While on a visit of the Scotland’s Isle of Islay, I was told about a traditional tweed mill somewhere on the centre of the island. Looking to discover as much as possible in the short time we was there, we made it our mission to pop in to the Islay Woollen Mill and take a look.
Shortly beforehand, we had visited Tormisdale Croft Craft, an isolated farmhouse that sells wool yarns and hand-knitted jumpers. Anne, the owner, was spinning yarn by hand from her own wool as we had a long talk about the various Hebridian wool varieties.
With my wife being a knitting enthusiast, this was her little piece of heaven and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. However, as a tweed fanatic, I was greatly looking forward to seeing this elusive mill.
Unlike Tormisdale Croft Craft, Islay Woollen Mill is particularly easy to access. The idyllic mill can be found just outside Bridgend on the way to Port Askaig. A convenient sign post will indicate when to turn off the road. Soon after, you’ll discover the mill tucked away by a small river just beyond an old stone bridge.
Islay Woollen Mill’s History
Today, the Islay Woollen Mill is run and owned by Gordon and Sheila Covell. It is run by a team of no more than seven artisans including their son, Marcus.
Although not many people have heard of it, Islay Woollen Mill and its owners are well-renowned in the tweed industry. In 1994, HRH Prince Charles paid them a visit during the same trip he went to Laphroaig. Since then, their long repertoire of clients include a number of Royals such as Princess Anne.
Born in 1946, Covell has been weaving since he was only 15 years old. Therefore, the mill was sure to be in safe hands when he discovered it in 1981. A few years earlier, Gordon Covell was running a mill in Wales when he was approached by business associates with the goal to overseeing its operation. Yet, after two years as manager, the owners were quite happy for him to buy them out.
The Mill’s Renaissance
Meanwhile, the mill itself was built in 1883 but was more-or-less deserted before Gordon and Sheila’s arrival. However, weaving has been active on the site since between 1500 to 1550. According to him, the mill was effectively a stone carcass and he had to invest in machinery to get it going.
As you can imagine, investing in machinery for weaving is no small matter! Not only does it consist of a considerable financial burden but bringing the cumbersome material to an island is a logistical nightmare.
Yet, rather than invest in brand new equipment, Mr Covell instead bought it secondhand. Initially, very little of the machinery was in working order. Furthermore, much of it had been made in the early 1900s.
For instance, one of the machines used for assembling patterns dates back to 1903, which Mr Covell bought for £40 from a scrapyard in Huddersfield. However, they were built to last and he set to repair them himself.
Today, the mill continues to run on the very same machines that Mr Covell had renovated. During their second lease of life, the machinery has likely woven hundreds if not thousands of miles of tweed. Additionally, Mr Covell has no plans to replace them any time soon.
Firstly, the mill is quite small with only two storeys. Its stone framework would be challenging enough to expand but as it nestles under a hill by a river. As such, there’s nowhere to build an extension. Furthermore, new and faster machinery would be far too large to fit through the mill’s small doors.
Therefore, Mr Covell is perfectly content to continue using the same facilities as he has done for nearly 40 years. After all, his machinery is adept in switching between different materials such as fine lamb wool cloth and thicker twill.
A Career In Hollywood
Even if the mill isn’t well-known outside of the industry, you may already be quite familiar with their designs. Mr Covell has designed and produced many tweeds featured in films including the following:
- Far & Away (1992)
- Chaplin (1992)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- Rob Roy (1995)
- Braveheart (1995)
- War Horse (2011)
- The BFG (2016)
The above list is by no means exhaustive and the mill has provided tweeds for a 14 different films and television shows to this date. As such, you can actually buy the mill’s own reproductions of their tartans as worn by Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson.
Nevertheless, the mill principally supplies Savile Row tailors with their tweeds. One of their most renowned clients is the bespoke tailor, H. Huntsman & Sons. As the Covell family has garnered a reputation for quality, their fabric is in huge demand.
However, due to their traditional manufacturing methods, they just can’t keep up! At the time of writing this article, Gordon Covell told me that he wasn’t accepting any more special orders until January 2019 due to the growing backlog.
Visiting The Mill
You can see the artisanal manufacturing process for yourself when you visit the mill. As well as being open to the public, the mill has its very own shop where you can buy a variety of their wares. When we headed to the mill, we only expected to peruse their products.
However, we were greeted by Gordon Covell as soon as we walked in who was hunched behind the till. A quiet and soft-spoken gentleman, he called to his son to show us and a few other visitors around the mill.
Marcus then took us upstairs and we navigated through a small labyrinth of tweed bolts and cones of yarn before arriving in front of a variety of pattern machines. He then briefly explained their uses and sent them into action.
Trying not to get distracted by the stunning specimens of tweed like a moth to a light, we then followed Marcus back downstairs to the loom. We then watched as he operated it to produce a few metres of fabric.
Once finished, Marcus beckoned us back into the shop where we gushed over their rich variety of collections. The brief but mesmerising tour was free and I noticed that Gordon ensured that every group was given a tour when they entered the shop.
I can’t think of many places in the world that offer such an experience and I admire the initiative. The majority of people who come to visit, including myself, have unlikely seen a mill at work let alone one that continues to use such old machinery.
Therefore, this was an educational experience to say the least that also guaranteed that I appreciated both the authenticity and craftsmanship of their products.
The Mill Shop
The majority of wares sold in the shop comprise of the mill’s tweed that has been manufactured into garments. Needless to say, the mill only produces the tweed so they’ve been assembled elsewhere. Nevertheless, they are of exceptional quality.
There are some exceptions as the mill retails quality jumpers made by other mills such as Johnstons of Elgin or shirts by Bonart Country Clothing.
However, the majority is from the mill itself. Furthermore, the prices are surprisingly affordable. For instance, they have a myriad of flat cap styles available that are sold between £30 to £50. Their woollen scarves retail for around £25 and there are a number of throws and blankets for between £50 to £100.
In fact, I later discovered that their own products were actually cheaper than the majority of wool outlets in Edinburgh! Therefore, the value for money offered by the mill is extraordinary to say the least.
For those seeking ready-to-wear attire, the mill sells its own coats as well as tweed suits and plus fours. Nevertheless, you can also buy the fabric directly should you want it to be manufactured by your bespoke tailor. From what I understood, their most prestigious royal clients often preferred to proceed in this fashion.
For instance, their heaviest tweed is 745 grams per metre (22 ounces per yard), which is the most expensive. This costs around £50 per metre with their lightest being closer to the £40 mark.
Chatting With Gordon Covell
Working at the till, Mr Covell is a very approachable gentleman. As mentioned above, he’s soft-spoken yet very matter-of-fact with a dry sense of humour. He had many tales to tell and was delighted to answer any questions regarding the mill and its history.
Furthermore, he presented a few wool samples that he had obtained including a piece of extremely soft Vicuña wool. Until recently, Vicuña was illegal as the wild camelids were hunted for their wool to the point of extinction.
However, the Peruvian government recently started a sanctioned initiative where the animals are captured, shorn alive and returned to the wild. The program ensures durability by limiting a shearing of a single Vicuña to only once every two years.
As such, Vicuña wool is exceedingly expensive and a kilogram can cost as much as $600 as opposed to $85 for cashmere. Mr Covell had acquired his sample largely as a curiosity as it would be too expensive to produce.
However, he mused on the idea of weaving a few threads of it with cashmere to craft refined woollen scarves for women. He pondered on how he would benefit from the natural properties of both premium wool types.
Whether you’re heading to Islay for the peace and quiet or to discover its eight whisky distilleries, consider a visit to Islay Woollen Mill as obligatory. Not only is it one of the few locations in Britain offering high-quality and made on location, but it also offers an authentic experience.
The mill and its shop are open throughout the mill and are easily accessible by car. Otherwise, you can always order directly from their online shop. However, the experience isn’t quite the same.
I was delighted to have had the opportunity to visit Islay’s woollen mill and honoured to meet Gordon Covell in person. However, I was somewhat sad to leave knowing that I had only learned a fraction of what I could.
As we parted ways, Gordon Covell left me with a joke, which I’ll leave you as my closing words:
A man learns that his friend’s mill has tragically burned down in a fire. Sorry to hear this, he goes to see his friend but finds that the mill is perfectly fine.
“I thought that your mill had burned down in a fire?” He asks his friend.
“It’s tomorrow.” The friend whispers in reply with a wink.
As the Islay Woollen Mill produces Laphroaig’s Johnston tartan scarves, they covered his work in a video on their YouTube channel. Watch it here and see the mill in action for yourself:
Isle of Islay, Scotland PA44 7PG
"An authentic heritage site offering high-quality wool. The Islay Woollen Mill is a must-see establishment and the Covell family is sure to provide you with a warm and memorable welcome."Rating: 5.0 ★★★★★