Breaking the Mould with Harris Tweed

Eilean an Fhraoich, Stornoway Gazette, The Outer Hebrides.
blue-shoreline-skirt-FROM making clothes and shoes for her pet dogs as a child, to designing stunning Harris Tweed garments for customers all over the world, top designer, Ruth Morris, has quickly won a cult following, for her unique fashion label ‘Roobedo’.

Established in January 2000, Roobedo designs are influenced and inspired by the shores of the Outer Hebrides. Roobedo is renowned for its contemporary tailored styles in Harris Tweed with bold, bright colours – shades of sky, sea and the landscape.

Sourcing her quality fabrics from the Western Isles, Edinburgh designer and sole-trader, Ruth, 33, spent numerous summer holidays in the Outer Hebrides as a child over a 10-year period – and this year visited Harris to photograph areas to use as inspiration for her designs.

It was a love of sewing and making clothes from an early age that took Ruth – originally from Dundee – to college to study fashion, and subsequently choose a career in the clothing industry in Scotland – so to stay up north I chose to become self-employed, “I started sewing as a very young child, learning from my grandmothers who were very good sewers and knitters. I used to use my great aunt’s ‘hand-wheel’ Singer sewing machine, before receiving an electric sewing machine for my 13th birthday. I made lots of clothes for our pet dogs – who weren’t so excited with the shoes and hats I made them wear! I then started making clothes for myself and friends as a teenager.”

It was her first job in a clothes shop, that Ruth gained the confidence to set up her own company – when several people approached her to ask if her own clothes, which she had made herself, were available in the store. Ruth subsequently launched Roobedo in 2000, and by 2001, she had a tiny shop in Edinburgh. The following year, her on-line shop went live, and by 2003 she had moved to share premises with a group of Edinburgh designers, from a shop called Concrete Wardrobe.

“I still sell my work there today, and still run the mail-order and on-line business,” says Ruth. “It is still a small hands-on business and I like to be involved with every process and detail. I intend to keep it this way – this is a strength, and attracts a loyal clientele and appeals to a niche market.”

Having spent so much time in the Western Isles as a child, it was inevitable that, as a designer, Ruth would use the famous Harris Tweed cloth in her clothing range. “As a child I always stayed on the MacDonalds’ croft / B&B on Great Bernera, and as well as milking ‘Monique’, and collecting the eggs from the henhouse, we would watch the sheep being sheared, and visit the weavers making Harris Tweed, and take home hand-knitted jumpers and socks. I have a particular memory of a red headscarf crocheted from Harris Tweed yarn. I think it was a natural material for me to use as I had always been drawn to heavier, sturdier fabrics.”

However, it was not until 1996 that Ruth discovered Luskentyre Harris Tweed when on holiday – when she bought several lengths of tweed, and met Maureen and Donald John Mackay.

“I still use their single width tweed today,” says Ruth. “In 1999, when I phoned the Harris Tweed Authority, they put me onto several suppliers, and when I called Mackenzies to ask about the possibility of ordering up some tweed, they were also extremely helpful, and sent me wonderful patterns of double-width super-featherweight tweed in bright colours, I was determined to also use it in my work.”

Ruth, however, found the cost of tweed restrictive, and her initial collection was entirely made in denim.

“The idea was that customers could order up the same styles but in tweed – I attached mini swatches of the tweed with every catalogue. This didn’t quite work, and it wasn’t until my second collection that I made up some samples in tweed – and then it started to take off, and people began to know me for using the tweed then.”

Much more to Ruth than simply another fabric, the talented designer reveals that Harris Tweed seems to fit into the designer collections every winter and filter onto the high street.

She explains: “I think it is even more so now, because it is a traditional fabric, and is attractive, and people are subconsciously drawn to familiar things to give them comfort in a world where there is so much unrest. I am sure this is an era to look back to appreciate tradition, and what our forefathers and ancestors wore.

“By its nature, there is a great depth of colour in a piece of Harris Tweed, and there are wonderful patterns, checks, herringbones, stripes – there is a huge variety from the most elegant subtle greys to the sweetest of pinks. It is also associated with quality tailoring – a look that will always remain classic and elegant. From my point of view, I find there are customers out there who wish to support a traditional Scottish industry, and they like to support my work, because I am buying Harris Tweed and so they are then in turn also supporting the industry and livelihoods of weavers. They like to know where the tweed is from and there is so much imported clothing nowadays that it all feels and looks the same and has no meaning. Harris Tweed – as opposed to just ‘tweed’ – is widely recognised, and it is one of the few remaining pure traditions still with us today. Although it is not booming as much as it did in the ‘70’s, it is still much sought-after and it deserves to be nurtured and protected, and I hope it could once again become one of the biggest industries and sources of income for the people of the Hebrides.”

Having become famous for her Harris Tweed designs, Ruth now includes a collection of the tweed each season. She uses plain tweeds with a rich depth of colour and texture. Ruth’s designs today are influenced by the aura of the Western Isles and inspired by civilian clothing elegantly adapted and worn by British women in the 1940’s. Her cut is modern, elegant, streamlined, and feminine. Her wide-leg Harris Tweed trousers are extremely popular – and she always includes a fitted jacket in the range, using polished mussel shell buttons. Ruth has also started printing onto Harris Tweed, with strong images of nature, including flowing water and ‘dandelion wishclock’.

Last month (October), Ruth got the chance to take her Harris Tweed designs to a new level, when she featured her collection at the Made in Scotland Trade Fair at the SECC, in Glasgow, where she received a ‘fantastic response’. She has also produced a new range of accessories made from felted Harris tweed – including scarves, mittens and bags. Ruth is taking on a simple patchwork theme this winter – going back to basics – and making beauty from simplicity. She is also working more with the printing theme and she is aiming to print next winter’s range – which is influenced by the Blackhouse at Arnol, Lewis, as well as Hebridean flora and the folklore surrounding it.

With a special connection to the Western Isles, Ruth still visits the area on a regular basis, where she spends most of her holidays. “I did a natural yarn dyeing course at the Soay Studios in Tarbert this year, and took many photos for inspiration to use at later dates in my work,” she comments.

“The islands are my escape. They are full of beauty and an intriguing way of life. Having lived close to cities all my life, I find it so remote. I am inspired by the history of the people and their photographs…what they wore, and how happy and healthy they looked – with a sense of community and loyalty, family values and an active outdoor life. “I have several customers who are either from the islands, or have connections with the islands. I see this as a real compliment that they want to buy Roobedo. I must be doing something right! I also meet a lot of people who buy my work and also have a great love for the islands.”

She adds: “With every Roobedo piece, you are buying a part of a brand, and this is unique, and makes it competitive in its own way. It is definitely a niche market, and there is a niche for it – which I have gladly discovered.”

Written by Maggie Fraser

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