the family income. Now, as a result of its falling popularity, it is a craft in serious decline. In common with the rest of Scotland's textile industry, which has lost more than 35,000 jobs in the past 10 years by the transfer of production to cheaper labour forces in Third World countries, the tweed business is finding it difficult to attract new blood.

Part of the reason could be that while the islanders were once dependent on crofting, fishing and weaving to earn a living, the traditional industries have given way to television production, call-centres and multi-media work.

When Mr Mackay started working back in 1970, there were more than 2,000 weavers working for the mills. Now there is a tenth of that number.

"I don't know of any weavers under 40," said Mr Mackay. "I don't like to think of it as a dying industry but it is fair to say it's not in the best of health."

Born and brought up in Leverburgh, the islander is proud of his roots and the fact that his method of working has hardly changed in more than a century. Tucked away in the isolation of his shed with only the local Gaelic radio station for company, Mr Mackay admits it is a physically and mentally exhausting job as he operates the pedal-powered loom at break-neck speed, sending the shuttle clattering back and forth in a blur of activity which produces up to four metres of tightly woven fabric an hour.

While he weaves, Maureen, an adopted islander from Rugby, sits in the cottage next door juggling paperwork and phone calls to international clients as she ships cloth as far afield as mainland Europe, Japan and the US. "It is hard work and I can see why a lot of young people would want to find an easier way to make a living," said Mr Mackay, as he he sat in his armchair in the sitting room of his cottage overlooking the rich colourful landscape from which he draws inspiration for his designs.

"But maybe if Nike help to make Harris tweed more fashionable again it will attract more youngsters to get involved in the industry.

"Already I have had several other big companies get in contact asking for samples of our work and even an investment company asking if we needed financial assistance.

"Where Nike go others seem to follow and we all have high hopes that this is going to benefit the whole industry for the future."

Not since Lady Dunmore, the owner of island in the 1850s, started marketing the hand-woven fabric to her own family and friends and created the distinctive trade mark orb, has there been such commercial excitement surrounding Harris tweed.

Nike, which launches about 200 different lines each season, has said the "cool olive" tweed will be used in panels on a select range of five different styles of Nike women's trainers branded with the world-famous Orb stamp - which used to form part of the crest of the Dunmore family.

"We are planning a women's range to launch on 1 October this year, which will include selective distributions of some of our older, cooler products to which we are giving a new material application," confirmed a spokesman for Nike.

It is understood there are five different shoe styles that Harris tweed will feature in, including older, retro basketball styles and a "foldable" shoe called the Pocket Knife.

Last week the first batch of material for the Nike products left Harris by ferry en route to the company's manufacturing plants located in the Far East and the islanders hope it will be only the first of many such consignments.

"This is what we have been praying for," said Ian Mackenzie, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority. "This deal with Nike could be the start of a revival for the Harris tweed industry. We have been trying for years to find a way to get the attention of younger buyers and this is the perfect solution.

"Nike is such a big name with such a vast world-wide reach that even if we only get into a handful of the retail outlets that they have access to it will benefit us immensely.

"It is an opportunity beyond our wildest dreams."